After absolution during confession and have completed our penance, are we completely sinless at that time and point?
— Mike in Ramsey
Yes, I am happy to say, that after confessing your sins and receiving absolution (“I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”) all your sins are forgiven.
Of course, there is more to the answer than just that. First of all, the priest’s absolution depends on the penitent’s true sorrow for their sins, at least to the level of “imperfect contrition,” that is, they are sorry to have committed the sins they did, and have the intention to not do so again (along with some notion of how they might successfully avoid the occasions or their own particular weaknesses that could lead back into sin).
A second such factor is their completing the penance that the priest had assigned to them. This is not any kind of “repayment” that the penitent makes in order to be forgiven (hence why, even before he completes the penance, as long as he does not blatantly omit it, he is already forgiven of his sins). But, if the truest grace of the sacrament of reconciliation is reconciliation with God, the penance is a sign that God’s grace has sunk deeply into the penitent’s soul. It is the natural response to having been given the grace of forgiveness, hence restoration in God’s friendship, as well as healing and strength to go forward.
However, a third piece here also becomes evident. Confession is not just for the purposes of reconciliation with God, but also reconciliation with the Catholic Church, Christ’s mystical body. That is why Christ entrusts this grace to the sacrament and his priests. They stand in his place, binding and loosing as he gives them authority and simultaneously symbolizing the reality that our sins also injure our brothers and sisters around us. Confession is also to tell another human being that we are sorry for having caused such damage.
The Catechism puts it this way: “Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.” More fully, there are “two equally essential elements: on the one hand, the acts of the man who undergoes conversion through the action of the Holy Spirit: namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction; on the other, God’s action through the intervention of the Church. The Church, who through the bishop and his priests forgives sins in the name of Jesus Christ and determines the manner of satisfaction, also prays for the sinner and does penance with him.”
Penance, done by the penitent (and the priest, a little known way that the priest cares for his spiritual children), is thus not only the proper response to God’s gift of absolution (the gift of sinlessness), but a small making-up-for the damage done by our sin on our end (the return gift of satisfaction).
So, absolution leaves us sinless, and penance means we made satisfaction, but there is still residual damage — perhaps both spiritual and physical, in ourselves or others — that remains. “Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused.” To give an example, if absolution is like the father forgiving his son for having broken a window, and penance is like the boy sweeping up the broken glass, what the church calls the “temporal punishment due to sin” is the still-broken window that remains after all of that. In the same way, even after we are sinless, and have made some satisfaction, there is still damage done that has not been made-up-for.
What the church calls indulgences remedies some of this, as does our sacrifices, offered-up-sufferings, and acts of reparation of all sorts (prayer, acts of charity, time spent in adoration). But, some of this damage remains to be purified by the fire of God’s love outside of this life in Purgatory, where we will not only be purified of any remaining venial sins, but also every disordered attachment that still gets between us and a pure love of God or neighbor, and every wound will be healed in his body the church.
Father Dominic Rankin is associate vocation director for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, priest secretary and master of ceremonies to the diocesan bishop, and has a license in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute in Rome.