Penance – a Possible Response to Profound Moral Injury?

Here is a question that I do not have an answer to, but that I hope some of you who are deeply involved in pastoral ministry might.  

I was asked this question by a former student who is currently ministering in the context of a V.A. hospital.  Confronted with military service-members who had committed, allowed, or witnessed grave moral wrongs in the context of war, the student wondered whether penance imposed after confession might act as a limit to the torment people put themselves through when returning from war.  Have any Catholic priests, ministers, or theologians written about this?  My former student is Protestant but thinks the practice of penance might have something to offer the people he is called to minister to.  Here is how he himself put his question to me in a nutshell:  “In essence, I am asking whether anyone has discussed penance as a means to prevent someone from beating themselves up while still fully acknowledging the guilt/sin of actions/inactions in war?”



  1. I suppose the question is asking, “Does the spiritual practice of penance and reconciliation also offer psychological benefits?” I agree it would be interesting to know if there is research to that effect. I suspect that many of us would be ready to affirm it anecdotally. I’m sure that those who do hospital or hospice ministry more than I do would agree.

    Penance and reconciliation always would be recommended (at least by me) for anyone committing or allowing grave moral wrongs. In my opinion, there is no moral culpability in witnessing a moral wrong (unless one is in a position to speak up to prevent it, in which case the agent is back in the “committing or allowing” category). But certainly, witnessing something like a wartime atrocity can result in psychological damage.

  2. Your student might find Michael Griffin’s book, “The Politics of Penance,” helpful. The book is on my summer reading list but I haven’t yet gotten to it so I can’t comment more, except that chapter 7 is dedicated to applying the politics of penance for soldiers returning from war.

  3. I will suggest that, for people who suffer from depression and similar illness of the mind-soul that freeze one into what might be characterized as a maelstrom of subjectivity, one immensely liberating dimension (if you can be aware of it) of the sacrament of reconciliation is its comparative objectivity.

    People who live a life largely of self-confidence, self-possession and a general sense of control/privilege may seem to think this, among many other things, rather silly. But they might feel the same way about the Paschal Mystery, and prefer a God who simply came to model a good ethical example.

    I know I need to be saved, not just have a nifty hero-model, and cannot do it myself – even with a hearty sin-management program. And, the Great New is: I don’t have to! A religion where I have to save myself is slavery to the maelstrom.

    In any event, my experience is that parishes that treat reconciliation as something that normal people won’t want too much of will likely not be as generous with making it available or repeatedly inviting to it, and will have their cognitive biases confirmed. And vice versa. It’s the generosity of the latter that’s the ticket….

    I will add: many people here can have very valid criticisms of a certain self-promoting person at St Blog’s. But, regardless of all of those things, a passion to direct faithful to the sacrament reconciliation is a glorious thing to be celebrated rather than to quibble with it and think it would be better for people to realize that they can just receive Holy Communion, other than in unusual situations. I don’t think that latter impulse has served everyone as well as it was intended.

  4. I would recommend very highly James Dallen’s book, The Reconciling Community: The Rite of Penance. It’s an illuminating — and, I daresay, essential — perspective from which to ask the sort of question your student asks.

  5. Two thoughts. From my studies in sacramental theology, I seem to recall some historical period when the Church was more strongly pacifist, that solders returning from battle were assigned to the caste of penitents as a matter of course. Perhaps the process in the ancient Church wisely addressed such things as healing and forgiveness.

    Second, the modern Rite of Penance provides for liturgy without sacramental confession and absolution. Though these are presumed to be communal experiences, it seems to me a wise spiritual director might adapt this material. An experience with companions (a mentor/sponsor, and perhaps other veterans) might help the post-war experiences of guilt, doubt, and other strong emotions.

    I recall vividly a next-door neighbor of my childhood who served in Korea and who never talked about his wartime experiences. Many relatives of my dad’s generation served in WWII, and there were no stories of glory shared at family gatherings. Much alcohol was consumed among the veterans I knew, however.

    Teresa, thank you for this inquiry. I wonder if any student has attempted a thesis on this topic.

    1. @Todd Flowerday:
      Thank you for your thoughts, Todd. Your memory of the Korean War veteran matches will all the post-WWII men (including my own father) I grew up with. They were absolutely silent about their experiences in the war, even with their wives. But many of these men also left the church behind when they returned from the war. I realize now that the church too must have seemed to them not to be equipped to handle their experiences.

      1. @Teresa Berger:
        That happened after the US Civil War, too (if anything, only now is non-belief as open in the US as it was after the Civil War). And World War I in Europe.

        My father did not serve overseas (though half of his unit was shipped over to the Normandy theatre in the summer of 1944 and their ship was sunk en route). My mother wrote three letters a day to him during the war (in the era of two postal deliveries per day…). They and their peers had a basic decision to make: (1) marry and try to have a child or children before the servicemember died or was maimed and unable to beget chilidren, or (2) wait until after the war. My parents chose the latter; while I could tell this choice involved a great deal of anxiety, it also pruned them and prepared them for a marathon of nearly seven decades.

        My parents also noted that the war was a time when caffeine, cigarettes and, after work, alcohol were consumed in prodigious qualities because of the great press of work and duty. You need the first two to maintain your pace, and the last to unwind enough to get some sleep before the treadmill resumed the next day. People (who didn’t have much work before 1940) working double shifts, soldiers/sailors, et cet. The press of the war certainly produced addictions in abundance (skewed by rationing on the home front), of course, but not everyone who consumed so became addicted for life.

        When a nation sends people off to war, they don’t come back the same way. This is especially true as 20th century states scientifically figured out how to break down the individuality of men in their late teens so they they would be moldable. (A shocking story of WW2 is how Army brass was horrified how many soldiers would not naturally fire back when fired upon – IIRC, almost 50% – it turns out it’s not instinctual to kill. So they studied ways to “fix” that, systematically. That % declined steadily for the next generation so that, by Vietnam, IIRC, it was <5%. Think long and hard about that and what the residue of that may be.)

  6. ……one might say a person is not aware completely of the atrocity until later reflection when one moves out of the fight or flight (limbic) orientation of the brain. Yet for a believer the damage cannot be merely neuro-anatomy if body, mind and spirit form the human person. The wound is deeper even if it cannot be scientifically proven.
    The book “Out of the Night” by Bill Mahedy a Vietnam Army Chaplain attempts to articulate this aspect of true Reconcilation.

    1. A quote from “Out of the Night’. “The language and concepts they (the Vietnam Veterans) need, no longer exist within the area of public discourse.” Thus the Vietnam phrase, “Don’t mean nothin.”

  7. The Rite of Penance’s description of the “Act of Penance (Satisfaction)” in the Introduction, paragraph 6C agrees that penance can do what the questioner is seeking it to do:

    “True conversion is completed by acts of penance or satisfaction for the sins committed, by amendment of conduct, and also by the reparation of injury. The kind and extent of the satisfaction should be suited to the personal condition of each penitent so that each one may restore the order which he disturbed and through the corresponding remedy be cured of the sickness from which he suffered. Therefore, it is necessary that the act of penance really be a remedy for sin and a help to renewal of life. Thus, the penitent, ‘forgetting the things which are behind him’ (Philippians 3:13), again becomes part of the mystery of salvation and turns himself toward the future.”

    Pastorally, this should happen by the penitent and confessor having an honest discussion about the penance and what is appropriate so that it is neither burdensome, which would deny the mercy of God, nor unsubstantial, which would deny the justice of God. However, this ‘negotiation’ of penance rarely happens as most penances are given based on the priest’s favorite cookie cutter penance. This could happen if the relationship is more stable as would be present in a spiritual direction setting. This confession and ‘negotiation’ of penance could by adapted by a protestant chaplain as a spiritual exercise that can be a defining moment in one’s spiritual life.

    On a side note, I would highly suggest that the penitent prays for enlightenment and assistance from the Holy Spirit before doing this confession/assigning of penance as well as having a final prayer by the penitent after this exercise where one thanks God for God’s forgiveness. Personally, I find these prayers before and after confession of great benefit to “help me to overcome my unbelief” (Mark 924) that I can be forgiven and healed by God. Plus, I often think prayer precedes belief.

  8. One of the roadblocks towards more effective confession is more comprehensive education of priests in mental illnesses. I don’t know if many parish priests receive a cursory course on this topic during their liturgical formation, but I know that many shy from mental illness issues during ministry.

    Priests must make doubly sure to comfort the afflicted penitent. He must unambiguously state that mental illness and PTSD or other acquired illness are not sins. I sense the ghost of Jansenius in some priests, who consider these illnesses to be defects of character or even reprobate in the sense that those who are ill can never morally “match” a “normal” person. This latter attitude is extremely damaging, and I would suspect causes many to leave active practice of the faith.

    Pope Francis has written compassionately on this topic, but tends to skirt pastoral issues. I wish he wrote a forceful letter to the clergy reminding them of the proper pastoral care of those with mental issues, both in and out of confession. I also hope that Pope Francis would celebrate a Mass on World Mental Illness Day, with the mentally ill as lectors, participants in the bidding prayers etc. Sadly, the fact that World Mental Health Day is a WHO sponsored event will get Rorate Caeli types in a bother.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:
      And then there’s the difference between mental illness as such a neuro-atypicality. While not necessarily a bright line between them, given that atypicality far afield of a cultural norm functions as if it were illness, it would be important to understand, in spiritual matters,that there is not an equation of the two.

  9. Jonathan Shay writes about moral injury as an experience of dishonor and betrayal caused by a breakdown of character in a high stakes situation. He calls for a communalization of the trauma. Brett Litz, William Nash, and Shira Maguen, on the other hand, include personal transgression in their definition of moral injury. They advocate an adaptive disclosure process in therapeutic settings that lead toward an “imaginal dialogue with a benevolent moral authority” (Litz, et. al. Adaptive Disclosure, 2016, p. 74). In my ThD studies at LaSalle University I have been considering the combination of these two approaches as personal and communal transgressions are both in need of healing.

    The recently published book, Exploring Moral Injury In Sacred Texts edited by Dr. Joseph McDonald (2017), has several insightful connections utilizing religious and national texts to contribute toward the communalization of moral injury. Chapter seven, written by Michael Yandell, a US Army veteran and Theological Studies PhD student at Emory University, references the story of Legion coming out of the cave in Mark 5:13-19. Legion, who represents many, is relieved of the guilt of the many as demons are cast off. Afterwards, in his right mind, he tries to rush toward Jesus in the boat, but Jesus gives him the task of going home to tell others of the Lord’s mercy. Yandell writes, “The mercy rests in the act of telling, of being given momentum in the world again. What the man has done is not erased or forgotten; indeed it must be remembered in order for the telling to happen” (McDonald, p. 147).

    Today an examination of conscience in a communal penance service could serve to reveal that the burden of war is indeed a shared burden. Reflective questions that alternate back and forth between the individual who served and the civilian community that sent men and women to war could also result in penance shared by all the faithful. Penance has the capacity to provide momentum on both sides encouraging an openness to both telling and…

  10. What a tough question. The cessation of beating of one’s self and the acceptance of guilt are what penance should serve to do when it is finished but the depth of war activities on the psyche (like infidelity, vehicular manslaughter while DUI) require a follow through by the penitent (my goodness, that’s not easy) and another set of ears. Yes I agree with #14’s reflection of finding momentum in the world. To skip that part of the process allows PTSD to grip even harder and squeeze out the deep spiritual meaning of the act.

    How fortunate we are that a minister in a VA hospital setting is realizing this question.

  11. I just wanted to take a moment to thank everyone for sharing comments and thoughts. This has been incredibly helpful (and yes, my former student has been reading along). We are both grateful. And please add further comments and thoughts to the post if you have any. The issue will not go away, after all.

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