QUESTION 18: OF THE EFFECT OF THE KEYS
We must now consider the effect of the keys under which head there are
four points of inquiry:
(1) Whether the power of the keys extends to the remission of guilt?
(2) Whether a priest can remit sin as to the punishment?
(3) Whether a priest can bind in virtue of the power of the keys?
(4) Whether he can loose and bind according to his own judgment?
Article 1: Whether the power of the keys extends to the remission of guilt?
Objection 1: It would seem that the power of the keys extends to the remission
of guilt. For it was said to the disciples (Jn. 20:23): "Whose sins you
shall forgive, they are forgiven them." Now this was not said in
reference to the declaration only, as the Master states (Sent. iv, D,
18), for in that case the priest of the New Testament would have no more
power than the priest of the Old Testament. Therefore he exercises a
power over the remission of the guilt.
Objection 2: Further, in Penance grace is given for the remission of sin. Now
the priest is the dispenser of this sacrament by virtue of the keys.
Therefore, since grace is opposed to sin, not on the part of the
punishment, but on the part of the guilt, it seems that the priest
operates unto the remission of sin by virtue of the keys.
Objection 3: Further, the priest receives more power by his consecration than
the baptismal water by its sanctification. Now the baptismal water
receives the power "to touch the body and cleanse the heart," as
Augustine says (Tract. lxxx in Joan.). Much more, therefore, does the
priest, in his consecration, receive the power to cleanse the heart from
the stain of sin.
On the contrary, The Master stated above (Sent. iv, D, 18) that God has
not bestowed on the minister the power to co-operate with Him in the
inward cleansing. Now if he remitted sins as to the guilt, he would
co-operate with God in the inward cleansing. Therefore the power of the
keys does not extend to the remission of guilt.
Further, sin is not remitted save by the Holy Ghost. But no man has the
power to give the Holy Ghost, as the Master said above (Sent. i, D, 14).
Neither therefore can he remit sins as to their guilt.
I answer that, According to Hugh (De Sacram. ii), "the sacraments, by
virtue of their sanctification, contain an invisible grace." Now this
sanctification is sometimes essential to the sacrament both as regards
the matter and as regards the minister, as may be seen in Confirmation,
and then the sacramental virtue is in both together. Sometimes, however,
the essence of the sacrament requires only sanctification of the matter,
as in Baptism, which has no fixed minister on whom it depends
necessarily, and then the whole virtue of the sacrament is in the matter.
Again, sometimes the essence of the sacrament requires the consecration
or sanctification of the minister without any sanctification of the
matter, and then the entire sacramental virtue is in the minister, as in
Penance. Hence the power of the keys which is in the priest, stands in
the same relation to the effect of Penance, as the virtue in the
baptismal water does to the effect of Baptism. Now Baptism and the
sacrament of Penance agree somewhat in their effect, since each is
directly ordained against guilt, which is not the case in the other
sacraments: yet they differ in this, that the sacrament of Penance, since
the acts of the recipient are as its matter, cannot be given save to
adults, who need to be disposed for the reception of the sacramental
effect; whereas Baptism is given, sometimes to adults, sometimes to
children and others who lack the use of reason, so that by Baptism
children receive grace and remission of sin without any previous
disposition, while adults do not, for they require to be disposed by the
removal of insincerity. This disposition sometimes precedes their Baptism
by priority of time, being sufficient for the reception of grace, before
they are actually baptized, but not before they have come to the
knowledge of the truth and have conceived the desire for Baptism. At
other times this disposition does not precede the reception of Baptism by
a priority of time, but is simultaneous with it, and then the grace of
the remission of guilt is bestowed through the reception of Baptism. On
the other hand, grace is never given through the sacrament of Penance
unless the recipient be disposed either simultaneously or before. Hence
the power of the keys operates unto the remission of guilt, either
through being desired or through being actually exercised, even as the
waters of Baptism. But just as Baptism acts, not as a principal agent but
as an instrument, and does not go so far as to cause the reception itself
of grace, even instrumentally [*See note at beginning of this article],
but merely disposes the recipient to the grace whereby his guilt is
remitted, so is it with the power of the keys. Wherefore God alone
directly remits guilt, and Baptism acts through His power instrumentally,
as an inanimate instrument, and the priest as an animate instrument, such
as a servant is, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. viii, 11): and
consequently the priest acts as a minister. Hence it is clear that the
power of the keys is ordained, in a manner, to the remission of guilt,
not as causing that remission, but as disposing thereto. Consequently if
a man, before receiving absolution, were not perfectly disposed for the
reception of grace, he would receive grace at the very time of
sacramental confession and absolution, provided he offered no obstacle.
For if the key were in no way ordained to the remission of guilt, but
only to the remission of punishment, as some hold, it would not be
necessary to have a desire of receiving the effect of the keys in order
to have one's sins forgiven, just as it is not necessary to have a desire
of receiving the other sacraments which are ordained, not to the
remission of guilt, but against punishment. But this enables us to see
that it is not ordained unto the remission of guilt, because the use of
the keys, in order to be effective, always requires a disposition on the
part of the recipient of the sacrament. And the same would apply to
Baptism, were it never given save to adults.
Reply to Objection 1: As the Master says in the text (Sent. iv, D, 18), the power
of forgiving sins was entrusted to priests, not that they may forgive
them, by their own power, for this belongs to God, but that, as
ministers, they may declare [*See note at the beginning of this article]
the operation of God Who forgives. Now this happens in three ways. First,
by a declaration, not of present, but of future forgiveness, without
co-operating therein in any way: and thus the sacraments of the Old Law
signified the Divine operation, so that the priest of the Old Law did but
declare and did not operate the forgiveness of sins. Secondly, by a
declaration of present forgiveness without co-operating in it at all: and
thus some say that the sacraments of the New Law signify the bestowal of
grace, which God gives when the sacraments are conferred, without the
sacraments containing any power productive of grace, according to which
opinion, even the power of the keys would merely declare the Divine
operation that has its effect in the remission of guilt when the
sacrament is conferred. Thirdly, by signifying the Divine operation
causing then and there the remission of guilt, and by co-operating
towards this effect dispositively and instrumentally: and then, according
to another and more common opinion, the sacraments of the New Law declare
the cleansing effected by God. In this way also the priest of the New
Testament declares the recipient to be absolved from guilt, because in
speaking of the sacraments, what is ascribed to the power of the
ministers must be consistent with the sacrament. Nor is it unreasonable
that the keys of the Church should dispose the penitent to the remission
of his guilt, from the fact that the guilt is already remitted, even as
neither is it unreasonable that Baptism, considered in itself, causes a
disposition in one who is already sanctified.
Reply to Objection 2: Neither the sacrament of Penance, nor the sacrament of Baptism, by its operation, causes grace, or the remission of guilt, directly, but only dispositively [*St. Thomas here follows the opinion of Peter Lombard, and replies in the negative. Later in life he altered his opinion. Cf. TP, Question , Article ; TP, Question , Article ; TP, Question , Article ]. Hence the Reply to the Third Objection is evident.
The other arguments show that the power of the keys does not effect the
remission of guilt directly, and this is to be granted.
Article 2: Whether a priest can remit sin as to the punishment?
Objection 1: It would seem that a priest cannot remit sin as to the
punishment. For sin deserves eternal and temporal punishment. But after
the priest's absolution the penitent is still obliged to undergo temporal
punishment either in Purgatory or in this world. Therefore the priest
does not remit the punishment in any way.
Objection 2: Further, the priest cannot anticipate the judgment of God. But
Divine justice appoints the punishment which penitents have to undergo.
Therefore the priest cannot remit any part of it.
Objection 3: Further, a man who has committed a slight sin, is not less
susceptible to the power of the keys, than one who has committed a graver
sin. Now if the punishment for the graver sin be lessened in any way
through the priestly administrations, it would be possible for a sin to
be so slight that the punishment which it deserves is no greater than
that which has been remitted for the graver sin. Therefore the priest
would be able to remit the entire punishment due for the slight sin:
which is false.
Objection 4: Further, the whole of the temporal punishment due for a sin is of
one kind. If, therefore, by a first absolution something is taken away
from the punishment, it will be possible for something more to be taken
away by a second absolution, so that the absolution can be so often
repeated, that by virtue of the keys the whole punishment will be taken
away, since the second absolution is not less efficacious than the first:
and consequently that sin will be altogether unpunished, which is absurd.
On the contrary, The key is the power of binding and loosing. But the
priest can enjoin a temporal punishment. Therefore he can absolve from
Further, the priest cannot remit sin either as to the guilt [*St. Thomas
here follows the opinion of Peter Lombard, and replies in the negative.
Later in life he altered his opinion. Cf. TP, Question , Article ; TP, Question ,
Article ; TP, Question , Article ], as stated in the text (Sent. iv, D, 18), or as to
the eternal punishment, for a like reason. If therefore he cannot remit
sin as to the temporal punishment, he would be unable to remit sin in any
way, which is altogether contrary to the words of the Gospel.
I answer that, Whatever may be said of the effect of Baptism conferred
on one who has already received grace, applies equally to the effect of
the actual exercise of the power of the keys on one who has already been
contrite. For a man may obtain the grace of the remission of his sins as
to their guilt, through faith and contrition, previous to Baptism; but
when, afterwards, he actually receives Baptism, his grace is increased,
and he is entirely absolved from the debt of punishment, since he is then
made a partaker of the Passion of Christ. In like manner when a man,
through contrition, has received the pardon of his sins as to their
guilt, and consequently as to the debt of eternal punishment, (which is
remitted together with the guilt) by virtue of the keys which derive
their efficacy from the Passion of Christ, his grace is increased and the
temporal punishment is remitted, the debt of which remained after the
guilt had been forgiven. However, this temporal punishment is not
entirely remitted, as in Baptism, but only partly, because the man who is
regenerated in Baptism is conformed to the Passion of Christ, by
receiving into himself entirely the efficacy of Christ's Passion, which
suffices for the blotting out of all punishment, so that nothing remains
of the punishment due to his preceding actual sins. For nothing should be
imputed to a man unto punishment, save what he has done himself, and in
Baptism man begins a new life, and by the baptismal water becomes a new
man, as that no debt for previous sin remains in him. on the other hand,
in Penance, a man does not take on a new life, since therein he is not
born again, but healed. Consequently by virtue of the keys which produce
their effect in the sacrament of Penance, the punishment is not entirely
remitted, but something is taken off the temporal punishment, the debt of
which could remain after the eternal punishment had been remitted. Nor
does this apply only to the temporal punishment which the penitent owes
at the time of confession, as some hold, (for then confession and
sacramental absolution would be mere burdens, which cannot be said of the
sacraments of the New Law), but also to the punishment due in Purgatory,
so that one who has been absolved and dies before making satisfaction, is
less punished in Purgatory, than if he had died before receiving
Reply to Objection 1: The priest does not remit the entire temporal punishment,
but part of it; wherefore the penitent still remains obliged to undergo
Reply to Objection 2: Christ's Passion was sufficiently satisfactory for the sins
of the whole world, so that without prejudice to Divine justice something
can be remitted from the punishment which a sinner deserves, in so far as
the effect of Christ's Passion reaches him through the sacraments of the
Reply to Objection 3: Some satisfactory punishment must remain for each sin, so
as to provide a remedy against it. Wherefore though, by virtue of the
absolution some measure of the punishment due to a grave sin is remitted,
it does not follow that the same measure of punishment is remitted for
each sin, because in that case some sin would remain without any
punishment at all: but, by virtue of the keys, the punishments due to
various sins are remitted in due proportion.
Reply to Objection 4: Some say that at the first absolution, as much as possible
is remitted by virtue of the keys, and that, nevertheless, the second
confession is valid, on account of the instruction received, on account
of the additional surety, on account of the prayers of the priest or
confessor, and lastly on account of the merit of the shame.
But this does not seem to be true, for though there might be a reason
for repeating the confession, there would be no reason for repeating the
absolution, especially if the penitent has no cause to doubt about his
previous absolution; for he might just as well doubt after the second as
after the first absolution: even as we see that the sacrament of Extreme
Unction is not repeated during the same sickness, for the reason that all
that could be done through the sacrament, has been done once. Moreover,
in the second confession, there would be no need for the confessor to
have the keys, if the power of the keys had no effect therein.
For these reasons others say that even in the second absolution
something of the punishment is remitted by virtue of the keys, because
when absolution is given a second time, grace is increased, and the
greater the grace received, the less there remains of the blemish of the
previous sin, and the less punishment is required to remove that blemish.
Wherefore even when a man is first absolved, his punishment is more or
less remitted by virtue of the keys, according as he disposes himself
more or less to receive grace; and this disposition may be so great, that
even by virtue of his contrition the whole punishment is remitted, as we
have already stated (Question , Article ). Consequently it is not unreasonable, if
by frequent confession even the whole punishment be remitted, that a sin
remain altogether unpunished, since Christ made satisfaction for its
Article 3: Whether the priest can bind through the power of the keys?
Objection 1: It would seem that the priest cannot bind by virtue of the power
of the keys. For the sacramental power is ordained as a remedy against
sin. Now binding is not a remedy for sin, but seemingly is rather
conducive to an aggravation of the disease. Therefore, by the power of
the keys, which is a sacramental power, the priest cannot bind.
Objection 2: Further, just as to loose or to open is to remove an obstacle, so
to bind is to place an obstacle. Now an obstacle to heaven is sin, which
cannot be placed on us by an extrinsic cause, since no sin is committed
except by the will. Therefore the priest cannot bind.
Objection 3: Further, the keys derive their efficacy from Christ's Passion.
But binding is not an effect of the Passion. Therefore the priest cannot
bind by the power of the keys.
On the contrary, It is written (Mt. 16:19): "Whatsoever thou shalt bind
on earth, shall be bound also in heaven."
Further, rational powers are directed to opposites. But the power of
the keys is a rational power, since it has discretion connected with it.
Therefore it is directed to opposites. Therefore if it can loose, it can
I answer that, The operation of the priest in using the keys, is
conformed to God's operation, Whose minister he is. Now God's operation
extends both to guilt and to punishment; to the guilt indeed, so as to
loose it directly. but to bind it indirectly, in so far as He is said to
harden, when He withholds His grace; whereas His operation extends to
punishment directly, in both respects, because He both spares and
inflicts it. In like manner, therefore, although the priest, in
absolving, exercises an operation ordained to the remission of guilt, in
the way mentioned above (Article ), nevertheless, in binding, he exercises no
operation on the guilt; (unless he be said to bind by not absolving the
penitent and by declaring him to be bound), but he has the power both of
binding and of loosing with regard to the punishment. For he looses from
the punishment which he remits, while he binds as to the punishment which
remains. This he does in two ways---first as regards the quantity of the
punishment considered in general, and thus he does not bind save by not
loosing, and declaring the penitent to be bound, secondly, as regards
this or that particular punishment, and thus he binds to punishment by
Reply to Objection 1: The remainder of the punishment to which the priest binds
the penitent, is the medicine which cleanses the latter from the blemish
Reply to Objection 2: Not only sin, but also punishment is an obstacle to heaven:
and how the latter is enjoined by the priest, has been said in the
Reply to Objection 3: Even the Passion of Christ binds us to some punishment
whereby we are conformed to Him.
Article 4: Whether the priest can bind and loose according to his own judgment?
Objection 1: It seems that the priest can bind and loose according to his own
judgment. For Jerome [*Cf. Can. 86, Mensuram, De Poenit. Dist. i] says:
"The canons do not fix the length of time for doing penance so precisely
as to say how each sin is to be amended, but leave the decision of this
matter to the judgment of a discreet priest." Therefore it seems that he
can bind and loose according to his own judgment.
Objection 2: Further, "The Lord commended the unjust steward, forasmuch as he
had done wisely" (Lk. 16:5), because he had allowed a liberal discount to
his master's debtors. But God is more inclined to mercy than any temporal
lord. Therefore it seems that the more punishment the priest remits, the
more he is to be commended.
Objection 3: Further, Christ's every action is our instruction. Now on some
sinners He imposed no punishment, but only amendment of life, as in the
case of the adulterous woman (Jn. 8). Therefore it seems that the priest
also, who is the vicar of Christ, can, according to his own judgment,
remit the punishment, either wholly or in part.
On the contrary, Gregory VII [*Cf. Act. Concil. Rom. v, Can. 5] says:
"We declare it a mock penance if it is not imposed according to the
authority of the holy fathers in proportion to the sin." Therefore it
seems that it does not altogether depend on the priest's judgment.
Further, the act of the keys requires discretion. Now if the priest
could remit and impose as much as he liked of a penance, he would have no
need of discretion, because there would be no room for indiscretion.
Therefore it does not altogether depend on the priest's judgment.
I answer that, In using the keys, the priest acts as the instrument and
minister of God. Now no instrument can have an efficacious act, except in
so far as it is moved by the principal agent. Wherefore, Dionysius says
(Hier. Eccl. cap. ult.) that "priests should use their hierarchical
powers, according as they are moved by God." A sign of this is that
before the power of the keys was conferred on Peter (Mt. 16:19) mention
is made of the revelation vouchsafed to him of the Godhead; and the gift
of the Holy Ghost, whereby "the sons of God are led" (Rm. 8:14), is
mentioned before power was given to the apostles to forgive sins.
Consequently if anyone were to presume to use his power against that
Divine motion, he would not realize the effect, as Dionysius states
(Hier. Eccl., cap. ult.), and, besides, he would be turned away from the
Divine order, and consequently would be guilty of a sin. Moreover, since
satisfactory punishments are medicinal, just as the medicines prescribed
by the medical art are not suitable to all, but have to be changed
according to the judgment of a medical man, who follows not his own will,
but his medical science, so the satisfactory punishments appointed by the
canons are not suitable to all, but have to be varied according to the
judgment of the priest guided by the Divine instinct. Therefore just as
sometimes the physician prudently refrains from giving a medicine
sufficiently efficacious to heal the disease, lest a greater danger
should arise on account of the weakness of nature so the priest, moved by
Divine instinct, some times refrains from enjoining the entire punishment
due to one sin, lest by the severity of the punishment, the sick man come
to despair and turn away altogether from repentance.
Reply to Objection 1: This judgment should be guided entirely by the Divine
Reply to Objection 2: The steward is commended also for having done wisely. Therefore in the remission of the due punishment, there is need for discretion.
Reply to Objection 3: Christ had the power of "excellence" in the sacraments, so
that, by His own authority, He could remit the punishment wholly or in
part, just as He chose. Therefore there is no comparison between Him and
those who act merely as ministers.