The truly penitent accepts the punishments due his sin. This acceptance is an actual entering into the satisfaction won by Christ – and is His alone. It is an act of freedom, inspired by grace.
When one sins mortally, he literally breaks communion with God and His church. And there are consequences to this act of freely choosing a moral evil. Firstly are those eternal consequences – consequences that, if not addressed appropriately, will lead to the ultimate and final act of freedom: separation from God.
Secondly are those temporal consequences – loss of moral surety, a darkening of one’s soul – perhaps immediate losses of friendships and health, and other consequences like the hardening of one’s heart. Outside of a penitent heart, these temporal punishments can only be seen as paths of light, hoping to show the sinner the way to repentance.
The penitent (he who has come to sorrow over sin and who has confessed with his mouth), however, embraces these consequences of sin and joins himself to the sufferings of Christ. In this way he is truly purged and made fruitful. For what is purged from an unfruitful branch but those parts of it which are wasteful and of no use. But ‘in Christ’, joined to the Branch in repentance (in acquiescence), we are sanctified. This is satisfaction, and it cannot be ours, but is His alone! There cannot be forgiveness (for what is forgiveness, but that rejoining the branch) without satisfaction.
A truly penitent man accepts the consequences of his sin. To do otherwise is to mock justice. A man who gives himself to lust must live with those who love him doubting his fidelity. A man who invites ‘the world’ into his home, must live with seeing his children lost to the world’s seductions. But when the sinner turns to Christ in repentance, there is no guarantee that the wife so wronged for so long will suddenly abandon her doubt, or that the children so lost to the world will suddenly return. These too are temporal punishments, and in joining themselves to Christ even in the midst of suffering the consequences of their sin, the truly penitent can experience true healing.
Again, the one who lusts may live a lifetime in pitched battle with his accumulated habits, but the penitent, in seeking forgiveness and healing, enters into the purging of the husbandman willingly.
The penances issued by the priest in the confessional should be one more instance where man joins himself to Christ. “I have sinned!” Yes, now, “You are absolved! Now, do this as an act of joining with the satisfaction of Christ.” For sin is an act of freedom, of choice, and so must be penance. “Weep! Mourn! Let your laughter be turned to weeping!” For in our freedom, we have entered the sty and in our freedom we must say, “Yes!” to the care of the husbandman. A branch rejoined does not reject the shear.
Abide in Him! “Search me, O God, and see if there be any wickedness in me! In penances, offered and willingly accepted, let me unite myself to your satisfaction, O Christ! Against you, and you alone have I sinned! Help me to bear fruit that befits repentance!”
There is a sense in which the Council of Trent treats the action of satisfaction (purging through penances and in unifying ourselves to Christ) as the temporal punishments. There is another sense in which Trent treats the consequences of our sins themselves as the temporal punishments. Like so many things in Catholic theology, it is not a case of contradiction. But it is a case where clarity is needed, and that is why the recent developments are so important.