I was struck at how she described the impact that the rejection of the Sacrament of Penance had on Shakespeare and his contemporaries. I was also struck by how many of us Catholics may very well fail to fully appreciate the great treasure that we have in the humble, often maligned, but powerful Sacrament of Penance. One point, also raised in her talk, a point which I think Catholics need to rediscover is the aspect of "satisfaction" that is integral to the Sacrament of Penance. We are so used to simply doing a penance of a few prayers after confession that we forget that authentic contrition manifests itself-- and freely desires to manifest itself-- in seeking to mitigate the harm caused by our sins. For example, if we steal or waste money, the call is for restitution, returning the stolen or wasted funds to the rightful owner in some way. If we damage someone's reputation with untruths, we can, instead, notify people of our error and of where the truth actually lies. If we have carried on an unchaste relationship, we may need to apologize to the person involved (when prudent--that is, when it will not, practically speaking, exacerbate the harm already caused to others); or we may have to make special efforts in the future to warn others not to follow this harmful example.
People who are truly contrite or sorry for their sins wish to mitigate or reduce their harmful effects on others; they wish to perform some kind of restitution to the community for our bad acts. Even if the priest-confessor does not explicitly direct you toward this path of restitution, mitigation, and satisfaction for our harmful acts, we can, on our own, think creatively about how to accomplish this aspect of our penance. We have an objective venue for confession and forgiveness, a venue which should lead us to find practical ways to mitigate the harm we have caused to ourselves, to particular individuals, and to the wider community. We should seek to make satisfaction for such harmful acts. To borrow the famous phrase of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "cheap grace" is not enough in a real world where real acts cause very real harm.
Sarah Beckwith, Marcello Lotti Professor of English and Professor of Religion and Professor and Chair of Theater Studies, Duke University, is the author of Christ's Body(1993), Signifying God (2001) and Shakespeare and the Grammar of Forgiveness (in press). She was for several years editor of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies and has recently co-edited Premodern Shakespeares for JMEMS. She is also one of three editors overseeing a new series with the University of Notre Dame press called Re-Formations. She works on medieval and renaissance drama, medieval religious writing and culture, Shakespeare, and ordinary language philosophy (the work of Austin, Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell). She is currently working on two essays, "Shakespeare's Private Linguists," and an essay on morality plays called "Language goes on Holiday," as well as a book project on Shakespeare and "changes of the heart."
Update (4/15/10): Pope speaks of the importance of penance in the current climate (see news story).