It is said that today’s world is profoundly against penance and mortification. This is quite true. However, the main reason why we have this aversion is not that we want to avoid the physical pain of penance (which does exist). Rather, we tend to be against penance because of the principle behind it. This consists in the fact that man is a sinner. All sin is an insult to Divine justice and majesty, and therefore the sinner must make reparation by suffering in proportion to the delight that he should not have had but did.
Penance therefore is a kind of restitution. Just as a thief who steals money is required to repay it, so also from the standpoint of the designs of Divine Providence, the sinner who steals illicit pleasures to which he is not entitled must also pay something back. According to the scales of Divine justice, this is done by suffering in proportion to the harm that was done. In the act of penance, we find a recognition of sin, the gravity of sin, and God’s offended majesty. We realize that our offense cannot be appeased with empty words and ideas but with self-control and self-imposed suffering in reparation for what was done.
More importantly, penance recalls to mind that we are conceived in Original Sin and thus have disorderly instincts that must be overcome and fought. Even when there is no fault of our own, it is often advisable, and many times indispensable, to crush the impulses of these disordered senses by doing something that breaks the cravings of the flesh and thus to practice penance. There is nothing more opposed to the modern mentality than the idea that man is weak, inclined to evil, and must fight his instincts and senses.
Watch any modern movie, open any novel or romance or enter any public place and we see that the idea of penance is far away. Human pride, even more than sensuality, rebels against penance.
One of the characteristics of a true counter-revolutionary is precisely to possess the spirit of penance. This spirit is even more precious than acts of penance themselves. Take, for example, a lay brother in a religious order, who wears a penitential hairshirt because the rule of his order prescribes it. He accepts this penance by default, and with time becomes accustomed to it.
If this lay brother does not have a clear notion of what penance really is, he risks going astray. He actually practices penance less than a layman who is unable to wear a hairshirt but who nevertheless has this spirit of penance. God wants us to have the right spirit, principles, the ideas of penance and not just the concrete acts. When penance is done in the right spirit, it above all punishes our pride and makes us bow to the reality of human misery in general and also our individual misery.
The sackcloth and other similar devices in the Church are precious treasures. However, they are particularly valuable when used as an element to call to mind an attitude of distrust of self and fighting against oneself. This spirit of penance characterizes the counter-revolutionary and causes revulsion in the revolutionary.
The preceding text is taken from an informal lecture Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira gave on February 23, 1964. It has been translated and adapted for publication without his revision. –Ed.