Penance: Guilt, Shame, Self-Loathing as Penitential Pain

This post elaborates on my February 16 Post: Penance: Pain as a Scapegoat Which Carries Away Moral Evil in two ways. First, I advocate mental pain as the proper penitential pain. Second, I bring out more of the theory rationalizing inflicting pain on yourself to cleanse yourself from a moral stain or heal yourself of a moral wound.

In my previous post, I suggested interpreting penance as a way of cleansing or healing ourselves for moral damage we inflicted upon ourselves by a wrong such as masturbation which in no clear way does any tangible damage to our bodies or anyone else’s body. My suggestion was that we inflict some tangible damage on ourselves. Penance as cleansing or healing works by linking the moral wrong with a tangible wrong which will heal. The healing tangible wound is taking away the moral harm with which it has been linked. We are morally cleansed because the moral wrong in us has gone away insofar as it was a type of wound in us. However, the moral wrong is still formerly – “on paper” – in our history until it is forgiven.

Forgiveness is another topic. Penance may be necessary for forgiveness but I do not think penance is sufficient for forgiveness

What kind of pain is a suitable penance for victimless sexual immoralities; especially masturbation? As suggested by the Lenten texts from Joel: “Rend your heart; not your garments” the pain should be interior – in the mind. Mental pain is tangible – guilt, shame and self-loathing are felt. Let yourself feel these pains by not giving yourself any excuses. Of course, as in any important endeavor, good judgment is needed to know when to “go one with your life” and let the mental pain and moral wound heal.

Why, though, inflict pain on ourselves so that it can become a wound which is supposed to take away a moral wound? Here I need to sketch out thoughts on the reasons for punishment.

One reason for punishment is restitution. I am not writing of penance as restitution. I am not thinking of penance being the infliction of some tangible damage to ourself as a way of paying back for a satisfaction immorally attained. For instance, the pay back for the pleasure of masturbation might be a cold shower. On this model the pain is paired with the illegitimate pleasure and then the pleasure-pain pair is neutralized. Such a model may be useful for understanding some dimensions of penance. But that is not the dimension which I am trying to understand. Here I am struggling with a belief that penance is appropriate to make myself cleaner or healthier after committing a moral wrong. I try bring myself back to my moral status I had before the immoral act. The restitution model does not seem to me to bring out making myself healthy after committing a moral wrong. It is too impersonal. Restitution brings our making the situation better. What can fairly be labeled a retribution model of penance brings out that penance is supposed to make me better by somehow removing the moral damage I brought upon myself. This is different from a rehabilitation model of penance where penance is to build my character. The retribution model is also different from a deterrence model. On a deterrence model, the masturbator would inflict some pain on himself after masturbating and threaten to inflict that pain on himself every time he masturbated. Cold showers might be his choice of deterrent.

Restitution, rehabilitation and deterrence are all important dimensions of penance. They are forward looking dimensions of penance. They aim at making the person or situation better in the future. Retribution is backward looking. In retribution we go back in our history to clean or heal a wound we suffered. We are trying to bring ourselves status quo ante.

My thoughts about penance, forgiveness etc., come from my emphasis on sexual immorality as producing moral harm in my book Confronting Sexual Nihilism .
My book Confronting Sexual Nihilism: Traditional Sexual Morality as an Antidote to Nihilism was released by Tate Publishing on March 11, 2014. See Book Web Page for information about the book. The publisher’s listed price is $26.99. Printed copies can be purchased here by credit card for $12.99, plus $3.71 for shipping and handling.

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