Summa - Supplement 340



We must now consider the power of the ministers of this sacrament, which power depends on the keys. As to this matter, in the first place we shall treat of the keys, secondly, of excommunication, thirdly, of indulgences, since these two things are connected with the power of the keys. The first of these considerations will be fourfold: (1) the nature and meaning of the keys. (2) the use of the keys; (3) the ministers of the keys; (4) those on whom the use of the keys can be exercised.

Under the first head there are three points of inquiry:

(1) Whether there ought to be keys in the Church?

(2) Whether the key is the power of binding and loosing, etc.?

(3) Whether there are two keys or only one?

Whether there should be keys in the Church?


Objection 1: It would seem that there is no necessity for keys in the Church. For there is no need for keys that one may enter a house the door of which is open. But it is written (
Ap 4,1): "I looked and behold a door was opened in heaven," which door is Christ, for He said of Himself (Jn 10,7): "I am the door." Therefore the Church needs no keys for the entrance into heaven.

Objection 2: Further, a key is needed for opening and shutting. But this belongs to Christ alone, "Who openeth and no man shutteth, shutteth and no man openeth" (Ap 3,7). Therefore the Church has no keys in the hands of her ministers.

Objection 3: Further, hell is opened to whomever heaven is closed, and vice versa. Therefore whoever has the keys of heaven, has the keys of hell. But the Church is not said to have the keys of hell. Therefore neither has she the keys of heaven.

On the contrary, It is written (Mt 16,19): "To thee will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven."

Further, every dispenser should have the keys of the things that he dispenses. But the ministers of the Church are the dispensers of the divine mysteries, as appears from 1Co 4,1. Therefore they ought to have the keys.

I answer that, In material things a key is an instrument for opening a door. Now the door of the kingdom is closed to us through sin, both as to the stain and as to the debt of punishment. Wherefore the power of removing this obstacle is called a key. Now this power is in the Divine Trinity by authority; hence some say that God has the key of "authority." But Christ Man had the power to remove the above obstacle, through the merit of His Passion, which also is said to open the door; hence some say that He has the keys of "excellence." And since "the sacraments of which the Church is built, flowed from the side of Christ while He lay asleep on the cross" [*Augustine, Enarr. in Ps. 138], the efficacy of the Passion abides in the sacraments of the Church. Wherefore a certain power for the removal of the aforesaid obstacle is bestowed on the ministers of the Church, who are the dispensers of the sacraments, not by their own, but by a Divine power and by the Passion of Christ. This power is called metaphorically the Church's key, and is the key of "ministry."

Reply to Objection 1: The door of heaven, considered in itself, is ever open, but it is said to be closed to someone, on account of some obstacle against entering therein, which is in himself. The obstacle which the entire human nature inherited from the sin of the first man was removed by Christ's Passion; hence, after the Passion, John saw an opened door in heaven. Yet that door still remains closed to this or that man, on account of the original sin which he has contracted, or the actual sin which he has committed: hence we need the sacraments and the keys of the Church.

Reply to Objection 2: This refers to His closing Limbo, so that thenceforth no one should go there, and to His opening of Paradise, the obstacle of nature being removed by His Passion.

Reply to Objection 3: The key whereby hell is opened and closed, is the power of bestowing grace, whereby hell is opened to man, so that he is taken out from sin which is the door of hell, and closed, so that by the help of grace man should no more fall into sin. Now the power of bestowing grace belongs to God alone, wherefore He kept this key to Himself. But the key of the kingdom is also the power to remit the debt of temporal punishment, which debt prevents man from entering the kingdom Consequently the key of the kingdom can be given to man rather than the key of hell, for they are not the same, as is clear from what has been said. For a man may be set free from hell by the remission of the debt of eternal punishment, without being at once admitted to the kingdom, on account of his yet owing a debt of temporal punishment.

It may also be replied, as some state, that the key of heaven is also the key of hell, since if one is opened to a man, the other, for that very reason, is closed to him, but it takes its name from the better of the two.

Whether the key is the power of binding and loosing, etc.?


Objection 1: It would seem that the key is not the power of binding and loosing, whereby "the ecclesiastical judge has to admit the worthy to the kingdom and exclude the unworthy" therefrom, as stated in the text (Sent. iv, D, 16). For the spiritual power conferred in a sacrament is the same as the character. But the key and the character do not seem to be the same, since by the character man is referred to God, whereas by the key he is referred to his subjects. Therefore the key is not a power.

Objection 2: Further, an ecclesiastical judge is only one who has jurisdiction, which is not given at the same time as orders. But the keys are given in the conferring of orders. Therefore there should have been no mention of the ecclesiastical judge in the definition of the keys.

Objection 3: Further, when a man has something of himself, he needs not to be reduced to act by some active power. Now a man is admitted to the kingdom from the very fact that he is worthy. Therefore it does not concern the power of the keys to admit the worthy to the kingdom.

Objection 4: Further, sinners are unworthy of the kingdom. But the Church prays for sinners, that they may go to heaven. Therefore she does not exclude the unworthy, but admits them, so far as she is concerned.

Objection 5: Further, in every ordered series of agents, the last end belongs to the principal and not to the instrumental agent. But the principal agent in view of man's salvation is God. Therefore admission to the kingdom, which is the last end, belongs to Him, and not to those who have the keys, who are as instrumental or ministerial agents.

I answer that, According to the Philosopher (De Anima ii, text. 33), "powers are defined from their acts." Wherefore, since the key is a kind of power, it should be defined from its act or use, and reference to the act should include its object from which it takes its species, and the mode of acting whereby the power is shown to be well-ordered. Now the act of the spiritual power is to open heaven, not absolutely, since it is already open, as stated above (Article [1], ad 1), but for this or that man; and this cannot be done in an orderly manner without due consideration of the worthiness of the one to be admitted to heaven. Hence the aforesaid definition of the key gives the genus, viz. "power," the subject of the power, viz. the "ecclesiastical judge," and the act, viz. "of excluding or admitting," corresponding to the two acts of a material key which are to open and shut; the object of which act is referred to in the words "from the kingdom," and the mode, in the words, "worthy" and "unworthy," because account is taken of the worthiness or unworthiness of those on whom the act is exercised.

Reply to Objection 1: The same power is directed to two things, of which one is the cause of the other, as heat, in fire, is directed to make a thing hot and to melt it. And since every grace and remission in a mystical body comes to it from its head, it seems that it is essentially the same power whereby a priest can consecrate, and whereby he can loose and bind, if he has jurisdiction, and that there is only a logical difference, according as it is referred to different effects, even as fire in one respect is said to have the power of heating, and in another, the power of melting. And because the character of the priestly order is nothing else than the power of exercising that act to which the priestly order is chiefly ordained (if we maintain that it is the same as a spiritual power), therefore the character, the power of consecrating, and the power of the keys are one and the same essentially, but differ logically.

Reply to Objection 2: All spiritual power is conferred by some kind of consecration. Therefore the key is given together with the order: yet the use of the key requires due matter, i.e. a people subject through jurisdiction, so that until he has jurisdiction, the priest has the keys, but he cannot exercise the act of the keys. And since the key is defined from its act, its definition contains a reference to jurisdiction.

Reply to Objection 3: A person may be worthy to have something in two ways, either so as to have a right to possess it, and thus whoever is worthy has heaven already opened to him---or so that it is meet that he should receive it, and thus the power of the keys admits those who are worthy, but to whom heaven is not yet altogether opened.

Reply to Objection 4: Even as God hardens not by imparting malice, but by withholding grace, so a priest is said to exclude, not as though he placed an obstacle to entrance, but because he does not remove an obstacle which is there, since he cannot remove it unless God has already removed it. [*St. Thomas here follows the opinion of Peter Lombard, and replies in the negative. Later in life he altered his opinion. Cf.
III 62,1; III 64,1; III 86,6.] Hence God is prayed that He may absolve, so that there may be room for the priest's absolution.

Reply to Objection 5: The priest's act does not bear immediately on the kingdom, but on the sacraments, by means of which man wins to the kingdom.

Whether there are two keys or only one?


Objection 1: It would seem that there are not two keys but only one. For one lock requires but one key. Now the lock for the removal of which the keys of the Church are required, is sin. Therefore the Church does not require two keys for one sin.

Objection 2: Further, the keys are given when orders are conferred. But knowledge is not always due to infusion, but sometimes is acquired, nor is it possessed by all those who are ordained, and is possessed by some who are not ordained. Therefore knowledge is not a key, so that there is but one key, viz. the power of judging.

Objection 3: Further, the power which the priest has over the mystic body of Christ flows from the power which he has over Christ's true body. Now the power of consecrating Christ's true body is but one. Therefore the power which regards Christ's mystic body is but one. But this is a key. Therefore, etc.

Objection 4: On the other hand, It seems that there are more than two keys. For just as knowledge and power are requisite for man to act, so is will. But the knowledge of discretion is reckoned as a key, and so is the power of judging. Therefore the will to absolve should be counted as a key.

Objection 5: Further, all three Divine Persons remit sins. Now the priest, through the keys, is the minister for the remission of sins. Therefore he should have three keys, so that he may be conformed to the Trinity.

I answer that, Whenever an act requires fitness on the part of the recipient, two things are necessary in the one who has to perform the act, viz. judgment of the fitness of the recipient, and accomplishment of the act. Therefore in the act of justice whereby a man is given what he deserves, there needs to be a judgment in order to discern whether he deserves to receive. Again, an authority or power is necessary for both these things, for we cannot give save what we have in our power; nor can there be judgment, without the right to enforce it, since judgment is determined to one particular thing, which determination it derives, in speculative matters, from the first principles which cannot be gainsaid, and, in practical matters, from the power of command vested in the one who judges. And since the act of the key requires fitness in the person on whom it is exercised---because the ecclesiastical judge, by means of the key, "admits the worthy and excludes the unworthy," as may be seen from the definition given above (Article [2])---therefore the judge requires both judgment of discretion whereby he judges a man to be worthy, and also the very act of receiving (that man's confession); and for both these things a certain power or authority is necessary. Accordingly we may distinguish two keys, the first of which regards the judgment about the worthiness of the person to be absolved, while the other regards the absolution.

These two keys are distinct, not in the essence of authority, since both belong to the minister by virtue of his office, but in comparison with their respective acts, one of which presupposes the other.

Reply to Objection 1: One key is ordained immediately to the opening of one lock, but it is not unfitting that one key should be ordained to the act of another. Thus it is in the case in point. For it is the second key, which is the power of binding and loosing, that opens the lock of sin immediately, but the key of knowledge shows to whom that lock should be opened.

Reply to Objection 2: There are two opinions about the key of knowledge. For some say that knowledge considered as a habit, acquired or infused, is the key in this case, and that it is not the principal key, but is called a key through being subordinate to another key: so that it is not called a key when the other key is wanting, for instance, in an educated man who is not a priest. And although priests lack this key at times, through being without knowledge, acquired or infused, of loosing and binding, yet sometimes they make use of their natural endeavors, which they who hold this opinion call a little key, so that although knowledge be not bestowed together with orders, yet with the conferring of orders the knowledge becomes a key which it was not before. This seems to have been the opinion of the Master (Sent. iv, D, 19).

But this does not seem to agree with the words of the Gospel, whereby the keys are promised to Peter (
Mt 16,19), so that not only one but two are given in orders. For which reason the other opinion holds that the key is not knowledge considered as a habit, but the authority to exercise the act of knowledge, which authority is sometimes without knowledge, while the knowledge is sometimes present without the authority. This may be seen even in secular courts, for a secular judge may have the authority to judge, without having the knowledge of the law, while another man, on the contrary, has knowledge of the law without having the authority to judge. And since the act of judging to which a man is bound through the authority which is vested in him, and not through his habit of knowledge, cannot be well performed without both of the above, the authority to judge, which is the key of knowledge, cannot be accepted without sin by one who lacks knowledge; whereas knowledge void of authority can be possessed without sin.

Reply to Objection 3: The power of consecrating is directed to only one act of another kind, wherefore it is not numbered among the keys, nor is it multiplied as the power of the keys, which is directed to different acts, although as to the essence of power and authority it is but one, as stated above.

Reply to Objection 4: Everyone is free to will, so that no one needs authority to will; wherefore will is not reckoned as a key.

Reply to Objection 5: All three Persons remit sins in the same way as one Person, wherefore there is no need for the priest, who is the minister of the Trinity, to have three keys: and all the more, since the will, which is appropriated to the Holy Ghost, requires no key, as stated above (ad 4).



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?

Whether the power of the keys extends to the remission of guilt?

[*St. Thomas here follows the opinion of Peter Lombard, and replies in the negative. Later in life he altered his opinion. Cf.
III 62,1; III 64,1; III 86,6]

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. III 62,1; III 64,1; III 86,6]. 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.

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 punishment.

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.
III 62,1; III 64,1; III 86,6], 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 absolution.

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 satisfactory punishment.

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 Church.

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 [5], Article [2]). 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 punishment.

Summa - Supplement 340