Communication, Punishment, and Virtue

The Theological Limitation of (Post)Secular Penance


  • Richard Bourne

Richard Bourne, Senior Lecturer in Theology, University of Cumbria, Bowerham Road, Lancaster, LA1 3JD, United Kingdom,


This essay suggests that while Antony Duff's model of criminal punishment as secular penance is pregnant with possibilities for theological reception and reflection, it proceeds by way of a number of separations that are brought into question by the penitential traditions of Christianity. The first three of these—between justice and mercy, censure and invitation, and state and victim, constrain the true communicative character of his account of punishment. The second set of oppositions, between sacrament and virtue, interior character and external action, and formal and moral reconciliation, subject the model of state punishment as secular penance to problematic liberal and libertarian constraints. A postsecular analogy, outlining a theology of the invitational nature of divine judgment, and drawing on Thomas Aquinas's account of penance as both sacrament and virtue, is proposed.