Matters Arising: Perfect Contrition

Rev. Fr. Nicholas Mary C.SS.R.

Fr. Nicholas answers topical questions in the light of moral theology and canon law.

What is perfect contrition, and is it ever possible to have it?

Here is the Penny Catechism's brief treatment of perfect contrition:

Q. What is perfect contrition?

" A. Perfect contrition is sorrow for sin arising purely from the love of God.

" Q. What special value has perfect contrition?

" A. Perfect contrition has this special value; that by it our sins are forgiven immediately, even before we confess them; but nevertheless, if they are mortal, we are strictly bound to confess them afterwards.A Catechism of Christian Doctrine (CTS, London, 1880) §§ 293–4.1

Because perfect contrition requires sorrow, and because it must arise out of a pure love, it is often misunderstood to be something almost impossible, and certainly out of the reach of those of us who are not great saints. But both the nature of the sorrow and of the purity of the love of God required must be rightly understood. Then we shall see that it is well within the capability of us all to attain to perfect contrition.

Nature of the sorrow

Let us examine the sorrow first. Since sin is both a turning (aversion) away from God and a turning (conversion) towards some created good, repentance requires a conversion back to God and an aversion to the sinful use made of a creature (something present in all sin).

This means that, when we repent, we must first be aware of our past sins, and of how they have offended God. This element takes place in our intellect.

Then we must be sorrowful that we have committed these sins, that they have offended God, and that they have placed us in a state of sin in which we are wholly or partially separated from Him. This element of repentance is essentially in our will, whether accompanied by emotion in the lower part of our soul or not.

The will then seeks to end the state of sin and the separation from God through its purpose of amendment, without which repentance would not be complete. Both the sorrow and the purpose of amendment together constitute contrition, as Fr. Anton Koch clarifies, laying out the teaching of the Council of Trent:

Contrition is the most necessary constituent of penance, both as a virtue and as a sacrament, for without contrition there can be no genuine repentance and no forgiveness. The Council of Trent defines contrition as ‘a sorrow of the soul and a detestation for sin committed, with the purpose of not sinning for the future.’ Hence contrition is essentially an act of the will, by which man renounces sin and determines to avoid it in future. The act of renunciation is called contrition in the strict sense, while the determination to avoid future sins is termed purpose of amendment. Being an interior sorrow of the soul, contrition differs from that purely intellectual regret which consists in a mere perception of the damnableness of sin, and also from the so-called terror of conscience, i.e., the fear with which conscience is smitten upon being convinced of iniquity. Both these emotions may be present without a spark of genuine contrition.

Thus it is very important to distinguish contrition, on the one hand, from a mere intellectual regret at the fact that we have sinned, and on the other, from a merely emotional reaction to sin. These things may accompany contrition, but contrition is itself primarily an act of the will, as Fr. Koch explains further:

The moral value of contrition, as a turning away from sin and a turning to God, consists in its being an act of the will, and consequently it need not be accompanied by sensible pain or grief, nor manifest itself by sighs and tears. Whilst there is such a thing as the ‘tears of contrition’, sensible sorrow forms no constituent of genuine contrition, nor is its presence a sure proof thereof. As there are tears that indicate no deep emotion, so there is a sorrow without tears. As a rule, however, it is desirable that contrition should be manifested by outward signs.

Motives for our sorrow

And so we come to the distinction between perfect and imperfect contrition, which depends on which motives we have for our sorrow:

Contrition may be perfect or imperfect. Perfect contrition is inspired by charity, i.e., a perfect love of God as the supreme good for His own sake. Imperfect contrition, now technically called attrition, is sorrow inspired by some other supernatural motive, e. g., fear of eternal punishment, repugnance to sin as an offence against Almighty God, regret at having lost divine grace and forfeited heaven, etc. As can be easily seen, the distinction between perfect and imperfect contrition is not based upon the degree of sorrow a man has for his sins, but upon the motives by which that sorrow is inspired; this distinction is specific rather than generic.

“Perfect contrition, coupled with a desire to receive the Sacrament of Penance, is sufficient to effect the forgiveness of sins not merely in cases of necessity, or when it reaches the highest possible degree of intensity, but of itself and always. Imperfect contrition (attrition), on the other hand, can produce this effect only in connection with sacramental confession. Hence perfect contrition is not an essential requisite of penance, but attrition suffices for the valid reception of this Sacrament, provided, of course, that the penitent is resolved to sin no more and confidently trusts in the mercy of God. However, though there is no obligation to make an act of perfect contrition in preparing for confession, the faithful should be exhorted to do so, to the best of their ability.

There are four conditions for all true contrition:

For the valid reception of the Sacrament of Penance, contrition (whether perfect or imperfect) should be:

" a) Sincere or heartfelt, for else it would be sheer hypocrisy. The quality of sincerity flows as a necessary effect from the nature of contrition.

" b) Supernatural, both in its origin and in its motives. True contrition owes its existence to divine grace and is based upon reasons or motives supplied by supernatural faith.

" c) Supreme or sovereign, not in intensity but appreciatively, i.e. the penitent must detest sin as the greatest of all evils and be ready to give up everything he has, even life itself, rather than offend God. Since contrition is in the will, not in the emotions, it may happen that the sorrow one feels at temporal misfortunes is both affectively and intensively greater than that felt at sin as a purely spiritual evil; but this need not prevent a man's contrition from being appreciatively supreme. ‘If we may not succeed in rendering our contrition perfect,’ says the Roman Catechism, ‘it may nevertheless be true and efficacious, for oftentimes things that fall under the senses affect us more than spiritual things, and hence some persons experience a greater sense of grief for the loss of their children than for the baseness of their sins.’ Our sense of grief need not be supreme, for to make it so is largely beyond our control; but we must by a combined act of the mind and will abhor sin above all other evils. Theologians express this technically by saying that sin must be detested as the greatest of all evils, not affectively, but effectively.

" d) Contrition must furthermore be universal, i, e., it must cover all the mortal sins committed by the penitent. As every mortal sin implies a complete turning away from God, no one mortal sin can be forgiven without the rest. It is not, however, necessary to make a special act of contrition for each particular mortal sin. One general act for all the sins committed will suffice.2

Pure love of God is misunderstood by many

Now let us consider the degree of purity of the love of God from which perfect contrition must proceed, as this is a source of misunderstanding for many.

Fr F. J. Connell, C.SS.R. considers the following question:

What is to be said of the doctrine that a person makes an act of genuine love of God or an act of perfect contrition only when he is so disposed that he would serve God faithfully even if there were no heaven and no hell, no rewards and no punishments for good or evil deeds? In other words, must one exclude the consideration of the advantage that will come to him from right living, in order to have true love of God?

His answer is as follows:

According to sound Catholic teaching, a person should not attempt to exclude the desire of his own happiness, however fervently he may strive to love God. Indeed, such an attempt would be opposed to sane philosophical principles. The Creator has endowed every human being with an irrepressible desire to be happy, so that in every deliberate action he must tend, at least implicitly, toward his own happiness. Man by his very nature is unable to tend to any good, however excellent, unless he conceives it in some way as his good. The fact that he has been raised to the supernatural order and given as his goal the intimate possession of God does not eliminate this innate tendency, but rather elevates it and makes it more ardent. Even the purest act of divine love elicited by the greatest saint includes the desire of possessing God, not merely in order that God may be thereby glorified, but also in order that happiness may come to him who elicits the act. We may, indeed, distinguish an unselfish love of God as distinct from a selfish love—corresponding to the love of benevolence and the love of concupiscence of the theologians—but the terms are not intended to be mutually exclusive. The love of benevolence, the root of charity, takes its predominant motive from the goodness of God in Himself, but it is accompanied by a desire (at least implicit) of possessing God as our good. In the words of St. Thomas: ‘Charity makes one have an eye to the reward.’

" ... It must be emphasised, too, that just as charity does not exclude hope, so perfect contrition does not exclude imperfect contrition. A person can be sorry for his sins because they have offended the all-good God, and at the same time detest them because they have made him subject to punishment. For this reason the motive of perfect contrition is given the predominant, but not the exclusive place in the formula of contrition proposed by the Baltimore Catechism: ‘I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all-good, etc.’ Priests in their sermons and religious teachers in their classes should be most careful not to give the impression that it tends to the greater perfection of divine charity to eliminate the desire for personal rewards for good deeds, or to the greater purification of contrition to dwell only on the thought of the offence sin has done to God's goodness without any thought of the debt of punishment it has incurred for the sinner. This would be a distorted form of Christian asceticism, irreconcilable with the admonitions of Scripture to strive for the reward which God promises to those who serve Him faithfully, and to fear the punishment which divine justice inflicts on sinners. It should be pointed out that it is a truly Catholic concept of holiness that we should not only love God for His own sake but also desire to possess Him for all eternity as the rewarder of those who seek Him.3

Almighty God is indeed “a rewarder to them that seek Him,”4 and once we understand that a “sorrow for sin arising purely from the love of God” does not require emotions that we may or may not be able to elicit, but rather efficacious acts of the will in accordance with what our intellect has understood once enlightened by Faith, then we can, and indeed should aspire to perfect contrition. †

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  • 1A Catechism of Christian Doctrine (CTS, London, 1880) §§ 293–4.
  • 2Fr. A. Koch (transl. Fr. A. Preuss), A Handbook of Moral Theology, (B. Herder, St. Louis, 1928), Vol. II, 3rd rev. ed., pp. 140–5. Emphasis here and throughout added.
  • 3Fr. F. J. Connell, C.SS.R., Father Connell answers Moral Questions, (CUA, Washington, DC, 1959), Q. 22.
  • 4Heb 11:6.