On Contrition

The Question: Oh dear me---where do Catholics find this obligation to have perfect contrition for sin? Are they telling them to trust the priest to do it for them on their behalf.?

The Response: The Catechism defines contrition in these terms:

1451 Sorrow of the soul and hatred for the sin committed, together with a resolution not to sin again. Contrition is the most important act of the penitent, and is necessary for the reception of the Sacrament of Penance (1451) – Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition, © 1994/1997 United States Catholic Conference, Inc., p. 872

Contrition, in the Catholic understanding, is not simply sorrow for having offended God. It is a conscious act that is a prerequisite to obtaining the fictional benefits of what Catholics refer to as the Sacrament of Penance. If you are like me, perhaps you wondered how something done in the mind could be called an act. After all, isn't an act the same thing as an action? Perhaps a visit to a dictionary will clear this up. My dictionary offers several definitions for the word act, but the one that seems most appropriate – along with usage notes - is:

The process of doing or performing something, an action: the act of thinking. . .

Act (noun) and action are sometimes interchangeable. Act, however, emphasizes what is done, rather than the process of doing, and is especially applicable to a specific, brief deed or performance by an individual. Action is the choice when process or function are stressed, and when performance is complex or long-range… - The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, © 1969/1970 Houghton-Mifflin Co., p. 13

"The act of thinking"? I suppose that, applying this interpretation to the Catholic definition, one might understand it to refer to the act of being sorrowful, or something like that. Just being sorrowful, however, is not enough, for Catholic doctrine also looks at the underlying motivation for that sorrow:

1452. When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called 'perfect' (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.[Cf. Council of Trent (1551): DS 1677.]

1453. The contrition called 'imperfect' (or 'attrition') is also a gift of God, a prompting of the Holy Spirit. It is born of the consideration of sin's ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner (contrition of fear). Such a stirring of conscience can initiate an interior process which, under the prompting of grace, will be brought to completion by sacramental absolution. By itself however, imperfect contrition cannot obtain the forgiveness of grave sins, but it disposes one to obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance. [Cf. Council of Trent (1551): DS 1678; 1705.] – Catechism, Op. cit, pp. 872-73k

Did you catch that? Perfect contrition "obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible." In other words, and according to the RCC understanding, one of the Catholic faithful who commits a mortal sin, which has the effect of depriving the sinner of sanctifying grace (CCC, 1861), can be restored to a state of grace by an act of perfect contrition. That this is so is made clear in an advanced catechism that was in use when I was a kid – and before:

203. What is perfect contrition?

Perfect contrition is that which fills us with sorrow and hatred for sin, because it offends God, who is infinitely good in Himself and worthy of all love.

Of what special value is perfect contrition?

Perfect contrition has the special value of remitting sins immediately, even before confession, though it implies the intention of confessing them later.

When should we make an Act of perfect contrition?

We should make an Act of perfect contrition from time to time in the course of life, particularly at the hour of death, or when our life is in danger. – Rev. Thomas J. O'Brien, Advanced Catechism of Catholic Faith and Practice, © 1902,1913, 1917, 1922, 1929 John B. Oink, p. 101 – has Nihil Obstat & Imprimitur

At first blush, it may appear that the good ole boys at the Council of Trent left a loophole through which Catholic faithful might have their sins forgiven, at least according to RCC doctrine, and be restored to a state of grace without the direct involvement of a priest. Not so. Were it possible for Catholic faithful to make their apologies directly to God and be immediately restored to a state of grace without having to appeal to the services of a priest, the great power priests enjoy would be seriously eroded and, over time, eliminated.

The bishops and others gathered in the 14th session of the Council of Trent may have been given over to heresies and thoughts of worldly matters, but they were careful to ensure that their authority was in no way diminished by the possibility of direct and immediate remission of sins as a result of a layman's making an act of perfect contrition.

The council teaches furthermore, that though it happens sometimes that this contrition is perfect through charity and reconciles man to God before this sacrament is actually received, this reconciliation, nevertheless, is not to be ascribed to the contrition itself without a desire of the sacrament, which desire is included in it. – The Council of Trent, Session XIV, Chapter 4 (Denzinger 898)

Does this mean that the Catholic who is restored to a state of grace by having made an act of perfect contrition must actively desire to seek out a priest to whom he might confess the sins that already have been remitted? It does rather look that way, doesn't it? Not so. In fact, while making his act of perfect contrition, the Catholic may not even explicitly formulate the desire to receive what the RCC calls the Sacrament of Penance.

With perfect contrition, there is inseparably connected a desire to receive the Sacrament of Penance (at least implicitly). Perfect contrition may be likened to Baptism of Desire and the same is true of an act of perfect charity, or love. But we need not go to confession immediately after we have made an act of perfect contrition. When making an act of perfect contrition, it is not necessary that that the desire to go to confession be conceived explicitly; it is enough that the penitent be ready to go to confession when the obligation arises and occasion presents itself. Consequently, we should frequently make acts of perfect contrition, but particularly at the hour of death, or when our life is endangered, and we should ask God for the grace of perfect contrition, for it is a gift of God and an impulse of the Holy Ghost. However, to make an act of perfect contrition in order to receive Communion, though valid in the event there are no priests available to hear confessions, is to be done very rarely, for confession before Communion is the proper method of preparation for Communion. – Rev. Francis Spirago, The Catechism Explained, © 1889, 1921, 1949, 1961 Benziger Brothers, Inc., pp. 358-59 - has Nihil Obstat & Imprimitur

Pinning down Catholic doctrine is harder than trying to catch a chicken in an open field. No matter where you believe it is heading, just when you think you've got it, it changes direction and leaves you holding air.

And I didn't even look at the difficulties involved in 'knowing' whether one has, or has not, accomplished an act of perfect contrition.

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