What Is Contrition?
This article covers the meaning of contrition (Latin contritio–a breaking of something hardened).
In Holy Writ nothing is more common than exhortations to repentance: “I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11); “Except you do penance you shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5; cf. Matthew 12:41). At times this repentance includes exterior acts of satisfaction (Psalm 6:7 sqq.); it always implies a recognition of wrong done to God, a detestation of the evil wrought, and a desire to turn from evil and do good. This is clearly expressed in Psalm 50 (5-14): “For I know my iniquity . . . To thee only have I sinned, and have done evil before thee . . . Turn away thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create a clean heart in me”, etc. More clearly does this appear in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:13), and more clearly still in the story of the prodigal (Luke 15:11-32): “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee: I am not worthy to be called thy son”.
Nature of contrition
This interior repentance has been called by theologians “contrition”. It is defined explicitly by the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, ch. iv de Contritione): “a sorrow of soul and a hatred of sin committed, with a firm purpose of not sinning in the future”. The word contrition itself in a moral sense is not of frequent occurrence in Scripture (cf. Psalm 50:19). Etymologically it implies a breaking of something that has become hardened. St. Thomas Aquinas in his Commentary on the Master of the Sentences thus explains its peculiar use: “Since it is requisite for the remission of sin that a man cast away entirely the liking for sin which implies a sort of continuity and solidity in his mind, the act which obtains forgiveness is termed by a figure of speech ‘contrition'” (In Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xvii; cf. Supplem. III, Q. i, a. 1). This sorrow of soul is not merely speculative sorrow for wrong done, remorse of conscience, or a resolve to amend; it is a real pain and bitterness of soul together with a hatred and horror for sin committed; and this hatred for sin leads to the resolve to sin no more. The early Christian writers in speaking of the nature of contrition sometimes insist on the feeling of sorrow, sometimes on the detestation of the wrong committed (Augustine in P.L., XXXVII, 1901, 1902; Chrysostom, P.G., XLVII, 409, 410). Augustine includes both when writing: “Compunctus corde non solet dici nisi stimulus peccatorum in dolore pœnitendi” (P.L., Vol. VI of Augustine, col. 1440). Nearly all the medieval theologians hold that contrition is based principally on the detestation of sin. This detestation presupposes a knowledge of the heinousness of sin, and this knowledge begets sorrow and pain of soul. “A sin is committed by the consent, so it is blotted out by the dissent of the rational will; hence contrition is essentially sorrow. But it should be noted that sorrow has a twofold signification–dissent of the will and the consequent feeling; the former is of the essence of contrition, the latter is its effect” (Bonaventure, In Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xvi, Pt. I, art. 1). [See also St. Thomas Aquinas, Comment. in Lib. Sent. IV; Billuart (De Sac. Pœnit., Diss. iv, art. 1) seems to hold the opposite opinion.]
Necessity of contrition
Until the time of the Reformation no theologian ever thought of denying the necessity of contrition for the forgiveness of sin. But with the coming of Luther and his doctrine of justification by faith alone the absolute necessity of contrition was excluded as by a natural consequence. Leo X in the famous Bull “Exsurge” [Denzinger, no. 751 (635)] condemned the following Lutheran position: “By no means believe that you are forgiven on account of your contrition, but because of Christ’s words, ‘Whatsoever thou shalt loose’, etc. On this account I say, that if you receive the priest’s absolution, believe firmly that you are absolved, and truly absolved you will be, let the contrition be as it may.” Luther could not deny that in every true conversion there was grief of soul, but he asserted that this was the result of the grace of God poured into the soul at the time of justification, etc. (for this discussion see Vacant, Dict. de théol. cath., s.v. Contrition.) Catholic writers have always taught the necessity of contrition for the forgiveness of sin, and they have insisted that such necessity arises (a) from the very nature of repentance as well as (b) from the positive command of God. (a) ‘They point out that the sentence of Christ in Luke 13:5, is final: “Except you do penance”, etc., and from the Fathers they cite passages such as the following from Cyprian, De Lapsis 32: “Do penance in full, give proof of the sorrow that comes from a grieving and lamenting soul . . . they who do away with repentance for sin, close the door to satisfaction.” Scholastic doctors laid down the satisfaction’ principle, “No one can begin a new life who does not repent him of the old” (Bonaventure, In Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xvi, Pt. II, art. 1, Q. ii, also ex professo, ibid., Pt. I, art. I, Q. iii), and when asked the reason why, they point out the absolute incongruity of turning to God and clinging to sin, which is hostile to God’s law. The Council of Trent, mindful of the tradition of the ages, defined (Sess. XIV. ch. iv de Contritione) that “contrition has always been necessary for obtaining forgiveness of sin”. (b) The positive command of God is also clear in the premises. The Baptist sounded the note of preparation for the coming of the Messias: “Make straight his paths”; and, as a consequence “they went out to him and were baptized confessing their sins”. The first preaching of Jesus is described in the words: “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”; and the Apostles, in their first sermons to the people, warn them to “do penance and be baptized for the remission of their sins” (Acts 2:38). The Fathers followed up with like exhortation (Clement in P.G., I, 341; Hermas iii P.G., II, 894; Tertullian in P.L., II).
Perfect and imperfect contrition
Catholic teaching distinguishes a twofold hatred of sin; one, perfect contrition, rises from the love of God Who has been grievously offended; the other, imperfect contrition, arises principally from some other motives, such as loss of heaven, fear of hell, the heinousness of sin, etc. (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, ch. iv de Contritione). For the doctrine of imperfect contrition see ATTRITION.
In accord with Catholic tradition contrition, whether it be perfect or imperfect, must be at once (a) interior, (b) supernatural, (c) universal, and (d) sovereign.
Contrition must be real and sincere sorrow of heart, and not merely an external manifestation of repentance. The Old Testament Prophets laid particular stress on the necessity of hearty repentance. The Psalmist says that God despises not the “contrite heart” (Ps. I, 19), and the call to Israel was, “Be converted to me with all your heart . . . and rend your hearts, and not your garments” (Joel, ii, 12 sq). Holy Job did penance in sackcloth and ashes because he reprehended himself in sorrow of soul (Job 13:6). The contrition adjudged necessary by Christ and his Apostles was no mere formality, but the sincere expression of the sorrowing soul (Luke 14:11-32; Luke 18:13); and the grief of the woman in the house of the Pharisee merited forgiveness because “she loved much”. The exhortations to penance found everywhere in the Fathers have no uncertain sound (Cyprian, De Lapsis; Chrysostom, De compunctione, P.G., XLVII, 393 sqq.), and the Scholastic doctors from Peter Lombard on insist on the same sincerity in repentance (Peter Lombard, Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xvi, no. 1).
In accordance with Catholic teaching contrition ought to be prompted by God’s grace and aroused by motives which spring from faith, as opposed to merely natural motives, such as loss of honour, fortune, and the like (Chemnitz, Exam. Concil. Trid., Pt. II, De Poenit.). In the Old Testament it is God who gives a “new heart” and who puts a “new spirit)” into the children of Israel (Ezekiel 36:25-29); and for a clean heart the Psalmist prays in the Miserere (Psalm 1:11 sqq.). St. Peter told those to whom he preached in the first days after Pentecost that God the Father had raised up Christ “to give repentance to Israel” (Acts 5:30 sq.). St. Paul in advising Timothy insists on dealing gently and kindly with those who resist the truth, “if peradventure God may give them full repentance” (2 Timothy 2:24-25). In the days of the Pelagian heresy Augustine insisted on the supernaturalness of contrition, when he writes, “That we turn away from God is our doing, and this is the bad will; but to turn back to God we are unable unless He arouse and help us, and this is the good will.” Some of the Scholastic doctors, notably Scotus, Cajetan, and after them Francisco Suárez (De Poenit., Disp. iii, sect. vi), asked speculatively whether man if left to himself could elicit a true act of contrition, but no theologian ever taught that makes for forgiveness of sin in the present economy of God could be inspired by merely natural motives. On the contrary, all the doctors have insisted on the absolute necessity of grace for contrition that disposes to forgiveness (Bonaventure, In Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xiv, Pt. I, art. II, Q. iii; also dist. xvii, Pt. I, art. I, Q. iii; cf. St. Thomas, In Lib. Sent. IV). In keeping with this teaching of the Scriptures and the doctors, the Council of Trent defined; “If anyone say that without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and without His aid a man can repent in the way that is necessary for obtaining the grace of justification, let him be anathema.”
The Council of Trent defined that real contrition includes “a firm purpose of not sinning in the future”; consequently he who repents must resolve to avoid all sin. This doctrine is intimately bound up with the Catholic teaching concerning grace and repentance. There is no forgiveness without sorrow of soul, and forgiveness is always accompanied by God’s grace; grace cannot coexist with sin; and, as a consequence, one sin cannot be forgiven while another remains for which their is no repentance. This is the clear teaching of the Bible. The Prophet urged men to turn to God with their whole heart (Joel, ii, 12 sq.), and Christ tells the doctor of the law that we must love God with our whole mind, our whole strength (Luke 10:27). Ezechiel insists that a man must “turn from his evil ways” if he wish to live. The Scholastics inquired rather subtly into this question when they asked whether or not there must be a special act of contrition for every serious sin, and whether, in order to be forgiven, one must remember at the moment all grievous transgressions. To both questions they answered in the negative, judging that an act of sorrow which implicitly included all his sins would be sufficient.
The Council of Trent insists that true contrition includes the firm will never to sin again, so that no mater what evil may come, such evil must be preferred to sin. This doctrine is surely Christ’s: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?” Theologians have discussed at great length whether or not contrition which must be sovereign appretiative, i.e., in regarding sin as the greatest possible evil, must also be sovereign in degree and in intensity. The decision has generally been that sorrow need not be sovereign “intensively”, for intensity makes no change in the substance of an act (Ballerini, Opus Morale: De Contritione; Bonaventure, In Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xxi, Pt. I, art. II, Q. i).
Contrition in the Sacrament of Penance
Contrition is not only a moral virtue, but the Council of Trent defined that it is a “part”, nay more, quasi materia, in the Sacrament of Penance. “The (quasi) matter of this sacrament consists of the acts of the penitent himself, namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction. These, inasmuch as they are by God’s institution required in the penitent for the integrity of the sacrament and for the full and perfect remission of sin, are for this reason called parts of penance. “In consequence of this decree of Trent theologians teach that sorrow for sin must be in some sense sacramental. La Croix went so far as to say that sorrow must be aroused with a view of going to confession, but this seems to be asking too much; most theologians think with Schieler-Heuser (Theory and Practice of Confession, p. 113) that it is sufficient if the sorrow coexist in any way with the confession and is referred to it. Hence the precept of the Roman Ritual, “After the confessor has heard the confession he should try by earnest exhortation to move the penitent to contrition” (Schieler-Heuser, op. cit., p. 111 sqq.).
Perfect contrition without the sacrament
Regarding that contrition which has for its motive the love of God, the Council of Trent declares: “The Council further teaches that, though contrition may sometimes be made perfect by charity and may reconcile men to God before the actual reception of this sacrament, still the reconciliation is not to be ascribed to the contrition apart from the desire for the sacrament which it includes.” The following proposition (no. 32) taken from Baius was condemned by Gregory XIII: “That charity which is the fullness of the law is not always conjoined with forgiveness of sins.” Perfect contrition, with the desire of receiving the Sacrament of Penance, restores the sinner to grace at once. This is certainly the teaching of the Scholastic doctors (Peter Lombard in P.L., CXCII, 885; St. Thomas, In Lib. Sent. IV, ibid.; St. Bonaventure, In Lib. Sent. IV, ibid.). This doctrine they derived from Holy Writ. Scripture certainly ascribes to charity and the love of God the power to take away sin: “He that loveth me shall be loved by My Father”; “Many sins are forgiven her because she hath loved much”. Since the act of perfect contrition implies necessarily this same love of God, theologians have ascribed to perfect contrition what Scripture teaches belongs to charity. Nor is this strange, for in the Old Covenant there was some way of recovering God’s grace once man had sinned. God wills not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live (Ezekiel 33:11). This total turning to God corresponds to our idea of perfect contrition; and if under the Old Law love sufficed for the pardon of the sinner, surely the coming of Christ and the institution of the Sacrament of Penance cannot be supposed to have increased the difficulty of obtaining forgiveness. That the earlier Fathers taught the efficacy of sorrow for the remission of sins is very clear (Clement in P.G., I, 341 sqq.; and Hermas in P.G., II, 894 sqq.; Chrysostom in P.G., XLIX, 285 sqq.) and this is particularly noticeable in all the commentaries on Luke 7:47. The Venerable Bede writes (P.L., XCII, 425): “What is love but fire; what is sin but rust? Hence it is said, many sins are forgiven her because she has loved much, as though to say, she hath burned away entirely the rust of sin, because she is inflamed with the fire of love.” Theologians have inquired with much learning as to the kind of love that justifies with the Sacrament of Penance. All are agreed that pure, or disinterested, love (amor benevolentiæ, amor amicitiæ) suffices; when there is question of interested, or selfish, love (amor concupiscentia) theologians hold that purely selfish love is not sufficient. When one furthermore asks what must be the formal motive in perfect love, there seems to be no real unanimity among the doctors. Some say that where there is perfect love God is loved for His great goodness alone; other, basing their contention on Scripture, think that the love of gratitude (amor gratitudinis) is quite sufficient, because God’s benevolence and love towards men are intimately united, nay, inseparable from His Divine perfections (Hurter, Theol. Dog., Thesis ccxlv, Scholion iii, no 3; Schieler-Heuser, op. cit., pp. 77 sq.).
Obligation of eliciting the act of contrition
In the very nature of things the sinner must repent before he can be reconciled with God (Sess. XIV, ch. iv, de Contritione, Fuit quovis tempore, etc.). Therefore he who has fallen into grievous sin must either make an act of perfect contrition or supplement the imperfect contrition by receiving the Sacrament of Penance; otherwise reconciliation with God is impossible. This obligation urges under pain of sin when there is danger of death. In danger of death, therefore, if a priest be not at hand to administer the sacrament, the sinner must make an effort to elicit an act of perfect contrition. The obligation of perfect contrition is also urgent whensoever one has to exercise some act for which a state of grace is necessary and the Sacrament of Penance is not accessible. Theologians have questions how long a man may remain in the state of sin, without making an effort to elicit an act of perfect contrition. They seem agreed that such neglect must have extended over considerable time, but what constitutes a considerable time they find it hard to determine (Schieler-Hauser, op. cit., pp. 83 sqq.). Probably the rule of St. Alphonsus Liguori will aid the solution: “The duty of making an act of contrition is urgent when one is obliged to make an act of love” (Sabetti, Theologia Moralis: de necess. contritionis, no. 731; Ballerine, Opus Morale: de contritione).
By Edward Hanna
This article is borrowed from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04337a.htm.
CHRISTIAN PESCH, Prælectiones Dogmaticæ (Freiburg, 1897), VII; HUNTER, Outlines of Dogmatic Theology (New York, 1896); St. Thomas, In Sent. IV, dist. xvii, Q. ii, a 1, sol. 1; SUAREZ, De Pænitentiâ, disp. iv, sect. iii, a,2; BELLARMINE, De Controversiis, Bk. II, De sacramento pænitentiæ; SALMATICENSES, Cursus Theologicus: de pænitientiâ (Paris, 1883), XX; DENIFLE, Luther und Luthertum in der ersten Entwicklung (Mainz, 1906), I, 229 sqq., II, 454, 517, 618 sq.; COLLET in MIGNE, Theologiæ Cursus Completus (Paris, 1840), XXII; PALMIERI, De Pænitentiâ (Rome, 1879; Prato, 1896); PETAVIUS, Dogmata Theologica: de pænitentiâ (Paris, 1867).
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APA citation. (1908). Contrition. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved June 30, 2022 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04337a.htm
MLA citation. “Contrition.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 30 Jun. 2022 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04337a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Dan Clouse.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.