@FatherTF good explanation of “Perfect Contrition”

Sometimes we Catholics use technical terms which, over time, have become a little confusing.  For example, recently I wrote a clarification about what praying for the “Pope’s intentions” really means.

My good friend Fr. Tim Finigan, His Hermeneuticalness, has a good post at his place about “Perfect Contrition”.  You should go there and have a good look.

In a nutshell, Fr. Finigan explains that “Perfect Contrition” involves hatred of sin because one loves God, whereas “Imperfect Contrition” comes from hatred of sin because of fear of Hell.  This is much like the distinction between “contrition” and “attrition”.

It is helpful to make these distinctions.

The priest confessor is not to give absolution unless and until he knows the penitent is truly sorry for this sins and has a firm purpose of amendment.  That is one of the functions – the most important in that moment – of your speaking aloud an “Act of Contrition”.  That is also why some confessors will begin the Form of Absolution after you say the part expressing the (less perfect, or “imperfect”) expression of sorrow for sin because of potential punishments.   The priest may say the Form even while you are saying the Act of Contrition because he was taught that he shouldn’t delay at all absolving you once he had heard your expression of sorrow for sin.

Do check out Fr Finigan’s excellent blog.  He was one of the first big priest bloggers out of the gate.

And… I owe him a visit!

And… as I write… I have on the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance!


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Thomas S says:

    Fr. Z,

    Does PERFECT contrition require the absence of fear of hell, or can attrition coexist with perfect contrition? Fr. Finigan’s explanation seemed to indicate the fear of hell can exist alongside sorrow for offending God because you love him, and that sorrow still being perfect contrition.

    But our moral theology professor in seminary seemed to say PERFECT contrition necessitates a purity of contrition that is untainted by the self-interest of attrition.

    Thank God the Sacrament makes it a moot point as far as forgiveness goes, but I’d still appreciate some clarification.

    Thank you!

    [One can both love God and fear Hell. One can both love God and fear God! Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Perfect refers more to the object of consideration, rather than the subject. Love of God is a better motive than fear of Hell. Both are adequate, but love of God is better than fear of Hell.]

  2. BrionyB says:

    It is useful to know about the custom of the priest beginning to say the absolution before the penitent has finished their Act of Contrition. The first time this happened to me, I didn’t understand why I had been ‘interrupted’, and actually felt unsure afterwards whether my confession had been valid as I had not been able to finish saying the Act properly.

    Of course, further reading (probably on this blog) told me that this practice is normal, and in any case the validity of the sacrament doesn’t depend on the penitent using any particular form of words. But such things can be a bit confusing for those of us new to Confession and not yet confident of how it all works.

    Another surprise for me was the first time a priest used the old form of absolution, but fortunately by then I was well-informed enough to know what was happening!

  3. W0BPH says:

    Fr Z: Could the tradition of starting the Form of Absolution while you are still reciting the Act of Contrition come from the Parable of the Prodigal son?

    The Father seems to interrupt his son after the son said “‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.'” Luke 15:22-24 RSVCE [A nice idea, but I don’t think so.]

    Also, I have been taught by a good and holy priest that what is lacking in perfect contrition is made up by Christ during the Confession.

  4. Kathleen10 says:

    I would be embarrassed if the priest started giving me absolution before I was done. I would be completely confused.

    [“… before I was done.” Before you were done with your Act of Contrition? I think you would not be confused at all, since you have read this. Just go forward and finish it.]

  5. Kent Wendler says:

    “In general, [in chemistry a] critical point is the point on the phase diagram of a two-phase system at which the two coexisting phases have identical properties and therefore represent a single phase (eg., liquid/vapor)”

    I have long thought that something like this must exist for attrition/contrition: if one loves God so intensely and also realizes that Hell is to be feared because it means a definitive (total) and permanent separation from God, then one might say that the penitent is at a spiritual “critical point” where attrition and contrition have effective merged and become indistinguishable.

  6. robtbrown says:

    1. Re: Love of God vs Fear of Hell.

    St Thomas distinguishes between Servile and Filial Fear. The former is the fear of punishment; the latter the fear of losing the love of a superior (e.g., parent, teacher, God). Both Servile and Filial Love are good, but there are grades of love. The latter is obviously higher.

    In St. Thomas there is not egoistic vs altruistic love. Rather, there are grades of love.

    2. Attrition/Contrition. St. Thomas says that Contrition is informed by Charity, Attrition is not. It obviously follows that someone who is not in a State of Grace is only capable of Attrition. Thus someone dying who is not in a State of Grace is not capable of any Contrition (even imperfect).

  7. rcg says:

    It is my understanding that the fear of punishment is called ‘attrition’ and sufficient but less than contrition which is founded on sorrow for hurting someone we love as much as we should God. Just a tidbit from the memory banks.

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