Perfect Contrition and the Sacrament of Penance

I was struck today by a potentially misleading formulation in the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the necessity of intending to confess one's sins in the Sacrament of Penance.

A certain inseparability of remission of sins and the Sacrament of Penance is taught by the Council of Trent and by Pope John Paul II:

Council of Trent

Docet praeterea etsi contritionem hanc aliquando charitate perfectam esse contigat hominem que Deo reconciliare priusquam hoc sacramentum actu suscipiatur ipsam nihilominus reconciliationem ipsi contritioni sine sacramenti voto quod in illa includitur non esse adscribendam.

[The Council] teaches, further, that although this contrition is sometimes perfected by charity and reconciles man with God before this sacrament [of confession] is actually received, this reconciliation is still not to be ascribed to that contrition without the intention of receiving the sacrament [sacramenti voto] that is included in that contrition.

God willed reconciliation to take place in Christ and in his Mystical Body, the Church, in a visible manner. True repentance for sin and love for God implies a desire to accept God's will in this, as in other matters. Hence it includes a desire to sensibly receive reconciliation, in the instrument instituted by Christ, namely sacramental confession. The Council, responding to the Protestant position, insists that one must make reference to this means established by Christ in giving an account of how reconciliation now takes place in Christ.

Reconciliation and Penance (Pope John Paul II)

This same understanding is presented by John Paul II from a pastoral point of view in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (Reconciliation and Penance). For the believer, the doctrine about the sacrament of confession has as a practical consequence that one desire to receive the grace of reconciliation in an "incarnate" manner, that is in the sacrament.

The first conviction is that for a Christian the sacrament of penance is the primary way of obtaining forgiveness and the remission of serious sin committed after baptism. Certainly the Savior and his salvific action are not so bound to a sacramental sign as to be unable in any period or area of the history of salvation to work outside and above the sacraments. But in the school of faith we learn that the same Savior desired and provided that the simple and precious sacraments of faith would ordinarily be the effective means through which his redemptive power passes and operates. It would therefore be foolish, as well as presumptuous, to wish arbitrarily to disregard the means of grace and salvation which the Lord has provided and, in the specific case, to claim to receive forgiveness while doing without the sacrament which was instituted by Christ precisely for forgiveness.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Catechism of the Catholic Church seems to make an attempt to simplify the teaching:

1452 Contritio cum ex amore provenit Dei super omnia amati, « perfecta » appellatur (caritatis contritio). Talis contritio veniales remittit defectus; etiam veniam obtinet peccatorum mortalium, si firmum implicat propositum ad confessionem sacramentalem recurrendi quam primum possibile sit. (Cf Concilium Tridentinum, Sess. 14a, Doctrina de sacramento Paenitentiae, c. 4: DS 1677.)

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.)

However, this way of expressing the need for the sacrament of Penance is potentially quite misleading. Rather than saying something along the lines of "it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins–genuine contrition includes the firm resolution etc." it says that contrition arising from love of God above all things (charity) "obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution etc." The intention of the author(s) of this text may have been to say, in a subtle way, "one who is really contrite and loves God above all things will desire to observe the visible expression of reconciliation established by God (the Sacrament of Penance); one who is unwilling to observe this visible expression is deceiving himself if he thinks that his contrition is genuinely motivated by love of God." But as it stands, the text suggests that it is possible to have contrition arising from charity, and yet remain burdened by unforgiven mortal sin. This is practically a contradiction in terms, since charity is friendship with God, and a share in God's own love and life, while mortal sin consists in the loss of the divine life in us, and in separation from God. Moreover, if we granted that it were possible to have charity without sins being forgiven, in the event that one was not resolved to have recourse to sacramental confession, we would, in effect, be treating the sign of reconciliation with God (the Sacrament) as more important than the reality of friendship with God and participation in his life (charity).

One thought on “Perfect Contrition and the Sacrament of Penance”

  1. If we love God, we try to keep His commands and live according to His will. The ordinary means of forgiving sins after Baptism is Confession, and this is taught by the Church as the will of God. If we follow His will in love, we will intend to receive absolution as soon as possible. I can see how an ambiguity may be seen in the CCC statement, but interpretation of it in the historical mind of the Church should clarify it. I would hope the teachers of children and adults, as well as preachers and pastors, teach the best ways to obtain a love for God, such as will inspire and effect perfect contrition.

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