Perfect Contrition
Question from Mike Carter on 06-19-2003:

Mr. Donovan. In a recent answer you quoted doctrine regarding communion and mortal sin. It stated that if one satisfied the several requirements, then they could receive communion after making a perfect act of contrition. Please explain: 1)what a perfect act of contrition is, 2) what type of person/state of piousness qualifies one to make a perfect act of contrition, and 3) how a person goes about making one. Thank you. Mike

Answer by Colin B. Donovan, STL on 07-02-2003:

I wouldn't characterize it that way. I explained Catholic doctrine on attaining justice extra-sacramentally. It applies whenever we actually do make an act of perfect contrition, something we should attempt as soon after falling into grave sin as possible.

"Perfect contrition. Sorrow for sin arising from perfect love. In perfect contrition the sinner detests sin more than any other evil, because it offends God, who is supremely good and deserving of all human love. Its motive is founded on God's own goodness and not merely his goodness to the sinner or to humanity. This motive, and not the intensity of the act, less still the feelings experienced, is what essentially constitutes perfect sorrow.

A perfect love of God, which motivates perfect contrition, does not necessarily exclude attachment to venial sin. Venial sin conflicts with a high degree of the perfect love of God but not with the substance of that love. Moreover, in the act of perfect contrition other motives can coexist with the perfect love required. There can be fear or gratitude, or even lesser motives such as self-respect or self-interest, along with the dominant reason for sorrow, which is love for God.

Perfect contrition removes the guilt and eternal punishment due to grave sin even before sacramental absolution. However, a Catholic is obliged to confess his or her grave sins at the earliest opportunity and may not, in normal circumstances, receive Communion before he or she has been absolved by a priest in the sacrament of penance." [Fr. John Hardon, SJ, Pocket Catholic Dictionary]

So, as Fr. Hardon makes clear, this is not a frenzied act of feeling but the will to love God primarily for His goodness, and not from fear or lesser motives, though they may coexist with the predominant motive. There is no way of knowing with an absolute certainty if one has made a perfect act of contrition, but all that is required is the standard of all human action, moral certainty. If you can say an act of contrition in these or similar words truthfully, intending it, then I think you would have moral certainty.

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee,
and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell;
but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen.

Finally, note the Fr. Hardon says that despite this restoration to justice by an act of perfect contrition that "a Catholic is obliged to confess his or her grave sins at the earliest opportunity and may not, in normal circumstances, receive Communion before he or she has been absolved by a priest..." In the abnormal circumstances of having "a grave reason to receive communion and having no opportunity to go to confession" (canon 916), only then may a Catholic, having made a perfect act of contrition, receive Communion. The lack of a moral certainty that one has made such an act would mean that one is still in mortal sin and may not, under any circumstances, even grave ones, go to Communion.