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Perfect and Imperfect Contrition
Question from Lawrence on 1/24/2002:

Dear Father Levis,

In the past, I have always found your responses consistent with the Catholic school education I received while growing up during the 40's and 50's. However, this morning I read your answer to Tom on 12/26/01 for the first time, and I must say that I was somewhat stunned by what you had to say concerning perfect and imperfect contrition.

Father, your response appeared to me to be sufficiently at odds with what I was taught in my old religion classes that I now find myself feeling terribly confused. Has my understanding about contrition and the forgiveness of mortal sins been incorrect all these years? Did I simply misunderstand what you meant to say? Or--with absolutely no disrespect intended--did you make some substantive or typographic error in the answer you gave?

You wrote, "So long as the fear of going to Hell remains in a penitent, he can't make an act of perfect contrition. At best he makes an imperfect act with an admixture of both kinds of contrition, BUT HE MUST MAKE A 100% PERFECT ACT TO BE FREE FROM MORTAL SIN." [Emphasis added.] If I understand you correctly here, this does sound, as Tom seems to imply, like an unnecessarily high standard, indeed. On the other hand, you do seem to soften that standard a little when you close with the statement that a penitent isn't forgiven if he is sorry for our sins "ONLY [emphasis added] because he is headed for Hell . . . ." Here, you seem to be implying that an "admixture" of perfect and imperfect contrition CAN be sufficient to "free" the penitent from mortal sin.

Father, I may be wrong, but the first of your sentences (as quoted above) does sound a little stricter than what I seem to remember learning in religion class. I clearly remember being taught that perfect contrition is the sincere regret for having offended the Lord for the reason that we love Him and want to please him, but I honestly don't recall ever being taught that perfect contrition was unattainable to a penitent as long as he wasn't simultaneously unmindful or unafraid of Hell. (As a matter of fact, I was given the very firm and clear impression that there is VIRTUE in maintaining a proper fear of the Lord.) Moreover, I was given the understanding that, by definition, contrition is imperfect if the penitent regrets his sin out of fear of punishment, and perfect if his sorrow for having sinned is rendered the more virtuous by a sincere love of God apart from the considerations of punishment. I'll say it another way: I was never given to understand that perfect contrition requires the penitent to make himself--temporarily or otherwise--unaware of the doctrine of Hell as it could apply to him personally. If I have indeed misunderstood such an important point for all these years, I am profoundly surprised.

However, that is not the not the biggest shock I received when I read your reply to Tom's post. For no matter how I read the words in your opening sentences, they SOUND as though you're saying that someone who has committed a mortal sin cannot be forgiven, his soul cannot be saved, if his act of contrition is TO ANY DEGREE motivated by the fear of Hell (i.e., "he must make a 100% perfect act to be free from mortal sin.") Father, I'm under the firm impression that I was always taught in my years as a Catholic school student--including the lessons I was taught during the study of our catechism--that perfect contrition was unquestionably superior and gained us more grace--and that we should always strive as hard as we can to make a perfect Act of Contrition for that reason--but that EITHER perfect OR imperfect contrition is sufficient for us to gain God's forgiveness. Yet, no matter how I look at your words (that assert that if we commit a mortal sin, we cannot "be free" from it "so long as the fear of going to Hell remains" during our Act of Contrition), they seem to indicate that we cannot escape damnation if we are TO ANY EXTENT in fear of the Lord's punishment.

Have I understood your meaning correctly, or have I misinterpreted you? Father, if this in fact IS what you mean, then I don't understand how you aren't logically contradicted by the words of the formal Act of Contrition itself--that I have been saying since I was seven years old:

"Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee. I DETEST MY SINS BECAUSE I DREAD THE LOSS OF HEAVEN AND THE PAINS OF HELL. BUT MOST OF ALL, BECAUSE I HAVE OFFENDED THEE, MY GOD, WHO ART ALL GOOD AND DESERVING OF ALL MY LOVE. [Emphasis added.] I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do Penance, and to amend my life."

If it truly is Church teaching that so long as the fear of going to Hell remains in a penitent, he cannot be free of a mortal sin, why would the formal Act of Contrition include the noted assertion that we detest our sins because we "dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell"? Indeed, these words more than any other consideration lead me to think that a penitent can indeed hope for forgiveness though the fear of going to Hell still remains within him.

Could you please revisit this issue and help me to understand more fully? Is there a place in the current Catechism that illuminates the nature of contrition and forgiveness?

I apologize for being so long, Father. Thank you for your wonderful work.


Answer by Fr. Robert J. Levis on 1/24/2002:

Dear Lawrence, Perfect contrition is sorrow elicited from the motive of disinteresting l0ve of God. Imperfect contriti0n, or attrition, is sorrow elicited from some less exalted motive, e.g. gratitude or fear of punishment. Perfect contrition is perfect because it is not admixed with any personal or natural motivation as is attrition. Because perfect contrition is so exalted and difficult to attain, attrition or imperfect contrition, with the confession of sins, is sufficient for the valid absolution of sin in the Sacrament of Penance. God bless you. Fr. Bob Levis


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