Attrition and Attritionism

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Attrition or imperfect contrition is sorrow and detestation of sin motivated by sin's malice or the fear of hell and God's punishments. The term was first employed by Alan of Lille (d. 1202) to express a certain displeasure for sin, but one not deep enough to prompt the sinner to a firm purpose of amendment. According to Alan, those who are attrite "become less evil, but they do not cease to be evil until they are perfectly contrite" [Regulae de sacra theologia, 85 (Patrologia Latina. ed. J. P. Migne [Paris 187890] 210:665)]. A more positive approach to attrition was taken by William of Auvergne (d. 1249). Having more regard for the etymology of the word (Latin attero, p. part. attritus, to wear away by rubbing), William regarded attrition as the first step in the removal of sin. Attrition is not merely the natural displeasure that is consequent upon sin, it is the result of God's gratuitous grace (gratia gratis data ) by which the destruction of sin is begun, whereas contrition is the result of God's sanctifying grace (gratia gratum faciens ) by which the process is completed. Hence, contrition presupposes the gift of charity, whereas attrition is a preparation for the grace of charity that elicits the act of contrition. Although William is not the author of the adage "ex attrito fit contritus" (a person who is attrite becomes contrite), William regarded attrition as a sufficient preparation for the Sacrament of Penance, in and through which the sinner becomes contrite [cf. De sacramento paenitentiae, 4; Opera Omnia (Venice 1591) 441].

William of Auvergne's distinction between attrition and contrition became the common property of the great scholastic doctors of the 13th century, including St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas. Out of deference, however, to Peter Lombard (d. c. 1160), the Master of the Sentences, who held that sorrow prompted by perfect love of God was the only proper disposition for the remission of sins, both Thomas and Bonaventure held that contrition informed by charity should be the normal disposition in one approaching the power of the keys. Both admitted, however, that putative contrition (actually attrition), when informed by the priest's absolution, would result in perfect contrition and the remission of sins, the position of William of Auvergne (cf. Bonaventure, In 4 Sent.; Thomas, Summa Theologiae Suppl 3a, 18.1).

Council of Trent. In the 14th session of the Council of Trent (1551) attrition was distinguished from contrition not so much by the eliciting principle, the virtue of charity, but by the motive that prompted the act. Thus, against Luther, who held that attrition made man a hypocrite and a greater sinner, Trent defined attrition as a gift of God and a prompting of the Holy Spirit, since "it is ordinarily conceived from a consideration of sin's malice or from fear of hell and punishment" [Sess. 14, ch. 4 (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer, Freiburg, 1963; 1678)]. True, such attrition does not of itself justify the sinner apart from the Sacrament of Penance, "yet it disposes him for the attainment of God's grace in the Sacrament" (ibid. ). Trent also insists that such attrition must exclude the will to sin and be accompanied by hope of pardon (ibid. ).

Controversies after Trent. The basic issue after Trent concerned attrition from the motive of fear (attritio formidolosa ). According to the Jansenists "fear of hell is not supernatural" nor a sufficient motive for attrition [cf. Propositions, 14, 15, condemned by Alexander VIII, 1690 (Denzinger 2314, 2315)]. According to the Jansenist Quesnel, "Fear merely restrains the hand, while the heart is attached to sin so long as one is not motivated by love of justice" [Proposition 61, condemned by Clement XI, 1713 (Denzinger 2461)]. The Jansenist Synod of Pistoia (1794) insisted that sorrow for sin even in the Sacrament of Penance must be prompted by the most perfect love of God, the "fervor of charity" (cf. Denzinger 2636). Against the Jansenists, Catholic theologians appealed to the Old and the New Testament to show that God repeatedly urges the motive of fear as the first step in the repentance of the sinner and as an incentive for avoiding sin in the future. Typical of such exhortations is Christ's own warning: "And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather be afraid of him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Mt 10.28). Again, to demand perfect contrition as the motive of sorrow in the Sacrament of Penance is to deny that the priest's absolution is in any way directed to the remission of sin.

Unlike the Jansenists, the Contritionists of the 17th century admitted that fear of God was both good and salutary. They denied that attrition from the motive of fear was a sufficient preparation for obtaining pardon in the Sacrament of Penance. Without going to the extremes of the Jansenists who demanded the fervor of charity, the Contritionists demanded some love of God or love of benevolence for pardon even in the Sacrament of Penance. Attrition from the motive of fear disposes the sinner for the grace of pardon in the Sacrament of Penance, but only remotely. The proximate disposition must be love or charity towards God.

The Attritionists, many of whom were Jesuits and suspicious of anything that seemed to be Jansenistic, insisted that attrition from the motive of fear, so long as it was coupled with hope of divine pardon, was a proximate disposition for forgiveness in and through the Sacrament of Penance. For Attritionists, love of God for His own sake, no matter at what state of development, or how lacking in emotional fervor, was sufficient of itself to justify the sinner even before the actual reception of the Sacrament of Penance. Hence, it could not be demanded in the Sacrament of Penance without undermining the sacramental efficacy of the priest's absolution. Many Attritionists, however, did speak of "love," but it was a love of concupiscence or the love of hope (amor concupiscentiae vel spei ), an initial love of God as the source of all justice, of which Trent speaks in its decree on justification (cf. Denzinger 1526).

The controversy between the Contritionists and the Attritionists waxed so warm, particularly in Belgium, the homeland of Jansenism, that Alexander VII sponsored a decree of the Holy Office which warned both parties to the controversy under the severest of penalties "not to dare to affix a note of theological censure" to either opinion. The decree, however, does note in passing that the view of the Attritionists "appears to be more common among scholastics" [Decree of the Holy Office, May 6, 1667 (Denzinger 2070)].

See Also: penance, sacrament of.

Bibliography: p. f. palmer, ed., Sacraments and Forgiveness (Sources of Christian Theology 2; Westminster, Md. 1960). j. pÉrinelle, L'Attrition d'après le Concile de Trente et d'après Saint Thomas d'Aquin (Kain, Belg. 1927). h. dondaine, L'Attrition suffisante (Paris 1943). h. denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. a. schÖnmetzer (Freiburg 1963).

[p. f. palmer]