Contrition (etymologically, rubbing together, grinding so as to pulverize) is the technical term in theology for repentance of sin. In its generic sense, it is "an interior sorrow and detestation of sin with the resolve not to sin any more" [H. Denzinger Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer, Freiburg 1963) 1676]. In its specific sense, as distinct from attrition, it is the repentance perfected by charity or love of God, while attrition is imperfect repentance not so perfected by charity (ibid. ). The present article briefly recalls the meaning of repentance in general—its place in the Scriptures and the Fathers, and its necessary role in every forgiveness of personal sin. It then surveys the history and the theology of the distinction between contrition and attrition. The historical part presents: (1) the origin of the distinction, and the rise of a twofold concept, of contrition-attrition; (2) the position of the Council of Trent; and (3) the controversy of attritionism and contritionism after Trent. The theological part: (1) expounds the two theologies of attrition-contrition accepted today and examines their points of agreement and of difference; and (2) shows the connection of this twofold concept with a corresponding theology of charity, of justification, and of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In conclusion, a word is said about the pastoral teaching of contrition-attrition.
Contrition in General. Repentance is psychologically complex. It involves two cognitional elements, remembrance of past sinful acts and awareness of the present state of sin; and two volitional elements, sorrow or grief at the presence of the evil of sin, and detestation of sin aiming at its removal now and for the future (purpose of amendment). These volitional elements may be either spontaneous or deliberate, or both. The nature and purpose of repentance, or its metaphysics, is to undo the evil of sin—not to suppress past acts, since this is impossible, but to remove the state of sin. It presupposes the sense of sin, which is different from the sense of guilt.
Repentance, just as sin itself, holds a central place in the scriptural narration of the history of our salvation. Redemption from sin is presented in both the Old and the New Testament as requiring from sinners penance and repentance. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew root šûb expresses repentant return to God, as in the collective repentance of Israel returning to Yahweh after repeated infidelities (e.g., 1 Kgs 12.10; 2 Par 15.2–4, 30.9). The example of David (2 Kgs 12) is typical of repentance. So also are the prayers of repentance in the Psalms, e.g., in the seven Psalms known as "penitential" (6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142), and the exhortations and objurgations of the Prophets calling for penance (e.g., Ez 18.31; Jer3.14, 4.1–2, 15.19). In the Gospels, the message of the kingdom of God is in the first place a call to repentance, metanoia: (Mt 3.8, 11.20–24; Mk 1.4). The parables of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15.11–32) and of the Pharisee and the Publican (Lk 18.10–14) illustrate its nature and effects. The same call to penance appears in the preaching of the Apostles (e.g., Acts 2.38, 3.19). St. Paul's message is one of mercy and repentance (cf. Rom 2.4, 3.21–26; 2 Cor 7.9–11; 2 Tm 2.25).
No less explicit is the teaching of the Fathers on penance. It suffices to recall the treatises of Tertullian (De paenitentia ), Cyprian (De lapsis ), Ambrose, and Chrysostom. Although the term "contrition" occurs rarely in early Christian literature, equivalent terms, such as conversion or compunction, convey the same idea.
The reason repentance is necessary for every forgiveness of personal sin throws some light on its nature. Because sin is a willful turning away from God, through love of self or of some creaturely good, its forgiveness necessarily entails not only God's merciful initiative in remitting sin but also the sinner's voluntary giving up of the disorderly love that severed his union with God. God does not, and in a way cannot, forgive sin for those who do not want to be forgiven; i.e., He cannot reunite to Himself in love those who refuse to be so reunited. The sinner's wish to be forgiven is shown precisely in the voluntary reversal of the disorderly love, a renouncement that includes sorrow and effective detestation. Thus, forgiveness of sin, taking effect in the sinner's reconciliation with God by the reinfusion of grace, necessarily presupposes the forsaking of sin, that is, repentance.
Contrition and Attrition: History of the Distinction. There is a natural and obvious distinction between a repentance that is so perfect as to achieve its purpose of undoing the state of sin and an imperfect repentance constituting only a step toward the same undoing. Repentance, like any other human endeavor, proceeds to its perfection step by step. As a matter of historical fact, however, the explicit distinction, or at any rate its formulation in the technical terms of contrition and attrition, is not found in theology until well into the 12th century. Yet the distinction was not without antecedents in Scripture and in the Fathers. Scripture knows of an imperfect and insufficient repentance, such as a half-hearted return to God in Hos 6.1–4. In the New Testament, the preaching of St. John the Baptist leads from fear to true repentance (Mt 3.7–12) and the prodigal son rises from self-pity to effective repentance (Lk 15.17–19). Among the Fathers, St. Augustine has immortalized in his Confessions the division of the will so characteristic of imperfect repentance and that only grace and love of God can finally heal. In a masterly analysis, he describes the two wills, the old and the new, the carnal and the spiritual; while the spiritual will pleased and overcame his mind (placebat et vincebat ), the carnal will still attracted and held the spirit bound (libebat et vinciebat, Confessions 8), until he could rejoice in gratitude to God for the victory of divine love (Confessions 9.1). St. Gregory the Great speaks of two kinds of compunction—one inspired by fear, another inspired by love [In Ezech. hom. 2.10.30f; Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 271 v., indexes 4 v. (Paris 1878–90) 76:1070).
Origin of the Distinction. Pre-Scholastic and early Scholastic authors, from the 8th to the early 12th century, spoke of one kind of sorrow for sin called contrition (contritio cordis ) in connection with sacramental or ecclesiastical Penance. They considered this contrition as apt to wipe out sin even before confession and absolution. The preparatory stages leading to such a sorrow were not considered. These preparatory stages received explicit consideration toward the close of the 11th century, however, when, under the influence of Peter Abelard and Peter Lombard, there was a reaction against the view that confession and absolution were more important than contrition. Contrition was then held to be the properly forgiving act, normally preceding absolution. Generally, it was thought that a gradual preparation leads to such a contrition. Fear, for example, may start a penitent on the road to repentance (Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of St. Victor, Peter Lombard). Alan of Lille (d. 1202) made the first explicit mention of attrition and of its contrast with contrition. He said that sin is either diminished (remittitur ) by attrition when a sinner is not perfectly repentant, or forgiven (dimittitur ) by contrition when he is completely converted from sin. The reasons repentance or the break with sin might be incomplete may be various: lack of resolve to confess or do penance, lack of universality of the sorrow, self-centeredness of the sorrow instead of God-centeredness. By the middle of the 13th century, the distinction had become common teaching. William of Auvergne (d. 1248), for example, accepted and explained the difference between the two by the "formation" or "nonformation" by charity. This implies that there is no forgiveness of sin unless a sinner, from being attrite, becomes contrite (ex attrito fit contritus ). Such was also the position of St. Thomas Aquinas and of the Thomistic school in general: attrition is imperfect sorrow, unformed by charity, for sin; contrition is perfect sorrow formed by charity. If it happens, St. Thomas explained, that a penitent comes to confession attrite only, as is sometimes the case, then the Sacrament itself will bring about the change from attrition to contrition.
Thus, the common teaching in the 13th century distinguished contrition from attrition, not by the motives of fear and love (it considered these also, but rather as principles than as motives of repentance), but by the completeness or incompleteness of the break with sin, and by its formation or nonformation by charity. It considered contrition as the only proper disposition for justification, whether in or outside the Sacrament of Reconciliation. When this disposition is absent from a penitent, as it may be in more or less exceptional cases, then the Sacrament will bring it about before giving grace. This is the medieval "contritionism."
From this common teaching two successive deviations led to another concept and theology of contrition-attrition. Duns Scotus (d. 1308) first put forward the idea that attrition is a sufficient disposition for justification in the Sacrament. Though he still said that an attrite penitent becomes contrite in the Sacrament, he understood this not in the sense that imperfect sorrow makes room for an act of perfect sorrow, but that the same act remaining, the penitent may be called contrite because of the infusion of grace. Another more decisive step lies in the nominalist idea of motive as the distinguishing factor between contrition and attrition (Durandus of Saint-Pourçain, Ockham, Gabriel Biel): contrition is motivated by love of God, attrition by fear of punishment. According to this radically new conception, contrition and attrition were no longer distinguished by the complete or incomplete renouncing of sin, marked by the objective formation or nonformation by charity, but by the psychological motives of love or fear. Nor was attrition essentially a step toward contrition, since the varying motives of the two types of sorrow are not in organic continuity to each other. Even after justification, attrition retains its proper identity. This new theology, the "attritionism" of the Middle Ages, met with increasing success in the centuries of decadent Scholasticism before the Council of Trent without, however, replacing the ancient common teaching altogether.
Position of the Council of Trent. It is in this setting of two theologies of contrition and attrition that the Council of Trent formulated its teaching. The council deliberately avoided taking sides in any questions disputed among Catholics and aimed only at countering the Protestant views. In this particular case, it meant to rehabilitate the Catholic doctrine on imperfect contrition, or attrition, which the Reformers impugned. Attrition, according to the Protestant opinion, made a man a hypocrite and was only, in Luther's words, a "gallowsrepentance." Two main points must be noted in the Tridentine doctrine. First, the council officially sanctioned the distinction between contrition and attrition as part of the Catholic doctrine. Second, in describing either of them, it so formulated its teaching as to make it acceptable to Catholics of both schools [H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer (Freiburg 1963) 1677].
Accordingly, while Trent teaches that attrition, including the will not to sin, is good because it is an effect of grace and a help toward justification, the council leaves undecided whether it is a proximate or only a remote disposition for the infusion of grace. The description of attrition as coming from "the consideration of the ugliness of sin or from the fear of hell and of punishment" can designate these either as "principles" or as "motives" of repentance. Of contrition, the council said that it is perfected by charity, as both Catholic schools hold, and that it justifies but not without including the desire of the Sacrament. The whole of this teaching is accepted by both schools, but each of them will conceive it in its own way. Concerning the frequency of perfect contrition, the council said that "contrition sometimes happens to be perfected by charity" before the reception of the Sacrament; i.e., occasionally, not regularly, do penitents come to the Sacrament with contrition, which is the exact reverse of what St. Thomas and his contemporaries held. Furthermore, the conciliar text purposely neither affirms nor excludes the change from attrite to contrite at the advent of sanctifying grace, since there was no need to decide the point in order to answer the Protestant views. The council, however, qualified the attrition that disposes for justification. Attrition must exclude the will to sin and include the hope of pardon or else it would not be "sufficient attrition," even in the Sacrament. Since Trent left open many questions concerning contrition, it is small wonder that the doctrine was subjected to further theological reflection. There followed a restatement in novel form of the ancient contritionist-attritionist controversy.
Contritionism and Attritionism after Trent. In the 17th-century controversy known as "attritionists vs. contritionists," the positions were no longer those held before Trent. Partly because of the widespread influence of the Scotist-Suarezian teaching, both the attritionist and contritionist schools followed the psychological motivation approach. Both schools understood the teaching of Trent to mean that attrition is sufficient for justification in the Sacrament. The difference lies in the quality they demand for sufficient attrition. As indicated in the decree of the Holy Office of May 5, 1667 (ibid. ), which put an end to the heat of the controversy, contritionists are those who require a motive of love, besides the motive of fear, for sufficient attrition. Attritionists are those who do not require this motive of love. Both schools, however, consider attrition as repentance sufficient for justification in the Sacrament. Neither of the two are contritionists in the sense of the medieval Scholastics. The ancient adage about the change from attrite to contrite is bypassed even in so-called Thomistic schools. Since the time of the decree of the Holy Office (1667), both systems have lived in peaceful coexistence, awaiting a further decision of Rome, which has never come.
There have been attempts at reconciling the contritionist position since 1667 with the teaching of St. Thomas. Billuart (d. 1757), and more recently Périnelle, interpreted the motive of love required for sufficient attrition in the Sacrament as being love of benevolence that is not yet charity because it is not reciprocated on the part of God. Reciprocation is brought about by absolution. Contemporary studies (P. de Vooght, H. Dondaine) have shown, however, that this midway position is not faithful to the theology of St. Thomas. The outcome of these more objective and less apologetic studies is the practical relegation of the contritionist-attritionist controversy of the 17th century to the past. Today two theories hold the field: the ancient Thomistic theology of contrition-attrition, and the more common modern theology of the psychological motivation of repentance. This is the revival of the two schools of pre-Tridentine thought.
Contrition and Attrition: Theology of the Distinction. Thomistic theology of repentance considers attrition as a sorrow for sin in its imperfect stage, gradually leading up to contrition in which the break with sin is complete through its formation by charity. The element distinguishing contrition from attrition is the completeness or incompleteness of the break with sin and the formation or the nonformation of the repentance by charity. The distinction does not consist in the psychological motives of fear and love, which of themselves may be the expression of either attrition or contrition. For every justification, whether sacramental or extrasacramental, the necessary last disposition for grace is contrition. Eventually, absolution and grace make an attrite penitent contrite in the very reception of the Sacrament. In the state of grace, all supernatural repentance for sin is contrition because it is formed by charity. There is no attrition in one in the state of grace.
The other school considers attrition and contrition as two kinds of repentance, the one not related to the other as an imperfect stage leading to the perfect one. They are distinguished, rather, by their motives: fear or self-love in the case of attrition, and love of God in the case of contrition. Attrition is a sufficient disposition for justification in the Sacrament of Reconciliation if, as Trent requires, it excludes the will to sin and includes hope of pardon. Contrition is the disposition required for extrasacramental justification. The Sacrament does not make an attrite penitent contrite; absolution and justification do not change the motives of his repentance. A justified penitent can have attrition when he is sorry for his sins out of interested or self-centered motives.
The two theologies differ first in the very ideas of attrition and contrition. The ancient idea of attrition as sorrow for sin not formed by charity is both narrower and wider than the modern idea of sorrow motivated by fear or other self-regarding motives. It may happen that a sorrow motivated also by fear, but a fear that is not altogether servile, is in fact formed by charity and so is contrition in the Thomistic sense. It may also happen that a sorrow motivated by love of God is not in fact formed by charity. Psychological motive and objective reality do not necessarily coincide. Similarly, the ancient concept of contrition as repentance formed by charity is both wider and narrower than the modern idea of contrition as sorrow motivated by the disinterested love of God. This motive may well be absent psychologically from a repentance objectively formed by charity, and it may be present in a repentance that is not so formed. As a consequence, the contrition that the ancient theology requires as the indispensable last disposition for justification may in fact be the same repentance that the modern theology calls sufficient attrition. When this sufficient attrition is described, for example by Galtier, as demanding "faith, hope, love of desire for God, love of justice, and even the desire of charity," then it will more often than not be contrition in the Thomistic sense [P. Galtier, De Poenitentia (Paris 1924)]. If, in some cases, the modern conception of sufficient attrition were not the same as contrition, then it would at least be equivalent to what St. Thomas required for the fruitful reception of the Sacrament, namely, attrition with the signs of contrition. This, he holds, allows the change from attrition to contrition by the Sacrament. It seems that there is only a verbal difference between this modern understanding of sufficient attrition, and the Thomistic doctrine of contrition. Furthermore, when the ancient theology affirms, and the modern theology denies, that by virtue of the power of the keys, operative in the absolution, an attrite penitent becomes contrite, they do not contradict each other in fact but only in words. The change from nonformation to formation by charity required by the Thomistic doctrine does not require the change in the motivation of the repentance.
There is a real difference, however, in the perfection necessary for justifying contrition, and in its frequency, and in the manner of conceiving the efficacy of that contrition. Contrition in the ancient theology is less difficult and more frequent than contrition in the modern sense, because its specific perfection, namely, complete break with sin and formation by charity, does not demand an explicit act of disinterested love of God. Love of God above all things as our Last End suffices. This difference is commanded by a difference in the very concept of charity (see below). The extrasacramental justification by contrition, which the ancient theology conceived as frequent and even as the usual disposition in a penitent, is not in that view purely nonsacramental, as it is for modern theology. Contrition produces its effect by virtue of the power of the keys active in the desire of the Sacrament that it includes. Contrition is part of the Sacrament, and is so transcendentally related to the absolution that it does not detract from the power of the keys.
Two Concepts of Charity, Justification, and the Sacrament. The difference between opposing conceptions of contrition and attrition cannot be properly understood unless one bears in mind the different ways in which charity, justification, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation were conceived.
Charity. In early and medieval theology, the notion of charity inseparably included the disinterested love of benevolence for God, and the love that consists in friendly desire for union, which includes some self-interest. St. Thomas defends this position by showing that charity is the desire for God as our Last End, and that this involves both surrender and union. It is love of friendship that, for all its disinterestedness, seeks union. In this concept, no sooner is there a desire of union with God than the disinterested love of God is also implicitly present. Therefore, a repentance formed by a theologically interested love of God above all things is justifying contrition. Many modern theologians deny this view. Charity is conceived as solely love of benevolence or disinterested love of God, and the interested love of God or desire of union is said to belong to hope. Consequently, the two loves can exist separately, since hope can exist without charity. A repentance motivated by love of desire for God, therefore, is not perfect or justifying contrition. Here lies the most serious and far-reaching difference between the two concepts of contrition. For modern theology, perfect or justifying contrition is more difficult than it is for ancient and present-day Thomistic theology.
Justification. The infusion of sanctifying grace into a sinner, according to the ancient theology, always supposes the same ultimate disposition for grace, namely, contrition. The difference between sacramental and extrasacramental justification does not lie in the disposition required for the infusion of grace, but in the manner in which this disposition comes about. Justification may be caused either by the actual reception of the absolution when a penitent approaches the Sacrament with attrition only, or by virtue of the desire of the absolution included in contrition elicited before the Sacrament is received. Attrition, however, cannot be the ultimate disposition for justification even in the Sacrament. It must eventually give way to contrition produced by the Sacrament.
According to the modern theology of justification, there are two different manners of justification characterized by different ultimate dispositions for grace: in the Sacrament, the disposition of attrition (with the necessary qualities); and, outside the Sacrament, perfect contrition. Less, therefore, is required of a penitent in the Sacrament than outside it. There is no need for a change from attrition to contrition in sacramental justification. The formal ideas of justification and of the ultimate disposition for it, whether in or outside the Sacrament, are quite different in the two theologies. It may well be, however, that the repentance they both require for sacramental justification is in fact the same, despite the difference in name and in the nature of justification. For extrasacramental justification, the two theologies require the same disposition, but they conceive the efficacy of contrition in a different manner (see below).
Sacrament. The concept of Sacrament in general (see sacraments, theology of) and of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in particular is also different according to these two systems of theology (see penance, sacrament of). In the ancient theology, a Sacrament is conceived not as supplying for the dispositions of the person who receives it, but as an instrument for the infusion of grace to a person already disposed. The reason is that no form, such as grace, can be infused except in a subject properly disposed. The Sacrament may eventually help to produce the needed disposition, but it cannot give grace in the absence of that disposition. Not so for modern theology, which conceives the Sacrament as partly making up for the imperfect dispositions of the recipient, and therefore as making lesser demands for the infusion of grace than extrasacramental justification. The origin of the idea lies in a questionably founded opposition between the efficacy of the Sacrament (opus operatum ) and the part of the recipient (opus operantis ). If, for example, in Reconciliation, contrition is always required and justifies by itself, nothing is left for the Sacrament, and there can be no sacramental justification. The answer to this pseudo-difficulty lies in the proper concept of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The ancient theology conceives the Sacrament of Reconciliation (made up of the acts of the penitent as matter, and the absolution of the priest as form) by way of one unit, one practical sign of grace. The Sacrament gives grace as one instrumental cause, and its various parts have no separate causality of their own with regard to grace. Accordingly, when contrition justifies prior to the absolution, it does so by the power of the Sacrament. Absolution acts in anticipation through the desire implicit in contrition. This way of causality is possible because the Sacrament is only an instrumental cause of grace, and Christ as the chief Cause can give grace through an incomplete instrument no less than through a complete one. In modern theology this organic unity of the Sacrament is loosened. Justifying contrition remits sin not in virtue of the power of the keys but by itself, namely, by virtue of the love of charity that perfects it. The desire of the Sacrament (votum sacramenti ) is required, but only as an extrinsic condition for perfect contrition [cf. P. Galtier, De Poenitentia (Paris 1924) 3:63).
The differences between the two theologies stem mainly from a difference in approach. The Thomistic approach is in the first place ontological, and secondarily psychological. The modern approach is primarily psychological and only secondarily, if at all, ontological. The difference of approach also affects the respective teachings concerning charity, justification, and Sacrament. But in spite of these differences and of different conceptual and verbal expression, the two teachings are to a large extent identical.
Pastoral Teaching on Contrition-Attrition. The two theologies agree, for all practical purposes, on the repentance required for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Both say that not just any attrition, even supernatural, is sufficient: attrition must exclude the will to sin and include hope of pardon (Trent). Modern theology interprets this as including faith, hope, and love of desire of God, and calls it attrition. Thomistic theology says: whenever these elements are present, there is contrition or at any rate there are the signs of contrition required and sufficient for the fruitful reception of the Sacrament. In practice, this means that the penitent should not deliberately exclude from his repentance any perfection that with the help of grace he is able to have. He must do what he can. That is exactly what our "acts of contrition" try to express by including motives of repentance both lower and higher. More important than the motives is the sincerity and resoluteness in the break with sin, and this appears more in the purpose of amendment than in the sorrow for the past. Hence the importance of insisting on the resolve not to sin again. Both theologies, therefore, each in its own way, justify an identical pastoral practice with regard to repentance required for the Sacrament.
As regards contrition justifying outside the Sacrament, a difference remains. Here the modern theology of perfect contrition is compelled to make higher demands and insist on the motive of disinterested love of God. Catechetical and moral manuals, written in its spirit, actually do so. Yet such a contrition is presented as not too difficult to achieve: gratitude and similar self-regarding motives may spontaneously lead to disinterested love. Not all theologians will share this optimistic view of an easy transition from imperfect to perfect contrition, unless the traditional Thomistic theology of contrition is silently endorsed. The latter holds that repentance is perfect and justifying contrition when formed by charity, and it is so when it is inspired by the desire of union with God. Such a perfect contrition seems to be more accessible to man. Perhaps even here the two theologies teach the same doctrine in different phraseologies. Perfect contrition, motivated by the pure love of God and yet, allegedly, not difficult to elicit, is perhaps not different from repentance perfected by love of God above all things as our Last End.
Bibliography: p. deletter, "Two Concepts of Attrition and Contrition," Theological Studies 11 (1950) 3–33. c. r. meyer, The Thomistic Concept of Justifying Contrition (Mundelein, Ill. 1950). c. o'brien, Perfect Contrition in Theory and Practice (Dublin 1952). p. f. palmer, Sacraments and Forgiveness in Sources of Christian Theology 2 (Westminster, Md. 1960). g. k. spykman, Attrition and Contrition at the Council of Trent (Kampen 1955). p. anciaux, Le Sacrement de la pénitence in Études de théologie sacramentaire 3 (Louvain 1963). m. tremeau, "Attrition et contrition selon saint Thomas," Ami du clergé 70.19 (May 1960) 289–294.
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