Contrition or attrition with confession


For all the Catholics here, I’m reading Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation by Peter Marshall. In establishing background and context for the Reformation, Marshall describes the state of religion in England before the Reformation and part of that is an explanation of the sacramental teachings of the Catholic Church.

When discussing confession, he states that theologians disagreed over whether people needed to feel genuine sorrow for sin (contrition) or just a desire to want to feel sorry (attrition) for the sacrament to be effective. I’d never heard of this distinction before, but was curious about what was taught in the Catholic Church today about it.


I’m not too sure about those definitions, but we distinguish between perfect contrition and imperfect contrition (which it seems is also called attrition), and with a good confession and sacramental absolution the latter is sufficient.

Here are the relevant paragraphs in the current Catechism:

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.

1453 The contrition called “imperfect” (or “attrition”) is also a gift of God, a prompting of the Holy Spirit. It is born of the consideration of sin’s ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner (contrition of fear). Such a stirring of conscience can initiate an interior process which, under the prompting of grace, will be brought to completion by sacramental absolution. By itself however, imperfect contrition cannot obtain the forgiveness of grave sins, but it disposes one to obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance.

I wouldn’t say that one must necessarily “feel” sorry but there must nevertheless be a genuine interior act (of the will) of contrition and of turning away from the sin on the penitent’s part.

1451 Among the penitent’s acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again.”


Interesting. Guess what book is on top of the pile next to my computer? Yes, “Heretics and Believers.” You are referring to p. 8, although he may go on to discuss the subject more later.

I think Arwing covered the current Catholic position in the previous post. To summarize or paraphrase it, “perfect” contrition is sorrow for sins because they have offended God; “imperfect” contrition is sorrow for sins primarily because you fear God’s punishment. Either is acceptable in confession, although the Act of Contrition, which is said after confessing your sins, includes the phrase “I am sorry for my sins because of thy just punishments [imperfect contrition], but MOST OF ALL because they have offended Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all love…” [perfect contrition]. Note that as Arwing quoted in #1452 “perfect” contrition–outside confession–absolves you of mortal sin in certain circumstances (for example, you know you are dying, and you say an Act of Contrition–perfect contrition); “imperfect” contrition does not absolve you of mortal sins–you need to go to confession for that, dying or not!

Having said all that, I am curious about Peter Marshall’s own background. He was raised in the Orkney Islands; hardly a stronghold of Catholicism, and yet there does seem to be a presence: Another web site gives the % of Catholics, etc. and “no religion” is roughly half of Orkney; Church of Scotland is about 33%, and Catholic is 0.5 % to 8.6% depending on the parish. From what I have gleaned from a quick reading of some web sites, the Reformation in the Orkneys left a lot of the traditional religion intact. And keep in mind it didn’t become part of Scotland until 1472, not that long before the Reformation (it belonged to Denmark before that). I can’t imagine that the Scottish gov. (or church) cared much about the remote Orkneys in the late 15th and 16th centuries…or probably until the naval base at Scapa Flow was established. (A great uncle of mine in the Royal Navy died at Scapa Flow in WW I–his ship exploded.) So I would guess that the Orkneys were “Protestant” officially, but I would guess they kept a lot of Catholic traditions, etc.

So who cares, right? Well, on a subject like the Reformation, I always like to know if an author has an ax to grind; even after 500 years, scholars take sides. So Peter Marshall? I don’t know. I assume he’s Protestant since he writes almost exclusively about the Reformation (I have almost all his books). Does that skew his presentation? I don’t know. But I’m guessing he got interested in the subject because of the lingering Catholic traditions in the Orkneys.


part 2…

But I will say this, which you will have noticed if you read this forum with any regularity. “Catholic” teaching is often ambiguous–quite often intentionally so. People can interpret things different ways and still be “good” Catholics. There is a large range of permissible interpretation. There is also what some would call “pious practices” which are accepted by the Church, and even encouraged, but are not required beliefs. If you want to say the rosary every day, or wear a scapular, or make a pilgrimage to Lourdes, these are all pious practices. But they are not requirements of the Catholic faith, to the extent that belief in Lourdes, Fatima, etc. is quite optional.

So bear all that in mind when you read about “Catholic” practices in the early 16th c. Are you reading about official church doctrine that may have had little or no relevance among the people of the time? (A scholar in the year 2500 could read about official Catholic doctrine on birth control. But how relevant is it to the ordinary Catholic in 2018?) Are you reading about “pious practices”? Are you reading about outright superstitions that the parish priest turned a blind eye to? Or–as in this case–are you reading about a distinction such as “perfect” vs. “imperfect” contrition that might have been important to scholars at the time but were relatively unknown to the general population? (And I will venture to guess most Catholics in this forum are not all that familiar with the distinction either.) All could be labelled “Catholic practices.” But they are certainly very different. I would keep that in mind as you read.


Either or.


There is not much distinction there, probably it is more for the scrupulous. All that is necessary is for one to be sorry for the sin (contrition). See, even the term can be played as well.

However, that’s a good question because how we feel for our sins will be reflected by our action, whether it’s contrition or attrition. And that’s most important. Being sorry for our sins is not just mere word but must be accompanied by repentance.

Repentance can be a difficult thing in real life and thus we are given ‘penance’, which should help in all the above - being sorry, remorseful and repentance.

A good Confession would be one that results in repentance, where we would stop committing the sin again. It is also a prayer said in Confession, an Act of Contrition, where we promise not to sin again.

The most important thing about Confession is that our sins are forgiven. There is ‘punishment’ involved but a good Confession means everything is being wiped clean,


Confession can be a process - first, where one realises one sin and feel sorry (attrition) for it. Then followed by contrition (sorrow) for the sin. Having done that, one will go for the Sacrament of Confession to confess the sin. Then followed by penance (temporal punishment) and if necessary with restitution (making good the wrong we had done).

The things with these is that there can be very thin lines dividing them or they simply overlap.


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