Why is imperfect contrition sufficient for Confession, but not outside of Confession?


For those who do not know, Perfect Contrition is repentance for one’s sins out of genuine Charity, or Love of God, rather than merely being sorry for some other good reason, like fear of hell or loss of heaven.

Imperfect Contrition is genuine sorrow for one’s sins – asking God’s forgiveness – but not at the optimal level of love of God.

When one is in the state of mortal sin, one can go to Confession with imperfect contrition and be forgiven. But one cannot be forgiven of mortal sin with imperfect contrition outside of the Sacrament of Confession.

Why is this the case?


I think the simple answer would be that the Church has the power of binding and loosing. Put simply, it’s just because the church has been given that authority.

I suppose an explanation of the reason for it, rather than the mechanics of it, would be that having a lower standard of contrition for the church to grant absolution encourages participation in the church in a way that forgiveness outside sacramental confession doesn’t. By increasing the person’s involvement in the church, you improve the person’s ability to ultimately obtain perfect contrition.


I think this is actually the answer to your title question.


So would it imply that the Sacrament of Confession makes up for the inadequate level of sorrow?

In other words, are we saying that only in the sacrament – but not outside of it – God lowers the standard? Or that, somehow in the sacrament, we are lifted up to Perfect Contrition?


It’s not necessarily that God lowers the standard; He gave the apostles the power to forgive sins. If they, or their successors, grant absolution, they have that ability.

My thought is more that by causing people to be more involved in the life of the church, it encourages the formation of their consciences with the guidance of the Church, rather than on their own, such that they are likely to be brought more in line with God’s will than if they were acting on their own.

I’m just spitballing here, though.


Well, I don’t think it’s ultimately the Church that sets the conditions up. It would have to do with the very nature of the Sacrament itself. In other words, it’s not that the Church one day said “penitents used to need perfect contrition. But we’ll just bind them to imperfect contrition now.”

Anyway, here is a hint, but it just barely talks about the whys and hows:

  • The Church not only regards the godliness of fear as a motive to repentance, but expressly defines that attrition, though it justifies not without the Sacrament of Penance nevertheless disposes the sinner to receive grace in the sacrament itself (Sess. XIV, iv). Here.

But that just gets back to the question. What does it mean for the sacrament to dispose one to receive the grace of the sacrament?

Is it saying that by going to Confession, we first get graces to be appropriately sorry, and then after having appropriate sorrow (perfect contrition or whatever), we then are able to be forgiven? Or is just saying that Confession somehow makes up for the need for perfect contrition? etc.


Attrition is another name for imperfect contrition. Though imperfect contrition does not justify without the Sacrament of Penance, imperfect contrition nevertheless disposes the sinner to receive grace in the sacrament itself.


Contrition is an act of the will (made possible through the grace of God) between the creature and the Creator, but Reconciliation is one of the Sacraments of the Church, and the way to receive absolution if a person can’t receive communion.

So basically, a person can always at any time find absolution with the Church in order to receive communion, as long as they make a valid Confession (confessed all mortal sins and made a firm resolution). Otherwise, every time somebody confesses it’s a toss up whether the person really received absolution or not. It’s a similar principle with baptism. As long as the Sacrament is celebrated validly, you don’t have to wonder whether the baptism “took” or not.

Of course, if a person doesn’t have access to a Confessor, God can (and will) impart perfect contrition to a soul as a supernatural grace if the soul is willing to receive it, since God desires the salvation of all.



But imperfect contrition is fine for Confession, not outside of Confession (for mortal sin).

And I’m asking why/how this is the case.

In other words, I guess one could ask: Why does God allow imperfect contrition inside Confession to receive his mercy, but not outside of it? What is it about the sacrament itself “makes up for” the lack of Perfect Contrition (which, as you say, would justify the sinner even outside of Confession)?


I think you are asking the wrong question. Perhaps you should be asking why God would allow Perfect Contrition to be a means of forgiveness for sins.

…or why might God allow some to be saved without water baptism?

We have a God who can supersede the sacraments as means of grace for those who do not have access to the sacraments. But the sacraments remain the ordinary means.

It is also the case that someone whose sins were forgiven by Perfect Contrition would still be expected to be baptized/confess his sins as soon as he learns the necessity for the sacraments and/or has the opportunity to receive them.


“The Father loves the Son” and wants all to “honor the Son, even as they honor the Father.” See John 5:20-23.

Perhaps the quality of contrition necessary to obtain the forgiveness of sins has been lowered for those people who consciously seek to be forgiven in the sacrament of confession by Christ’s ordained ministers, who act in the person of Christ, so that people might more readily acknowledge their indebtedness to Christ for the forgiveness they receive. Thus, the Father is “glorified in the Son.” See John 14:13.


A distinction needs to be made.

Perfect contrition is difficult to make, so one can’t be sure their contrition they make/made is perfect. Thus John makes the following distinction on praying for mortal sin . Thus Jesus established the sacrament of reconciliation especially to remove doubt on forgiveness even for mortal sin.


Absolution in sacramental confession, does NOT occur with one who is not sorry for their sin.


Because the sacrament matters.


I think you are asking the wrong question. Perhaps you should be asking why God would allow Perfect Contrition to be a means of forgiveness for sins.

That’s a different question, sure. But the Church has long taught perfect contrition suffices for justification. The sacraments aren’t supposed to make things harder, but easier.

One could argue that forgiveness is easier through Confession because only imperfect contrition is needed. But I’m still wondering why this is the case.


Yes, I understand Confession as a visible sign of God’s forgiveness. If someone is so disposed, they can be confident with the priest’s words of absolution.

But I still don’t see the inherent connection with that and imperfect vs. perfect contrition outside vs. inside Confession.


What would be the need for the sacrament if forgiveness worked exactly the same outside of Confession as it did inside Confession?


Like, I see why Perfect Contrition is necessary outside Confession and outside access to the sacraments more generally (like in the case of the Old Covenant. Think of David’s psalm of repentance).

Because Perfect Contrition is sorrow out of love of God. And justification is just that: The transformation of the interior life into one of Love of God (virtue of Charity ~ Sanctifying Grace). I see the inherent connection here.

But in Confession, you do not need to be sorry out of love of God. You still need genuine attrition, at least: repentance out of hatred for sin, or fear of hell, etc. But this is enough to justify one even in the state of Mortal Sin, if one goes to Confession.

So what’s the connection?

Outside of Confession, now or before Christ:
Sorrow for Love of God (Perfect Contrition) — --- — > Forgiveness/Justification and infusion of Virtue of Charity

In Sacrament of Confession:
Sorrow out of Attrition (less than Love for God) + ___________________ — --- — > Forgiveness/Justification and infusion of Virtue of Charity

What is this blank? What is it in the Sacrament that makes up for the absence of Perfect Contrition?

What is it about the Sacrament that does not allow God to forgive someone with just imperfect contrition, outside of Confession?


What is it about imperfect contrition that will not allow God to forgive someone outside of Confession?

And then what is provided within the sacrament that allows God to do so?

And then this may need to be the follow-up: If God can justify someone inside Confession with just imperfect contrition, why does he not do so outside of Confession? Wouldn’t more people have access to mercy and forgiveness and salvation?


I wouldn’t say “not allow.” God is the author of the sacraments. He is not bound by them. If he wants to forgive someone outside the Sacrament of Reconciliation who only has imperfect contrition, he can do so.

However, we have no certitude that he will choose to do so. We only know what has been revealed. And what has been revealed is that Jesus established the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a means for us to obtain forgiveness of sins with certainty.

I wouldn’t presume to know that more people would have access to mercy and forgiveness. I feel pretty blessed to be able to receive certainty of forgiveness through the sacrament. I wouldn’t trade that for something more ethereal.


I wouldn’t say “not allow.” God is the author of the sacraments. He is not bound by them. If he wants to forgive someone outside the Sacrament of Reconciliation who only has imperfect contrition, he can do so.

Okay. I was more thinking about it like “God making a square circle.” Like I didn’t think it would make logical sense for God to forgive someone in Mortal Sin who only had imperfect contrition.

I may need to read up on it some more.

Apparently, this kind of thing was really debated back in Aquinas’ time. I think he was really the one to give us the technical language how we understand it today.

Like in the NewAdvent Catholic Encyclopedia articles, I read that some back then would say all you need is Perfect Contrition, regardless of the power of the keys (so no intent to go to Confession needed). Then others said Confession was required, but so was Perfect Contrition within Confession.

Council of Trent made official what Thomas said, I believe, regarding Imperfect Contrition needed for Confession, and so on.

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