Resolved: August 22, 2011

A church culture that fosters Perfect Contrition is superior to one that fosters Imperfect Contrition.


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  • Matt, it is true, perfect contrition is best, however, we must be careful here and not neglect the value of imperfect contrition. For most of us, it is where we are at; perfect contrition is where we should be headed for, and as you say, it should be fostered, but on the other hand, it should be done in a way which doesn’t neglect the value of imperfect contrition as a wayward point toward it.

    I myself am struggling with my love for God; it’s not perfect, and I would say my contrition isn’t perfect. I am nonetheless grateful that grace is still there for me, so that even my imperfect contrition can lead to my salvation. Fostering any contrition, however, will help move us to perfect contrition. So fostering any contrition is better than none, and of course, from there, pointing to the need to develop to perfect contrition in perfect love is a necessity.

    • Thanks, Henry.

      I should have been clearer: I didn’t mean to imply that perfect and imperfect contrition are mutually exclusive — or, as the Act of Contrition has it: “…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…”

      Is it possible that a church culture that leans too far in the direction of imperfect contrition (i.e., instilling the aforementioned ‘dread’) might inhibit the formation of perfect contrition?

      • Yes it is possible that what you describe as ‘church culture’ could lean too far in either direction. That is why we need to rely upon the Holy Spirit to apply course corrections. I am nearly 60 and feel as though I have lived in a time frame where we’ve moved substantially away from ‘the dread of hell’. I’m generally grateful for that.

        However most spiritual writers would point out that we are move to conversion in various ways. Scripture says, that the beginning of wisdom is ‘fear of the Lord’ which today generally is interpreted as ‘respect or awe’ for God, not fear. Those who are responsible for setting ‘church culture’ (which is where I think you are going with this) have a responsibility to pray, listen and discern what are the prophetic tones that are called for.

  • brian martin

    Not being a theologian, I need to ask what you mean by perfect, because to my limited understanding perfect contrition is something we would strive for, but is not humanly possible. It was because of our imperfect faith stemming from sin and resulting in sin that made Christ’s death on the cross necessary for our salvation, right?

    • I’m not a theologian either, Brian, but my understanding (subject to correction by the experts here!) is that imperfect contrition is sorrow for sin based primarily in fear of eternal consequences for sin; perfect contrition is sorrow for sin based primarily in the love of God.

    • Q. 764. How many kinds of contrition are there?

      A. There are two kinds of contrition; perfect contrition and imperfect contrition.

      Q. 765. What is perfect contrition?

      A. Perfect contrition is that which fills us with sorrow and hatred for sin, because it offends God, who is infinitely good in Himself and worthy of all love.

      Q. 766. When will perfect contrition obtain pardon for mortal sin without the Sacrament of Penance?

      A. Perfect contrition will obtain pardon for mortal sin without the Sacrament of Penance when we cannot go to confession, but with the perfect contrition we must have the intention of going to confession as soon as possible, if we again have the opportunity.

      Q. 767. What is imperfect contrition?

      A. Imperfect contrition is that by which we hate what offends God because by it we lose heaven and deserve hell; or because sin is so hateful in itself.

      Q. 768. What other name is given to imperfect contrition and why is it called imperfect?

      A. Imperfect contrition is called attrition. It is called imperfect only because it is less perfect than the highest grade of contrition by which we are sorry for sin out of pure love of God’s own goodness and without any consideration of what befalls ourselves.

      Q. 769. Is imperfect contrition sufficient for a worthy confession?

      A. Imperfect contrition is sufficient for a worthy confession, but we should endeavor to have perfect contrition.

    • Brian,

      No, perfect contrition is quite possible. It might be rare, but among the saints, it can be found.

      • I find that the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux can be a good resource when seeking understanding of what Perfect Contrition is.

  • It seems to me that the idea of imperfect contrition presents a real problem. As I understand it, the most horrible of unrepentant sinners, merely by going to confession for no other reason than fear of eternal damnation, gets a place in heaven. It seems, then, that there may be unrepentant sinners in heaven. And (although I find it hard to accept) it seems to be believed that something about a person is fixed and final at the time of death. So an unrepentant sinner who goes to confession, with imperfect contrition, and dies without committing another sin, would seem to be fixed in his unrepentant state. I don’t see how even millions of years of purgatory could remedy this.

    The idea of purgatory makes a lot of sense to me, but the idea that it can be bypassed completely with a plenary indulgence also troubles me. Having fulfilled the requirements on occasion for plenary indulgences, I don’t believe I was “purified” or that my basic disposition as a deeply flawed human being was fundamentally affected as it might be in purgatory (as I imagine it). Purgatory, it seems to me, would be a lengthy period of something like psychotherapy, in which you faced up to the painful realities of what you really had done and what you were and the impact you had on others. I don’t see how fulfilling some simple requirements could be a substitute for this.

    • David, I think you have a good intuition of purgatory, namely in that it serves to take a repentant sinner (not unrepentant) who lacks perfect contrition and brings them to the state of perfect contrition – which is the only way in which we can abide in God eternally. How this all happens is a great mystery.

    • David, P.S.

      The spiritual ‘reality’ of a plenary indulgence according to church teachings (and mystics who have spoken on this) is quite rare. The main reason being is that to ‘gain a plenary indulgence’ requires perfect contrition or complete freedom from the attachment of sin. Thus most plenary indulgences wind up being partial indulgences, meaning that ‘the remission of temporal punishment due to sin’ is limited. My explanation is not perfect but I think its close.

  • Anne

    You mean plenary indulgences don’t work unless you’re already a saint?
    That must have surprised a lot of Catholic souls over the millenia.
    Can you imagine ending up in purgatory when you died expecting to go to heaven?
    Of course, Catholics hold that that’s what happens to Protestants of good will.
    I liked then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s onetime suggestion that purgatory may be
    something that happens to a well-meaning person the instant he or she meets Christ — poof, purified! That sounds presumptuous the first time you hear it, but when you think about it, why wouldn’t just meeting him face-to-face, as it were, go a long way towards perfecting contrition in an otherwise striving soul, melting away all the mortal doubts and defenses that keep him/her from totally surrendering the will?

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


    I would say that fostering perfect contrition is better than fostering imperfect contrition, but only to the extent that the best does not become the enemy of the good. I could imagine the quest for perfect contrition becoming so all consuming that it results in scruples. Or more precisely, it results in a (false) sense of sin because one fears that one’s contrition isn’t good enough” “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. At my last confession I was not perfectly contrite for X and therefore offended against God’s love by not desiring it over all things….” I wonder if this was not something that Martin Luther suffered from.

    • Agreed, David. As I said to Henry upthread, it is not teaching one at the expense of the other, but a matter of emphasis.

  • Brian Volck

    Perhaps this sonnet — which suggests that something like what we’ve come to call perfect contrition is, indeed, possible — remains relevant:

    No me mueve, mi Dios, para quererte 

    el cielo que me tienes prometido,
ni me mueve el infierno tan temido 

    para dejar por eso de ofenderte.
    Tú me mueves, Señor, muéveme el verte
    clavado en una cruz y escarnecido,
    muéveme ver tu cuerpo tan herido,
    muévenme tus afrentas y tu muerte.
    Muéveme, en fin, tu amor, y en tal manera,
    que aunque no hubiera cielo, yo te amara,
    y aunque no hubiera infierno, te temiera.
    No me tienes que dar porque te quiera,
    pues aunque lo que espero no esperara,
    lo mismo que te quiero te quisiera.
    (sixteenth c.; variously attributed)

    I am not moved, my God, to love you
    by the heaven you have promised me.
    Nor am I moved by fear of hell
    to stop, out of fear, from offending you.
    You move me, my Lord; it moves me to see you
    nailed to a cross and mocked;
    it moves me to see your body tortured;
    it moves me to see your torment and death.
    Your love, in the end, moves me so that even
    if there were no heaven, I would love you,
    and were there no hell, I would fear you.
    You needn’t give me reason to love you,
    because even if I were not hoping for what I hope,
    I would love you the just as I love you.
    (my translation, such as it is)

  • Dan

    To me, imperfect contrition, defined as primarily a fear of hell, is a contradiction in terms. If you are only sorry because you fear punishment, you’re not really sorry at all. Contrition is always perfect, though it may be incomplete/insufficient.

    • “If you are only sorry because you fear punishment, you’re not really sorry at all.”

      I can think of myriad examples in my own life (and the life of others) when I was sorry for the wrong reason, but nonetheless still sorry. In fact that ‘imperfect contrition’ is the usual road to conversion which is very slow and life long for most of us. We begin our lamentations because of the damage or setbacks we have caused ourselves. Gradually we begin to consider the feelings and concerns of others. Somewhere in it all we may move to a horizon of seeing God in the backgroud or foreground of our vision where we (only then) can consider the possibility of perfect contrition.

  • I don’t necessarily disagree with most of what has been said above. That said, we should worry about a church culture that is intentionally meant to “foster” imperfect contrition. (And I don’t think that such a church culture is impossible or even improbable. I would guess it already exists in unhappy parts of the Catholic Church.) I can think of three reason for this concern:

    1. We can imagine a church culture that lacks confidence in its adherents and does not believe that perfect contrition is even a remote possibility for them. Thus, it focuses on mechanisms to cultivate a fear of hell and a disgust for the supposed disorder that comes from particular sins. This church of rightly directed fear and disgust is the sort of the church that the Grand Inquisitor would recognize.

    2. We can imagine a church that is so anxious about “losing” heaven and “deserving” hell (the words of the Baltimore Catechism that describe “imperfect contrition”) that it spends its time and energy figuring out the risk of the “loss” of heaven and weighing the necessary merit for “deserving” heaven – and then communicating the results of these calculations. Heaven becomes an earned possession and we have a quid pro quo approach to the Christian life that can rightly be called “works righteousness.”

    3. A church without much influence in a pluralistic culture might be content with imperfect contrition. After all, even imperfect contrition can “make” people behave “religiously” in visible ways, showing the power and influence of the church. But imperfect contrition leaves us trapped within ourselves – the part of us that understands how one could “deserve” hell (that criminal), the part of us that feels disgust at certain sins (that pervert). Instead, we are called to self-forgetfulness. Thus, St Therese – “I want to work for your love alone…. In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes” (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2011). Imperfect contrition, because it draws our attention to our own comprehension and feelings, inevitably mixed with fantasies and delusions and scapegoating, might not be a stepping stone to perfect contrition, but work against it.



  • brian martin

    Thanks for indulging me in the clarification.
    much appreciated

  • This discussion helps somewhat to clarify the questions I had about your original question. When I first saw the term “perfect contrition”, the first thing I pictured (though with doubts as to whether this was your intended meaning) was terror and the proverbial “Catholic guilt” – which is ironic, because I see from the comments that this concept is closer to the generally understood meaning of “imperfect contrition”. I guess I haven’t been Catholic long enough to have picked up on this one yet.

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  • Ronald King

    I am kind of late getting in on this. It seems to me perfect contrition cannot exist without experiencing being loved either by another human being or by God and knowing what it feels like to lose that love or to have the threat of losing that love. The development of empathy is critical for the development of perfect contrition. We can only love God if we first have been loved and experience the pain of the loss of that love without a hardening of our hearts to defend us against the pain of that loss.
    Fear of losing love seems to lead to further sin and further harm to oneself and others thus leading one to imperfect contrition because one is not open to love that which appears to threaten what we “love”.