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"Saint Peter Repentant" 1823-25, Goya

In Christian theology, contrition or contriteness[1] (from the Latin contritus 'ground to pieces', i.e. crushed by guilt) is repentance for sins one has committed. The remorseful person is said to be contrite.

It is a key concept in Christianity. Through Christ, who is the mediator between God and man in most Christian religions, contrition becomes the first step towards reconciliation with God. In the Catholic Church, absolution of sins ordinarily occurs in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. However, most Protestant denominations do not see confession through a priest as necessary for forgiveness. Both Catholicism and many branches of Protestantism see contrition as the first step towards forgiveness of sins, regarding it requisite for divine forgiveness (see regeneration and ordo salutis). It consists of repentance for all one's sins, a desire for God over sin, and faith in Christ's redemption on the cross and its sufficiency for salvation.

Exhortations to the value and necessity for repentance are quite common: "I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from His way and live" (Ezekiel: 33, 11); "...But unless you repent, you too will perish" (Luke 13:5). At times this repentance includes exterior acts of satisfaction (Psalms 6:7 sqq.); it always implies a recognition of wrong done to God, a detestation of the evil wrought, and a desire to turn from evil and do good. This is clearly expressed in Psalm 51 (1-12):

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving-kindness; according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me. Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight; that Thou mightest be justified when Thou speakest, and be clear when Thou judgest. Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, Thou desirest truth in the inward parts; and in the hidden part Thou shalt make me to know wisdom. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.

More clearly does this appear in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-13), and more clearly still in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32): "Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before thee: I am not worthy to be called thy son".

In the Catholic Church[edit]


This interior repentance has been called by theologians "contrition". It is defined explicitly by the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, ch. iv de Contritione): "a sorrow of soul and a hatred of sin committed, with a firm purpose of not sinning in the future" or also "sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again".(Catechism of the Catholic Church:1451) It is also known as animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart). The Council of Trent, however, went further, and defined perfect contrition (which one repents for the love of God) and imperfect contrition (or attrition, in which one repents out of reasons other than the love of God, such as the fear of Hell).

The word contrition itself in a moral sense is not of frequent occurrence in Scripture (cf. Ps. 1, 19). Etymologically it implies a breaking of something that has become hardened. St. Thomas Aquinas in his Commentary on the Master of the Sentences thus explains its peculiar use: "Since it is requisite for the remission of sin that a man cast away entirely the liking for sin which implies a sort of continuity and solidity in his mind, the act which obtains forgiveness is termed by a figure of speech 'contrition'" (In Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xvii; cf. Supplem. III, Q. i, a. 1). This sorrow of soul is not merely speculative sorrow for wrong done, remorse of conscience, or a resolve to amend; it is a real pain and bitterness of soul together with a hatred and horror for sin committed; and this hatred for sin leads to the resolve to sin no more. The early Christian writers in speaking of the nature of contrition sometimes insist on the feeling of sorrow, sometimes on the detestation of the wrong committed (St. Augustine in P.L., XXXVII, 1901, 1902; John Chrysostom, P.G., XLVII, 409, 410). Augustine includes both when writing: "Compunctus corde non solet dici nisi stimulus peccatorum in dolore pœnitendi" (P.L., Vol. VI of Augustine, col. 1440).

Nearly all the medieval theologians hold that contrition is based principally on the detestation of sin. This detestation presupposes a knowledge of the heinousness of sin, and this knowledge begets sorrow and pain of soul. "A sin is committed by the consent, so it is blotted out by the dissent of the rational will; hence contrition is essentially sorrow. But it should be noted that sorrow has a twofold signification--dissent of the will and the consequent feeling; the former is of the essence of contrition, the latter is its effect" (St. Bonaventure, In Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xvi, Pt. I, art. 1). [See also St. Thomas Aquinas, Comment. in Lib. Sent. IV; Billuart (De Sac. Pœ;nit., Diss. iv, art. 1) seems to hold the opposite opinion.]

The Augsburg Confession, signed by Luther, divides repentance into two parts: "One is contrition, that is, terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin; the other is faith, which is born of the Gospel, or of absolution, and believes that for Christ's sake, sins are forgiven, comforts the conscience, and delivers it from terrors."[2]


Before the Reformation no theologian ever thought of denying the necessity of contrition for the forgiveness of sin. But with the emergence of Martin Luther and his doctrine of justification by faith alone, some Protestant denominations' theology began to view the necessity of contrition as excluded by natural consequence. Pope Leo X in the famous papal bull Exsurge (Denzinger, no. 751 (635)) condemned the following Lutheran position:

By no means believe that you are forgiven on account of your contrition, but because of Christ's words, "Whatsoever thou shalt loose", etc. On this account I say, that if you receive the priest's absolution, believe firmly that you are absolved, and truly absolved you will be, let the contrition be as it may.

Luther would not deny that in every true conversion there was grief of soul, but he asserted that this was the result of the grace of God poured into the soul at the time of justification, etc. (for this discussion, see Vacant, Dict. de théol. cath., s.v. "Contrition"). Catholic writers have always taught the necessity of contrition for the forgiveness of sin, and they have insisted that such necessity arises (a) from the very nature of repentance as well as (b) from the positive command of God. (a) 'They point out that the sentence of Christ in Luke 13:5, is final: "Except you repent", etc., and from the Fathers they cite passages such as the following from Cyprian, "De Lapsis", no. 32: "Do penance in full, give proof of the sorrow that comes from a grieving and lamenting soul . . . they who do away with repentance for sin, close the door to satisfaction." Scholastic doctors laid down the satisfaction' principle, "No one can begin a new life who does not repent him of the old" (Bonaventure, In Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xvi, Pt. II, art. 1, Q. ii, also ex professo, ibid., Pt. I, art. I, Q. iii), and when asked the reason why, they point out the absolute incongruity of turning to God and clinging to sin, which is hostile to God's law. The Council of Trent, mindful of the tradition of the ages, defined (Sess. XlV. ch. iv de Contritione) that "contrition has always been necessary for obtaining forgiveness of sin". (b) The positive command of God is also clear in the premises. The Baptist sounded the note of preparation for the coming of the Messiah: "Make straight his paths"; and, as a consequence "they went out to him and were baptized confessing their sins". The first preaching of Jesus is described in the words: "Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand"; and the Apostles, in their first sermons to the people, warn them to "do penance and be baptized for the remission of their sins" (Acts 2:38). The Fathers followed up with like exhortation (Clement in P.G., I, 341; Hermas iii P.G., II, 894; Tertullian in P.L., II).

Perfect and imperfect contrition[edit]

Catholic teaching distinguishes a twofold hatred of sin; one, perfect contrition, rises from the love of God Who has been grievously offended; the other, imperfect contrition, arises principally from some other motives, such as loss of heaven, fear of hell, the heinousness of sin, etc. (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, ch. iv de Contritione).

Perfect contrition[edit]

Perfect contrition (from Latin contero "grind, crush, pound to pieces"; also called contrition of charity[3]) is a repentance for sin that is motivated by faith and the love of God.[4] It contrasts with imperfect contrition (also called attrition[5]), which arises from a less pure motive, such as common decency, or fear of Hell.[6] The two types of contrition are distinguished by a person's motive for repentance, rather than the intensity of ones feelings or emotions. It is possible for perfect and imperfect contrition to be experienced simultaneously.

According to Catholic theologians, "all that is required [for perfect contrition] is the standard of all human action, moral certainty."[7] A theologically sound "Act of Contrition" that is said with honesty and that reflects one's true intentions can provide the requisite amount of moral certainty.[8] A common and theologically sound "Act of Contrition" can be found in the following prayer:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You. I detest all my sins, because of Your just punishments, but most of all, because they offend You, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace to confess my sins and to amend my life. Amen.

Perfect contrition removes the guilt and eternal punishment due to mortal sin, even before the sinner has received absolution in the sacrament of penance, if the person has a firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.[9][10] An example of this theological precept is demonstrated in the Code of Canon Law in canon 916, which states: "A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible."

In cases of imminent death, in which sacramental confession may not be possible, the firm resolution to go to sacramental confession, as soon as possible, if a person survives, also removes the guilt and eternal punishment due to mortal sin.[11][12][13]

Imperfect contrition[edit]

Imperfect contrition (also known as attrition) is a desire not to sin for a reason other than love of God. Imperfect contrition is contrasted with perfect contrition.[14]

While attrition does not produce justification, attrition does dispose the soul to receive grace in the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation.[15]

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) was the first council to comment on the matter. It defined contrition (perfect or imperfect) as "sorrow of soul, and a hatred of sin committed, with a firm purpose of not sinning in the future".[16] However, while perfect contrition is motivated out of a love of God, imperfect contrition is motivated for other reasons, such as "the consideration of the turpitude of sin or from the fear of Hell and punishment".[17] Therefore, it declared, "If any man assert that attrition ... is not a true and a profitable sorrow; that it does not prepare the soul for grace, but that it makes a man a hypocrite, yea, even a greater sinner, let him be Anathema."[citation needed]

Jesus's invocations in the Gospels, of the threat of hell, are held to justify the belief that imperfect contrition can be a source of grace. Scriptural support for attrition can be found in Proverbs 13:13, Proverbs 14:26-27, Proverbs 19:23, Matthew 10:28, and Philippians 2:12.


In accord with Catholic tradition, contrition, whether perfect or imperfect, must be at once (a) interior, (b) supernatural, (c) universal, and (d) sovereign.[citation needed]


Contrition must be real and sincere sorrow of heart, and not merely an external manifestation of repentance. The Old Testament Prophets laid particular stress on the necessity of hearty repentance. The Psalmist says that God despises not the "contrite heart" (Ps. I, 19), and the call to Israel was, "Be converted to me with all your heart . . . and rend your hearts, and not your garments" (Joel, ii, 12 sq). Holy Job did penance in sackcloth and ashes because he reprehended himself in sorrow of soul (Job 13:6). The contrition adjudged necessary by Christ and his Apostles was no mere formality, but the sincere expression of the sorrowing soul (Luke 14:11-32; Luke 18:13); and the grief of the woman in the house of the Pharisee merited forgiveness because "she loved much" (Luke 7:36-50). For Love, is the power of The Redeemer and exhortations to penance found anywhere in the Father's House, have no uncertain sound (Cyprian, De Lapsis, P.L., IV; Chrysostom, De compunctione, P.G., XLVII, 393 sqq.), and the Scholastic doctors from Peter Lombard on insist on the same sincerity in repentance (Peter Lombard, Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xvi, no. 1).


In accordance with Catholic teaching contrition ought to be prompted by God's grace and aroused by motives which spring from faith, as opposed to merely natural motives, such as loss of honour, fortune, and the like (Chemnitz, Exam. Concil. Trid., Pt. II, De Poenit.). In the Old Testament it is God who gives a "new heart" and who puts a "new spirit)" into the children of Israel (Ezech. 36:25-29); and for a clean heart the Psalmist prays in the Miserere (Ps. 1, 11 sqq.). Peter told those to whom he preached in the first days after Pentecost that God the Father had raised up Christ "to give repentance to Israel" (Acts, v, 30 sq.).Paul in advising Timothy insists on dealing gently and kindly with those who resist the truth, "if peradventure God may give them full repentance" (2 Timothy, 2:24-25). In the days of the Pelagian heresy Augustine insisted on the supernaturalness of contrition, when he writes, "That we turn away from God is our doing, and this is the bad will; but to turn back to God we are unable unless He arouse and help us, and this is the good will." Some of the Scholastic doctors, notably Scotus, Cajetan, and after them Suarez (De Poenit., Disp. iii, sect. vi), asked speculatively whether man if left to himself could elicit a true act of contrition, but no theologian ever taught that makes for forgiveness of sin in the present economy of God could be inspired by merely natural motives. On the contrary, all the doctors have insisted on the absolute necessity of grace for contrition that disposes to forgiveness (Bonaventure, In Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xiv, Part I, art. II, Q. iii; also dist. xvii, Part I, art. I, Q. iii; cf. Thomas, In Lib. Sent. IV). In keeping with this teaching of the Scriptures and the doctors, the Council of Trent defined; "If anyone say that without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and without His aid a man can repent in the way that is necessary for obtaining the grace of justification, let him be anathema."


The Council of Trent defined that real contrition includes "a firm purpose of not sinning in the future"; consequently he who repents must resolve to avoid all sin. This doctrine is intimately bound up with the Catholic teaching concerning grace and repentance. There is no forgiveness without sorrow of soul, and forgiveness is always accompanied by God's grace; grace cannot coexist with sin; and, as a consequence, one sin cannot be forgiven while another remains for which there is no repentance.

This is the clear teaching of the Bible. The Prophet urged men to turn to God with their whole heart (Joel 2:12 sq.), and Christ tells the doctor of the law that we must love God with our whole mind, our whole strength (Luke 10:27). Ezekiel insists that a man must "turn from his evil ways" if he wish to live.

The Scholastics inquired rather subtly into this question when they asked whether or not there must be a special act of contrition for every serious sin, and whether, in order to be forgiven, one must remember at the moment all grievous transgressions. To both questions they answered in the negative, judging that an act of sorrow which implicitly included all his sins would be sufficient.


The Council of Trent insists that true contrition includes the firm will never to sin again, so that no matter what suffering may come, such evil must be preferred to sin. According to the New Testament, Jesus admonished his disciples:

For whosoever will save his life, shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel, shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?[18]

Theologians have discussed at great length whether or not contrition which must be sovereign appreciative,[clarification needed] i.e., in regarding sin as the greatest possible evil, must also be sovereign in degree and in intensity. The decision has generally been that sorrow need not be sovereign "intensively", for intensity makes no change in the substance of an act (Ballerini, Opus Morale: De Contritione; Bonaventure, In Lib. Sent. IV, dist. xxi, Pt. I, art. II, Q. i).

Sacrament of Penance[edit]

Contrition is not only a moral virtue, but the Council of Trent defined that it is a "part", nay more, quasi materia, in the Sacrament of Penance. "The (quasi) matter of this sacrament consists of the acts of the penitent himself, namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction. These, inasmuch as they are by God's institution required in the penitent for the integrity of the sacrament and for the full and perfect remission of sin, are for this reason called parts of penance. "In consequence of this decree of Trent theologians teach that sorrow for sin must be in some sense sacramental. La Croix went so far as to say that sorrow must be aroused with a view of going to confession, but this seems to be asking too much; most theologians think with Schieler-Heuser (Theory and Practice of Confession, p. 113) that it is sufficient if the sorrow coexist in any way with the confession and is referred to it. Hence the precept of the Roman Ritual, "After the confessor has heard the confession he should try by earnest exhortation to move the penitent to contrition" (Schieler-Heuser, op. cit., p. 111 sqq.).

Perfect contrition without the Sacrament of Penance[edit]

Regarding that contrition which has for its motive the love of God, the Council of Trent declares: "The Council further teaches that, though contrition may sometimes be made perfect by charity and may reconcile men to God before the actual reception of this sacrament, still the reconciliation is not to be ascribed to the contrition apart from the desire for the sacrament which it includes." The following proposition (no. 32) taken from Baius was condemned by Gregory XIII: "That charity which is the fullness of the law is not always conjoined with forgiveness of sins." Perfect contrition, with the desire of receiving the Sacrament of Penance, restores the sinner to grace at once. This is certainly the teaching of the Scholastic doctors (Peter Lombard in P.L., CXCII, 885; St. Thomas, In Lib. Sent. IV, ibid.; St. Bonaventure, In Lib. Sent. IV, ibid.). This doctrine they derived from Holy Writ. Scripture certainly ascribes to charity and the love of God the power to take away sin: "He that loveth me shall be loved by My Father"; "Many sins are forgiven her because she hath loved much" (Luke 7:36-50).

Since the act of perfect contrition implies necessarily this same love of God, theologians have ascribed to perfect contrition what Scripture teaches belongs to charity. Nor is this strange, for in the Old Covenant there was some way of recovering God' grace once man had sinned. God wills not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live (Ezech. 33:11). This total turning to God corresponds to our idea of perfect contrition; and if under the Old Law love sufficed for the pardon of the sinner, surely the coming of Christ and the institution of the Sacrament of Penance cannot be supposed to have increased the difficulty of obtaining forgiveness. That the earlier Fathers taught the efficacy of sorrow for the remission of sins is very clear (Clement in P.G., I, 341 sqq.; and Hermas in P.G., II, 894 sqq.; Chrysostom in P.G., XLIX, 285 sqq.) and this is particularly noticeable in all the commentaries on Luke, vii, 47.

The Venerable Bede writes (P.L., XCII, 425): "What is love but fire; what is sin but rust? Hence it is said, many sins are forgiven her because she hath loved much, as though to say, she hath burned away entirely the rust of sin, because she is inflamed with the fire of love." Theologians have inquired with much learning as to the kind of love that justifies with the Sacrament of Penance. All are agreed that pure, or disinterested, love (amor benevolentiæ, amor amicitiæ) suffices; when there is question of interested, or selfish, love (amor concupiscentia) theologians hold that purely selfish love is not sufficient. When on furthermore asks what must be the formal motive in perfect love, there seems to be no real unanimity among the doctors. Some say that where there is perfect love God is loved for His great goodness alone; other, basing their contention on Scripture, think that the love of gratitude (amor gratitudinis) is quite sufficient, because God's benevolence and love towards men are intimately united, nay, inseparable from His Divine perfections (Hurter, Theol. Dog., Thesis ccxlv, Scholion iii, no 3; Schieler-Heuser, op. cit., pp. 77 sq.).

Obligation of eliciting the act of contrition[edit]

In the very nature of things the sinner must repent before he can be reconciled with God (Sess. XIV, ch. iv, de Contritione, Fuit quovis tempore, etc.). Therefore he who has fallen into grievous sin must either make an act of perfect contrition or supplement the imperfect contrition by receiving the Sacrament of Penance; otherwise reconciliation with God is impossible. This obligation urges under pain of sin when there is danger of death. In danger of death, therefore, if a priest be not at hand to administer the sacrament, the sinner must make an effort to elicit an act of perfect contrition. The obligation of perfect contrition is also urgent whensoever one has to exercise some act for which a state of grace is necessary and the Sacrament of Penance is not accessible. Theologians have questions how long a man may remain in the state of sin, without making an effort to elicit an act of perfect contrition. They seem agreed that such neglect must have extended over considerable time, but what constitutes a considerable time they find it hard to determine (Schieler-Hauser, op. cit., pp. 83 sqq.). Probably the rule of St. Alphonsus Liguori will aid the solution: "The duty of making an act of contrition is urgent when one is obliged to make an act of love" (Sabetti, Theologia Moralis: de necess. contritionis, no. 731; Ballerine, Opus Morale: de contritione).

In other Christian theology[edit]

Lay use[edit]

By extension, the term is used for intense -but not necessarily moral- regret of a committed error. Contrary to the religious definition, this also applies to attrition without moral repentance, i.e. when it is only motivated by fear for its consequences.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Free dictionary
  2. ^ Augsburg Confession, Article XII: Of Repentance
  3. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraph: 1452. 
  4. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraph: 1492. 
  5. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraph: 1453. 
  6. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraph: 1492. 
  7. ^ Donovan, STL, Colin B. "Perfect Contrition". EWTN. Retrieved 27 October 2014. 
  8. ^ Donovan, STL, Colin B. "Perfect Contrition". EWTN. Retrieved 27 October 2014. 
  9. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraph 1452. 
  10. ^ "PENANCE AND RECONCILIATION". International Theological Commission. Retrieved 27 October 2014. 
  11. ^ Code of Canon Law (1984 ed.). Canon 916. 
  12. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraph 1452. 
  13. ^ "PENANCE AND RECONCILIATION". International Theological Commission. Retrieved 27 October 2014. 
  14. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraph: 1492. 
  15. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraph: 1453. 
  16. ^ "Catholic Encyclopedia". 
  17. ^ "Catholic Encyclopedia". 
  18. ^ Mark 8:35-37


External links[edit]