Bringing you the "Good News" of Jesus Christ and His Church While PROMOTING CATHOLIC Apologetic Support groups loyal to the Holy Father and Church's magisterium
Home About
What's New? Resources The Church Family Life Mass and
Ask A Catholic
Knowledge base
AskACatholic Disclaimer
Search the
AskACatholic Database
Donate and
Support our work
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
New Questions
Cool Catholic Videos
About Saints
Disciplines and Practices for distinct Church seasons
Purgatory and Indulgences
About the Holy Mass
About Mary
Searching and Confused
Contemplating becoming a Catholic or Coming home
Homosexual and Gender Issues
Life, Dating, and Family
No Salvation Outside the Church
Sacred Scripture
non-Catholic Cults
Justification and Salvation
The Pope and Papacy
The Sacraments
Relationships and Marriage situations
Specific people, organizations and events
Doctrine and Teachings
Specific Practices
Church Internals
Church History

Henrik Hagnell wrote:

Hi, guys —

I have heard a lot about how perfect contrition can give you forgiveness outside of the Sacrament of Confession.

  • Do any of the official writings of the Church state this?

I have heard that in the Sacrament of Confession you can even be forgiven if you only have imperfect contrition. To me this seems to say that this Sacrament does not require a lot from the penitent. It's like there is some magic going on. I have always thought that this Sacrament helped people have perfect contrition. That would be the real reason why this Sacrament helped people confess and be forgiven.

  • What does the official teaching of the Church say about this?

  • Imperfect contrition, if I understand it correctly, is being sorry that sins have consequences for oneself.
  • Perfect contrition, if I understand it correctly, is being sorry that one's sins have hurt God.

It is my understanding that imperfect contrition, in itself, can not help anyone. You need to have some kind of perfect contrition as well. I don't think you can be forgiven unless you have some kind of perfect contrition.

  • What does the Church say about this?


  { What is the official teaching (in Church writings) on perfect contrition and imperfect contrition? }

Eric replied:

Henrik —

This is all laid out in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church:

(The Acts of the Penitent.)


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. (Council of Trent (1551): DS 1676)

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. (cf. Council of Trent (1551): DS 1677)

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. (cf. Council of Trent (1551): DS 1678; 1705)

1454 The reception of this sacrament ought to be prepared for by an examination of conscience made in the light of the Word of God. The passages best suited to this can be found in the Ten Commandments, the moral catechesis of the Gospels and the apostolic Letters, such as the Sermon on the Mount and the apostolic teachings. (cf. Matthew 5-7; Romans 12-15; 1 Corinthians 12-13;  Galatians 5; Ephesians 4-6; etc.)

The Church sets the bar low because she wants souls to be saved! Imperfect contrition still requires sorrow and detestation of the sin with a resolution not to sin again. The question is the motivation:

  • whether it is purely out of fear, or
  • whether it is motivated (at least in part) by love for God.

If you want the origins of this, it goes back to the Council of Trent in the 16th century, which decreed:

"[The synod] teaches furthermore, that, although it may sometimes happen that this contrition is perfect through charity, and reconciles man with God before this sacrament be actually received, the said reconciliation, nevertheless, is not to be ascribed to that contrition, without the desire of the sacrament which is included therein. And as to that imperfect contrition, which is called attrition, because it is commonly conceived either from the consideration of the turpitude of sin, or from the fear of hell and of punishments, it declares that if, with the hope of pardon, it exclude the will to sin, it not only does not make a man a hypocrite, and a greater sinner, but that it is even a gift of God, and an impulse of the Holy Ghost, who does not indeed as yet dwell in the penitent, but only moves him, whereby the penitent being assisted, prepares a way for himself unto justice.

And although this [attrition] cannot of itself, without the sacrament of penance, bring the sinner unto justification, yet does it dispose him to obtain the grace of God in the sacrament of penance. For, profitably stricken with this fear, the Ninevites, at the preaching of Jonah, did penance full of terror, and obtained mercy from the Lord. Wherefore falsely do some calumniate Catholic writers, as though they had stated that the sacrament of penance confers grace without good motion on the part of those who receive it: a thing which the Church of God never taught or thought. And falsely also do they teach that contrition is extorted and compelled, not free and voluntary."

Buckley, T. A. (1851). The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (p. 90). London: George Routledge and Co.

There was a proposition by Luther that was actually condemned by Pope Leo X that said,

"Contrition, which is prepared by discussion, collation, and detestation of sins, by which any man considers his years in the bitterness of his soul, weighing the enormity of his sins, their multitude, foulness, the loss of eternal happiness, and the incurring of eternal damnation, this contrition makes a hypocrite, nay, rather a sinner."

Buckley, T. A. (1851). The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (p. 332). London: George Routledge and Co.

While I don't think this is what you are saying per se, it sounds somewhat in the ballpark.


Henrik replied:


If you say that imperfect contrition is OK in the Sacrament you say this:

  • Two people die.
  • Both die with imperfect contrition.
  • One of them is Catholic and confessed to his Priest.
  • The other is not religious and did not confess.
  • The Catholic went to Purgatory and the other person went to Hell.

This is, in my opinion, really sick theology.

  • Is this really what the Church teaches?

If it is, then I cannot become a Catholic.

I cannot see how faithful Catholics would need less contrition in order to go to Heaven through Purgatory.


Eric replied:

Henrik —

Be sure to do a Reply All so all our staff can see your answer.

I'm not sure why a non-religious person would fear Hell and be sorry for offending God.

If he did, it seems to me he would be, in some sense, a religious person but that said, no, that is not what the Church teaches.

The Church does not presume to say where God's mercy isn't, only where it is.

While the non-religious person does not have the advantage of the grace of Confession, so he can know that his sins are forgiven (predicated on being sincerely contrite), the Church cannot say that he is in Hell, because God is not bound by the sacraments, even if the Church is.

God may, in His Mercy, choose to save someone, in ways known only to Him but this is risky and we can't be presumptuous, thinking that God will be merciful if we don't become Catholic. We need to have the advantage of knowing, through the sacrament of Reconciliation, that our sins have been forgiven.

  • If it's just as easy to be forgiven (or otherwise obtain grace) outside the Church as inside the Church, what is the point of the Church?

The Church is the universal sacrament of salvation . . .

Mission - a requirement of the Church's catholicity.

849 The missionary mandate. "Having been divinely sent to the nations that she might be 'the universal sacrament of salvation,' the Church, in obedience to the command of her founder and because it is demanded by her own essential universality, strives to preach the Gospel to all men": (Vatican II, Ad Gentes 1; cf. Matthew 16:15)

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and Lo, I am with you always, until the close of the age."

(Matthew 28:19-20)

. . . and she exists to bring grace to mankind. We join the Church in order to gain access to that grace through faith in Jesus Christ, whose Mystical Body is the Church (1 Corinthians 12).

A note, however, on becoming Catholic. The only reason you should become Catholic is because you trust the Church is a truth-telling thing. It's wrong to think you should become a Catholic merely because it aligns with what you believe. The standard of belief should be the Church, both now and in the future.

If you are in the habit of judging Church beliefs by your own standard instead of judging your beliefs by the standard of the Church, perhaps you are not ready to become Catholic yet. Pertinent here is the father's prayer,

"Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24).

Humility is in order at all times.


Henrik replied:

Thanks Eric,

. . . and by the way, the Ninevites did not even have Confession so, in the Old Testament, you could be forgiven of your sins by imperfect contrition outside of the Sacrament but not nowadays.


Eric replied:

Henrik —

The sacraments had not been given in the Old Testament so no one had access to them.

Perhaps they were given a chance after death to respond to the Gospel, see 1 Peter 3:18-20.

In any case, God is a Just Judge, and He alone is the one to decide men's fates. The point is, for Catholics who have received the truth (cf. Luke 12:48), the guidance is that the sacrament of Reconciliation is essential for those without perfect contrition; let us work to bring all men into the Church so that they may know for certain where they can obtain grace.


Please report any and all typos or grammatical errors.
Suggestions for this web page and the web site can be sent to Mike Humphrey
© 2012 Panoramic Sites
The Early Church Fathers Church Fathers on the Primacy of Peter. The Early Church Fathers on the Catholic Church and the term Catholic. The Early Church Fathers on the importance of the Roman Catholic Church centered in Rome.