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Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

Attrition (or imperfect contrition)

Sorrow of soul, and a hatred of sin committed, with a firm purpose of not sinning in the future

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Attrition, or IMPERFECT CONTRITION (Lat. attero, “to wear away by rubbing”; p. part. attritus)—The Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, Chap. iv) has defined contrition as “sorrow of soul, and a hatred of sin committed, with a firm purpose of not sinning in the future”. This hatred of sin may arise from various motives, may be prompted by various causes. If the detestation of sin arise from the love of God, Who has been grievously offended, then contrition is termed perfect; if it arise from any other motive, such as loss of heaven, fear of hell, or the heinousness of guilt, then it is termed imperfect contrition, or attrition. That there exists such a disposition of soul as attrition, and that it is a goodly thing, an impulse of the Spirit of God, is the clear teaching of the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, iv). “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 punishment, the council declares that if with the hope of pardon, it excludes the wish to sin, it not only does not make man a hypocrite and a greater sinner, but that it is even a gift of God, and an impulse of the Holy Spirit, who does not indeed as yet dwell in the penitent, but who 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, conduct the sinner to justification, yet does it dispose him to receive the grace of God in the Sacrament of Penance. For smitten profitably with fear, the Ninivites at the preaching of Jonas did fearful penance and obtained mercy from the Lord.” Wherefore anent attrition, the council in Canon v, Sess. XIV, declares: “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.” This doctrine of the council is in accord with the teaching of the Old and the New Testament. The Old Testament writers praise without hesitation that fear of God which is really “the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. ex). One of the commonest forms of expression found in the Hebrew scriptures is the “exhortation to the fear of the Lord” (Ecclus., i, 13; ii, 19 sqq.). We are told that “without fear there is no justification” (ibid., i, 28; ii, 1; ii, 19). In this fear there is “confidence of strength” and it is “a fountain of life” (Prow., xiv, 26, 27); and the Psalmist prays (Ps. cxviii, 120): “Pierce thou my flesh with thy fear: for I am afraid of thy judgments.”

NEW TESTAMENT.—Even when the law of fear had given way to the law of love, Christ does not hesitate to inculcate that we must “fear him who can destroy both soul and body into hell” (Matt., x, 28). Certainly, too, the vivid account of the destruction of Jerusalem, typical of the final destruction of the world, was intended by Jesus to strike terror into the hearts of those who heard, and those who read; nor can one doubt that the last great judgment as portrayed by Matthew, xxv, 31 sqq., must have been described by Christ for the purpose of deterring men from sin by reason of God‘s awful judgments. The Apostle appears not less insistent when he exhorts us to work out “our salvation in fear and trembling” lest the anger of God come upon us (Phil., ii, 12). The Fathers of the earliest days of Christianity have spoken of fear of God‘s punishments as a goodly virtue that makes for salvation. Clement of Alexandria (Strom., VII) speaks of righteousness which comes of love and righteousness arising from fear, and in the Strom., II, ch. vii, he speaks at length on the utility of fear, and answers all objections brought forward against his position. The most striking sentence is the one wherein he says: “cautious fear is therefore shown to be reasonable, from which arises repentance of previous sins”, etc. St. Basil (4th interrogatory on the Rule) speaks of the fear of God and of His judgments, and he asserts that for those who are beginning a life of piety “exhortation based on fear is of greatest utility”, and he quotes the wise man asserting, “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” (P.G., XXXI). St. John Chrysostom may be quoted in the same sense (P.G., XLIX, 154). St. Ambrose, in the fifteenth sermon on the Psalm cxviii speaks at large on godly fear which begets charity, begets love: Hunc timorem sequitur charitas (P.L., xv, 1424), and his disciple, St. Augustine, treats fully the godliness of fear as a motive to repentance. In the 161st of his sermons (P.L., XXXVIII, 882 sqq.) he speaks of refraining from sin for fear of God‘s judgments, and he asks: “Dare I say such fear is wrong?” He replies that he dare not, for the Lord Christ urging men to refrain from wrongdoing suggested the motive of fear. “Fear not those who kill the body”, etc. (Matt., x). True, what follows in St. Augustine has been subject to much dispute, but the general doctrine of the godliness of fear is here propounded, and the difficulty, if aught there be, touches the other question hereinafter treated anent “Initial Love“.

The word itself, attrition, is of medieval origin. Father Palmieri (De Poenit., 345) asserts, on the authority of Aloysius Mingarelli, that the word is thrice found in the works of Alanus of Lille, who died at an advanced age in the year 1203; but its use in the school is contemporaneous with William of Paris, Alexander of Hales, and Blessed Albert. Even with these men its meaning was not so precise as in after years; though they all agreed that of itself it did not suffice to justify the sinner in God‘s sight. (See the Scholastic traditions in article Absolution. and Palmieri, loc. cit.). This fear is godly, since it excludes not only the will to sin, but also the affection for sin There would perhaps have been little difficulty on this point if the distinction were kept in mind between that fear which is termed servilis, which touches will and heart, and that fear known as serviliter servilis, which though it makes man refrain from performing the sinful act, leaves the will to sin and the affection thereto.

ATTRITION IN THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE.—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). This particular phase of the doctrine of contrition in penance is first taught with clearness by the Schoolmen of the twelfth century, and particularly by St. Thomas, who gathered into a united whole the jarring opinions of his predecessors (See the Scholastic in article Absolution). Though some still preferred to follow the Lombards who insisted on perfect contrition, after St. Thomas there was little division in the schools up to the time of the Council of Trent. At the council there was some opposition to a clear definition, some of the Fathers insisting on the necessity of perfect contrition, and it was perhaps for this reason that the decree was couched as above, leaving it still possible to doubt whether attrition was a proximate, or only a remote, disposition for justification in the sacrament. Today the common teaching is that the council simply intended to define the sufficiency of attrition (Vacant, Dict. de theol., col. 2246-47). And this would seem reasonable because it is the clear teaching of the Church that perfect contrition justifies the sinner even without the Sacrament of Penance. If perfect contrition, then, were always necessary, why did Christ institute a particular sacrament, since justification would always be imparted independently of the sacramental ceremony? If attrition is sufficient for justification in the Sacrament of Penance, then there seems no reason to deny its sufficiency when there is question of remitting sin through baptism, for the reason given above will apply equally in this place. The question has also been asked apropos of attrition, when one receives a sacrament of the living in mortal sin, of which sin he is not conscious, will attrition with the sacrament suffice unto justification? The answer is generally given in the affirmative. See St. Thomas, Summa Theol, III, 2, a. 7 ad 28m, 7ed., 2; Billet, De Poenit., p. 152.

CONDITIONS.—That attrition may make for justification, it must be interior, supernatural, universal, and sovereign. (See Conditions in article Contrition.) Interior, for the Council of Trent requires that it should exclude the will to sin. Supernatural, for Innocent XI condemned the proposition, “Probabile est sufficere attritionem naturalem mode honestam”. Universal, for the motives of attrition (fear of hell, loss of heaven, etc.) are of such a nature as to embrace all sins. Sovereign, for here again the ordinary motives of attrition (fear of hell, etc.) make one hate sin above all other evil. It has been questioned whether this would be true if the motive were fear of temporal punishments (Genicot, T. 11, n. 274; Billot, De Poenit., 159 sq.). The Reformers denied the honesty and godliness of attrition, and held that it simply made man a hypocrite. (Bull of Leo X, Exurge Domine, prop. VI; Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, can. iv.) They were followed by Baius, Jansen, and his disciples, who taught that fear without charity was bad, since it proceeded not from the love of God, but love of self (see prop. 7, 14, 15, condemned by Alexander VIII, December 7, 1690; also 44, 61, 62, condemned by Clement X, “Unigenitus“, September 8, 1717. Also Bull of Pius VI, “Auctorem Fidei“, prop. 25).

Catholic writers in the seventeenth century questioned, whether attrition must of necessity be accompanied at least by the beginning of the love of God, and, that granted, whether such love was a disinterested love of God for His own sake, or whether it might not be that love termed concupiscentiae, or love of God because He is our great good. Some held that in every real act of attrition there must be the beginning of love; others denied categorically this position, exacting only that sorrow which excludes affection for sin, and hope of pardon; others insisted that there must be at least a beginning of that love which has been termed above concupiscentiae; while still others exact only that love which begets hope. On these opinions see Vacant, Dict. de theol., s.v. Attrition, cols. 2252, 2253, 2254, etc. On the controversy, particularly in Belgium, see Dollinger and Reusch (Dict., col. 2219). The controversy waxed so warm that Alexander VII issued a decree, May 6, 1667, in which he declares his distress at the almost scandalously bitter disputes waged by certain scholastic theologians as to whether the act of attrition which is conceived through fear of hell, but excludes the will of sinning and counts on obtaining the mercy of recovering grace through the Sacrament of Penance, requires in addition some act of love of God, and then “enjoins on all of whatever rank, under pain of incurring the severest ecclesiastical penalties, not to presume in future when discussing the aforesaid act of attrition to brand with any mark of theological censure, or wrong, or contempt, either one or the other of the two opinions; that denying the necessity of some sort of love of God [negazztezn necessitatenz aligezalis dilectionis Dei] in the attrition conceived through fear of hell, which today (1667) seems the one more generally held by scholastic theologians, or that affirming the necessity of the said love, until something shall have been defined in this matter by this Holy See.” The authoritative statement of Alexander VII leaves the question still open as Benedict XIV teaches in “De Synodo”, Bk. VII, xiii, n. 9. Still it is clear that Alexander considered as more probable the opinion stating attrition as sufficient for justification in the Sacrament of Penance even if it included not the beginning of love. The censure latae sententiae was omitted in the “Apostolic Sedis”. On the formula, “Ex attrito fit contritus”, cf. Vacant, Dict. de theol., col. 2256 sqq.


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