1. The Church has given a clear definition of contrition, precisely as an act of the recipient of the sacrament of penance. Trent teaches: “Contrition, which ranks first among these acts of the penitent, is sorrow and detestation for sin committed, with a resolution of sinning no more. Moreover, this spirit of contrition has always been necessary to obtain the forgiveness of sin, and thus, in the case of a man who has fallen after baptism, it is certainly a preparation for the remission of sins, if it be accompanied by trust in the divine mercy and a firm desire of fulfilling the other conditions necessary to receive the sacrament properly. Therefore, this holy council declares that this contrition implies not only abandoning sin and determining to lead a new life and beginning to do so, but also hating one’s past life . . .” (DS 1676/897; translation amended). True contrition is the basic act of the penitent.
2. Contrition includes within itself a firm purpose of amendment and the utter rejection of past sin. It requires a sincere intention to fulfill all the other conditions for the sacrament’s worthy reception. Lacking this intention, contrition is not sincere, and any feeling of sorrow is useless. Still, contrition does not by itself remit sins; of itself it is a preparation for the forgiveness of sins (see S.t., 3, q. 85, aa. 1–3; q. 90, a. 2; sup., q. 1, aa. 1–2; q. 5, aa. 1–3; S.c.g., 4, 72).
The Introduction to the new rite of penance stresses the need for sincere contrition. After quoting Trent’s definition of it, the document goes on to identify contrition with conversion or repentance (metanoia): “a profound change of the whole person by which one begins to consider, judge, and arrange his life according to the holiness and love of God . . ..” Further: “The genuineness of penance depends on this heartfelt contrition. For conversion should affect a person from within so that it may progressively enlighten him and render him continually more like Christ.”7
3. Trent teaches that a sorrow for sin based on awareness of its evil and fear of punishment, which includes the intention to amend, is a divine gift which leads sinners to grace by disposing them to seek forgiveness in the sacrament of penance. Of itself, this type of contrition is not perfected by charity, and so it is called “imperfect contrition” or “attrition” (DS 1678/898, 1705/915).8 Catholic theologians have long debated whether imperfect contrition which does not include as a motive love of God for his own sake is sufficient within the sacrament of penance. This controversy was explicitly left open by a decree of the Holy See (see DS 2070/1146).
4. St. Thomas Aquinas takes the very reasonable position that genuine contrition and the conferral of charity are mutually dependent; a mortal sinner cannot love God as his child should without becoming contrite and cannot become contrite without again loving God as his child. The two things come together by the conjoining of God’s grace and the sinner’s free response which this grace creates. This can happen before the sacrament is received or when it is received, provided one approaches the sacrament with the right intentions (see S.c.g., 4, 72; S.t., sup., q. 1, a. 1; q. 5, a. 1, ad 2; q. 6, a. 1; q. 10, a. 3).
5. Reflecting on the issue, it seems obvious that a penitent must believe and hope in God. It is impossible to approach this sacrament with serious intentions without being confident that God acts in it and is ready to do everything necessary to restore one to grace. One must also have rejected sin and must desire to do what is right. In this desire, there is an at least implicit human love of God as the source of all good.
6. However, such love is not identical with charity. The latter is not a human act and experience but a divine gift (25‑G). Although it does not seem possible to determine the precise moment at which this gift is conferred again on those who have committed mortal sin, the teaching on the sacrament of penance does make it clear that it is restored to those who receive the sacrament worthily at least as soon as absolution is administered.
7. If the preceding is correct, perfect contrition, by which one again begins to live as a child of God out of love of him, is not psychologically recognizable. Before receiving the sacrament one cannot be certain of having made an “act of perfect contrition”; one can only know with moral certitude that one is truly contrite for motives which are not purely selfish. One can know that one desires to submit wholly to God.
7. The Rites, 345.
8. For a very helpful account of the history of the concepts and controversies over contrition and attrition: P. de Letter, “Contrition,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 4:278–83.