Kinds of Contrition

Dear Grace,
I have a question about something that is really bothering me. I see people, myself included, who go to Confession and then constantly turn around and commit the same sins over and over again. Is there something we are not understanding as far as what Confession is all about?

I know exactly what you mean, and this is a good question to ponder on as we begin the season of Lent — a time of self-examination. For many years, I did not understand this issue myself. With time, however, I have come to see that what may be happening for many with regard to Confession is that there is perhaps a much greater focus on the element of absolution and not enough on contrition.

When we sin, often our primary concern is to be forgiven by God and the Church, whom we know we have offended. The question we must ask ourselves is “Why do we seek this forgiveness?” What is the real reason we want to be forgiven by God?

First, let me say that in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (better known as Confession), there are four elements. The first three are the acts of the penitent — contrition, confession, and satisfaction (penance). The fourth element is the action of God through the bishop and His priests — absolution (forgiveness of sins, reconciliation). Thus, we know that in order to receive God’s forgiveness, we must first have contrition, make a confession, and do satisfaction.

So, the very first step in reconciliation is contrition. What is contrition? Essentially, it means to be sorry, to have sorrow for what we have done. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “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.’” (CCC 1451) But do you know that there are different ways to be sorry?

Here is how the Catechism describes the two types of contrition:

(1) “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.” (CCC 1452)

(2) “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).” (CCC 1453)

Do not misunderstand or get confused, however, by the terms “perfect” or “imperfect.” All contrition is good because it moves us toward reconciliation with God. But the first kind stems from a love of God, while the second from a fear of God and eternal damnation.

If I offend someone I love deeply, something will stir in my heart. I will hate what I have done because I love this person so much. And that love will move me to never want to hurt this person in this way ever again. This not does mean that I never will do it again, but it does mean that I will desire never to do it again.

Our love, of course, is limited in that we, because of our wounded nature, find it difficult to love unconditionally. Jesus, however, is our example of unconditional love. He gave the most precious and ultimate gift — His life — so that we might live. Why? For love of us — that’s why.

One of the best ways to increase our love for God, so that we will be truly contrite when we sin against Him, is to meditate on what He did for us in His Passion. The Cross is about love. His suffering and dying is about love. And He is showing us how we are to love, and not only Him, but ourselves and others too.

Lent is a good time for us to focus on God’s love for us and what it means to love, and then perhaps when we go to Confession, we will be contrite out of deep love for God and we will desire never to sin again.

© Copyright 2004 Grace D. MacKinnon

For permission to reprint this article, or to have Grace speak at your event, contact Grace MacKinnon at

Grace MacKinnon holds an MA in theology and is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: You may also visit her online at

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage