How can imperfect contrition lead to perfect contrition?
To make a “good confession” and to receive absolution for sin, a sinner must be, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “of contrite heart.” (Paragraph 1450). The sinner must have contrition.
The Catechism describes two types of contrition, each sufficient for effective reception of the Sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation): perfect contrition and imperfect contrition.
The naming of this second type of contrition as “imperfect” should not be interpreted as meaning that it cannot be the basis for absolution:
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. (Catechism, Paragraph 1453)
Fear of God, Love of God
The “fear of God” upon which imperfect contrition is based, is the fear of punishment called “servile fear.”
“Perfect” contrition is based on love of God. A perfectly contrite sinner is sorry for sin because sin offends God, whom the sinner loves for His own sake, above all things:
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. (Catechism, Paragraph 1452)
Sin is absolved immediately in response to an Act of Perfect Contrition which is accompanied by a resolve to go to confession as soon as possible.
Imperfect Leads to Perfect?
Consideration of the different types of contrition lead to these questions: If one is imperfectly contrite, can one become perfectly contrite? Can a person progress from imperfect to perfect contrition?
St. Gregory Answers: “Yes”:
. . . the compunction of fear, when perfected, draws the mind to the compunction of love.” (Epistles of St. Gregory the Great, Book VII No. XXVI; To Theoctista, Patrician)
So how does the sinner do it? If the love and grace of God are not some all-powerful irresistible divine “perfect contrition” tractor beam pulling a person irresistibly to heaven, whether that person wants to go there or not, how does an imperfectly contrite sinner respond to God’s love without being a “mercy robot,” and become perfectly contrite?
Many thinkers, philosophers, and theologians liken learning to do good acts, to how a person learns how to obtain a skill. A person unskilled in bricklaying learns how to lay bricks by laying them, even if the initial laying is faulty or defective. Similarly one learns to play the piano or to dance, not by reading a book on music theory or studying diagrams of dance steps, but by actually playing the piano and by dancing, over and over.
Similarly, one who is imperfectly contrite decides to engage in some human actions that can be actions done solely out of love of God. The sinner freely chooses to have a “firm purpose of amendment” not to sin again – and freely chooses to “avoid the occasions of sin.”
These are forward-looking acts of the will. The sinner then goes on, spurred on by imperfect contrition, and continues to act, again and again, in accord with the grace of the sacrament of Penance. This grace is truly the very life of Jesus alive in the sinner. The repentant sinner is spiritually empowered by grace; but still, nonetheless, further good acts are chosen and done freely. In doing these things, the sinner begins, more and more, to act out of love of God. This is the path to perfect contrition.
St. Gregory on this Pathway
St. Gregory goes into some detail about the progress that is possible from imperfect contrition (“compunction”) to perfect contrition:
For there are two kinds of compunction, as you know: one that is afraid of eternal pains, the other that sighs for heavenly rewards; since the soul that is thirsty for God is first moved to compunction by fear, and afterwards by love. For in the first place it is affected to tears because, while recollecting its evil doings, it fears to suffer for them eternal punishments. But, when fear has died away in the anxiety of a long sorrow, a certain security has birth from a sense of pardon; and the mind is enflamed with love of heavenly joys. And one who previously wept for fear of punishment begins afterwards to weep most bitterly for being kept back from the kingdom. For the soul contemplates what are those choirs of angels, what is the very society of blessed spirits, what the vision of the inward brightness of God; and laments more for the lack of unending good than it wept before when it feared eternal evil; and thus it comes to pass that the compunction of fear, when perfected, draws the mind to the compunction of love. (Id.)
It is the person choosing right actions and doing them, the “soul” in St. Gregory’s terms, who laments for the lack of unending good. This person comes to a certain security, because this person, the sinner, chooses to be contrite based on a love of God, the forgiving Father; and then this person actually does actions in accord with these choices, in accord with this love.
Imperfect contrition can draw the sinner to repentance, then to the other sacraments and to God – not out of fear of punishment, but for love. As this love grows, it is this love that provides the fertile ground for the sinner’s own free choices to act rightly – and this is both the pathway to and the vehicle for perfect contrition.