National Catholic Register


A reader asks about degrees of contrition

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 12/13/13 at 1:01 AM


She writes:

hello Mark!!!! I hope you are well and happy and looking forward to the Christmas season coming up. December 14th will mark my 1 year anniversary as a Roman Catholic! Joy!!!!!

I wanted to ask you about this - its being debated on a few forums - so here goes.....hypothetical

I've mortally sinned. (missed mass, cheated on husband, forged documents at work, robbed a bank, you name it).....I plan to confess next Saturday...I have "imperfect contrition" - I am sorry I sinned, but Im also fearful of Hell, and I cant "honestly" say its purely love of God that makes me sorrowful....

then, as luck would have it, Im hit by a bus before I can make it to confession......

Am I headed to Hell?

There have been all SORTS of answers given by all sorts of people, thought Id ask you!!!!!! The answers have ranged from yep, definitely headed to hell, to the much nicer answer of  God gives us time in the second before death to be perfectly contrite, and we can choose that, to "God is not bound by the Sacraments", to its not worth speculating we simply cant know these things. 

Not sure if I've asked you this in the past!!!!!!

Hm.  I'm always leery of these, "If you were God, would you condemn me to the everlasting fires of hell?" sorts of questions.  The irony of them is of course, that I'm the one who's damned no matter what answer I give.  If I'm lenient, then the Pharisees come out of the woodwork to declare me "soft on sin".  If I tell you you're going to hell, then I'm a a sinful judge of souls usurping the place of God.  Fun! :)

I think there are a few things worth paying attention to here.  The first is that, as you note, though we are bound by the sacraments, God is not bound by them.  (CCC #1257).

This is, I think, the governing principle for navigating here.  It's the difference between seeing the sacraments as

1. sure encounters with the grace and love of God, and

2. seeing them as reducing valves designed to make sure as few people as possible are saved and the maximum number of kept out of Heaven.

I think it is self-evident that number 2 is foreign to the love of God and his universal salvific will.  Whatever the sacraments are, they are not a game of Simon Says--and that includes cases of sins involving grave matter.  How do I know?  Because the Good Thief crucified with Jesus makes it clear that he knew he was guilty of a capital crime.  Here is his self-assessment:

"Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds" (Luke 23:40-41)

The Good Thief regarded himself as guilty, not only of a crime, but of a sin meriting death--and indeed death by crucifixion.  And yet this same sinner was assured, on the highest authority, that he would be in paradise--despite the fact that he was neither sacramentally baptized nor a participant in the sacrament of reconciliation.

The moral is that God, under carefully controlled laboratory conditions, can do whatever he likes.  So we can have good hope that sinners who are sincerely sorry for their sins but deprived of the sacraments by, among other things, being run over by a bus will find the abundant mercy of God.

At the same time, of course, what the Tradition also warns against is the sin of presumption, particularly where our "repentance" is insincere, dishonest, or self-serving.  So, as you note, there is a distinction between perfect and imperfect contrition.  The trouble, of course, is that, as Jeremiah says, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9).  In other words, just about the last thing we can do well is turn our eyeballs inward and know that we really, truly, absolutely totally mean it when we say we are sorry.  This is the source of scruples in cases even of venial sin and, with mortal sin, people can often wind up wound around their own axles instead of focused on God, which is, after all, the goal.  No small part of the good that the sacrament of reconciliation does us is that it turns our eyes and ears toward God and away from the endless and fruitless maze of trying to figure out if we really meant it 100% when we said we were sorry.  In the sacrament, you do your best and then you trust Jesus in the words of absolution.  This comports with something a wise priest told me: namely, that it is is a waste of time to dwell on the question "Do I trust Jesus?" (which is an invitation to endless navel-gazing), but that that it is very fruitful to ask "Is Jesus trustworthy?" *because that is a question that actually has a solid answer (Yes!).

For my money, given that I am not God and that I can't weigh all the motivations of even my own heart, let alone somebody else's, my rule of thumb is basically "If you were intending to get to the sacrament of reconciliation when the bus took you out, that's probably good enough as far as contrition goes."  The practical application is simple: get to confession as soon as you can, trust God between now and then, and don't let guilt paralyze you from obeying him in the meantime. I think the basic distinction between "perfect" and "imperfect" contrition is not so much that you score 100 on a checklist of thoughts that are supposed to go through your mind and anything less is "imperfect", but rather that you offer to God--to the best of your ability--sorrow, contrition, and a firm purpose of amendment.  In short, you try to do what the Church says to do in preparation for the sacrament of confession.  Then it's on God to make sure that you don't get hit by a bus.  As a general rule, he tends to do that.

The trouble with such thought experiments is that, however useful they may be in evaluating one's own conscience before God, the moment they are turned toward others they nearly always become toxic.  That's because we can't see anybody's heart.  So when we start speculating about others it typically results in either Pharisaic diagnostics rooted in pride (I have, for instance, had readers gleefully declare my father to be in hell) or in terrified fears for loved ones rooted in servile fear.  The moment such a thought experiment turns to these things is the moment it passes its sell-by date.  Jesus words are the soundest here: "What is that to you?  Follow me."