Is Perfect Contrition Possible?

I closed my previous post Why Do I Care About Abortion? with a promise to connect my notion of moral harm with caring about it. However, I did not want to reduce the concern to an emotional state; it had to be a distinctly moral sentiment. Feeling a need for repentance or deserving pain as punishment might be marks of a distinctively moral sentiment. In this post, I begin to characterize the problem of finding a sentiment of sorrow about moral harm.

It is a deep problem which might, unfortunately, be raised by asking “Why be moral?” I write “unfortunately” because the question “Why be moral?” was dismissed in the early 20th century* as the trivial question “Why ought I do what I ought to do?” The question is at least “Why should I care about a moral law being violated by me or someone else?” Even if I have conceptually characterized the moral harm of violation of a moral law as willing that harm ought to be done, there remains the question of why care about this ad hoc norm that some harm ought to be done.

The question may be a mistake in the sense that there is no answer because there is no sentiment of regret conceptually and emotionally uniquely brought about by and directed to violation of a moral law. Such a sentiment may be illusory. However, I move forward under an assumption that the nature of the sorrow about violation of moral laws is only elusive; not illusive.

I began by recollecting my childhood efforts to capture this elusive sentiment. Then I wondered. Now, I explicitly ask “How is perfect contrition possible?” When I was seven or eight preparing for my First Confession in the second grade of Nativity Catholic school in St. Paul, Minnesota, I memorized an Act of Contrition which I would recite before the priest gave me Absolution for the sins I confessed. I remember and still recite in confession:

“ Oh, my God, I am heartly sorry for having offended you because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell. But most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of your grace to confess my sins, do penance, and amend my life. Amen”

We were taught that contrition is bipartite. First, there is the imperfect contrition of sorrow about losing heaven and suffering the pains of hell. Second, there is the perfect contrition expressed as sorrow about offending God who is deserves all of my love. I definitely had imperfection contrition. I worried about lying in the confessional id I said that I cared about offending God; let alone caring most of all about offending God.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet wisely taught that if we did not feel perfect contrition, our expression of it meant that we were praying that we could get as we continued to practice our faith. If we could attain perfect contrition all our sins would be forgiven without Absolution. However, we should plan on going to confession throughout our lives because we could never be certain that we felt perfect contrition. I recall one suggestion in discussion was that after death, in purgatory, those of us who did not become saints would learn to have perfect contrition. We would never get to heaven without perfect contrition!

I cannot help but note that for me memorization and study of the Baltimore Catechism was never rote memorization. Catechism study was my introduction to philosophy.

In the context, where Divine Command morality is taken seriously, the question about the special sorrow for violation of moral laws can be expressed as “What is it like to feel sorrow about offending God?” and how is it possible to have such sorrow in this life. If perfect contrition is only possible in purgatory, it is an illusion, at least for moral theologians in this life. If saints attain it, it is not an illusion. But we have to understand sainthood to attain some sense of what it is.

In any event, characterizing the question about the unique sorrow over violation of moral as a question about the possibility of perfect contrition is a start towards appreciating what we are trying to understand moral harm to be. Subsequent posts bring out that holding a divine command morality does not raise a problem only for morality so understood. Secular understandings of morality still need an understanding of repentance for moral violations for which the penitents dread no harm to themselves. Think of middle-class Americans who feel deep sorrow for violation of moral laws inflicting injustices on ancestors of say, contemporary Indigenous peoples. What is the harm we now regret to what do we offer apologies?

* H.A. Prichard, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” Mind (Jan. 1912)