Famous Relatives of Perfect Contrition

The title “Famous Relatives of Perfect Contrition” signals the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his 1953 Philosophical Investigations, he introduced the concept of family resemblance amongst concepts. The concept of family concept is vague. It is introduced with examples. Wittgenstein illustrated it with games. “Game” is not well-defined but we identify activities such as hop-scotch, bridge and baseball as games. In an effort to understand what it is to play a game, those three along with many others might be part of the discussion.

So, when I identify a concept as having a family resemblance to the concept of perfect contrition, I am thinking of it as a concept which very likely would come up in a conversation aimed at understanding perfect contrition. Or, conversely, a common concept which someone might help clarify by introducing the more rarely used concept of perfect contrition.

The main purpose of this post is to establish the intellectual respectability of the concept of perfect contrition for use in moral theory and moral theology. It is not a special concept for Catholic moral and sacramental theology. It is closely related to widely used theological and philosophical concepts. Perfection contrition comes from a distinguished conceptual family!

Begin with love of God. For Judeo-Christian religions, the Hebrew Shema expresses a fundamental belief. Central in the Shema we read

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all you mind and with all your might.”

Personally, I am more perplexed by love of God than I am by perfection contrition. But if I had perfect contrition, I would have love of God. For in professing perfection contrition I profess love of God. If I happened to fall and loved God, I would have perfect contrition. For a sinner, there is perfect contrition if and only if there is love of God. Sinners need to discuss something like perfect contrition to understand love of God.

My phrase “something like” means that the words “perfection contrition might never be used.

Sinless angels might love God apart from any contrition. A dimension of the notion of original sin is that for humans love of God is inseperable from notions of contrition and pleas for mercy. Perfection contrition is related to the concepts of angel, original sin and even immaculate conception.

Claims that God loves us no matter what we do or think, threaten theistic belief with vacuity. What we do must matter to God and we must respond to what matters to God. Again, discussion of a significanct Divine Love will use some notion like perfect contrition – sorrow for improperly responding to God’s love.

Reformation notions of redemption and salvation involve something like the concept of perfect contrition. What is that faith which guarantees salvation? Perhaps, it is God’s gift of sorrow for being a sinner because we were offensive to God whom we love. Reception of this gift is one’s salvation by being a person who loves God. I only hint at these subtle Reformation notions. I want only to suggest that something like perfect contrition would be used in serious discussion to clarify them.

In general, I think that any discussion to clarify concepts of the theological virtues: faith, hope and charity, will introduce something like the concept of “perfect contrition.”

Perfection contrition has distinguished philosophical brothers and sisters. We cannot meet her without getting introduced to the whole family of moral philosophy.

In Gorgias, Plato has Socrates reply that it is better to suffer a wrong than to do a wrong. Figuring out what one ought to suffer in doing a wrong would help figuring out what perfect contrition might be.

In The Republic, Socrates tries to appreciate why someone who had the ring of Gyges making him invisible so that he could get away with any crime would not be happy. This might have been the earliest written account of the problem of identifying an especially horrible sentiment and condition based simply on an intention to do what is immoral. It continues up to our time with efforts to understand egotism, altruism et al.

Indeed, rationality would be on the list, started above. All attempts to show the rationality of morality face the question “Why be rational?” Any morality, worthy of the name, requires some inclination frustration. What is the sorrow connected with intending to do the irrational which makes such a choice worse than any sacrifice of our inclinations? The whole Aristotelian tradition holds that showing the rationality of an action guiding principle suffices for showing it is a morally valid principle.

I doubt that attempts to identify morality with rationality can answer “Why be rational?” Rationality is abstracted from anything which cares about what we do or what is good for us. One reason why I now work on a theory of morality as the commands of a moral commander is that if there is a personal relationship between the source of morality and us, we can realize why we desire to be moral.

I cannot close without mentioning Kant’s concepts of moral worth and respect for the moral law. Kant tells us that a choice has moral worth if and only if it is made out of respect for the moral law. We might begin to interpret this, perhaps unattainable, standard for moral worth by imagining of what we think and feel if we ignore the moral law in a choice. To what have we failed to pay attention and what do we feel about ignoring it.