"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

 
REALITY—A Synthesis Of Thomistic Thought

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.

CH41: ATTRITION AND CONTRITION [955]

Contrition in general, whether perfect or imperfect, is thus defined by the Council of Trent: "Inward and dolorous detestation of sin, with proposal not to sin again." [956] Perfect contrition proceeds from charity, whereas attrition, imperfect contrition, exists in a soul which is still in the state of sin. Hence arises a difficult problem: How can attrition be supernatural, and how is it related to the love of God?

1. Two extremes are to be avoided: laxism and Jansenism. The laxists maintained as probable the statement that attrition, if it is naturally good, united with sacramental absolution, suffices for justification. [957] The Jansenists, on the contrary, seeing no medium between cupidity and charity, [958] said that the attrition which is not accompanied by benevolent love toward God is not supernatural. [959] In this view, attrition seems to include an initial act of charity and hence, though it includes the intention of receiving the sacrament of penance, nevertheless justifies the penitent before he actually receives absolution.

We are, then, to show that attrition without charity is still good, that it can be supernatural, and thus suffices for the fruitful reception of sacramental absolution.

The Thomistic teaching on this point is expounded by Cajetan. [960] He says [961] that attrition is a contritio informis, which, by reason of an initial love of God, already detests sin as an offense against God.

What qualities, then, must attrition have if absolution is to be fruitful? Is the attrition inspired simply by fear of God's judgments [962] sufficient? Or must it include also love of God, and if so, what kind?

First, we must say against the laxists that the attrition which is only naturally good, [963] but not supernatural, is not sufficient, even when united with sacramental absolution, because this act, remaining in the natural order, is neither itself a salutary act nor even a disposition to supernatural justification. Much less is it a meritorious act since merit presupposes the state of grace. Further, it cannot include even the smallest act of charity, since, if it did, it would justify the penitent even before he receives absolution.

2. The difficulty lies in finding a middle ground between cupidity and charity, to use Augustine's terms. Now there is no middle ground between the state of mortal sin, the state of cupidity, the unregulated love of self, and the state of grace which is inseparable from charity. How, then, can we find in a person who is in the state of mortal sin, an act which is not only naturally good, ethically good, but also salutary, even though not meritorious?

All theologians admit and the Church has defined that the state of mortal sin does not prevent the sinner from having "uninformed" acts of faith and hope, which acts are personally supernatural and salutary, although not meritorious. Hence attrition also which presupposes these acts of faith and hope, [964] may also be salutary without being meritorious.

3. Must we go a step further? Must we admit that this salutary attrition, which disposes us for sacramental justification, implies also an initial benevolent love of God, which nevertheless is not an act of charity, however small? The Thomists above cited say Yes. That attrition which suffices as disposition for the sacrament of penance, thus the Salmanticenses, [965] necessarily implies some love for God, the fountain of justice. And the Council of Trent, speaking of adults preparing for baptism, after mentioning their acts of faith, fear, and hope, continues thus: "They begin to love God as the source of all justice, and thus are moved to hate and detest their sins." [966] Now it is true that the Council in another text [967] where it treats of the difference between attrition and contrition, does not mention this act of love for God as the author of all justice. The reason probably is that the Council wishes to leave open a question disputed among theologians, but does not in any way modify the affirmation cited above. [968].

Further, the Thomists we have cited add the following theological argument. Attrition, according to the Council, [969] contains detestation of the sin committed. Now this detestation of sin, of an offense against God, can simply not exist without an initial benevolent love for God as the source of justice. Why not? Because love is the very first of the acts of the will, and hence must precede hate or detestation. A man can detest injustice only because he loves justice, hence he can detest an injury done to God only because he already loves God as the source of justice. This argument is solid. Only he can detest a lie who already loves truth. Only he can detest the evil of sin who loves the good opposed to that evil.

This is surely the thought of St. Thomas, [970] when he says that penance detests sin as an offense against God supremely lovable. But, for justification, the sinner must have an act of true penance. Hence attrition, in the mind of St. Thomas, must include some initial love of benevolence for God as the author of all justice.

But then, so runs an objection, this initial benevolent love must be itself an imperfect act of charity, and hence would justify the penitent before absolution. The Thomists cited reply thus: No, this initial love of benevolence is not an act of charity, because charity includes, not merely mutual benevolence between God and man, but also a convictus a common life with God which exists only by man's possession of sanctifying and habitual grace, the root of infused charity. Charity, says St. Thomas, [971] is a friendship which presupposes, not merely mutual benevolence, but a habitual convictus, [972] a communion of life. Between two men who, living far apart, know each other only by hearsay, there can exist a reciprocal benevolence, but not as yet friendship. Now this common life between God and man begins only when man receives that participation in the divine life which we call habitual grace, the root of charity, the seed-corn of glory. [973] But attrition, as distinguished from contrition, does not give man the state of grace.

Cajetan's description of attrition is based on a profound study of St. Thomas. It runs thus: "In the line of contrition comes first an imperfect contrition (not yet informed by charity) which is displeasure against sin as the most hateful of things, together with a proposal to avoid and shun sin as of all things most to be shunned, the displeasure and the proposal arising from a love of God as of all things the most lovable." [974] This description tallies with that initial love of benevolence for God which we gave above from the Council of Trent. [975] God Himself, by actual grace, leads us to attrition, to this initial love of Himself, before He justifies us by sacramental absolution. Sin, as the best Thomists have ever insisted, is not merely an evil of the soul, but essentially and primarily an offense against God, and we cannot detest this offense without an initial love of God as source of all justice, without that initial love of benevolence which is the previous disposition for that common life with God which presupposes charity.

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Footnotes

955-975

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