Sunday, April 19, 2015

Curé of Ars on True Contrition

In traditional Catholic sacramental theology, four things are necessary to have a valid and fruitful Confession: contrition, confession, absolution, and satisfaction. Too often we tend to minimize the importance of contrition, taking it to simply mean a momentary sorrow or regret. It certainly is a kind of regret, but not merely momentary, for contrition also necessitates the firm desire not to commit that particular sin again. Of course, though through human weakness our resolutions often fail us, they are still essential. An act of contrition for a particular sin requires the sincere desire to avoid committing that sin in the future.

This means obviously that true sorrow for sin is incompatible with the intentional to continue committing it. One cannot simultaneously repent of sin and receive absolution while lacking any will to cease committing the offense. One cannot be absolved from a state of sin while continuing to persist in that sinful state.

This principle is excellently elucidated by the great Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney, in his sermon, "Merit Absolution":

"When anyone has really given up his sins, he must not be content simply with bewailing them. He must also give up, leave far behind, and fly from anything which is capable of leading him in the direction of them again. In other words, my dear brethren, we must be ready to suffer anything rather than fall back into those sins which we have just confessed. People should be able to see a complete change in us; otherwise we have not merited Absolution, and it could even be possible that we have indeed committed sacrilege.
Alas, that there are few in whom this change is apparent after having received Absolution! Dear God, what sacrileges are committed! If in every thirty Absolutions there were but one genuine case, how soon would the world be converted!
Those people do not merit Absolution, then, who do not give sufficient signs of contrition. Alas, how many times, because they are sent away, do they not come back anymore! This, of course, is because they have no real urge to be converted, for if they truly had, very far from leaving their Confession until another Easter, they would be working with all their hearts to change their lives and return to make their peace with God." [1]

I will not offer any further commentary upon the point, but those with ears to hear can easily see its relevance to our contemporary situation.

[1] Sermons of the Curé of Ars, trans. Una Morrissey (TAN Books: Rockford, Ill, 1995), pp. 125-126


Anonymous said...

While I realize that the contemporary situation referenced here refers to mortal sins the actual quote appears to imply that we must have a firm purpose of amendment for each and every sin we have committed. This no doubt makes sense theoretically but on a practical level it would seem to imply that we must be nearly free of voluntary venial sins which would in turn take the sacrament from a help to those struggling with sin to the sacrament of only those who have already reached a high degree of holiness. I certainly cannot say that I have reached the point where I would rather die than commit a single deliberate venial sin. It seems that there are only three options:

1. That most confessions are invalid and that anyone who has made multiple confessions without ridding themselves of all (or at least the vast majority of) deliberate venial sin is committing sacrilege.

2. That there is a distinction to be made between sorrow for one's sins and the firm resolution to die rather than commit that sin.

3. That the requirements for the forgiveness of mortal sin is different than venial sin so long as we have a firm purpose of amendment for at least one sin we confess.

Option 3 (perhaps in combination with option 2) seems to be advanced by Eugene Boylan O.C.R. in "This Tremendous Lover" and I will quote the relevant passage. I have added the part in parenthesis for clarity.

"About such confession (of venial sins) there is one point that is important. Sorrow for our sins is an essential condition for a valid reception of the sacrament. This sorrow must extend to all the mortal sins of which we have been guilty; if there are no mortal sins, we must be truly sorry for at least some of the venial sins confessed. Otherwise the sacrament is invalid. Now sorrow implies a sincere purpose and decision to avoid sin in the future, and it is important to make sure that we have such a purpose in regard to at least some of the venial sins confessed when there are no mortal sins. To make certain that there is proper matter for absolution, it is always advisable to include some sins of the past for which we are certainly sorry, and which we are determined to avoid in the future. Such a practice saves our confession from being invalid should it consist only of routine venial sins for which we have not such a sufficient resolution of amendment."

I am wondering if there is any official Church position on this or if anyone has heard anything similar.

Boniface said...

Wow...I think you may have over thought this. St. John is saying there needs to be a desire not to commit the sin again. Yes, he uses language about "ready to suffer anything" rather than commit them again, but that level of commitment is not necessary for a confession to be valid. He merely says one needs to will to not continue in those sins.

A very firm resolution - such as St. John recommends - is a perfect act of contrition, which we know is not absolutely required. I believe the resolution to not commit the sin again is acceptable if there is simply no intention positively to commit the sin again and at least a moral resolution to try to be free from that sin.

Suppose a person confesses he has masturbated and has this problem habitually. I think his contrition is sufficient if, in addition to being sorry for that particular act, he does not positively plan to commit the sin again and - however weakly - wishes he was free from it. He may even suspect he might fall into the sin again, but as long as he does not wish this positively, I think his contrition is sufficient - though not perfect.

St. John is setting forth an exemplar of perfect contrition and encouraging all his people to strive for it. But it does not follow that such contrition is always necessary.

Anonymous said...

Well it wouldn't be the first time I've over thought something! I don't necessarily disagree with you but when St. John speaks of sacrileges and then in the very next sentence speaks of one in thirty Absolutions can you see how it could be interpreted that way?

Perhaps I used slightly exaggerated language to draw the contrast. Nevertheless, I am wondering if you have heard anything similar to Boylan's advice before and if you think it has any merit?

Anonymous said...

A perfect act of contrition is sorrow for the sin out of a desire not to offend God, who loves the sinner and whom the sinner loves. Minimal contrition can extend simply to the fact that the sinner is sorry for his sin because he is afraid of Hell, or does not want to lose Heaven. Normal contrition is sufficient to achieve a state of grace within the confines of the Sacrament of Confession. Perfect contrition can achieve the state of grace outside the Sacrament.

The matter for the Sacrament is sin and contrition for it. This is why sorrow for venial sin is necessary. Venial sin can be cleansed by Holy Water, an Act of Contrition, the Confiteor, or receiving the Eucharist. It does not require a sacrament. But the Sacrament of Confession requires both sin and the sorrow for it. So, just as a RE-baptism is sacrilegious (if intentional) so can be a confession, if there is either no sin or no contrition. Both sin (venial or mortal), and contrition, are necessary for a valid and licit sacrament of confession.

Therefore, sorrow for the sin is necessary, whether venial or mortal, for the sacrament. This sorrow must include a desire not to engage in the sin in the future. So, a druggie who confesses, yet keeps his stash, is not truly contrite. A man with a sexual vice who keeps his library of porn, yet goes to confession, is not truly contrite. A person who cohabitates or fornicates, yet will not move out or break the relationship, is not contrite. In short, actions speak louder than words.

As far as dying rather than sinning goes, it is not the action, but the desire. Who, knowing that he is in a state of grace, and realizing the beauty of heaven and the horrors of hell, would not prefer to die (and gain heaven) rather than sin (and lose heaven, gaining rather an eternity in hell)? This is the preference that is being referenced. We are all weak, and we have no control over our death, so the proof is not in action, but in our desire.

Habitual sin is vice. To conquer vice is not a simple decision, and done. Rather it is a conversion, a re-orientation to the good, and away from the evil. A person who converts from a life of sin, let alone a single vice, has a long fight ahead of him. All of the moral theologians will say this, and will say that frequent confession and fervent communions are necessary.

So, venial sins only need resolutions for the benefit of the sacrament, if they are the only sin brought to the tribunal (venial sins being predominantly from weakness and not malice, but in either case, not being a grave matter). Mortal sins always need resolution, despite our ability to actually keep the resolution, and generally, must be forgiven in withing the sacrament (even if you make an act of perfect contrition, you still must confess before receiving the Eucharist). Resolution must be concrete to the extent that the desire not to commit the sin is there, and there are no reservations of the instruments of sin (ie. keeping porn, drugs, second wives, etc.).

At least that is my understanding of the matter.

Boniface said...

Anonymous 9:56:

I have not read of Boylan's advice before, but it seems sound. I generally have contrition for all my sins collectively; have never really parsed it out that way.

I understand what you're saying about St. John. Remember, he is preaching and using a rhetorical device of contrasting extremes. The men he is rebuking - those who have sacriligious or invalid confessions - do so because they have ZERO contrition for their sins; St. John says they are just going through the motions of professing a formulaic contrition without the substance. They are not invalid because they have less than perfect contrition but because they have ZERO contrition.

To spur them to piety, he contrasts them with PERFECT contrition, similar to the way we might encourage one who is very weak in faith by proposing the example of the martyrs. He knows not everybody will have perfect contrition, but it is more of a point of exhortation to contrast with the saintly and perfect rather than the merely acceptable. I guess I see that this could be taken to imply that those who were less than perfect in their contrition had invalid confessions, but I seriously doubt anyone would have taken it that way.

Kind of like if someone says to one living in mortal sin, "How can you offend God so brazenly! Think of how the martyrs preferred death to sin! And yet you go on offending God with your sins."

The contrast is between the moral sinner and the martyr, but there is no implication that anyone less than a martyr must be a serious sinner. It's just a use of contrasting extremes to exhort the hearer to reform. This is common in old homiletics.