Throughout the considerations of the sacrament of penance there have been references to three acts of the penitent (the person going to confession) within the sacramental rite. The first of these three acts is that the penitent must have “contrition.” What is meant by the word contrition and why is it essential for the sacrament of penance?
A person is said to have “contrition” for their sin/s when they express sorrow for their sins and have the intention to avoid committing the sin/s in the future. Sometimes contrition arises immediately after one commits a sin; in other times a person may not experience contrition for a sin until a later time (for we may not know the real harm that our sin has caused until later and only then experience such sorrow). It is important to note that contrition is not merely a feeling of sorrow; it is properly an awareness of our sorrow for the sins committed in such a way that we wish we had not committed the sinful act in the first place and at the same time have the intent not to do it again. Within the sacrament of penance such an expression of contrition is an essential element as it shows our want to repent of sin by not doing it again, properly disposing our heart to be forgiven of sins.
Sorrow for sin and the desire to amend our lives being the definition of contrition, it is also noted that there are two different kinds of contrition. The first kind is the expression of sorrow because of the fear of the consequences or punishments we incur due to sin, called “imperfect contrition.” On the flip side, contrition that arises in us as sorrow over failing to love God and our neighbor is called “perfect contrition.” As to two terms suggest, the greater form of contrition is perfect contrition as such sorrow is rooted in a desire to love perfectly rather than the fear of punishment. Here it is important to state clearly: when going to confession, either type of contrition is sufficient to receive the grace of forgiveness of sin. Therefore, the expression of at least “imperfect” contrition is acceptable.
In practice the difference between perfect and imperfect contrition is easy to see. As an example, when a person regrets a verbal insult they made toward an employer, co-worker, or customer due to the consequences they may face (such as being “written-up” or fired by their employer), such is an example of imperfect contrition; on the other hand, if the person regrets the act because of a failure to love God and neighbor (even though the possible punishments for the act may be exactly the same as in the example of imperfect contrition), such remorse over failing to love is an example of perfect contrition. More to the point, if a person is remorseful over a mortal sin due to fearing the “loss of heaven and the pains of hell,” such expressed remorse would be imperfect contrition. On the other hand, if one is remorseful over a mortal sin due to a failure to love God and neighbor (again, acknowledging that loss of heaven and consignment to hell are real consequences of the sin), such remorse over the failure to love is perfect contrition.
Finally, it is important to define what is called a “perfect act of contrition.” One who commits a mortal sin can make such a perfect act of contrition in saying the Act of Contrition prayer with a sincere sorrow for failing to love God (as opposed to a fear of being punished). However, even in making a perfect act of contrition it remains necessary to go to confession as soon as possible after committing any mortal sin – to be assured of the forgiveness of sins.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paragraphs 1451-1454 give a brief description of both perfect and imperfect contrition.