I was recently involved in a discussion regarding contrition. The thesis posited was: When Jesus forgave he didn’t ask any questions. He merely told the recipient to go and sin no more. Therefore, the idea of contrition is a later addition and more or less irrelevant to the sacrament of reconciliation. Further, requiring contrition (specifically the intent not to repeat sin) was putting limitations on the ability of Christ to forgive. Being the cradle Catholic that I am, my first thought was: Are you serious? This is Church doctrine! What kind of malarky is this? Then of course, I started to question.
I had to overcome the immediate Pro-Papa reaction that occasionally results in throwing out the baby with the bath water. Of course, by skipping confession due to a lack of desire to discontinue confessed sin, one is limiting the power of Christ to forgive because he is skipping confession altogether; however, that wasn’t part of the discussion. (Although, I will say one could argue that requiring confession at all “limits the power of Christ to forgive”, but that is for another day.) The discussion was about going to confession, essentially unrepentant. Should one go to confession fully intending to commit the confessed sin again, simply out of a desire not to limit the forgiveness of Christ? I would argue that the very act of confessing a sin with no desire to not stop sinning is in fact what limits the power of Christ. That is to say: limits the salvific effect of Christ on that particular person out of his own desire for said salvific effects to be limited. So the essence of the discussion seems to be: are there requirements to making confession?
In what circumstances are sins forgiven? “Do penance, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins” (Acts 2:38) This seems to suggest that baptism remits sin; however, some form of penance is required for baptism. So baptism remits sin. “‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.‘” (John 20:21-23) In this case there is no mention of penance, but there is an indication that an apostolic successor might retain sins: not forgive. This implies a requirement or the sentence would have ended after “they are forgiven.” There is also no mention of a confession. “Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (Jas 5:14-16) Peter states that penance is required for baptism (which remits sin); James teaches that there is a requirement for forgiveness and James states that forgiveness of sins requires confession. So if sins are to be forgiven in baptism, penance is required. If sins are to be forgiven otherwise confession and meeting an unnamed requirement is required. (The Church teaches that this requirement is honesty and the desire to not repeat the sin.) What then is penance? The Greek word is: metanoia: to think differently after or to reorient one’s self to a opposite way of thinking. In essence, to desire to sin no more, sin having been the original way of thinking. There is it: contrition (remorse that causes the desire to discontinue sin) is in the bible.
So what is with the word contrition? David mentions the word contrite in Psalm 51, but the idea of contrition is never mentioned in the New Testament. Contrition: detestation of sin committed, either imperfectly out of fear of hell, or perfectly out of grief for causing sorrow to God (definition courtesy of a mixture of sources.) The meaning of the root of the Latin word contritio is to crush, grind or wear down. (God is so amazing, btw.) David mentions “a “contrite heart you never scorn” (Psa 51:17.) A contrite heart then would be a crushed, ground or worn down heart. All of these images then imply that the heart (pre-contrition) must have been hard. Where have we heard about hearts being hardened?
Obviously the go to verse would regard God hardening Pharaoh’s heart after Moses asked him to: Let my people go. But we find this hardening of heart as well with the northern tribes “And they made their heart as the adamant stone” (Zec 7:12.) Every instance this hardened heart is mentioned it is mentioned in reference to: unfaithfulness to God, in the betrothed relationship of covenant with humanity/Israel. So allowing ones heart to harden is essentially turning from God to idolatry, in those days there were false gods, today we often worship ourselves. (one might say: and vice versa) Have you ever wondered why David would have written that God would be more or less pleased with a broken heart? What he meant was: God, please give me a soft, living, beating heart again. A broken heart isn’t how we perceive it, but a heart of flesh, the promise of a new heart in Ezeckiel. The heart of fidelity, fidelity is at it’s core openness to love. And openness to the acceptance of love (undeserved forgiveness) is exactly what one grapples with waiting in line for confession.
Coincidentally Psalm 50/51 was written in the context of the affair with Bathsheba