You spoke of an act of perfect contrition, but I thought it was almost impossible for an average person to make such an act because you have to be free of all attachment to sin. (Or am I confusing this with indulgences?)
Yes, it is the plenary indulgence for which we need to be free of all attachment to sin – but I think that an average person can gain plenary indulgences, and indeed make an act of perfect contrition.
The word “perfect” here refers to the motive for which the act of contrition is made, namely the love of God. An act of imperfect contrition is made when we have a lesser motive such as fear of hell, disgust for sin, or a sense of letting ourselves down. Imperfect contrition is sufficient for the sacrament of penance but an act of perfect contrition means that our sins are forgiven immediately, provided that we also intend to confess them in the sacrament of penance. The various traditional acts of contrition found in prayer books give us a form of words in which we express our sorrow because of our love for God. We can use these prayers or pray in our own words. Contemplating the passion of Christ is a good way of stirring ourselves to an act of sorrow out of love for God.
We can also be free from attachment to sin in the sense that the Church requires as a condition for a plenary indulgence. Here and now, we can come before God with a detestation of sin and a desire not to sin again. With this disposition we can gain a plenary indulgence.
The Church is optimistic about the capacity of our human free will, and the ability of the “average person.” We can make a perfect act of contrition, be detached from sin, have a firm purpose of amendment, and indeed merit heaven. We are also capable of mortal sin in a single gravely sinful act committed with knowledge and consent. In creating us with a spiritual soul, God gives us power and responsibility as persons, for good or evil.
Catholic Dilemmas column published in the Catholic Herald
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