Friday, February 26, 2010

Actus Contritionis

I HAD A DREAM, an odd one (but aren't all of them odd?), about three boys, who due to extreme negligence, wrecked their parents' car.  Each boy had a different reaction:
  • The middle child feared punishment.
  • The oldest child, who was driving, feared that his parents would revoke their promise to pay for his college education.
  • The youngest child knew that his parents loved them and that they would be sad because of the three boys' disobedience.
Why should we do good and avoid what is wrong? Just so that we can get a reward, or avoid punishment?

Since this is the penitential season of Lent, let us consider the Act of Contrition, used during the Sacrament of Penance. Here is the Latin text:
Deus meus, ex toto corde poenitet me omnium meorum peccatorum,
eaque detestor, quia peccando,
non solum poenas a te iuste statutas promeritus sum,
sed praesertim quia offendi te,
summum bonum, ac dignum qui super omnia diligaris.
Ideo firmiter propono,
adiuvante gratia tua,
de cetero me non peccatorum peccandique occasiones proximas fugiturum.
Now, according to the modern Rituale, there are various forms for the Act of Contrition, and there are translations of varying quality. Here is the one that I use:
O my God,
I am heartily sorry for having offended You,
and I detest all my sins,
not just because I fear the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell,
but because You are all good and fully deserving of all my love.
I fully resolve, with the help of Your grace,
to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.
I have no idea where I originally found this text, and I have difficulty in finding official Church texts of the Ritual from the Vatican. However, a lawyer friend once told me that this is a very good form, since it enumerates all the elements needed for perfect contrition.

This is an act of contrition, it being an act of the will: it is something that you choose to do freely.  Perfect contrition is that which is motivated beyond mere reward or punishment.

Consider again why we should do good and to avoid wrong. Like the two older boys in my dream above, do we fear the loss of reward, or do we fear punishment? Of course we should, since we are human, and we can suffer real harm. Indeed, being indifferent to reward or punishment is a heresy, but so is being motivated only by reward or punishment.

Atheistic critics of Christianity will often say that Christians only follow a form of Utilitarianism, desiring to avoid punishment and hoping for reward, but as the Act of Contrition indicates, this is not true: we hate our sins before God because He is all good and fully deserving of all our love. True love for others is the mark of the Christian. The youngest boy in the dream got it right.

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