QUESTION 3: OF THE DEGREE OF CONTRITION
We must now consider the degree of contrition: under which head there
are three points of inquiry:
(1) Whether contrition is the greatest possible sorrow in the world?
(2) Whether the sorrow of contrition can be too great?
(3) Whether sorrow for one sin ought to be greater than for another?
Article 1: Whether contrition is the greatest possible sorrow in the world?
Objection 1: It would seem that contrition is not the greatest possible sorrow
in the world. For sorrow is the sensation of hurt. But some hurts are
more keenly felt than the hurt of sin, e.g. the hurt of a wound.
Therefore contrition is not the greatest sorrow.
Objection 2: Further, we judge of a cause according to its effect. Now the
effect of sorrow is tears. Since therefore sometimes a contrite person
does not shed outward tears for his sins, whereas he weeps for the death
of a friend, or for a blow, or the like, it seems that contrition is not
the greatest sorrow.
Objection 3: Further, the more a thing is mingled with its contrary, the less
its intensity. But the sorrow of contrition has a considerable admixture
of joy, because the contrite man rejoices in his delivery, in the hope of
pardon, and in many like things. Therefore his sorrow is very slight.
Objection 4: Further, the sorrow of contrition is a kind of displeasure. But
there are many things more displeasing to the contrite than their past
sins; for they would not prefer to suffer the pains of hell rather than
to sin. nor to have suffered, nor yet to suffer all manner of temporal
punishment; else few would be found contrite. Therefore the sorrow of
contrition is not the greatest.
On the contrary, According to Augustine (De Civ. Dei xiv, 7, 9), "all
sorrow is based on love." Now the love of charity, on which the sorrow of
contrition is based, is the greatest love. Therefore the sorrow of
contrition is the greatest sorrow.
Further, sorrow is for evil. Therefore the greater the evil, the greater
the sorrow. But the fault is a greater evil than its punishment.
Therefore contrition which is sorrow for fault, surpasses all other
I answer that, As stated above (Question , Article , ad 1), there is a twofold
sorrow in contrition: one is in the will, and is the very essence of
contrition, being nothing else than displeasure at past sin, and this
sorrow, in contrition, surpasses all other sorrows. For the more pleasing
a thing is, the more displeasing is its contrary. Now the last end is
above all things pleasing: wherefore sin, which turns us away from the
last end, should be, above all things, displeasing. The other sorrow is
in the sensitive part, and is caused by the former sorrow either from
natural necessity, in so far as the lower powers follow the movements of
the higher, or from choice, in so far as a penitent excites in himself
this sorrow for his sins. In neither of these ways is such sorrow, of
necessity, the greatest, because the lower powers are more deeply moved
by their own objects than through redundance from the higher powers.
Wherefore the nearer the operation of the higher powers approaches to the
objects of the lower powers, the more do the latter follow the movement
of the former. Consequently there is greater pain in the sensitive part,
on account of a sensible hurt, than that which redounds into the
sensitive part from the reason; and likewise, that which redounds from
the reason when it deliberates on corporeal things, is greater than that
which redounds from the reason in considering spiritual things. Therefore
the sorrow which results in the sensitive part from the reason's
displeasure at sin, is not greater than the other sorrows of which that
same part is the subject: and likewise, neither is the sorrow which is
assumed voluntarily greater than other sorrows---both because the lower
appetite does not obey the higher appetite infallibly, as though in the
lower appetite there should arise a passion of such intensity and of such
a kind as the higher appetite might ordain---and because the passions are
employed by the reason, in acts of virtue, according to a certain
measure, which the sorrow that is without virtue sometimes does not
observe, but exceeds.
Reply to Objection 1: Just as sensible sorrow is on account of the sensation of
hurt, so interior sorrow is on account of the thought of something
hurtful. Therefore, although the hurt of sin is not perceived by the
external sense, yet it is perceived to be the most grievous hurt by the
interior sense or reason.
Reply to Objection 2: Affections of the body are the immediate result of the
sensitive passions and, through them, of the emotions of the higher
appetite. Hence it is that bodily tears flow more quickly from sensible
sorrow, or even from a thing that hurts the senses, than from the
spiritual sorrow of contrition.
Reply to Objection 3: The joy which a penitent has for his sorrow does not lessen
his displeasure (for it is not contrary to it), but increases it,
according as every operation is increased by the delight which it causes,
as stated in Ethic. x, 5. Thus he who delights in learning a science,
learns the better, and, in like manner, he who rejoices in his
displeasure, is the more intensely displeased. But it may well happen
that this joy tempers the sorrow that results from the reason in the
Reply to Objection 4: The degree of displeasure at a thing should be
proportionate to the degree of its malice. Now the malice of mortal sin
is measured from Him against Whom it is committed, inasmuch as it is
offensive to Him; and from him who sins, inasmuch as it is hurtful to
him. And, since man should love God more than himself, therefore he
should hate sin, as an offense against God, more than as being hurtful to
himself. Now it is hurtful to him chiefly because it separates him from
God; and in this respect the separation from God which is a punishment,
should be more displeasing than the sin itself, as causing this hurt
(since what is hated on account of something else, is less hated), but
less than the sin, as an offense against God. Again, among all the
punishments of malice a certain order is observed according to the
degree of the hurt. Consequently, since this is the greatest hurt,
inasmuch as it consists in privation of the greatest good, the greatest
of all punishments will be separation from God.
Again, with regard to this displeasure, it is necessary to observe that
there is also an accidental degree of malice, in respect of the present
and the past; since what is past, is no more, whence it has less of the
character of malice or goodness. Hence it is that a man shrinks from
suffering an evil at the present, or at some future time, more than he
shudders at the past evil: wherefore also, no passion of the soul
corresponds directly to the past, as sorrow corresponds to present evil,
and fear to future evil. Consequently, of two past evils, the mind
shrinks the more from that one which still produces a greater effect at
the present time, or which, it fears, will produce a greater effect in
the future, although in the past it was the lesser evil. And, since the
effect of the past sin is sometimes not so keenly felt as the effect of
the past punishment, both because sin is more perfectly remedied than
punishment, and because bodily defect is more manifest than spiritual
defect, therefore even a man, who is well disposed, sometimes feels a
greater abhorrence of his past punishment than of his past sin, although
he would be ready to suffer the same punishment over again rather than
commit the same sin.
We must also observe, in comparing sin with punishment, that some
punishments are inseparable from offense of God, e.g. separation from
God; and some also are everlasting, e.g. the punishment of hell.
Therefore the punishment to which is connected offense of God is to be
shunned in the same way as sin; whereas that which is everlasting is
simply to be shunned more than sin. If, however, we separate from these
punishments the notion of offense, and consider only the notion of
punishment, they have the character of malice, less than sin has as an
offense against God: and for this reason should cause less displeasure.
We must, however, take note that, although the contrite should be thus
disposed, yet he should not be questioned about his feelings, because man
cannot easily measure them. Sometimes that which displeases least seems
to displease most, through being more closely connected with some
sensible hurt, which is more known to us.
Article 2: Whether the sorrow of contrition can be too great?
Objection 1: It would seem that the sorrow of contrition cannot be too great.
For no sorrow can be more immoderate than that which destroys its own
subject. But the sorrow of contrition, if it be so great as to cause
death or corruption of the body, is praiseworthy. For Anselm says (Orat.
lii): "Would that such were the exuberance of my inmost soul, as to dry
up the marrow of my body"; and Augustine [*De Contritione Cordis, work of
an unknown author] confesses that "he deserves to blind his eyes with
tears." Therefore the sorrow of contrition cannot be too great.
Objection 2: Further, the sorrow of contrition results from the love of
charity. But the love of charity cannot be too great. Neither, therefore,
can the sorrow of contrition be too great.
Objection 3: On the contrary, Every moral virtue is destroyed by excess and
deficiency. But contrition is an act of a moral virtue, viz. penance,
since it is a part of justice. Therefore sorrow for sins can be too great.
I answer that, Contrition, as regards the sorrow in the reason, i.e. the
displeasure, whereby the sin is displeasing through being an offense
against God, cannot be too great; even as neither can the love of charity
be too great, for when this is increased the aforesaid displeasure is
increased also. But, as regards the sensible sorrow, contrition may be
too great, even as outward affliction of the body may be too great. In
all these things the rule should be the safeguarding of the subject, and
of that general well-being which suffices for the fulfillment of one's
duties; hence it is written (Rm. 12:1): "Let your sacrifice be reasonable
[*Vulg.: 'Present your bodies . . . a reasonable sacrifice']."
Reply to Objection 1: Anselm desired the marrow of his body to be dried up by the
exuberance of his devotion, not as regards the natural humor, but as to
his bodily desires and concupiscences. And, although Augustine
acknowledged that he deserved to lose the use of his bodily eyes on
account of his sins, because every sinner deserves not only eternal, but
also temporal death, yet he did not wish his eyes to be blinded.
Reply to Objection 2: This objection considers the sorrow which is in the reason:
while the Third considers the sorrow of the sensitive part.
Article 3: Whether sorrow for one sin should be greater than for another?
Objection 1: It would seem that sorrow for one sin need not be greater than
for another. For Jerome (Ep. cviii) commends Paula for that "she deplored
her slightest sins as much as great ones." Therefore one need not be more
sorry for one sin than for another.
Objection 2: Further, the movement of contrition is instantaneous. Now one
instantaneous movement cannot be at the same time more intense and more
remiss. Therefore contrition for one sin need not be greater than for
Objection 3: Further, contrition is for sin chiefly as turning us away from God. But all mortal sins agree in turning us away from God, since they all deprive us of grace whereby the soul is united to God. Therefore we should have equal contrition for all mortal sins.
On the contrary, It is written (Dt. 25:2): "According to the measure of
the sin, shall the measure also of the stripes be." Now, in contrition,
the stripes are measured according to the sins, because to contrition is
united the purpose of making satisfaction. Therefore contrition should be
for one sin more than for another.
Further, man should be contrite for that which he ought to have avoided.
But he ought to avoid one sin more than another, if that sin is more
grievous, and it be necessary to do one or the other. Therefore, in like
manner, he ought to be more sorry for one, viz. the more grievous, than
for the other.
I answer that, We may speak of contrition in two ways: first, in so far
as it corresponds to each single sin, and thus, as regards the sorrow in
the higher appetite, a man ought to be more sorry for a more grievous
sin, because there is more reason for sorrow, viz. the offense against
God, in such a sin than in another, since the more inordinate the act is,
the more it offends God. In like manner, since the greater sin deserves a
greater punishment, the sorrow also of the sensitive part, in so far as
it is voluntarily undergone for sin, as the punishment thereof, ought to
be greater where the sin is greater. But in so far as the emotions of the
lower appetite result from the impression of the higher appetite, the
degree of sorrow depends on the disposition of the lower faculty to the
reception of impressions from the higher faculty, and not on the
greatness of the sin.
Secondly, contrition may be taken in so far as it is directed to all
one's sins together, as in the act of justification. Such contrition
arises either from the consideration of each single sin, and thus
although it is but one act, yet the distinction of the sins remains
virtually therein; or, at least, it includes the purpose of thinking of
each sin; and in this way too it is habitually more for one than for
Reply to Objection 1: Paula is commended, not for deploring all her sins equally,
but because she grieved for her slight sins as much as though they were
grave sins, in comparison with other persons who grieve for their sins:
but for graver sins she would have grieved much more.
Reply to Objection 2: In that instantaneous movement of contrition, although it
is not possible to find an actually distinct intensity in respect of each
individual sin, yet it is found in the way explained above; and also in
another way, in so far as, in this general contrition, each individual
sin is related to that particular motive of sorrow which occurs to the
contrite person, viz. the offense against God. For he who loves a whole,
loves its parts potentially although not actually, and accordingly he
loves some parts more and some less, in proportion to their relation to
the whole; thus he who loves a community, virtually loves each one more
or less according to their respective relations to the common good. In
like manner he who is sorry for having offended God, implicitly grieves
for his different sins in different ways, according as by them he
offended God more or less.
Reply to Objection 3: Although each mortal sin turns us away from God and
deprives us of His grace, yet some remove us further away than others,
inasmuch as through their inordinateness they become more out of harmony
with the order of the Divine goodness, than others do.