Soteriology: Implicit Perfect Contrition

Suppose that a non-Christian or a non-Catholic Christians enters the state of grace by some form of baptism. What happens if they fall out of grace by an actual mortal sin? They do not have access to Confession (except for Orthodox Christians and a few other groups). How can they return to the state of grace?

They return to grace by explicit perfect contrition, which is sorrow for one’s sins out of love for God. That is not such a high bar. It is or should be the ordinary type of contrition that Catholics have, even for venial sins. We love God, and so we are sorry that are sins violate his commandments and offend that love. An act of perfect contrition returns the soul to the state of grace immediately, but subsequent confession is required.

It’s required because the forgiveness of perfect contrition flows from the Cross of Christ, by way of the Sacrament of Confession. It’s required because you cannot be certain that your contrition is perfect, and not imperfect. Imperfect contrition is motivated by an ordered love of self, wanting to go to Heaven instead of Hell; wanting to be a better person; etc. But for non-Catholics who have invincible ignorance about the requirement to go to Confession, they can still be forgiven by perfect contrition. This would be the case for Jews, Muslims, and anyone else who truly loves God, even if they have mistaken ideas about Him.

The baptism of desire can be implicit, and the person still is given the state of grace. So why can’t perfect contrition be implicit, and return the soul to the state of grace? It can be.


A Catholic is sorry for his sins out of love for God, but has never heard of “an act of perfect contrition”. His sorrow might be expressed by various wordings, or even without words, with simply a sigh.
{8:26} And similarly, the Spirit also helps our weakness. For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself asks on our behalf with ineffable sighing.

Then we can take this a step further. A Catholic can have implicit perfect contrition, in that he is not thinking specifically about his sins, but is thinking about his love for God. And so any sincere prayer of love for God, in full cooperation with grace, by a person in a state of actual mortal sin, is sufficient to constitute an act of implicit perfect contrition. By an act of love, a person can enter the state of grace (Midwives, 21a). And so, by an act of love, he can return.

For non-Catholic Christians and non-Christian believers, the same applies. They can return to the state of grace by an act of love of God, in full cooperation with grace. How can this be, when they lack supernatural love (being in a state of mortal sin)? They lack that theological virtue of love, so how can they return to grace by such an act?

For Catholics in a state of mortal sin, as for anyone else who can return by perfect contrition, the prevenient grace of God is given to the person, in mercy, and makes them subsequently able to cooperate fully with the subsequent grace which is an act of supernatural love. And in that act itself, not after or before, the person returns to the state of grace and is given the infused virtues (again) of love, faith, and hope. But the act of love is an act of the theological which is given within the very act of exercising the same virtue. For just as the grace of initial justification is prevenient, so too is the grace that returns one to the state of grace, whether by perfect contrition, or by imperfect contrition with the Sacrament of Confession.

That this return to grace is prevenient is clear from the teaching that an unconscious person, or a person not in their right mind, can be in a state of actual mortal sin, and if they had imperfect contrition before falling into that incapable state, the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick (extreme unction) will return them to the state of grace. Their cooperation is not needed, just as it is not needed for the baptism of infants. For the grace of justification (entering the state of grace) is prevenient in Baptism, Confession, and Anointing of the Sick.

Now we arrive at the difficult case: the atheist. He might enter the state of grace by an implicit baptism of desire, out of sincere selfless love of neighbor. But what if he sins gravely, in an actual mortal sin? He can’t repent with explicit perfect contrition, out of love for a God whom he does not believe exists. My theological opinion is that the atheist can return to the state of grace in the same way he entered, by selfless love of neighbor. All true love of neighbor includes love for God, at least implicitly. By loving his neighbor, who is made in the image of God, he loves God without realizing it.

By sorrow for his sins out of love for neighbor, the atheist can then return to the state of grace, by implicit perfect contrition. It is implicit because the required love of God is present implicitly. He does have explicit sorrow for sin, but out of love for neighbor.

The last cast to consider is where the love for God and the sorrow for sin are both implicit. This is the most difficult and unlikely way to return to grace. The example is a soldier who is an atheist, and who is unrepentant from actual mortal sin, unrepentant until a certain situation occurs. An enemy grenade is thrown next to him and his fellow soldiers, for which he has only emotional natural affection. But by the prevenient grace of God, he is able next to cooperate fully with subsequent grace, and in an act of selfless love of neighbor (which must not be mere vainglory) he decides to thrown himself on the grenade, saving the other soldiers at the cost of his own life. This act is of grace and of theological love. The love of God is implicit, as is the sorrow for sin. Whoever loves God selflessly is implicitly sorry for past sins, even if those sins are not on their mind at the time.

The most difficult path to heaven is by atheism or agnosticism, or any of the “religions” which have no true love of God and neighbor taught to their adherents (like the pagan religions). Those persons can still be saved, but it is difficult and the path to Heaven is rocky, winding, and poorly lit. Many get lost along the way and do not make it.

The easiest path to Heaven is to be a believing and practicing Catholic. If you truly believe and faithfully practice, I don’t see how you could fail to enter Heaven.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

This entry was posted in salvation. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Soteriology: Implicit Perfect Contrition

  1. Matt says:

    What do you recommend a person pray, who has not gone to confession, and has committed mortal sins, when sudden death is imminent in order to be saved from Hell?

    • Ron Conte says:

      * Consider your sins and regret them out of love for God and for those who are harmed by your sins.
      * Pray extemporaneously to God for forgiveness for your sins.
      * “Jesus, Mary, I love you, save souls.”
      * The Divine Mercy Chaplet or the Rosary (or both)
      * Consider those you truly love in this life, and consider how you ought to love God.

Comments are closed.