A Forgotten Sin

There is a strange and subtle fault that plagues human hearts. It is strange because it is committed only with other sins, and it is subtle because one already has forgiveness on his mind when he commits it and so is likely not to think it needs repenting from. What is this sin?


Presumption is opposed to the virtue of hope, whereby we desire and expect God’s forgiveness and help in obtaining Heaven. It is the contrary of despair… The presumptuous person throws aside the moral law on account of the excessive character of his hope. He expects too much from God: he expects a thing not promised. Salvation has not been promised to those who merely fulfill a formula (viz., announcing one’s sins in sacramental confession, for example) but rather to those who exhibit perfect contrition, which is the rejection of all to do with sin – its evil effects, its evil content, and its evil motivation – out of love for God (with the assumption of making confession soon, if not presently making one), and to those who at least have true “attrition” (fear of punishment) within the sacrament of confession itself. Presumption is a special kind of motivation… a “meta-sin” if you will. One is in danger of not having adequate repentance for the sacrament of confession to receive absolution if he fails to mention presumption, as he brings his lack of the fear of God into the confessional with him. For a valid confession, one must at least have true attrition – fear of punishment. The presumptuous person does not have this fear with regard to himself. (If you have just become aware of this sin in your life, you should assume that your prior confessions were valid unless you have a clear certainty that you were not really trying that hard to examine your conscience. Simply mention presumption in your next confession.)

To help understand this sin, here’s a natural, human form of presumption. Imagine a child who stays out well past his curfew. When he comes home, his parents are upset, but he apologizes for his lateness and they forgive him. Then, on their way to bed, they hear their son talking on the phone to a friend – “Yeah they were mad but they forgave me. I knew they would, that’s why I did it.”

Ouch. What parent wouldn’t then proceed with an even more severe punishment than what mere lateness merited?

Unlike an unsuspecting parent, God is wise to this game. A person has “too much hope” if he thinks that “God will forgive me” is an excuse for doing whatever he wants and then only confessing the faults he commits because of his expectation of forgiveness. He must also confess his motivation – presuming upon God’s mercy. In this sense, presumption is “an inordinate conversion to God,” as St. Thomas puts it. This is strange to our ears, but it is indeed what this sin is; a person hopes so much for forgiveness that his servile fear is entirely demolished and replaced not by filial fear but by disobedience.

Presumption is a daughter of pride. One who thinks he is so great as to deserve Heaven is likely to fall into halfhearted repentance, or even into no repentance at all. What a calamity! Pride can also lead to another kind of presumption, namely, the rash assumption that God has blessed one’s endeavors in such a way that failure will be impossible or at least improbable in the project one has undertaken. For example, a man decides to become a missionary in China. He prayed, but he did not seek the approval of any ecclesial authority nor take counsel with a prudent spiritual director. How does he know that this is really God’s will? He does not. He would be guilty of this secondary kind of presumption. So too would a person who thinks himself to have “the gift of healing” and so goes about laying hands on people without authentic discretion. This is presumptuous of God’s grace and also exposes the Gospel to ridicule.

Knowing you have committed this sin is not always so easy. There is a difference between the hope of forgiveness motivating a sin and the hope of forgiveness occasioning a sin… I have given an example of the former in the context of human relationships. An example of the latter would be something more like a child who has become used to his parents forgiving him and so loses some respect and fear of punishment. He does not consciously choose to violate their legitimate demands on him because he knows they will forgive him, but a kind of vicious habit has been ingrained nonetheless. Where is the line between these two cases? It might not always be so clear. What we can say is that a person who consciously makes forgiveness a condition of his sinful action has certainly committed this sin, and a person who has lost respect and fear of punishment is in serious danger of committing this sin.

To reiterate, presumption requires its own mention in confession, as it is its own distinct sin. Often a person will know he has done something seriously wrong by using “God will forgive me” as a motivation for sin but will not have the vocabulary to explain himself in confession. The word is “presumption.”


Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: Pope Francis goes to confession – via Catholic News Agency

16 thoughts on “A Forgotten Sin

  1. Yup. And curiosity is an even more forgotten sin that, like pride, is now mistaken for a virtue. Or rather, curiosity may be a virtue in some matters, though definitely not in all (for instance, in asking “What about that sin is so much fun?” or “What are effective ways to cover up a sin?”), and even when it IS a virtue (as in the sciences), it is not so great a virtue that it trumps all others (thus “justifying” unethical research, or example).


  2. You seem to imply that perfect contrition is required fo absolution. That is not so As long as the penitent has at least imperfect contrition, most normally the fear of hell, then he can be absolved. Presumption would have to rise to a very high level (e.g. believing God forgives everyone, even if they don’t confess) to invalidate a confession.


    1. Hi Snapper,

      Thanks for the comment. I did make it clear that attrition suffices for a valid confession, but I can see how my earlier statement could have been read contrary to that, and so I have edited it to make it clearer. It is the case that the deficiency of attrition is “made up for” by the grace of the Sacrament itself, and it is dubious whether that compensation renders one’s contrition perfect – St. Thomas (in the Supplementum) notes two opinions and prefers the one that says it does not because contrition is an act not a habit and therefore can’t change but must cease and begin again. I suppose I prefer that opinion too.


      1. Hey as you said, “ATTRITION suffices for a valid confession”

        Thanks! I can rarely/barely get my lazyassss up and out to my parish’s 30 minute Saturday Confession

        (so I can just kick back and wait-it-out and my sins will gradually disappear?)


      2. Attrition is an imperfect form of contrition. If one at least is sorry on account of the punishment that awaits, this is sufficient for receiving absolution in sacramental confession. Perfect contrition is sufficient for receiving God’s forgiveness apart from actually receiving absolution, albeit one must at least implicitly intend to go to confession (which is why, for instance, if someone in mortal sin is stranded on a desert island for the rest of his life he is not therefore condemned to Hell).


      3. Attrition (imperfect contrition) requires the actual use of the sacrament to restore us to grace – perfect contrition does so without the actual use of the sacrament, but one must certainly intend (at least implicitly, i.e., “If I weren’t trapped on a sinking ship…”) to use the sacrament to reconcile with the Church and out of obedience as part of perfect contrition.


  3. Why would one take the step to visit a confessional if he weren’t already at least afraid of hell? Presumption would cause the person to believe there was already perfect contrition and no need to confess.


    1. Hi Seth,

      Great question. The problem is not that one has no kind of thought of punishment, it is that one thinks he can use the sacrament as a way out of punishment without actually being afraid that he really could be punished – one trusts in his own powers (telling one’s sins) rather than actually converting back to full obedience to God by authentically trusting in His mercy and grace, which would include the fear of just punishment and also attrition and contrition themselves (as we can’t produce these on our own – see Trent). One is willing to roll the dice and predicate sin on his relative assurance of future forgiveness by the use of his own powers… His only fear of punishment then, is with regard to failing to make it to confession. Furthermore, if one doesn’t repent of presumption, then it seems there is not even full confession of sin, which is another part of the sacrament. The example I gave of the child breaking curfew should make this clear – in what sense does he really fear punishment? Only if he fails to say, “I’m sorry.” He uses his parents’ mercy to do whatever he wants, presuming upon forgiveness of it. As Thomas says, this is an inordinate conversion to God, inasmuch as it is an excessive form of hope. One expects Heaven and fails to realize the fact that grace is not owed to us but must be freely given – and who would give such a gift to a person who expects it by the use of his own powers? It is Pelagian.


    2. Seth, I think the simple definition of “presumption” can be explained by the phrase “gaming the system”. If during a sinful temptation one hears a voice say “go ahead you can always go to confession” and then acts on this sinister advice; presumption has occurred. This person may have no problem convicting themselves in confession and has grown at ease with telling a priest anonymously his evil acts. Oh sure its not fun but please remember we love our sins and a small or big inconvenience of confession….hey no biggie right?! This person has given himself room to sin. He has dismissed the horror of it! We know mans justice is less than Gods justice, but regardless, how would you judge this person? Could we say he is truly sorry and contrite? How would you rule if you are the judge. Probably not what the person expected. Keep in mind that sin must be a terrible awful horrible thing for God to be willing to become a man so he could die a bodily death in order to save us from it. Presumption says “no big deal”. But it is a very big deal!!


      1. Yes – one “uses” the sacrament, “uses” God’s mercy, as his license to sin. The next step is simony… I heard a story once of a man, just before the Reformation, who “bought absolution” for a future sin, and the future sin was stealing the chest he had put his money into! This is the direction presumption heads in. The restoration of a sinner to grace is a monumental act of God – we ought to have extreme reverence for it!


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