“Another doctrinal current made its appearance in the Middle Ages, Duns Scotus being its outstanding exponent. He taught that the acts of the penitent-contrition, confession, satisfaction-though integral, are not essential parts of the sacrament of penance. The only essential is the absolution in respect of the sins, the three acts of penitence being only the signs of it. Futhermore, he understood the efficacy of the sacrament in the sense of a remission of the fault and of the penalty. The forgiveness of sins does not result immediately from absolution; absolution provokes a certain disposition, and it is this disposition which, through God’s promise, calls forth forgivness.
Concerning contrition, he shows that there exist two ways of justification (in the scholastic sense): one, contrition (superior attrition), can dispense with the sacrament; the other, attrition, suffices for the remission of sins in the sacrament. In connection with the discipline of confession he is less strict concerning its obligatory nature, holding that it is obligatory, by divine precept, only in the case of those in danger of death and as a preparation for certain duties requiring purity.
William of Occam (d. about 1349), many of whose ideas were taken over by Luther, carried this evolutionary process in the theology of penance to lengths that were condemned as heretical. For him, there is no question of attrition being necessary, much less of its being sufficient-to win God’s forgiveness. God pardons sins without requiring any movement of repentence. According to this view, absolution merely demonstrates that the sinner is forgiven. Absolution does not loose ; it supposes the remission of sins to be already accomplished. Absolution, then, is alone essential; contrition, confession, satisfaction are but conditions presupposed either in fact or in the desire or will. The sacrament, however, is necessary- at least has to be desired (in voto)-for the remission of sins really to take place. This is pure nominalism, which empties the sacrament of all objective efficacy, locating in the intention, the desire, or the will (in voto) the whole essence of the spiritual life. Thus in the Middle Ages, before the Reformation, certain questions were already being raised concerning the traditional Catholic view of the sacrament of penance as it had been formulated by St. Thomas.”
Max Thurain, Confession, SCM Press, 1958, 23-25