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Johann Hari’s apology relies on Catholic expressions of penance

Indeed, he could not help but mention the Pope

By on Thursday, 15 September 2011

Confession involves an act of contrition which is meant to signify a change of heart (Photo: PA)

Confession involves an act of contrition which is meant to signify a change of heart (Photo: PA)

Reading Johann Hari’s apology in the Independent – something that has been much raked over online – I was struck by one phrase. He writes:

“So first, even though I stand by the articles which won the George Orwell Prize, I am returning it as an act of contrition for the errors I made elsewhere, in my interviews.”

The words “act of contrition” are associated with the sacrament of penance. Mr Hari, who has been, and for all I know still is, a vociferous critic of the Catholic Church, has nevertheless used a phrase that comes from the lexicon of an institution that he does not love. How odd is that? And I wonder if he knows what is meant by contrition?

Contrition itself means sorrow for sin: not just for the effect of your sin, but for the sin itself. So, a person who is contrite is one who hates the action he has committed because that action displeases God and offends his goodness; he is not just sorry because he has been found out, or because he has discovered that the bad action has rebounded on himself. In this case, if Mr Hari is contrite it means that, for example, he deeply regrets making false accusations about Cristina Odone online, simply because he now knows that to tell lies about someone in a public forum is in itself a bad and wicked thing to do.

Contrition, it has to be said, is a somewhat rare state. Most people feel what is called attrition: this means they are sorry they have done wrong because the results of their action have brought them to a state of regret. Thus, if Mr Hari feels attrition with regard to Ms Odone, then that would be because he realises that his actions have had a detrimental effect on his reputation and his professional standing.

Who knows which camp Mr Hari fits into? Most people are found in the second category. We tend not to hate our sins, but rather we tend to be embarrassed by them, which is not the same thing. Hence the stipulation in the sacrament of penance (which most people still refer to as Confession) of making an act of contrition. This is essentially a form of words, and may be like this example, from EWTN’s website:

O my God,
I am heartily sorry for
having offended Thee,
and I detest all my sins,
because I dread the loss of heaven,
and the pains of hell;
but most of all because
they offend Thee, my God,
Who are all good and
deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve,
with the help of Thy grace,
to confess my sins,
to do penance,
and to amend my life.
Amen.

The point of making this declaration is to signify a change of heart; though it has to be said that words alone are not enough – the heart has to change. But it does not have to change very much for the grace of God to enter and transform it. The act of contrition is a declaration of sincerity. Even if we cannot be contrite, we can, it is hoped, be sincere, and so God will forgive us.

Perhaps, on the other hand, in giving back the Orwell Prize, which he was due to lose anyway, Mr Hari is in fact aiming at doing an act of penance. Once upon a time these were much more than token acts of sorrow, but real acts designed to atone for the damage done by one’s sins. John Balliol, according to what may be legend, founded his college in Oxford as a penance. Richard the Lionheart supposedly did public penance for the sin of sodomy. Nowadays, because God is merciful, the penance imposed by a priest is generally only a token penance and always in private – a token of the repentant sinner’s goodwill. No doubt, privately, Mr Hari has already sent a bunch of flowers or a box of chocolates to Ms Odone as a sign that he is sorry.

But it remains worthy of comment that Mr Hari, in his public penance in the forum provided by the Independent, conforms to the sort of behaviour reminiscent of one of the ceremonies of the Catholic Church. Moreover, he even goes so far as to write:

“But offering words of apology is not enough. Christopher Hitchens once wrote: ‘If you don’t want to sound like the Pope, who apologises for everything and for nothing, then your apology should cost you something.’ I agree.”

This is a mystifying reference, but it may be significant that while writing his apology, Mr Hari could not but help mentioning the Pope, perhaps aware that the Holy Father is one who humbles himself before God everyday at the altar confessing his sins, and who approaches sacramental confession once a week. Moreover the Holy Father, an outstanding scholar and writer, is one who is affable to all – or so I have heard. A fine example for us Catholics, but also, I might add, to non-believers such as Mr Hari.

  • James P

    I’m reminded, before I became a Catholic, of how people said that it’s okay to sin if you’re a Catholic, because all you have to do is go to confession. And, indeed, my Catholic friends mystified me in this respect. I had no understanding, at all, really, of what the sacrament meant. 

    It seems strange to me now that confession in private with a priest should be considered somehow less than a reckoning. I remember my first confession. I said nothing that many other people did not know I had done and said and thought. It was hardly news. I tend to tell many people most things and some people everything. But this was different. Yes, I was speaking and the priest was there listening – and with any luck forgetting! That’s not the point, though. This was the first time, in years and years and years, that I had said these things to God and said sorry to God for them. ‘Offering words’. No. I was not only offering words: I was offering everything; it was a deeply harrowing experience – and it raised me up toward God.

    The penance was one Our Father. Not bad for that many years, you may think. Hardly a public show of guilt. Oxford colleges were not founded. But this was between me and God, not between me and other men. It was God I was being reconciled with. This was a renewal: quite what other people might think was utterly irrelevant.

    The same holds now. So far as I know, there has been nothing mortal, nothing that almost everybody wouldn’t laugh away (masturbation, anyone?) : the veniality is between me and God; and you go to confession when you feel that the venial sins have added up to the point where they occlude your sense of God.

    There is nothing about putting on a show before other people here; there is nothing about the fear of being found out; it is that the failure to go to confession sufficiently often, say once every month or so, or whatever is right for each person, implies complacency, and a failure to know what it is to lay oneself utterly open before God.

    Lastly, where a sin has been confessed, it tends not to happen again. Christ takes it from you. You realise just how stupid it was in the first place and you don’t even have to try not to do it any more. You have indeed laid yourself open and given yourself up, and Christ has stepped in and taken over. A ‘token’ of private penance really can mean a lot.

  • Anonymous

     The Catholic act of penance/contrition seems to be a universal principle that transcends both the spiritual and secular spheres.  It answers an intimate need for  forgiveness on the part of someone who after a good deal of soul-searching, recognizes the wrongs that they have committed against someone else.  In this case, Johann Hari has borrowed from the Catholic lexicon but as an atheist feels that God may not be required as the ultimate source of forgiveness.  As Catholics we know that we are finally answerable to our Creator and this realization spurs us on in a quest to perfect ourselves so that we be with our Heavenly Father after our earthy race is run.  This consolation is sadly not available within the narrow confines of the atheistic or indeed the agnostic world-view.

  • Parasum

    “Contrition itself means sorrow for sin: not just for the effect of your
    sin, but for the sin itself. So, a person who is contrite is one who
    hates the action he has committed because that action displeases God and
    offends his goodness; he is not just sorry because he has been found
    out, or because he has discovered that the bad action has rebounded on
    himself. ”

    The specific motive of the sorrow being – at least predominantly; since others may well be present -  a supernatural love of God.

    “Contrition, it has to be said, is a somewhat rare state.”

    The Church is in a right mess if contrition (AKA perfect contrition) is
    rare – that would indicate a very low spiritual tone in the Church. And that
    is not good news. This looks as though it *might* be the not uncommon confusion between perfect contrition, and intensely perfect contrition (the latter of which probably is rare) – as distinct from attrition (AKA imperfect contrition). Does post-V2 moral theology still use these metaphysical distinctions ? It would be interesting to know.

  • Parasum

    “Lastly, where a sin has been confessed, it tends not to happen again.”  What about habitual sins ? But if that’s been your experience, then so much the better.

    Getting back to Hari in particular:

    “So first, even though I stand by the articles which won the George
    Orwell Prize, I am returning it as an act of contrition for the errors I
    made elsewhere, in my interviews.”

    STM that what he means is “an act of reparation” – the third part of the sacrament.

  • Anonymous

    If you read Hari’s statement, it doesn’t sound very much like the expression of contrition as you define it. In fact, it is a rather self-serving statement which scarcely merits the description of being an ‘apology’. Hari’s kind of left-wing liberalism, filled with hatred of Catholicism, finds it difficult to see the difference between lies and truth.

  • peregrinus

    Ha! learned expositions on penance aside, Johann Hari’s apology was nothing of the sort.  He basically said he ought to have known better but, in fact, he didn’t, which is no sort of apology at all, in Catholicism or any other religion, not even for atheists I should think.  He says sorry for not knowing any better, rather than for deliberately, knowingly, intentionally lying to his readers.  He is even going to undergo ‘voluntary retraining’ so that he does not make the same ‘mistakes’ again, like saying that people said things which they didn’t, and saying he had been places where he hadn’t.  The whole tone is that it was if not an honest, then an almost honest mistake.  Its hardly Henry IV begging in the snow in Canossa, is it? 

  • peregrinus

    Ha! learned expositions on penance aside, Johann Hari’s apology was nothing of the sort.  He basically said he ought to have known better but, in fact, he didn’t, which is no sort of apology at all, in Catholicism or any other religion, not even for atheists I should think.  He says sorry for not knowing any better, rather than for deliberately, knowingly, intentionally lying to his readers.  He is even going to undergo ‘voluntary retraining’ so that he does not make the same ‘mistakes’ again, like saying that people said things which they didn’t, and saying he had been places where he hadn’t.  The whole tone is that it was if not an honest, then an almost honest mistake.  Its hardly Henry IV begging in the snow in Canossa, is it? 

  • Stuart

    To continue your analogy…Hari is the pedophile priest who has sent away for “retraining” by his bishops. When he returns he will, like pedophiles, certainly re-offend. There is only one solution—defrock him. Cut off his pen.