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Posts Tagged ‘repentance’

I had a discussion this week about public confession, prompted by the Lance Armstrong/Oprah interview. It wasn’t so much about the cyclist or his past exploits, but the more general question of whether this kind of public ‘confession’ is good for the individual and good for society; and whether there is always a natural and swift movement from repentance to rehabilitation to reconciliation to redemption if we finally take the step of admitting we were wrong. So I don’t want to judge an individual here (I try not to write about people’s misdeeds or misfortune), but to think about the general question.

oprah by story acccents

Is public confession necessary? In Catholic sacramental terms, of course, you never make a public confession – it’s between you and the priest and God, and it’s protected by the seal of the confessional, which is inviolable and absolute. But is it sometimes necessary, or at least important, to admit your wrongdoing in public and to say sorry in public? Yes, I think so. If, for example, you have persistently lied in public, then simply in terms of justice you are (all things being equal) duty bound to correct the untruth, and in terms of the reconciliation you seek with those you may have misled and hurt by your lies, you owe them an apology.

There may be situations where this isn’t prudent, or where the public retraction and apology may do more harm than good, to individuals or to the common good; but in ordinary circumstances, we need to apologise for and try to put right the things that we have done wrong; and if that has involved some great public harm, then the correction and the apology should normally be public.

Does that mean we can always say, categorically, that a public confession or apology is a good thing? Well, to borrow the language of sacramental theology, you need more than just the ‘confession’ (saying to another what you have done wrong) to make a good confession: you also need genuine sorrow in your heart (‘contrition’), and a sincere and practical intention to put things right and avoid wrongdoing in the future (a ‘purpose of amendment’); and – as a supplementary – to take on a penance, as a part of the wider ‘putting right’ and as a help to your ongoing conversion.

And this is also where the tools of moral philosophy are very helpful. At an objective level, if someone has lied in public, then it is good to correct the lie and apologise. The objective moral ‘act’ is, in this case, good: it’s good to tell the truth, it’s good to put things right, it’s good to say sorry. But as well as the objective act, you need to factor in the subjective motivation (the reason why someone has chosen to do this), and the circumstances surrounding the act.

What are the deepest reasons why someone is choosing to do this thing at this time? Are they morally good reasons? And what are the circumstances that colour the whole decision and the act itself? Maybe we can’t know for the moment in a given case; sometimes we are not even aware of our own real motivations. But these are, in one traditional way of understanding moral actions, the three elements that we need to consider when we think about our own moral choices: the objective good or harm that is done (whatever our motivations); our personal motivations themselves; and the circumstances. If we choose to do what is good, for good reasons, in appropriate circumstances, then we have – usually – made a good choice.

I say ‘usually’, because another factor (now it’s getting extra complicated: he said there were three elements, now there are four…) is whether there is also a better or greater good that we could have chosen instead. The Ignatian motto, remember, is to do all things not just for the glory of God, but for the greater glory of God.

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"St John the Baptist Preaching" by Rodin

I don’t want to turn this blog into an archive of Sunday sermons, but here is one thought from a recent Advent homily – about procrastination and the difficulty of doing what we really want to do.

I’ve spent the twenty-five years of my life as an adult telling myself that next week I will start flossing my teeth. Tonight, I’ll stand in front of the bathroom mirror, as I always do, with the same excuses: “I’m tired. It’s been a long day. I need to sleep. But next week, definitely, absolutely, I’ll begin.”

What’s dental hygiene got to do with Advent? Nothing at all. But my personal struggles in this area are an example of how easy it is for us to put things off. Little things. Big things. Life changing things. There’s always a tomorrow; and we always think we have more time.

John the Baptist is the patron saint of ‘not putting things off’. He bursts onto the pages of the gospels like someone from another world. And meeting him is not a comfortable experience.

You know when you are sitting on the top deck of a bus, and someone slightly deranged gets on, talking to no-one in particular, staggering around – and everyone freezes, uncertain where this is going to go, self-conscious, and slightly frightened.

Or when you’re driving the car, lost in a day-dream, and something jolts you awake, and you realise you were within an inch of a terrible accident; and in those moments afterwards your experience a strange mix of alertness, gratitude, vulnerability and delayed terror. These are some of the feelings aroused today when John the Baptist starts to preach.

You can put his message into one word. “Now!” Now is the time to repent. Now is the time to bear fruit. Now the axe is about to strike the root.

Think of anything important in your life that you have been putting off. Anything good and worthwhile. And John says: If it is really important, then just do it. Now. There may not be another chance.

Is there a promise you haven’t kept? A responsibility you haven’t fulfilled? Is there someone you need to love more, or see more, or avoid seeing? Is there someone you need to forgive, or say sorry to? Is there a decision you’ve been putting off, an opportunity you’ve been afraid to seize, a holy ambition you haven’t pursued, or a vocation you’ve been running away from? Is there a tiny change in your habits or lifestyle or view of the world that would make a huge difference to yourself and to others, that you haven’t made simply because you haven’t got round to it?

What would John the Baptist say? “Now!” Deal with it now. You may never have another chance. And you may spend the rest of your life regretting that you didn’t put things right or take things forward while you had the chance.

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