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.
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.