Johann Hari’s apology relies on Catholic expressions of penance

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.

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.