In 1963, when it emerged that he had lied to Parliament about his affair with Christine Keeler, John Profumo apologised, resigned from the government and stood down as an MP. He then disappeared from public life. Despite being wealthy and well connected, he volunteered to do menial work for Toynbee Hall, a charity in the East End of London.
Profumo, who was back in the news this week for an alleged affair with a Nazi spy, remained involved with Toynbee Hall until his death in 2006, raising enormous amounts of money for the place. There was no self-pitying memoir, no showy relaunch, no carefully choreographed interview explaining that he was ready to re-enter politics a changed man.
Profumo came to mind earlier this year when Eamon Casey died. Casey was the bishop of Galway whose resignation in 1992 after revelations of an affair is seen as a crucial moment in the Irish Church’s loss of moral authority. I knew about the scandal. What I did not know was that after his fall from grace Casey “did a Profumo”, ie quietly devoted himself to penitence and good works, first as a missionary in South America and then as chaplain to a hospice.
That type of approach seems to have become rather rare. Honest, straightforward confessions followed by genuine penance increasingly feel like the exception to the rule of slippery pseudo-apologies couched in cod-therapeutic language. This phenomenon has been inescapable during the past few weeks of revelations about sexual misconduct and abuse by powerful men. We have heard a great deal about people seeking “treatment” for their “issues”, or being “on a journey”. Others say that the era in which they committed the offences was “a different time”, as if “Don’t sexually assault people or exploit them” were some radical new insight in ethics only discovered in the 1980s.
Our instinctive dissatisfaction with half-hearted, incomplete or insincere apologies is surely influenced by the Catholic ideal. The Church’s teaching is that proper participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation depends on the three elements of contrition, confession and satisfaction – that is to say, we should be truly sorry; we should say sorry without hedging or excuses; and we should try to make things right and amend our lives. Even many non-Christians seem to recognise the logic of this in the way they approach reconciliation after wrongdoing. Indeed, I suspect that the decline of faith is one factor in the decline of the apology.
The demands of Christian practice can be a great help in forming the habit of honest self-reproach. An observant Catholic will regularly examine his conscience before Confession. In the Hail Mary he will ask Our Lady to “pray for us sinners”. At Mass he will recite the Confiteor, with its admission that he has “greatly sinned” through his “most grievous fault”. Other Christians in liturgical traditions also usually begin services with penitential prayer. One thinks of the Book of Common Prayer’s uncompromising reference to “miserable offenders”.
However, it is easy for individuals who do these things routinely to forget that they are really very odd in modern, developed societies. Huge numbers of people go through their whole lives without any opportunity, or impetus, for systematic reflection on their sins.
Another factor, I believe, is an understandable confusion about what it means to forgive and be forgiven. If you cannot hope for restoration, a candid confession becomes an even more daunting prospect. The idea of forgiveness is central to Christianity, and vital to any coexistence between flawed human beings, but has tended to elude clear definition. Sometimes it is met with suspicion and viewed as a pretence that an offence did not occur.
This is not quite right. Rather, it might be called a form of disarmament – a refusal to nurture resentment or weaponise a wrong done to us. There is reciprocity in forgiveness, a recognition of our universal human weakness and consequent need for reconciliation. All of us need it and all of us must offer it. As Jesus warns us in Matthew’s Gospel: “Whatever measure you deal out to others will be dealt to you.” There is liberation in the practice of seeking and granting forgiveness, not just the kind of liberation that accompanies living truthfully, but also the kind found in the refusal to be bound by the pretence of perfection.
I wonder whether we reflect enough on the possible evangelistic power of being good apologisers and forgivers. Almost everyone will be familiar with situations where a refusal to seek or grant forgiveness has poisoned relationships and characters, and many will be exasperated by the way in which social media encourages performative indignation at the misdeeds of others. How powerful, then, if Christians can model humility over their own faults and patience with those of others, pointing ultimately towards the great mercy of God.
Niall Gooch tweets @niall_ gooch
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