Confession is a sacrament in some expressions of the Christian faith. In almost all denominations, whether or not there is a sacramental understanding of confession, includes a communal confession, a statement that acknowledges that we have caused harm to one another and to our relationship with the creator. There is an underlying hope of transforming forgivingness, that the harm we have contributed to will be healed and right relationships restored.
In some of the more formal approaches to confession, there are definite expectations in regards what is a valid confession and therefore by analogy a valid apology.
In the Roman Catholic Church, for example, valid confession must include the
What Is Required?:
Three things are required of a penitent in order to receive the sacrament worthily:
1 He must be contrite—or, in other words, sorry for his sins.
2 He must confess those sins fully, in kind and in number.
3 He must be willing to do penance and make amends for his sins.
This background is in my mind whenever I hear an apology. Hearing
an comment announcement on Go Train—We apologize for the delay—is
quite annoying. How can Go Transit take responsibility for things beyond
its control? We are only responsible for things we do, either by omission or
commission. Does Go Transit have staff or volunteers that throw rocks
through windows or freeze track switches? I know that Go Transit doesn’t
truly accept responsibility—it doesn’t provide a rebate or pass if there is
a delay? So why apologize? Why imply that GO can and will do something
about the problem, especially when what is needed is clear information on
what is happening and when the problem is likely to be addressed?
I am even more annoyed when reading apologizes from those, primarily
celebrities of some sort, for racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and other
abusive statements. An apology that includes something like “I apologize if someone is offended by my remarks” doesn’t include an acknowledgement that the act or statement itself is wrong. Such apologies rarely state directly “I apologize for my statement.”
These may be minor concerns. Yet in a world where civil discourse is all to rare, when the structures of civil society are fragmenting and acknowledgment of shared obligations to one another seems like a long discarded sepia tinted photo, the lack of full confession and acknowledgement of harm on one hand and a tendency to apologize for actions not under one’s control on the other does not seem trivial.
There are necessary calls for apologies for the treatment of children in
aboriginal schools. The United Church, for example, has apologized
on more than one occasion for its role in the operations of aboriginal
schools and the harm it contributed to. In current times, how can
such apologies lead to healing if the concept of full confession
is not understood, if the idea of saying “I’m sorry” is not expected
to lead to change in behaviour and attitudes and a full, lived out
intent to overcome the harm caused by one’s actions?
If saying “I’m sorry” is simply a face saving exercise, an effort to distract
critics without really changing oneself—which does seem to be the modern
value in an apology—how can an apology be a part of a healing and
The churches that have a strong sense of the sacramental aspect of confession can teach the world as a whole the value of a full apology. Acknowledging the action, stating full remorse, making a real effort to heal the harm and showing by one’s action that that there is a sincere effort to never repeat the behaviour is necessary for apologies to make sense politically, socially and personally.