It is a parody of Catholicism to suggest that you can sin all your life, but as long as you get a final confession in before the final curtain is drawn for the last time you'll be alright, and then the Big Guy will let St. P let you in through the Pearly gates. But, saying that, it's not that much of a parody! The basic pattern here is: sin - repentance - forgiveness (... and repeat). The assurance, of course, is there that you will always be forgiven (if your piety is genuine). I've always thought, however, that the certainty of forgiveness, in this scenario, rather cedes power to the sin and to the sinner: they are both considered to be given, presumed as a constant, elemental, essential, even vital. We are the Fallen, after all, so sin is what we do, what we are mired in, what we are. Asking for forgiveness, then, is something of a PR stunt: future sins are in the pipeline, probably already being planned and certain to happen, forgiveness for them will be asked at the appropriate time, after the sin has been enacted and, no doubt, thoroughly enjoyed.

Now, that might all be rather slipshod theology, but it seems to me to be a pretty useful analogy for what is going on in our society right now. Saying sorry has reached epidemic (or should that be pandemic) proportions. Politicians do it all the time: bomb a country because of a lie they've concocted, then say sorry for the lie once it has done the work required of it. Journalists keep pressing those in the City whose greed and stupidity precipitated the credit crunc at least to beg pardon for what they have done. And now even the London Evening Standard is getting in on the act: "Buses and tubes will carry a series of messages throughout the week that begin with the word "sorry." The first says "Sorry for losing touch". Subsequent slogans say sorry for being negative, for taking you for granted, for being complacent and for being predictable."

This then, I portentously proclaim, is the era of Catholic capitalism: just as nasty as capitalism has ever been, but now with deathbed confessions, pious apologies and the desperate need for absolution. "Forgive us our sins," say the politicians, the bankers, the media and the generals, for, in some dreadful parody of Nietzsche's concept of eternal return, "we shall certainly commit them again and again and again."

Readers Comments

  1. The buses and Tube story reminds me of the unease I feel when I read those kind of messages. I wonder: who is saying sorry exactly?
    Other examples: I walked by a cinema that had the banner "Fanatical about film" beneath its brand name, and then a dustmen's lorry with something like "Passionate about keeping our city clean" written on its side.
    When I read these, I sense a higher power at work. After all, the phrases cannot be attributed to an individual. The ticket seller and the dustman aren't fanatical or passionate about their jobs. While *nobody* is saying these words *everyone* is subject to their anonymous power - precisely because they are anonymous.
    I for one want to be free of such power. I have an urge to erase advertisements, newspaper headlines, cliched novel titles (Amanda Craig's "Hearts & Minds" for example) and anything that gives off the odour of a habit.

  2. My pet hate must be related to this. I am driven mad by the constant announcements on the Tube and railways and everywhere else which advise me of the bleeding obvious in the language of a working class copper trying very hard to be authoritative and upper middle class, and to make the whole experience of getting to work seem as exciting as a flight to New York.

    "Ladies and gentleman, welcome aboard this, your 7.50am service to London Marylebone. We will be calling at Banbury. If Banbury is your required destination, please leave this railed locomotive at this station calling point, remembering to take all your personal belongings with you. Please wait for the entrance and exit doorways to open before attempting to disembark the train. And please do take care to mind the gap between the train and the platform. Additonally, Chiltern Railways operates a strict no smoking policy, so please do extinguish all smoking materials. Ironically, given this message, we also provide a "Quiet Coach" for customers who prefer a quieter journey..."

    Kill me.

  3. Nicholas Murray Wednesday 06 May 2009

    As lapsed Catholic I agree about the theology, Mark, it IS very silly the way you can confess everything all over again as soon as you've repeated the offence, and go on doing this for ever, but I suppose it's an alternative to Puritan self-righteousness. Who would want to choose between them? As we scuttled through the streets of Liverpool to Confession we knew we were moral toerags because everyone had told us we were. The problem with the Evening Standard, however, is that it has always been a reactionary paper and it is beyond any redemption. Apologies won't have any effect. As for mindless slogans I would mention UCL's one below the street signs in Gower Street: "London's Global University". The semantic vacancy of this statement rattles around like a tin can blown by the wind.

  4. From a Latin American, or indeed Mediterranean point of view - Catholic Capitalism might be taken more literally; accomodations between the Church, Business and the Army having led to many horrible things in recent history. The new mania for apology seems to be a rather garish form of a peculiarly British way with insincerity: 'Terribly sorry but...'

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