“Mistakes were made.”
If you just started banging your forehead on your desk, good for you. You know the difference between a limp, flat, simpering, whiny, guilt-dodging, weasel-worded, bedrock-miserable excuse for contrition and what it really takes to fess up like someone who means it.
That three-word abomination has become the go-to gadget in the toolbox of nearly every bureaucrat or politician who’s ever been frozen in the spotlight, hand deep in the cookie jar. “[T]his pernicious, passive-voice, accountability-avoiding approach to public life,” as Atlantic correspondent James Fallows has called it, was trotted out by the Nixon administration in reference to the Watergate scandal, by the Reagan administration in speaking about the Iran-Contra debacle, by the Clinton administration in discussing banking policy, and by just about everyone else before or since who wanted to duck responsibility, disguise wrongdoing and minimize criticism, anger and fallout.
“Mistakes were made” offers the barest wisp of accountability for something gone wrong, but in the hyper-aggressive and viciously competitive world of the powerful, that’s about as revealing as it gets.
Observant Catholics know better, and we have our own three-word go-to phrase that we use—and use often—when things turn murky and we’re a part of it: “I have sinned.”
Not even a whiff of ambiguity there. In three punchy words, responsibility is accepted, the guilty party is named and the offense is categorized—it was wrong, and I did it.
This may sound either refreshing or naïve in circles where duplicity and obfuscation are the order of the day, but Catholics the world over intone such words every Sunday in the Confiteor. Right at the top of Mass, in just a few seconds, churches filled with people confess their failings to God and the human family and declare their fault—not once, but three times.
That most observant Catholics do this without a hint of self-consciousness or evasion is not necessarily remarkable within the embrace of the faith. But in a wider world that far too often plays fast and loose with truth, consequences, responsibility and a conventional moral code, it can appear almost revolutionary.
In fact, the very word “sin” has fallen out of general use because it has acquired an air of punctilious religiosity, part of a series of vague taboos in dusty old books rather than a simple synonym for wrongdoing. Or, worse, it has become an advertising hook usually related to food: something can only be sinful if it contains a lot of calories and is covered in chocolate. Dip a perfectly good strawberry in molten Godiva and it becomes “a sinful treat.” Keep a product on the market that’s known to be dangerous or even deadly—remember the exploding Pinto?—and it’s called solid corporate strategy, and might even fetch a juicy raise.
The Church provides a special place where such dissembling simply doesn’t work, a place where the buck stops and reality begins: the confessional. Fortunately, it’s also a place that’s suffused with forgiveness, which can be rarer than plain talk, and infinitely more necessary.
No mistake about it.