How should we react to Michael Cohen’s imperfect contrition?
Michael Cohen, the president of the United States of America’s former personal attorney, is the republic’s prodigal son. Or he’s a pariah. Or a rat. He’s got nothing left to lose, or a giant book deal to gain. He’s the victim of a con man, or his best student.
While Mr. Cohen’s public testimony to Congress on Feb. 27 centered on the character and possible criminality of the president, much of the public conversation has centered around his own trustworthiness. In his prepared statement, he addressed “our nation” and said he is sorry “for actively working to hide from you the truth about Mr. Trump when you needed it most.”
Is he really sorry? Does that matter? How can we tell?
Mr. Cohen also said in his opening remarks, “Over the past year or so, I have done some real soul searching. I see now that my ambition and the intoxication of Trump power had much to do with the bad decisions I made.”
Was this soul searching authentic or merely convenient and reflexive? This is a question at least as much about sin and redemption as about political strategy.
Michael Cohen’s soul searching is at least as much about sin and redemption as about political strategy.
Our culture has no shortage of people who need to repent. But few people do it well, and we are not well-practiced at distinguishing between sorrowful remorse and face-saving performative regret. We are obsessed with determining that difference—but only within the timeframe of a 24-hour news cycle. Lacking the patience needed to evaluate remorse, we determine contriteness more often by bowing to the zeitgeist than by listening and understanding.
Mr. Cohen’s remarks on Wednesday can be understood in at least two ways.
First: Sentenced to prison and disbarred, Mr. Cohen has seen the fruits of his sins and has decided to come clean. For the good of the republic, he has willingly put himself under public scrutiny to help us get to the truth. By confessing his own sins, he shines a light on the crimes of his old boss in the interest of saving our democracy. While we should be cautious, we should be inclined to believe him because he has run out of reasons to lie.
Alternatively: Faced with prison time and the end of a career, Mr. Cohen needs to find an audience (and political party) who will pay his legal fees now and welcome him after his 36 months of incarceration. How convenient that he is turning on President Trump now. Noah Rothman, writing in Commentary, summarized this position well: “Under a federal prosecutor’s interrogation lamps, Cohen has seen the light.”
Indeed, some might point out that a three-year sentence is a remarkably small penalty, considering how severely our society punishes nonviolent crimes concerning drugs or immigration rather than lying to Congress or dodging taxes. And surely most of those convicted of the former—disproportionately people of color and poor—do not get the privilege of having their repentance so finely parsed.
But the response to undeserved mercy is not less mercy, but more. This is the logic of the Gospel. Perhaps we are an unforgiving culture because we are an unrepentant culture, always reluctant to examine our sins past and present. Our culture needs to learn to produce better penitents—but we also need to learn to forgive better.
Part of learning to forgive is recognizing that even contrition motivated by punishment is still contrition of some sort. It can serve as a starting point for more perfect contrition. A not-small part in how that plays out depends on how an imperfect apology is received.
Part of learning to forgive is recognizing that even contrition motivated by punishment is still contrition of some sort.
The rules surrounding the Sacrament of Confession in the Catholic Church could provide the rest of the nation with some context about human nature in the process of reconciliation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Churchdistinguishes between two types of contrition. The first, “When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else,” is called “perfect” contrition.
Imperfect contrition, on the other hand, “is born of the consideration of sin’s ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner.” This is the contrition that we are all so afraid of. We fear that it isn’t “valid” because it is at least as selfish as it is remorseful. We worry, “I’m only sorry because I’m afraid of jail on earth and hell in the afterlife.”
But here is the kicker, the irrationality of mercy: Sins confessed with both types of contrition are granted absolution. They are forgiven by God through the priest in the sacrament. The Catechism goes on to say that imperfect contrition “is also a gift of God, a prompting of the Holy Spirit.”
My Roman-collared colleagues tell me that what any priest who hears confessions comes to understand is that while imperfect contrition is, well, imperfect, it can still be a starting place for true conversion. Conversion is a much longer road—for Mr. Cohen and for us all—but we can make a choice to soldier on in the right direction.