The Personalist Project

An ongoing topic of background meditation for me is the problem of forgiveness, and the way it is badly misunderstood, mis-preached, and mis-applied in Christian circles.  So, I perked up over an item in the Corner today, making a point I have often tried to make myself, though less successfully.  John O'Sullivan quotes a column by Kevin Myers in the Irish Independent, speaking of the bloody "Troubles" in Northern Ireland.

Now contrary to what those creepy moral apologists for the IRA insist, Christian teaching does not demand that one forgives one’s uncontrite assailant as one forgives the repentant ones. The entire sacrament of absolution depends on unconditional repentance and a “firm purpose of amendment”, namely, an intent never to repeat the sin. It is clearly absurd to treat the unrepentant and the repentant equally. To forgive all unconditionally is to indulge an unprincipled sanctimony that liberates offenders from whatever remains of their consciences. Such “forgiveness” — whatever that term may actually mean — thereby makes more murder more possible. Why would anyone cease to kill if the bereaved repeatedly exonerate those who bereave? 

Is this not plainly true?  And yet, I find that that "unprincipled sanctimony" is shockingly widespread among Christians, don't you?  

Myers says more.  He says that so far from helping end a standing wrong, this bogus notion of forgiveness helps perpetuate it.

The Troubles were thus largely an IRA confection, in which the very possibility of "forgiveness", either through corrupt IRA chaplains within the Catholic clergy, or amongst the victims, or by abject historians, must surely have been a vital psychological-enabler throughout.

This is my impression too.  Unprincipled forgiveness—forgiveness that sets aside questions of truth and right—"enables" wrong-doers, further injures victims, and deprives both of the great good of justice.  It mires them and the community around them in dyfunction and unreality.

Comments (45)

Tim Cronin

#1, Jun 27, 2012 2:30pm

I agree that repentance is part of the act of forgiveness. There is a reciprocity and reconciliation. My wife and I are struggling with this as we await justice for a man who abused our grandson. See the newspaper coverage below:

I feel as a Christian the right thing to do is to pray for justice for my grandson and conversion for his attacker. As far as forgiveness I question how I can offer it if it is not asked for or in this case totally disregarded.

Jesus told us to treat those who would not listen to the Church as a tax collector or sinner. He also said to pray for our enemies. I think this is all we can do as we await repentance.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jun 27, 2012 5:08pm

What a horrible story!  I am so sorry about what your grandson has suffered, Tim!  And I am full of admiration for your wife.

Have you seen the movie The Winslow Boy?  It gives a great boost of encouragement to me whenever I am feeling down in the struggle for justice.

Tim Cronin

#3, Jun 28, 2012 7:24am

Thank you Katie. No, I have not seen that movie but it looks like a good one.

Rhett Segall

#4, Jun 29, 2012 11:37am


i would make a distinction between God's forgiveness and our capacity to receive that forgiveness. Repentence enables us to receive God's forgiveness which is always there. "Repent and believe in the good news."

An excellent template in this area is "Dead Man Walking." You will recall it tells the story of Matthew, rapist and murderer of two teens. Sr Helen becomes his minister.Through her loving involvement Matthew ever so gradually comes to confess his guilt and express his sorrow.

This is not "cheap grace" in Bonhoffer famous insight. It rather expresses God's "hesed", steadfast love, which works to awaken us to our wrong doing and calls to contrition.

I do have a problem with the Amish in the sad situation a few years back when several of their children were murdered. It seemed to me they judged that Christian forgiveness represses the horror dimension towards the evil deed done. I fear their forgiveness did not organically develop. I'm afraid their horror will come out in ways unintended.

After 9/11 one of my students said she hoped the terrorists rot in hell. There is a healthy dimension to this. But as Christians this attitude must confront Jesus final words of forgiveness.

Tim Cronin

#5, Jun 29, 2012 12:50pm

Hi Rhett,

I think you also touch upon something wrong with our "penitential" system. Ideally the victim and their family should continue with the agressor in a loving way to help bring about the repentance. Our system promotes justice but not love, repentance, and reconciliation. It would be unloving also for the agressor not to be punished and confined for crimes as this is a method of correction (stopping the sin) but mercy and love needs to be offerred. I've heard that there used to be crucifixes in court rooms that would symbolize both justice and mercy.


Tim Cronin

#6, Jun 29, 2012 12:54pm

As far as "treating like a tax collector" I think the purpose of excommunication is also repentance. In the case above so long as my grandson's attacker disregards his grave sin then there can be no relationship. Without justice and punishment also the likelyhood of repentance is low as he continues in the same behavior. 

Michael Healy

#7, Jun 29, 2012 10:50pm

All abstract theory aside, was Christ just enabling wrong-doers when he prayed from the Cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!"  Was proto-martyr St. Stephen merely enabling evil when he prayed similarly for those stoning him?  (This loving attitude gained St. Paul, remember, though at the time Saul was by no means repentant, but self-righteous and ready to persecute again.)

Were the martyrs Sts. John and Paul encouraging evil when they forgave their tormentor Terentianus, and healed his son, thereby winning his conversion.  Was Christ in the Garden enabling evil when he healed the man whose ear Peter had severed?

So, as with Rhett's example of Dead Man Walking, perhaps the offended one has to extend the offer of forgiveness first, even before the other has acknowledged his evil, repented, or promised never to do the sin again.  If the offended one hardens his or her heart, this may be the foundation for the offender continuing in hardness and refusal to repent.

The perpetual readiness to forgive is not the same as blanketly excusing (making excuses for x)--only the latter would be unprincipled.  "To forgive" acknowledges something is wrong but says "it will not stand between us."

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Jun 29, 2012 11:33pm

Michael, I don't know why you treat my point as "abstract theory."  It comes, rather, from hard won experience, and lots of careful, prayerful reflection on it--not just my own experience, but that of many others, including many people I know personally and many I know through reading.

I don't say there is no such thing as forgiveness without repentance.  I say rather that there is such a thing as "unprincipled forgiveness", which is not true forgiveness, and which fulfills neither the demands of justice, nor the task of true forgiveness.  I say, too, that it is wide-spread among Christians today, and that it does a lot of damage, including the damage of "enabling" evil and injustice to persist.  

I think a bogus notion of forgiveness is among the reason the sex abuse scandals went hidden for so long.  Victims and their families were admonished to "forgive," while any efforts toward justice on their part were treated as "revenge" and "causing scandal."

If unrepented wrong doesn't stand between persons, why do we need confession, and how is there such a thing as hell, since God's mercy is perfect?

Michael Healy

#9, Jun 29, 2012 11:51pm

I said "abstract theory" because it doesn't fit with the examples given of Christ and his saints--and I didn't even mention St. Maria Goretti yet.  Are not these the examples we should imitate and learn from, not the sweeping under the rug of the sex-abuse scandals.  Just because terrible mistakes were made there does not relieve us of finding in our hearts to truly forgive.

True forgiveness is unbridled goodness  surrounding the offender without excusing him.  It acknowledges the evil act; it doesn't explain away, make excuses, or "absolve" without any consideration of truth or justice.

The very serious responsibility that Christ seems to lay upon us is that our extending of forgiveness genuinely to the offender may be the necessary first step in the other acknowledging and turning away from his previous path.  Thus the examples I mentioned before--and many more abound in the lives of the saints.

It is a very serious responsibility to be "stingy" with our forgiveness, when God has been so wide and generous with us.  What if one's very entrance into heaven depends upon forgiving another (as God has forgiven him and died for him). Should one choose hell in the name of justice?

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Jun 30, 2012 2:08am

Michael, you seem to me to be making some unjustified assumptions about my views.  Again, I no where claim that forgiveness is impossible without repentance. I no where suggest we should be stingy and withhold it!  Sweep the example of the saints under the rug!  Where do you get this idea?

You are writing as if something in what I wrote is at odds with the example of Jesus and the saints, when it isn't at all.

The fact that Jesus and the saints achieve the heights of charity that they achieve in no way precludes the possiblity of what I am talking about, and what the essayist I quote was talking about, namely that there is such a thing as a bogus notion of forgiveness abroad in the world, and that that notion is implicated in the priest abuse scandals, as it is in many lesser interpersonal breaches and flashpoints.

If I were to say that I have encountered often a false notion of altruism that identifies all concern with the self with selfishness, would a reference to St. Augustine's "love of God to the contempt of self" refute the point?  No.  He was talking about something else.  So was I.

Michael Healy

#11, Jun 30, 2012 7:08am

Certainly there can be a "sham" forgiveness compared to a "genuine" forgiveness.  This is a better way of describing and distinguishing than speaking of "unprincipled" and  "principled" forgiveness.  God really does forgive me before I deserve it; he forgives me as I stand at the foot of the cross mocking and torturing him--so does his mother unconditionally forgive me.  It is this pregiven, open-armed mercy that calls forth, hopefully, a readiness to confess and acknowledge what I have done.  But this is the context in which I have to think about forgiving others--as I stand again today at the foot of the cross, each day at mass. This is the attitude of the father of the prodigal son--who originally may just be returning because he's starving, not out of genuine repentance.  This is the attitude implied in "first take the beam out of your own eye" and "leave your gift at the altar and first be reconciled with your brother." The distinction between sham and genuine forgiveness leaves no way out.  I fear the use of the distinction between unprincipled and principled forgiveness, as if it gives me an excuse not to wholehearted forgive my brother from my heart.

Rhett Segall

#12, Jun 30, 2012 7:53am

I think balancing Jesus' multiple texts on forgiveness has to be his texts on judgment, particularly Matt 25:31 ff.

It would be spiritually counterproductive to move too quickly to forgiveness. This is what I fear about the Amish situtation referred to above. (This can provide a good case to consider in this regard.)

Peter Berger, in A Rumor of Angels, talks about damnation as a sign of transcendence. There is definitely something healthy about my 16 year old student saying she hopes the 9/11 terrorist would rot in hell. Apropos of this, Michael, you gave an extraordinary presentation on reconciling the meaning of hell with God's love.I often think about it.

By the way, I have an objection to referring to God's love as "unconditional". It can be easily misunderstood that God is indifferent to a rapist for His love is "unconditional"! I prefer the biblical word "hesed" which means God's "steadfast love." The hound of heaven never gives up on us. He never says "After what you've done I never want to see you again." That's what we do.

Relevant to the whole topic is Elie Wiesel's op ed vis a vis his experience of the holocaust.

Katie van Schaijik

#13, Jun 30, 2012 9:50am

Ack!  I see I shouldn't post in the middle of the night.  I wrote two comments, but somehow only one survived, and cloned itself.

Certainly there can be a "sham" forgiveness compared to a "genuine" forgiveness.  This is a better way of describing and distinguishing than speaking of "unprincipled" and  "principled" forgiveness. 

I can't agree.  "Unprincipled forgiveness" captures something definite, not captured in "sham forgiveness."  There are many difference kinds and varieties of sham forgiveness; I am concerned here with one particular kind.

Newman pointed to something analogous when he spoke of "compassion without principle."  The Holy Father captures the same point, here:

Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way. In a culture without truth, this is the fatal risk facing love. It falls prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions, the word “love” is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite. Truth frees charity from the constraints of an emotionalism that deprives it of relational and social content, and of a fideism that deprives it of human and universal breathing-space.

Similarly, forgiveness dismoored from justice, degenerates, loses its reality, and its power.

Katie van Schaijik

#14, Jun 30, 2012 10:17am

Michael Healy, Jun. 30 at 6:08am

 This is the attitude of the father of the prodigal son--who originally may just be returning because he's starving, not out of genuine repentance. 

I read this parable differently.  To me, the reconciliation between the father and his son plainly hinges on the son's recognition that he wanted to go home and beg his father's mercy—his recognition that, though (after what he'd done) he had no right to ask anything of his father (never mind claim the privileges of a son) he had to try, or perish.  Whether he was fully aware of the depth and extent of his wrong is beside the point.  The point is that unless and until he had 1) faced his misery and his responsibility for it, 2) turned around, and 3) headed for home to beg for mercy, he was incapable of receiving the father's forgiveness--not because the father was stingily withholding it—but because his own heart was closed.

No doubt, he would have been happy to accept from his father "unprincipled forgiveness," according to which the father would have been obliged to continue loving and supporting his son "unconditionally," whatever "lifestyle" he chose for himself.

Katie van Schaijik

#15, Jun 30, 2012 10:18am

Rhett Segall, Jun. 30 at 6:53am

By the way, I have an objection to referring to God's love as "unconditional". It can be easily misunderstood that God is indifferent to a rapist for His love is "unconditional"! I prefer the biblical word "hesed" which means God's "steadfast love." The hound of heaven never gives up on us. He never says "After what you've done I never want to see you again." That's what we do.

Totally agree, Rhett.  Very well said.  "Steadfast love" entails adherence to Value, and all values (including Truth and Justice).  As I learned from Josef Seifert's metaphysics class, all the "pure perfections" are entailed in each other and part of the "necessary essence of God."  

In the coming reign of God, "justice and peace shall kiss."

In this world, we are constantly under pressure to abandon the one in the false hope that it will lead us to the other.  It never does.

Michael Healy

#16, Jun 30, 2012 11:45am

"Unconditional" love does not imply that it is not love, but rather only a mere sentimental substitute.  Love is always demanding and wants the true perfection of the beloved; but this love is not "conditioned" on any prior act of the beloved, at least not in God's loving mercy and forgiveness.

Moving quickly to forgiveness does not mean the act is superficial or misplaced. Consider again St. Stephen. Also, St. Rita gave public pardon to her husband's murderers at his funeral. I think the Amish offer of forgiveness was extraordinary and genuine.  

I don't think there is anything healthy in saying that anyone should rot in hell; this doesn't capture the tragedy of a soul lost in evil, the sorrow and mourning of Our Lord in the Garden.  I'm afraid my own reflections on hell, trying to make sense out of it, don't yet adequately address this either.

There is nothing more radical on the face of the earth than the call of Christian forgiveness. I'm still concerned that the "principled" vs. "unprincipled" distinction might hide an attempt at rationalistic reduction.  There is also a danger of judgmentalism or self-righteousness if my attitude is, "I only offer others principled forgiveness." 

Michael Healy

#17, Jun 30, 2012 12:30pm

The father of the prodigal son rushed out to meet him when he was still very far away, long before it could be determined whether his return was properly motivated.

St. Rita, of course, unknowingly married into the equivalent of a mafia family involved in a deadly feud with another family.  According to one version of her life that I have seen, when she realized her husband was a murderer, she locked him out of their bedroom in shame and horror.  Then she realized that she needed to repent of that action, that her judgment on him had just confirmed him in his own despair.  So she opened her heart and her arms to him again, affirming his worth and goodness while not condoning his sin. She eventually won him over and he renounced the feud and refused to participate.  When he was nonetheless murdered, she forgave.  Eventually she won over both families to peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation, against all rational odds.  On rational grounds, and in earthly terms, no one here deserved such loving mercy, but that was the only way to reach hardened hearts.  Does that always happen? No.  Should we always try to live this way? Yes.

Katie van Schaijik

#18, Jun 30, 2012 5:26pm

Nothing I am saying here conflicts with any of that.  You seem to persist in imputing to me an idea I don't hold at all (i.e. that the offended party should stingily withhold forgiveness until he's fully satisfied the the offender has adequately repented), while you ignore the points I do make, among which are

1) that reconciliation depends on repentance.  If it didn't, there would be no need for confessionals, and no reason (for another example) to withhold Communion from Protestants, or anyone.  One key element of the parable of the Prodigal son is the generosity of the father's mercy; another is the need for repentance.  If the son had not humbled himself—if, say, he had met his father's greeting with contempt and a demand for more money so he could continue his lifestyle, the reconciliation could not have happened.

2) that the true task of forgiveness cannot be accomplished absent justice, any more than love can be had without truth.

The idea (which is perhaps not yours at all) that all that's needed for good relations after a serious wrong is for the offended to declare, "this shall not stand between us," strikes me as completely unreal.

Michael Healy

#19, Jun 30, 2012 9:42pm

Things to clarify: 1) Forgiveness as an interior act compared to forgiveness as a social act.  Contrary to the original quote from Myers, the former can be unconditional; one can interiorly forgive "one's uncontrite assailant as one forgives the repentant ones."  Only the completed social act demands the proper receptivity, self-understanding, repentance on the part of the assailant, firm purpose of amendment, etc.  2) So similarly there can be an interior act of reconciliation with the offender whereby no barrier remains in the offended one to a full reconciliation.  The full interpersonal return to union then depends on the other, but not the original full openness of heart in mercy and forgiveness.  Thus, forgiveness and reconcilialtion internally can be accomplished in the offended one without justice and reciprocation.  The latter can be left to the other and to God. This seems to be the attitude of St. Rita, St. Stephen, the father of the prodigal.  This is not unprincipled forgiveness, though it may appear similar from the outside.  It is based not on irrationality but on supra-rational, indeed supernatural, principles.  Yet, full interpersonal forgiveness and reconciliation may depend on achieving a full and joyful interior forgiveness and longing for reconciliation.

Katie van Schaijik

#20, Jul 1, 2012 10:53am

Michael HealyJun. 30 at 8:42pm

Things to clarify: 1) Forgiveness as an interior act compared to forgiveness as a social act.  Contrary to the original quote from Myers, the former can be unconditional; one can interiorly forgive "one's uncontrite assailant as one forgives the repentant ones."  

It's not contrary to Myers, if Myers was referring to forgiveness as a social act, as it seems to me he clearly was.  He wasn't speaking of the interiority of individual persons.   He was speaking of a social and political situation.

The kind of "unprincipled forgiveness" I think he has in mind, and that I have in mind, conflates these two dimensions.  It pays no attention to objective reality and standing wrongs.  

 2) So similarly there can be an interior act of reconciliation with the offender whereby no barrier remains in the offended one to a full reconciliation. 

While I agree that the interior act of forgiveness involves the removal of all barriers to reconciliation in the one offended, I wouldn't use the term "reconciliation" to describe it.   Reconciliation seems to me an essentially interpersonal reality.  It cannot take place within the subject, or, again, we would need no confessionals.

Katie van Schaijik

#21, Jul 1, 2012 11:30am

Michael, I plead with you again to note: I did not say (what Christian could?) that forgiveness is unprincipled.  I said rather that there is such a thing as unprincipled forgiveness.

And just as some acts of true forgiveness may appear on the outside to be cases of "unprincipled forgiveness", other acts that may appear to be acts of genuine forgiveness may actually be something else, something ungenuine and dyfunctional.  Think of the classic "battered wife syndrome".

Similarly, what may appear on the outside to be "unforgiveness" on the part of one offended, may rather be an inwardly-impelled defense of truth and justice in the face of illegitimate pressure to abandon both. 

Among the problems with the false notion of forgiveness I am concerned with is that it assumes that all cases of tension and alienation between persons boil down to "a lack of forgiveness."   But this is false and unjust, just as it was false for Job's friends to assume that his afflictions were brought on by his wrongdoing.  

I watched the Legion scandal closely.  It was terrible to observe its leadership pressuring members to forgive, even as they hid truth and withheld justice from Maciel's victims.

Katie van Schaijik

#22, Jul 1, 2012 11:38am

Michael HealyJun. 30 at 10:45am

There is also a danger of judgmentalism or self-righteousness if my attitude is, "I only offer others principled forgiveness." 

 This is in no way what I propose.

Gregory Popcak

#23, Jul 1, 2012 4:09pm

Would it help to distinguish between forgiveness and reconciliation?   I believe it was Augustine who defined forgiveness merely as surrendering your natural desire for revenge.   By contrast, reconciliation-again for Augustine-is the tranquility resulting from right order.   You can forgive without reconciling.  In a sense, forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves (through God's grace) while reconciliation is something all parties must create together.  Thoughts?

Michael Healy

#24, Jul 1, 2012 9:40pm

First I have to say that I still prefer the term "sham" forgiveness to "unprincipled" forgiveness for reasons given above.

Second, perhaps the disagreement boils down to the following.  There are indeed false reasons and false pressures that may be brought to bear on someone to "forgive" an offender, e.g., battered wife syndrome, the priest pedophile scandal, the Legionaires scandal--but acting on this basis would be a sham, not real forgiveness.  If I am pressured to sweep things under the rug, in order to preserve or establish a false peace, or to avoid embarassment, or to keep up the fund-raising, etc, all that would certainly be invalid. So if illegitimate pressure is applied (by oneself or by others), it is true that an "inwardly impelled defense of truth and justice" may indeed be required against the false arguments and false pressures.

But the reason I keep bringing up the example of the saints (Rita, Maria Goretti, Stephen, etc.) is that after all this is done, after false arguments and pressures to forgive are unmasked and rejected, the saints always seem to find the true reasons for forgiveness (at least in their own interior attitude), combined with a longing for reconciliation.

Michael Healy

#25, Jul 1, 2012 9:49pm

They also offer that forgiveness to the other, even when the other is hard-hearted, rejecting, ridiculing, indifferent, etc.

Teresa Manidis

#26, Jul 2, 2012 12:54am

I could not agree with you more, Katie.  You are right to point out that there would be no need for confessionals if your arguments were not (so very) valid.  God steadfastly loves me, and He is always ready to forgive me - but, given the nature of free will, He does need me to repent first.  My sins are forgiven me with contrition and a firm purpose of amendment - but not before.  By that, I don't imply God is stingy, or unwilling to forgive me before that point (sacreligious thought) - but it does make the (radical) assertion that He is unable to forgive me (amazing, as I write that, putting a limitation on God - unable to forgive me) against my will.  Only if we are unthinking automans do our actions have no consequences; only if we are nonpersons can we, somehow, be 'saved' (read, 'forgiven') against our will.  While, for our own mental health, it might help if we found some place of peace or acceptance, as best we can, where we find oursleves in life, we are called to be 'perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect' - but not more perfect than God.

Teresa Manidis

#27, Jul 2, 2012 1:04am

And your point about battered wife syndrome was especially pertinent to your argument.  Having worked as a childbirth educator for ten years, seeing abused women was part of my job.  Worse than the physical violence these women endured - or the sheer terror they lived in - the absolute worst part (for me) was seeing women - seeing otherwise rational, educated, resourceful human beings - buy in to their abuser's mind game, listening to the (insane argument), 'Well, you're a good Christian woman, you have to forgive me' - even as the abuse, neglect and mental torture was still ongoing.  They were not being asked to forgive past wrongs, duly noted, repented of and extinct.  They were literally guilted into forgiving actions currently happening to them, actions which had been ongoing, were ongoing and - left unchecked due to their own unprincipled forgiveness - would continue indefinitely.  This is the opposite of justice.  This is madness.

Teresa Manidis

#28, Jul 2, 2012 1:17am

And one last point, about St. Rita.  No disrespect to her blessed memory, but the biographical sketch I read in college alienated me from her somewhat, saying she 'prayed her husband and sons would be murdered [!] rather than commit one mortal sin.'  Wow.  I mean, I would try to avoid mortal sin at all costs, personally; as my patron, St. Teresa, writes, we are the diamond, God is the Sun which illuminates us, mortal sin is like our pulling a thick, dark dropcloth over the diamond, so that it loses its light (although the Sun still shines as brightly as ever, always a comforting thought for me).  But to wish my husband will get hit by a truck tomorrow, rather than cheat on his taxes or look at Playboy (two things I will point out here he does not do) seems particularly unrealistic, and even hard-hearted - and an awkward example of 'forgiveness.'

Katie van Schaijik

#29, Jul 2, 2012 8:23am

I fear this thread is getting a bit unwieldy. Maybe I'll start a new one. (Thanks, all, for the valuable discussion so far!)

I'm glad we agree that there is such a thing as sham forgiveness.

But I want to say something more, viz. that there is a sham notion of forgiveness very prevalent in Christian circles today.  This notion includes a practical disregard for two key things:

1) The reality of the wrong done (which is the objective cause of the alienation), and

2) The need for sincere contrituion, "firm purpose of amendmendment", restitution when possible, etc., as a condition for the restoration of relationships broken by wrong.

It also includes the reductive and misleading assertion that "fogiveness is an act of the will".  

In practice this means that, when wrongs are done and dis-communion ensues, the default response of many Christians is not to try to discover the truth of went wrong and "secure justice for the oppressed," so communion can be restored, but rather to begin pressuring the consciences of victims to "forgive as Christ and the saints forgive."  The victims' call for truth justice is frowned upon as "unforgiveness" and a desire for revenge.  

Katie van Schaijik

#30, Jul 2, 2012 8:58am

There are, of course, such things as desire for revenge and hard-hearted refusal to forgive even genuinely penitent sinners, which (given how much mercy for worse crimes everyone of us receives constantly from God) are regrettable and deplorable in Christians.  

But often (in my experience in Christian circles these days) "refusal to forgive" and "desire for revenge" play little, if any, part in cases of alienation between persons.  Much more prominent is a neglect of concern for objective truth and justice.  In fact, any expressed concern for objective truth and justice is almost automatically attributed to "unforgiveness."  And the victim is further victimized by premature and illegitimate pressure to forgive. 

No amassing of examples from the lives of the saints where forgiveness was offered before repentance can touch this basic dysfunction.  They are simply not apropos.  

IMO, your idea that forgiving means the offended party acknowledges the wrong but says, "It shall not stand between us," tends in this unreal and dysfunctional direction.  

I think rather the interior act of forgiveness says, "Let there be no obstacle in my heart--no bitterness, no stingyness, no hardness, no desire for revenge--to the restoration of our communion."

Michael Healy

#31, Jul 2, 2012 10:49am

Three points, and then if I wish to continue to unfold my thoughts I too will start a new thread or threads.

First, as to the misrepresentation of St. Rita here, she never prayed for anyone to be murdered.  Rather, after her husband's murder, when the uncle had convinced her two sons to follow the rule of vendetta and murder the murderer, she prayed that her sons rather die than commit murder.  This is no worse than Socrates preferring to be put to death (even via an unjust verdict) rather than to commit a moral evil himself.  Her sons did indeed die, and she nursed them through their last moments and converted them, as she had done to her husband.

Second, I have agreed that there is such a thing as sham forgiveness, or alternatively, manipulation through use of neurotic guilt.  This can be very hard to work through and may require heroism and untold strength do so.  But, as stated, after all that is worked through, the task of true forgiveness remains.  So it is not the lives of the saints that are not apropos here by rather the constant harping on neurosis. 

Michael Healy

#32, Jul 2, 2012 11:00am

After neurosis is worked through, sanctity must still be attained and that requires genuine forgiveness, even in heroic circumstances.  So the question is, were St. Stephen, St. Rita, the father of the prodigal, even Christ Himself on the cross, just disfunctional, self-abnegating, masochistic neurotics?  If so, then the question is closed.  If not, then overcoming neurosis is only the beginning of the call.

Third, of course the act (sacrament) of confession is required for the complete social act of forgiveness and for the beginnings of actual reconciliation.  But, as stated, it is not necessary for the full inner accomplishment of forgiveness.  It is not enough to say that God is "always ready to forgive me."  On his side, he already has fully forgiven me completely, with all his Sacred Heart, and, note, even sent his son to already pay back (mercy) the punishment due (justice).  I must go to confession to take advantage of this fountain of mercy but it is aready flowing without limit.

Katie van Schaijik

#33, Jul 2, 2012 12:06pm

To the question in your second point, I say no, of course Jesus and the saints you mention were not neurotic!  And of course overcoming neurosis is not sufficient for holiness or accomplishing the task of forgiveness. I never suggested otherwise.

To your third point, you say, "of course" the act of confession is required for the social act of forgiveness.  But, this is exactly what is not being required in the "unprincipled forgiveness" I am speaking of in this post.  

Also not required is attention to the actual wrong done, which needs repairing, in justice.

Consider a concrete example.  My friend lies to me in an important matter.  She has betrayed my trust.  But when I bring it to her attention, she won't acknowledge it.  She denies that she's done anything.  

I make an interior act of fogiveness, but my trust in her is gone.  The friendship is spoiled.  I withdraw from the friendly intimacy with her we used to enjoy.  She complains to others we know that I am bitter and unchristian.  I come under pressure to forgive her, regardless of what she's done. After all, Jesus forgave his killers. Killing is worse than lying.  

Katie van Schaijik

#34, Jul 2, 2012 12:34pm

But the problem isn't unforgiveness at all.  It's dishonesty.

I run into cases like this all the time.

Take an alcoholic husband, whose wife finally gives him an ultimatum: "Stop the drinking or I'll leave you."  He keeps drinking; she leaves.  He complains to friends that he didn't want a divorce, and that his wife is hard-hearted and unforgiving.  They pressure her to take him back: "Love is uncondiational."

Someone I know learned something from a psychologist who sepcializes in co-dependent relationships.  "Classical co-dependent reaction to wrong: 

1) shoot the messager (i.e. attack the one who exposes it)

2) blame the victim (he brought it on himself)

3) console the perpetrator (poor thing; everyone's against him!)

I submit 1) that this is very unlike the behavior of Jesus and the saints, and 2) that it is very common in Christian circles today. I often hear preachers preaching: "You have to forgive."  I rarely hear, "If your neighbor has something against you, leave your gift at the altar, and go and make amends."  I often hear, "She won't forgive me."  Much less do I hear, "If I have wronged anyone, I will repay what I took fourfold."

Michael Healy

#35, Jul 2, 2012 1:02pm

Three considerations might be relevant.

First, proportionate response, depending on the level of the offense.  If my friend lies to me and denies it, thereby injuring trust and spoiling our relationship, do I "withdraw from friendly intimacy" completely?  Do I shun her utterly for her offense and refusal to face it?  To some extent, it depends on the severity of the lie, the level of the offense.  It may be that the loving thing would be to have the friendship go forward on many levels, especially if I have internally truly forgiven her, with the caveat that I know I cannot entrust certain sensitive information to the other (or trust the other in certain situations).  So if she lies about stealing a brooch, then I lock up the jewels before she comes to visit.  But it doesn't necessarily destroy all levels of communion. Depending on circumstances, the latter response might well be bitter and unChristian.  We should strive to maintain as much loving communion with the other (especially an old friend) as is possible, with proper precautions.  I can never leave my old friend alone with my kids again if he's a molester, but I can visit him in prison.

Michael Healy

#36, Jul 2, 2012 1:13pm

Second, one must also consider the reason for the friend's denial of her wrongdoing.  Is she just too ashamed and embarassed to admit it before you, so she lies and hopes it will all go away?  Is she unable to admit it to herself, fears that a clear fault is proof of her unworthiness to be as a person (which she knows is not ultimately the case), and thus just tries to squiggle out of it without admitting guilt?  Is she really a conniving, lying backstabber trying to tear you down, destroy your life, undercut your happiness (like the "heroines" in modern soaps)?  Your response will be different in each case.  A compete cutting off of all contact may be necessary in the latter case (combined with prayer), but not the others.

Third, what about the fact that real-life human situations are rarely so clearly understood and described?  The other person operates on many different levels (some good, some bad) and so do I have many different levels (some good, some bad).  I must be afraid--very afraid--of judging the other absolutely when my knowledge is limited and my own motives are, without doubt, mixed.  I too am a sinner.

Katie van Schaijik

#37, Jul 2, 2012 2:20pm

I agree  with your caveats and qualifications.  Response has to be proportionate; no limited human being should presume to judge another absolutely, etc.

None of it touches the point of principle at hand

My point isn't that if a friend commits a wrong against me, that's the end of the friendship.  My point is that there is a false notion of forgiveness abroad, according to which I am responsible to continue in friendship (or marriage perhaps) with someone has proven untrustworthy, even abusive, on the grounds that "love is unconditional," and "you have to forgive."  

This is false and damaging.  It "enables" and perpetuates injustices—some big, some small.  It mires both me and the one who wrongs me in unreality and dis-integrity.  

And it is rampant among Christians today.

Further, I can't help noticing that while you are eager to find mitigating considerations for the offender in my hypothetical, you seem quick to suspect injustice in the one offended.  Why do you think that is?

I submit that it indicates exactly the tendency I am here opposing, namely a tendency to attribute virtually all alienation between persons to unforgiveness rather than to unrepented wrong-doing.

Tim Cronin

#38, Jul 2, 2012 2:27pm

I think what is being missed here is that justice and mercy are not necessarily fully separable. The Cross of Christ is both a sign of justice and mercy. Take for instance the bail hearing on Thursday for the man who nearly killed my grandson. Since then he has thrown one woman's head into the ground and a different woman's head into a wall. Would it be best for me to go to him before the bail hearing on Thursday and offer my forgiveness (and if it were possible) drop the case against him too? It would be unmerciful for him not to experience justice for the crime against my grandson. In some sense I think the prodigal son began to experience the results of his actions in the pig pen. It was merciful for him to experience the consequences of his actions. This man may need to reach the pen also before he can realize his wrong.

Michael Healy

#39, Jul 2, 2012 2:45pm

As far as I can tell, I've never offered one excuse for wrong-doing in these pages, nor offered any "mitigating circumstances" that could be used to justify evil or downplay its horror.  I'm simply saying that both offended and offender come under the same shining call to sancity and living love, the offended no less than the offender. And if the offended one is a professed Christian, then more will be asked of him.  "To whom much is given, more will be demanded."  This may seem unfair, but if I am offended, my main concern should be that I not commit an offense in return (thereby further lacerating the Heart of Our Lord).  The other too is called to loving perfection, but it is not my job to force him along it.  Rather, I must simply try to be loving (if I can), in imitation of Our Lord's loving forgiveness for us both. This is simply not the same as enabling; the saints described were by no means enablers.  Without in the least condoning evil, they transformed their families and communities in love and mercy--or died trying.

Michael Healy

#40, Jul 2, 2012 3:13pm


It would certainly be in incredible grace to be able to sincerely tell the near-killer that you genuinely forgive him, though you of course hate what he did.  "Hate the sin, love the sinner."  This has nothing to do with dropping the case against him, just like love has nothing to do with whitewashing and excusing.

Kevin Schemenauer

#41, Jul 3, 2012 12:12am

When someone commits grave sin against me, I am called to desire, with God, their eternal well-being. This desire for their eternal happiness requires that I want them to avoid grave sin in the future, and outside of the rare instance when a heinous sin is out of character, I want their moral conversion. The false forgiveness that this post speaks of lacks justice and also seems to lack consideration of moral character. Even the person who sincerely repents maintains sinful inclinations that pose dangers to his soul and to others who have contact with him. Should my disposition be something like this: I forgive you and I will try to play my part in attaining what's best for you and by forgiving you, I am telling you that what you did was wrong and your disposition is a threat to yourself and to others and so I will take necessary steps to prevent you from acting in such heinous ways until you demonstrate (insert prudence) sincere repentance and conversion. I think these considerations of justice and character become particularly relevant when the sin is a grave threat to others and the disposition of the one sinning is vicious.

Katie van Schaijik

#42, Jul 3, 2012 8:06am

Kevin, I agree with you.  I agree that the "steadfast love" God has for us and calls us to have for each other includes a lively concern for the other's moral character.  It also includes a desire for true communion with him.  Both of these mean that I ardently want him to acknowledge and repent of his wrong, and make amends for it.

My only caveat would be to the point about viciousness.  I also know of many cases where habitual wrong-doing is more attributable to illusion and denial than to viciousness.  In these cases a person who mistreats others is unconscious of doing so.  He is indignant at the charge.  He knows he is not vicious.  He doesn't know that he's not in reality.  

Von Hildebrand thought such cases in some sense harder nuts to crack than the case of the vicious person. They are an especially big problem where this false notion of forgiveness is operative.  The person in denial about his responsibility for wrong is inclined to imagine himself the victim of unforgiveness.  Many in the wider community "enable" him in this destructive illusion.

Michael, my response to your last will have to go in a separate post.

Tim Cronin

#43, Jul 3, 2012 8:46am

Hi Kevin, I totally agree, good summary! This is what the Pope had to say when he visited a Roman prison last year:

"Certainly, men are not able to work divine justice, but they must at least look to it, try to see the profound spirit that animates it, that it might enlighten human justice too to avoid -- as unfortunately is not a rare occurrence -- the situation in which the prisoner becomes one excluded. God, in fact, is he who powerfully proclaims justice but who, at the same time, cares for wounds with the balm of mercy," the Holy Father said during his hour or so with the inmates, which also included a question-and-answer session.

"Justice and mercy, justice and charity, the hinges upon which the social doctrine of the Church turns, are two different realities only for men, who carefully distinguish a just act from an act of love," the Pontiff explained. "For us justice is 'what is owed to another' and mercy is what is given out of goodness. And the one seems to exclude the other. But it is not so for God: in him justice and mercy coincide; there is no just action that is not also an act of mercy and forgiveness and, at the same time, there is no act of mercy that is not perfectly just."

The Pope thus affirmed, "How far God's logic is from ours! And how different is his way of acting from ours!"

Kevin Schemenauer

#44, Jul 3, 2012 10:18am

Katie, I like your distinction between the vicious and illusion and denial. I used the term vicious a little carelessly. I meant vicious as a particular disposition (he has a vice) and not vicious as an overall evaluation of his character and I did not clarify what I was doing. I think the latter is how the term is commonly used and so the further clarification is helpful. I edited my comment above and changed character to disposition in order to clarify. By vicious as a disposition I mean the contrary to virtue, that is, thinking what is evil is good, doing the evil, and having one's affections ordered towad the evil. In this sense, a father might might be vicious in relation to disciplining his children even though he loves those children. While the father is not competing with Joker from Batman for any evil awards, the disposition is truly vicious in the sense that he has harmful habits of ignorance, sin, and affections. In line with your post, we would not want to just say, well the father loves his kids and he means well and that's that, but also to show how his actions undermine love.

Rhett Segall

#45, Jul 6, 2012 12:13pm

Gregory's emphasis on reconciliation makes clear that the fruitfulness of Christian forgiveness entails reciprocity between culprit and the victim.


Christian forgiveness especially necessitates God’s grace. The best example that I’ve come across is in the life of Corrie ten Boom.  Perhaps you will recall that Corrie, her sister Betsie, and their father were caught by the Nazis helping Jews escape capture in Holland. Corrie and Betsie were put in a concentration camp where Betsei died. Through a clerical error Corrie was set free. After the war Corrie  preached Christian forgiveness to various groups. One time she noticed in the audience a camp guard connected with Betsie’s death. She recognized him, he did not recognize her. After her presentation he approached her, stretched out his hand, and said that he was one of those who had done the kind of despicable deeds she described. He asked for God’s forgiveness and now asked for hers too. Then Corrie explains that, despite having preached Christian forgiveness, she found it impossible to extend her hand to one si closely connected with Betsie's death. She then pleaded with the Spirit within and somehowfound the strength to extend her hand in forgiveness. Cf sources.

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