The Personalist Project

I gather that Cath2u's question (in a comment under Janet Smith's latest post), "What's my forgiveness got to do with the other person's contrition?" is meant to be rhetorical, (the answer, of course, being "nothing at all.") But I propose to take it seriously as a question, because it touches on an issue central to the topic of repentance and forgiveness (and to personalism generally), namely, our profound dependence on one another.

To give a good idea of what I mean by this dependence, and to indicate how deep it goes, let me quote from John Crosby's great book The Selfhood of the Human Person:

The unconditional acceptance of me by another person, or by the entire social milieu in which I live, is all-important in enabling me to accept myself. If all the significant others in my life refuse to accept me as the self that I am, then I will be crippled in relation to myself. There is more here than an empirical psychological need for the confirmation of others. It seems rather that I exist from the roots of my personal being towards others and with others; this is why they play this large role in mediating me to myself. I cannot simply say to those who do not accept the self which I am, ‘You are wrong, I have in reality a self worthy of acceptance,’ and then proceed to live, unimpeded, a full self-acceptance—as if they were in error about the date of my birth and I were holding fast to what I know to be the true date. It is rather the case that I exist in such solidarity with them that their rejection of me is a real assault on me, it creates a serious (even if not an absolutely insuperable) obstacle for my relation to myself.

The crucial point in this passage is that "their rejection of me is a real assault on me". It is a real assault even when no physical violence is involved, or material harm done. The assault lies principally in their perception of me, their attitude towards me, and in the message they thereby convey: namely, that I am worthless, or, of "less worth" than I am in truth.

Now, I claim* that moral injuries also contain such messages. They are, as Jeffrey Murphy puts it, "symbolic communications. They are ways a wrongdoer has of saying to us, 'I count but you do not,' 'I can use you for my purposes,' or 'I am here up high and you are down there below'." It is these messages, even more perhaps than the material injuries inflicted upon him, that the victim rightly resents. And just like in the case described by Crosby, those messages may be serious and effective enough to constitute a real threat to or assault on the victim. They make it very hard for the victim to recover from from his injuries, and they leave him vulnerable to further injuries.

This makes clear why a sincere apology is normally so important in facilitating forgiveness. The material injury inflicted by wrongdoing may be such that it cannot be undone. But the moral message implied in it can always be repudiated or "taken back". If it is, then, though the victim still has to deal with the consequences of the wrong done to him, he no longer needs to protest the message, or protect himself against further assaults. He is now united with the culprit in condemning the past act as wrong and unworthy of him.

What about the role of the larger community in all this? (For that, as Kate rightly points out, was the focus of Katie's original post on this topic.) The role of the community is always important, but especially so when the wrongdoer is unrepentant. In that case, it is incumbant on the larger community to clearly repudiate the act as wrong and offensive. In doing so, they support the victim by letting him know and feel that he is not alone in protesting against it. Such support from the larger community will go a long way towards neutralizing the implied threat in the wrong done to the victim. It will enable him to recover sooner, and, who knows, reach a place where he can forgive the culprit from his heart, even though the latter remains unrepentant.

If, instead of supporting the victim in this way, the larger community begins by "encouraging" the victim to give up his resentment and forgive his wrongdoer, they almost inevitably make matters worse. Instead of neutralizing the demeaning moral message communicated to the victim, they amplify it. They (perhaps unwittingly) join in the assault on the victim by implying that what happened to him wasn't such a big deal. And the likely result is that the victim will protest all the louder since he seems to be the only one on his side.

To return, then, to Cath2u's question: "What's my forgiveness got to do with the other person's contrition?". In short my answer is this: normally (but not absolutely) speaking, the other person's contrition enables me to forgive freely and responsibly, i.e. without betraying my own moral integrity or recklessly exposing myself to the corrosive assaults of others.


* I am certainly not the first to make this claim. I rely heavily on Pamela Hieronymi's article "Articulating an Uncompromising Forgiveness", and Jeffrey Murphy and Jean Hampton's book Forgiveness and Mercy.

Comments (24)

Teresa Manidis

#1, Jul 24, 2012 10:23pm

Articulate and to the point, Jules.  I especially liked the part about the role of the community at large - that their role can either be one of neutralizing injury and promoting healing, or of amplifying the original wrong.  You and Katie have so much to offer us in this area, I will again encourage one (or both!) of you to write a small work on it.  The world (okay, well, I and a whole bunch of other people) would really love to see that

Joan Drennen

#2, Jul 27, 2012 9:47am

Jules, what you are saying seems so obvious and yet so profound. I am left wondering- what is at the root of the question, "What's his contrition got to do with my forgiveness?" If we denied that relationship, we would, as you say, have to deny our true and holy need for each other. Is there some hesitancy in the Christian community, as witnessed in the very thorough debate about the details of forgiveness, to permit that we need each other's sincere contrition?

 Like you say above, what is restored when contrition is expressed is the outward verification that the other is worthy of respect. It seems to me the only instances that there would be a withholding of contrition is in cases where the offender wants to control or hold power over the one he has hurt (in unhealthy, dishonest, or abusive relationships) or when he believes he has the right to have the upper hand, as in the case of authority.


Joan Drennen

#3, Jul 27, 2012 9:50am

But even in the case of authority, I believe it is wrong to withhold contrition, especially then. There is a high duty when we are in authority, to express sorrow to those under us that we’ve let down. I was reading in the June 25th Magnificat “Meditation of the Day” a very inspiring entry by Jean Vanier on the topic of authority. He explains, “The word ‘authority’ comes from the Latin ‘augere’ (to grow). All authority, whether it be civil, parental, religious, or community, is intended to help people grow towards greater freedom, justice, and truth.” He then cites Jesus’ example and posture of washing his disciples’ feet as expressing an authority “from below”. He continues to write that this type of authority is based on service and questions for the sake of the reader whether this type of authority can still be called authority.


Joan Drennen

#4, Jul 27, 2012 9:52am

. My favorite part is when he answers that “this type of authority is like the authority a child has over a mother, or a friend over a friend, or a wife over her husband and vice versa.” I believe he is saying that there is an authority in relationships, the authority of knowing that the other is worthy of respect, as well as ourselves. I must take responsibility when I have failed those under me even though I am put in a position over them, especially because I have been given that duty and privilege. I believe there is a misconception in the Christian community that somehow this weakens authority and I disagree with it wholeheartedly. If I have nothing to hide (I blew it. I let you down. I failed you.) in expressing contritions, I not only restore my charge’s dignity, I also restore the validity of my basis of authority- my duty and commitment to serve.

Jules van Schaijik

#5, Jul 28, 2012 12:00pm

Thanks for these reflections Joan. As always there's a lot to ponder.

It is true that the fear of losing one's authority over another person is often the reason behind a refusal to apologize. I have experienced it many times, and agree with you. (It is also one reason many Catholics believe it was imprudent or even wrong for John Paul II to apologize for past sins committed by members of the Church in the name of the Church. They fear such apologies somehow diminishes the Church's standing in the world.)

I also like Vanier's talk about the "authority a child has over a mother" and similar examples. There is a deep insight there. However, in some ways it also avoids the most thorny issue. Clearly the mother has an important kind of authority over the child that the child does not have over the mother. And it is precisely that kind of authority people fear is undermined by apologies. They are wrong about that, but I don't think Vanier's examples shed much light on the reasons why. Do you?

Joan Drennen

#6, Jul 30, 2012 4:48am

Vanier's examples catch us off guard which is what I think he meant to do. Usually we don't think of a child having authority over a parent. The child does, in a way, because he says by his existence, "I'm yours. Take care of me." The authority the mother has over the child is higher in the hierarchy (does von Hildebrand go into this?) Another way of saying this is more is required of the mother.

I thought of Pope John Paul’s apologies as an example of an authority figure apologizing without lessening his authority, and was left with this question, “Can any of us do a perfect job in carrying out our responsibilities?” That's what we're sorry for. Our contrition teaches those we've hurt to be sorry in turn when they fall short (not that we express sorrow because of that.) We're so sorry- because we wanted our charges "to grow." And if that unselfish awareness hadn't arisen in us, we're sorry because we recognize that desire should have been there. In a spiritual way, at the moment of contrition, we begin to carve a new path toward being more faithful to the sacred trust invested in our position.

Joan Drennen

#7, Jul 30, 2012 4:57am

When you asked what role the community can play in all of this I thought of a story I heard recently. A child got caught doing something dishonest for a school project by the mother. The mother asked the teacher for advice, who then advised the mother to apologize to the child for letting him down, for not overseeing him in a way that would have helped him resist the temptation to take the easy way out, and for failing to provide a way for him to succeed. The mother burst into tears knowing she had missed an opportunity (actually, she recognized that she had missed many) to fulfill her mission. She took responsibility and apologized to her child for letting him down and stated specific ways she should have assisted him.  At that very moment, she was teaching her son to desire honest success, to know that he was worthwhile, to care for himself because he was cared for. The teacher and the mother recognized the greater responsibility the mother had than the child. The mother made a new, internal commitment to serve her child.

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Jul 30, 2012 8:40am

Now that it's nearly too late, since the third of our five children leaves for college in a matter of days, I am learning how important it is to children to hear and see their parents express real sorrow of their wrongs, especially their wrongs toward them.

If we don't apologize—sincerely and deeply—for our failures as parents, we create a serious problem for the child.  He's supposed to trust his parents; he wants to trust them, and yet what his parents say or omit to say does not comport with his own experience of reality or himself.  He gets confused and distressed.

Children can accept that their parents aren't perfect.  It helps them accept and deal with their own imperfections.

The same basic reality extends into adulthood.  

We owe each other sincere contrition for our wrongs.  If we not only don't give it, but accuse the one we wrong of being "harsh" or unreasonable or unchristian for wanting it, then we are being abusive.


#9, Aug 1, 2012 4:04am

I know, in my personal and professional life, that many many people are unrepentant of deep wrongs, and we must leave to God His mercy and love for souls that perhaps cannot reach that contrition that we speak of like it's something we put on our morning Corn Flakes.  We must forgive, we are called to that bigness of heart, for the good of "the other" and all of humanity, but also for us, because to not forgive is misery, bitterness, bondage.  Jesus forgave without waiting for the contrition of his executioners and those who did not understand his message.  Are we not called to do the same?  I express my moral integrity by loving and responding to those who hurt me, by forgiving them "freely and responsibly" without waiting for their turn of heart.  That is love.


#10, Aug 1, 2012 4:05am

Though I don't disagree with most of what is written here (and it speaks eloquently of the depth of the human heart and the need we all have for each other), I don't think that, on a practical foot-in-the-gutter sense, we could possibly live what you embrace as truth.  My question was not rhetorical ("What's my forgiveness got to do with the other person's contrition?").  I will not grow, I will not heal, if I am incapable of forgiving, and that must be totally independent of the contrition/apology/sensitivity of the other.  If my true and deep forgiveness is dependent on contrition of "the other", I am held hostage by "the other's" insight, moral compass, rationalizations.   


Jules van Schaijik

#11, Aug 1, 2012 7:21am

Thanks for your response, cath2u. I agree that we are called to forgive as Jesus did, unconditionally. However:

  1. It is one thing to be called, and another to be able to just do it. Often, even in the Saints, it takes years to get there. And while we are strugging to get to a place of forgiveness, asking God to help us, it is, generally speaking, both unkind and counterproductive for others to pressure us in that direction.
  2. You say that we express our moral integrity by loving and forgiving those who hurt us without waiting for their repentance and contrition. But that is not necessarily the case at all. It could also be an expression of co-dependency, of moral unseriousness, of an inability to withstand social pressure, of impatience, of pride, and so on. The rush to forgive and pray for the offender can be a lie, as Barabara Nicolosi points out here: "are we really trying to get quickly out of the sliming that we have suffered?"

Jules van Schaijik

#12, Aug 1, 2012 7:22am

cath2uAug. 1 at 3:05am

I will not grow, I will not heal, if I am incapable of forgiving, and that must be totally independent of the contrition/apology/sensitivity of the other. If my true and deep forgiveness is dependent on contrition of "the other", I am held hostage by "the other's" insight, moral compass, rationalizations.   

This is partially true. But it is also true that a lot of growth, healing, and self-knowledge can be achieved in the process, and this precisely by not forgiving prematurely. What you say reminds me of another insight gained by Barbara: "that the impulse was rooted in some kind of attempt to take back the power he had taken from me." We don't like to be held hostage by others. But it may take a long time to regain our freedom. Just claiming it will not do. The assault is real, and its effects on us may be seriously debilitating for a long time.

Katie van Schaijik

#13, Aug 1, 2012 8:44am

Maybe some refresher distinctions are in order here.

1) Small injuries vs. big injuries. 

Venial sins don't sever our communion with God.  They can be repented and forgiven without Confession.  Similarly, strong human relationships can absorb small injuries without "special measures."  It's different with big wrongs and/or habitual wrongs.  Those ruin relationships.  Objectively.  No amount of interior forgiveness on the part of the one wronged can repair the damage done in objective reality.  That damage can't be repaired without the contrition of the wrong-doer, just as we can't be restored to Communion with God and the Church until we confess and receive absolution.

2) Inability to forgive vs. nursing a grudge or stewing in bitterness.

One of the best pieces of wisdom I ever heard in confession was: "You must learn to distinguish between sins and impotence."  Nursing a grudge is sinful.  Stewing in bitterness is sinful.  Being unable to forgive a serious injury is not. And it is therefore wrong and inhumane to accuse a person who finds herself unable to forgive a serious wrong of sin. She may be doing all she can.

Christians do this constantly, and it's not okay.  We do it to ourselves and others.


#14, Aug 2, 2012 10:26am

 Jules van Schaijik, Aug. 1 at 6:21am

...forgiving... It could also be an expression of co-dependency,     

Forgiving, finding the place where one can move forward, not hate, not distrust, to be at peace, that's co-dependency?   You distrust those who say they've forgiven someone of some great wrong, like it's totally impossible to have perfect forgiveness and therefore the validity is questionable.  Two points:  1.  What if contrition on the part of the wrong-doer is not total and complete?  Does that affect the ability of the victim to forgive?  Who's the judge of that perfect contrition?   2.  We all fall short and are prone to relapses of unforgiveness.  Are you saying we shouldn't say we've forgiven until those unreasonable moments are totally gone?   Only in heaven will that happen, but I believe we are capable of forgiveness here on earth, with God's grace, with the support of prayer and the sacraments, so we can move on in life.  (I have unreasonable moments in my life with husband and kids, when my thoughts are not totally loving.  Does that mean I don't love them?)


#15, Aug 2, 2012 10:26am

I am a "victim" of abuse but have chosen life.  The "wrongdoer" has died, unrepentent.  Perhaps he has found contrition when he came before the Lord, I don't know, and it doesn't matter.  I forgave and will continue on the path of forgiveness because it's what I'm called to do, not because of any act on his part.  Contrary to what you both are saying, the "damage" CAN be repaired without contrition on the part of the wrongdoer.  And I will take it one step further:  even with that contrition, forgiveness is hard and is a process, and sometimes unattainable.  It's not about the wrong-doer's sorrow for wrongs, it's about healing and prayer and easing out of the mud of resentment and self-loathing.  You are re-victimizing people if their forgiveness is dependent on the contrition of those who did them wrong.

Katie van Schaijik

#16, Aug 2, 2012 11:23am

cath2u, Aug. 2 at 9:26am

...forgiving... It could also be an expression of co-dependency,     

Forgiving, finding the place where one can move forward, not hate, not distrust, to be at peace, that's co-dependency?  

You don't seem to allow for the conditionality of Jules' claim.  He didn't say forgiving is an expression of co-dependency, only that it can be.  Take the case of battered wife syndrome—a wife who keeps "forgiving" her husband his repeated abuse.  Or the case of the Legion leadership constantly "forgiving" Maciel his "indiscretions".  These are clear cases of bogus forgiveness masquerading as the real thing.

You distrust those who say they've forgiven someone of some great wrong, like it's totally impossible to have perfect forgiveness and therefore the validity is questionable.  

Not totally impossible, just a high moral achievement.  I can distrust people who claim to having apparitions of the Blessed Mother without in the least doubting that she sometimes does appear.  One learns over time that many claim the privilege; only a few actually receive it.  Likewise, how many claim to be in love who are really only infatuated?

Virtue isn't cheap—especially "superhuman" virtue.

Katie van Schaijik

#17, Aug 2, 2012 11:40am


1.  What if contrition on the part of the wrong-doer is not total and complete?  Does that affect the ability of the victim to forgive?

Yes, in the sense that if someone who wrongs me comes to me with manifest contrition and offering amends, he makes my task of forgiving him—objectively—much easier.  If he denies he did anything wrong, or apologizes insincerely, he makes my task harder.  Not impossible, "for with the Lord, nothing is impossible," but harder.

Who's the judge of that perfect contrition? 

When it comes to vital matters, we can (and must) judge each other.  Before we cast a vote, we judge whether politicians are honest or corrupt; competent or incompetent.  Before we enter a business deal, we judge whether the other party is trustworthy and reliable.  

How much more is this the case when it comes to opening our hearts?  If a man asks a woman to marry him, she has to judge, to the extent she can, the depth and sincerity of his love for her.  

Before we can trust a person who has betrayed us, he has to convince us of his contrition.  

It's part of being human.

Katie van Schaijik

#18, Aug 2, 2012 11:52am

cath2u, Aug. 2 at 9:26am

I am a "victim" of abuse but have chosen life.  The "wrongdoer" has died, unrepentent. 

Whether he has repented, you can't know, though of course you can hope and pray for it.  But here's what you can know (and what makes your case different from the case of someone whose abuser is still alive and in denial):

1) He now knows the truth of what he did.

2) He will never repent to you; you will never get what only he could have given you; and there is no hope of ever having a true relationship with him in this life.  

Your job now (since you are a Christian) is (it seems to me) to accept that reality, come to terms with it, rid yourself of resentment and bitterness, forgive the wrong-doer, throw yourself on God's mercy, and trust that He will complete the good work He has begun in you.

It seems from what you write that you are doing what you can in that direction.

Katie van Schaijik

#19, Aug 2, 2012 12:14pm

But your case is not the pattern Jules and I have in mind in this discussion.  We have in mind mainly relationships that are broken by wrong-doing, as in the example of the husband who has an affair, or a business partner and friend who embezzles shared funds to feed his gambling habit, or an uncle who molests your child, or a sibling who can't or won't cease insulting and belittling you and your most cherished values.

In such cases—can you not see and acknowledge it—there is a way of "forgiving" that would represent not Christian virtue, but irresponsiblity and co-dependency?  Can you not see that, however free from resentment and bitterness the victim may render herself through prayer and good works, the relationship between them cannot be restored without the wrong-doer sincerely repenting and working to undo the damage he's done?

And can you not see that, in each of the cases, the sincere repentance of the wrong-doer would be a great, objective help to the one he injured, in terms of her coming to forgive deeply and sincerely?


#20, Aug 2, 2012 2:49pm

No, I guess I can't see that.  Our relationships ebb and flow, breaches in trust are sometimes irrepairable, even with the most perfect and true contrition.  You are equating forgiveness with repair of the relationship.  They aren't the same.  Sometimes we must forgive only because "they know not what they are doing"--this is as Christian as it gets, and it's not feeding into co-dependency, but actually love in action.  Love is a choice, forgiveness is a choice--a daily exercise of the will and of action, enabled by grace. 

Katie van Schaijik

#21, Aug 2, 2012 2:55pm

Well, what can I say but I'm sorry you can't see it.  

cath2u, Aug. 2 at 1:49pm

You are equating forgiveness with repair of the relationship.  They aren't the same. 

 cath2u, we have distinguished between these two things repeatedly throughout the discussion, in all its threads.  


#22, Aug 2, 2012 8:18pm

 So, contrition on the part of the wrong-doer would assist in the restoration of the relationship, which I agree with:

Katie van Schaijik, Aug. 2 at 11:14am

 Can you not see that, however free from resentment and bitterness the victim may render herself through prayer and good works, the relationship between them cannot be restored without the wrong-doer sincerely repenting and working to undo the damage he's done?

 But you seem to think that this "victim" could not forgive until there's contrition and restitution of the relationship.  This is where we disagree.  We MUST forgive, it is mandated in our faith and in our hearts, in the Our Father, in the lives of the saints and martyrs, in living our family lives.   "It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession."   (CCC 2843)  

Restitution of relationship may never be possible, contrition may not be forthcoming;  forgiveness is not only possible but it is a pillar of our spiritual life and is mandated by Christ.

Katie van Schaijik

#23, Aug 4, 2012 2:40pm

We have agreed repeatedly that we can and must forgive, even in when the wrong-doer is unrepentant.  

What we argue is

1) that forgiveness is not reducible to an act of the will;

2) that because it is not reducible to an act of the will, it is wrong to pressure others (or ourselves) to "just do it".  It is likewise wrong and unreal to pretend that the repentance of the wrongdoer is irrelevant to our efforts to forgive;

3) that the sincere repentance of the wrong-doer is a real and substantial help to the victim in achieving the moral task of forgiveness;  her task will be much harder without it;

4) that the Christian community should be more intent on restoring justice in the objective realm than on "correcting" the alleged unforgiveness of the victim(s);

4) that it is wrong and dysfuntional for Christians to treat all cases of alienation between persons as if they boil down to a "lack of forgiveness", when often they are due to unrepented wrong.

I note that the item you quote from the catechism speaks of the victim "offering his heart" to the Holy Spirit.  The focus is on divine grace.

Katie van Schaijik

#24, Aug 4, 2012 2:48pm

cath2u, Aug. 2 at 7:18pm

 So, contrition on the part of the wrong-doer would assist in the restoration of the relationship, which I agree with:

Contrition helps toward forgivenes; it is necessary for restoring communion between persons.

If it weren't necessary, why did Jesus need to die on the cross?  Why can't Protestants receive Holy Communion?  Why do we need confessionals?  Wouldn't God's forgiveness be all-sufficient?

Love is unconditional.  Friendship isn't.

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