The Personalist Project

In previous posts and comments, I have given many examples of heroic charity and forgiveness. I frankly look on these in awe. One can never know for sure (because God gives extra graces in these situations), but I can hardly imagine myself living up to this kind of ideal.  I have to admit it’s possible (because it’s been done), and I see—theoretically—how and why the saints were motivated, but I don’t find those same levels present in my heart and will. So ultimately I think it becomes a question of grace and whether I would accept or reject God’s supernatural attempt to carry me over these mountains.

Be that as it may, I think we should further elaborate on and give examples of false, sham, or unprincipled kinds of “love,” which may also involve false kinds of forgiveness. I wish to share one such example that I personally witnessed and was involved in, then a second related by the Little Flower.

I got my first real full-time job was while I was writing my dissertation in the late 70’s. I was first a teacher, then the head of the Counseling Center at a boarding high school for problem teenage girls. Hardest job I ever had! My sudden transition from teacher to Director of the Counseling Center (which was really above my expertise) happened because the counselors all got fired when it was discovered they had snuck a girl out for an abortion. This was a good work of justice. The primary responsibility of the nuns running the place was to protect the girls in their care. It would have been completely false “charity” to let the counselors stay on with a slap of the wrist. The only question was whether they should have been prosecuted legally. Perhaps so.

However, in rebuilding the Counseling Center, over my objections and perhaps because I had already arranged one hire, the sisters insisted on their right to hire the next fellow and for some reason took on a dissenting ex-priest part-time as a counselor. Within a year, the same thing happened. He snuck a girl out for an abortion. This happened while I was out on my summer vacation. When I got back, it was all on my desk. The problem was that the nuns had not fired him and were avoiding taking action. The mother superior just disappeared for a couple of months, visiting other houses, hoping the whole thing would blow over.

Eventually, I pressed the point and had a showdown. Why this different reaction the second time around? The reason given was, basically, that he was an ex-priest and had been hurt by the Church before and they didn’t want to hurt him again. So they just wanted to paper it over, sweep it under the rug, act like it hadn’t happened, as a way of showing they loved him and that the Church was a church of love. I appealed to their obligation to show love and justice to the girls entrusted to their care. How could they leave them orphans in the hands of such a confused and dangerous counselor? But no amount of argument availed. In the end, I had to resign as Director in protest against having this man under my authority and responsibility. This is surely a concrete, real case of the kind of thing Katie is talking about in her cautions about “Unprincipled Forgiveness.”

Another example, from the Little Flower, of what might be called in modern parlance “tough love” is the following (from Counsels and Reminiscences):

One must not let kindness degenerate into weakness. When we have blamed justly we ought to leave it so, and not yield to feelings of distress at having given pain. To run after the aggrieved one in order to console her, is to do more harm than good. To leave her to herself is to force her to expect nothing from creatures, to have recourse to the good God, to see her failings and to humble herself. Otherwise she would grow accustomed to being consoled after a deserved rebuke and would behave as does a spoilt child, who stamps and cries, well knowing that this will make its mother return to wipe away the tears.

Excellent illustration of just the kind of thing Katie is concerned about. However, how is one to reconcile these examples with the earlier ones I have given, including from the little Flower, which seem to be opposed?

The difference, I think, lies in the situation and duties accompanying authority (an awesome status for a human being, much to be feared in some respects, and needing great trust in the graces and help of God). In a position of authority, you have direct responsibility for the order of the whole or for other souls. The nuns in my example were directly responsible for the operation of the institution and for the souls of the girls placed in their care. St. Therese spoke her words above in the context of being Director of Novices giving guidance and strength to a fellow sister who was to be her assistant in that task. Quite different from the quote from St. Therese in my earlier comment (#6 on Going Through Christ to the Other), where she says—I’ll repeat for convenience:

To want to persuade our Sisters that they are in the wrong, even when it is perfectly true, is hardly fair, as we are not responsible for their guidance. We must not be Justices of the peace but only angels of peace.

But being responsible for making such judgments is not something we should assume without being placed in such a situation--one that requires it. I have read of more than one example, in fact, (though I don’t have them at my fingertips—perhaps someone could supply for the lack here) where saintly men ran away after having been nominated as Bishop—because they didn’t want the responsibility of making such judgments!  Why should we ever take it upon ourselves if we don’t have to?  As sinners together at the foot of the cross, we should look to Christ for his mercy and his justice (He who knows our weakness). It is a fearful thing to be chosen as His instrument for justice, and we can scarcely assign that task to ourselves.

Comments (9)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jul 7, 2012 11:20pm

I agree that these are good examples of "unprincipled forgiveness".  

I can't go for the point on authority, though.

I mean, whether we are in a position of authority or not makes a difference in terms of our responsibility to judge in a given case.  

But it isn't true that only those in positions of authority should be concerned with justice.  Nor is it true that a concern for justice entails an assertion of moral superiority.

If my neighbor builds a fence 20 ft onto my property, claiming it as his, it's not wrong for me to insist that he remove it.  It's not presumptuous; it's not hardhearted; it's not self-righteous or "unforgiving".

If he denies that it's my property and reproaches me for greediness, I am not obliged by the exmple of the saints to drop the matter, because I once stole something too.

And if I DO choose to drop the matter, maybe it's from heroic virtue, or maybe I'm just weak and irresponsible.

In any case, it would be wrong for fellow Christians to pressure me to let him have it: "The early Christians 'held everything in common.'"

Michael Healy

#2, Jul 7, 2012 11:43pm

I read your comment and say "Agreed."  But then I can't help but recall that Christ, in his sermon on the mount, after preaching the beatitudes, goes beyond this "rational" level (Matt 5:40):

And if any man would go to law with thee, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

The two preceding verses are:

Ye have heard it said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

But I say to you not to resist evil: but if one strike thee on the right cheek, turn to him also the other.

Now of course I can't turn the other cheek when others are dependent on me.  This is where the authority-responsibility dynamic comes into play. I can only do this individually.  But the love of humiliation and the willingness to bear with injustice in my own life in imitation of Christ seems to be a part of the lives of the saints.

We all do have responsibility individually and collectively for justice in society and have appropriate avenues (and obligations) for expressing this.  This is part of courage, the readiness to "ponce" on evil when it can be stopped (in prudential judgment).

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jul 8, 2012 7:39am

Michael Healy, Jul. 7 at 10:43pm

But the love of humiliation and the willingness to bear with injustice in my own life in imitation of Christ seems to be a part of the lives of the saints.

 Right.  I agree.  Love goes beyond justice.  Benedict XVI says well and clearly that justice is what we owe to one another.  Charity is what we freely give to one another over and above what we owe. And since everything we have and are is a gift, infinitely beyond our derserving, there's even a way in which we owe each other charity.

It remains the case that charity and justice should not be confused, and that we are responsible both to "walk justly" and to insist on justice in our dealings.

Charity builds on justice; it doesn't replace it.

"Unprincipled forgiveness" sets aside truth and justice, and identifies an insistence on those things with self-righteousness, hardheartedness, mercilessness, etc.

Also, I caution: It is not true that I ought only to stand for justice for others.  Wojtyla shows in many places the "right-and-goodness", even moral necessity, of certain kinds of self-assertion.

This is especially clear in the case of dysfunctional relationships.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jul 8, 2012 8:11am

If I find that another person habitually "takes what is mine" in a relationship; if he denies that he does it; if he claims that what is mine is really his; if he accuses me of selfishness for claiming that anything is my own (after all, Christians are called to give themselves in love); if he refuses to acknowledge that he is mistreating me; if, on the contrary, blames me for hardheartedness, then it's not only "okay," religiously and morally speaking, for me to assert and defend my own person and dignity, it may be my strict duty.  

It could also be the only way for me to show him the "steadfast love" I am called to, and the only hope of ever having right relations with him.

In any case, it would be wrong—interfering and unjust—for third parties to preach to me in that moment about "forgiveness", and to sympathize with him over the problem of my hardheartedness and self-righteousness.  It would not be helping; it would be making matters worse, adding insult to injury, plus confirming the wrong-doer in his destructive illusions of rectitude.

Often a fight for justice is the indispensable "first step" of true charity.

Michael Healy

#5, Jul 8, 2012 9:40am

Again, I agree.  And yet there is more.  When Nathan unfolded to David the extent of his sin--adultery and murder--at that moment David had no thought for the sins or offenses of others or for "justice" from others.  He knew he was a worm who should crawl out of the light of day, that there was really nothing he did not deserve. 

And that moment is our moment every moment considering our betrayal of God's love and murder of his son.  We have to go through Christ on the cross to get to others truly.

When the children in the Narnia Chronicles talk to Aslan individually (I believe there a couple of scenes like this; again, perhaps others can supply references), whenever they start pointing toward the faults of others, Aslan only growls menacingly until they snap out of it and confess their own sins.

Solzhenitsyn was at first completely indignant at having been unjustly sentenced to 10 years in Siberia when he was not only innocent but should have been awarded medals for defending his country.  Then he got throat cancer.  This could have made him more upset--at the injustice of it all.

But in the end he agrees with Kornfeld:

Michael Healy

#6, Jul 8, 2012 9:49am

And on the whole, you know, I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved.  Superficially it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and poinder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow.

These were (fellow prisoner) Kornfeld's last words. He was murdered by morning.  Solzhenitsyn took his words as absolutely true in his own case, though this is on a different level than earthly or rational justice.  He says, "But there is such mystical knowledge in his voice that I shudder." 

Michael Healy

#7, Jul 8, 2012 9:52am

He goes on:

There was something in Kornfeld's last words that touched a sensitive chord, and that I accept quite completely for myself. And many will accept the same for themselves.

In the seventh year of my imprisonment I had gone over and re-examined my life quite enough and had come to understand why everything had happened to me: both prison and, as an additional piece of ballast, my malignant tumor. And I would not have murmured even if all that punishment had been considered inadequate.

Punishment? But...whose? [i.e., by whom?] 

He concludes that what is totally unjust on the level of human interaction and societal justice may nonetheless by thoroughly just on the level of what I receive from God and how I stand before him.

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Jul 8, 2012 10:28am

You seem to suggest that a call for justice involves "pointing fingers at others' faults" as an excuse for my own.  

That has nothing to do with justice.

If David at that moment, instead of deeply repenting the evil he had done, had accused Nathan of being "harsh" and "merciless," he would have been acting according to the theory of unprincipled forgiveness I am talking about.

When we are justly charged with wrong, our "theme" is repentance, not the wrongs others have done.

Solzhenitsyn's insights are great and beautiful, but not apropos.

If the lesson he had taken from his time in prison was that we shouldn't worry about people being sent to prison unjustly, because prison is good for the soul, he would have been falling for "unprincpled forgiveness."

Instead, the whole corpos of his works reveals that such gems of deep wisdom were the fruit of long, painful suffering in the cause of truth and justice.

My fuller thoughts will go up today, I promise.

Michael Healy

#9, Jul 8, 2012 12:55pm

It seems to me there are two valid perspectives here and the real question is which one is more central, which should guide and inform the other.  I think the individual spirituality perspective, each of us alone before God, is the most important one and thus puts the second (justice in relation to others) in its proper perspective.  It casts it in a new light, or a new shade, as not the number one consideration.

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