The Personalist Project

I've recently come across two fresh "exhibits" for the case I've been building against "unprincipled forgiveness"—a commonly preached and practiced, unavailing counterfeit of genuine forgiveness.

"Exhibit A" is the case of a person who ought to be busy repenting and making amends, who is instead laying claims to other people's forgiveness and more or less presenting himself as the victim of their lack of Christianity.  I refer to Cardinal O'Brien, the Scottish prelate who, when it came to light that several men, including priests and former priests had credibly accused him of sexual misconduct, was abruptly required to retire right before the papal conclave. The Cardinal flatly denied the charges. Then, when the evidence made that denial risible, admitted it.  Among other things, we learned that he had been carrying on a homosexual relationship with a fellow priest for years.

Now we learn that the Vatican is telling the Cardinal not to follow through with his plan to retire to a Church-owned property in Scotland, but to instead leave the country where he has done so much harm to the Church.  O'Brien's response is revealing.

"I'm just trying to do my best to live a good Christian life myself now. Many people have been helping me to go back on the right path and that's what I have to do. But I haven't always managed to live that in my own life.

"I have been supported by many good Christian people and many people of no religion at all who realise I have said sorry for anyone I have offended. If Christianity is about anything at all, it's about forgiveness. That's what I have to do as a cardinal priest – just forgive the wrongdoer and help them go back on to the right path.


1) The minimizing of his wrongdoing.  "I haven't always managed" to live up to the demands of Christianity—something that could of course be said of every Christian. He expresses no just appreciation of the grievousness of his wrongs or of the terrible damage he's done to many individuals and to the Church as a whole. He seems to have no sense that he owes amends.

2) The note of self-pity:  "I'm just trying to do my best to live a good Christian life now".

3) The discrete blaming of the Vatican and those who expect anything more from him than he's done already.  "I've said I'm sorry."  He contrasts the "good Christians" (i.e. those who support him and expect nothing further from him) with unspecified others who, rather than helping him, are cruelly piling on—kicking him when he's down.

4) The exaggerated stress on forgiveness—almost as if it's the only thing required by the gospel—as if repentance, conversion of heart, and amendment of life aren't likewise of its essence. "If Christianity is about anything, it's about forgiveness." So, he speaks as if he, by calling on others to forgive him and let him do as he likes without making any further demands, represents true Christianity, while those expecting more are failing to embody the basic message of our Faith.

The Cardinal's words are pervaded with a sense of superficiality and unseriousness. While he may be sincere in regretting his wrong, he appears to think that saying so should be enough. He evidently equates "forgiveness" with "moving on," as if nothing substantial had happened and nothing further need be done about it. Notice how dramatically unlike the prodigal son he sounds, and how unlike the penitent tax collector in the Gospels, who says to Jesus, "If I have harmed anyone, I will repay him fourfold."

Notice, too, how the Vatican's directive need have nothing to do with "unforgiveness" or bitterness or a desire for revenge. It appears rather to be motivated by a concern for the faithful in Scotland, and very likely, too, with concern for the Cardinal's soul.

There is no essential incompatibility between the fullness of mercy and the demands of justice.

"Exhibit B" is a short passage I came across in the great little book (I think I've mentioned it before) Codependent No More. The author, Melody Beattie, is encouraging those struggling to overcome habits of co-dependency not to be thrown off track by illegitimate pressure to "forgive." She in no way denies the importance of forgiveness. Rather, what she denies that forgiveness is what’s at issue in every case of inter-personal conflict and estrangement. In some cases "forgiving" makes matters worse, not better.

Some of us can’t keep up with the things we need to forgive; the problems are happening so fast we barely know what’s going on. Before we can register the hurt and say, “I forgive,” another nasty thing has been dumped on us. Then we feel guilty because someone asks, “Why can’t you just forgive and forget?” People uninformed about the disease of alcoholism and other compulsive disorders frequently ask that. For many of us, the problem is not forgetting. Forgiving and forgetting feed our denial system. We need to think about, remember, understand, and make good decisions about what we are forgiving, what can be forgotten, and what is still a problem. And forgiving someone does not mean we have to let that person keep hurting us. An alcoholic doesn’t need forgiveness; he or she needs treatment. We don’t need to forgive the alcoholic, at least not initially. We need to step back so he or she can’t keep stomping on our toes. I am not suggesting we adopt an unforgiving attitude. We all need forgiveness. Grudges and anger hurt us; they don’t help the other person much either. Forgiveness is wonderful. It wipes the slate clean. It clears up guilt. It brings peace and harmony. It acknowledges and accepts the humanness we all share, and it says, “That’s okay. I love you anyway.” But I believe we codependents need to be gentle, loving, and forgiving with ourselves before we can expect to forgive others. But I believe codependents need to think about how, why, and when we dole out forgiveness.

I propose that many calls on Christians to "forgive" are in practical effect calls on them to let themselves be mistreated. It is a way of exerting moral pressure on others to abandon their sense of right. It's not the gospel, but a counterfeit of the gospel. We should have nothing to do with it.

Sound interpersonal relations are free of even discrete pressure and coercion.

Comments (2)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jun 9, 2013 1:49pm

One of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies, On the Waterfront, is Terry and Edie's first date. Terry tells her his philosophy of life. It's every man for himself. Get the other guy before he gets you.

She lives in a different world—a world where people are part of each other, where they care about each other, help each other, and call out the best in each other. She's asking for his help. He's drawn to her world, but finds her naive. He wants her to drop her pursuit of justice for her brother. Forget it. Move on. Enjoy life. Don't risk trouble.

The conversation ends abruptly when he bursts out in frustration, "What do want from me, Edie?"  She replies, passionately: "Much more. Much, much, much more."

Cardinal O'Brien sounds to me a lot like Terry. "I said I'm sorry. What more do you want?" The Vatican sound more like Evie. "Much much more."

Much more from you and much more for you.

Tim Cronin

#2, Jun 13, 2013 3:11pm

Hi Katie, In John Milbank's "An Essay Against Secular Order" he talks about the reality of forgiveness. He says that without forgiveness being accepted and realized it does not have a true reality. Neither does forgiveness have a true reality if it is merely formal. Receiving forgiveness involves a complete realization of consciousness of egocentricity. This involves a suffering on the receipient of forgiveness. It also involves a suffering on the forgiver through the re-establishing of the bonds of the relationship. -Tim

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