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Few Christian concepts are more widely misunderstood than forgiveness. Modern man, who is outwardly pacifistic but inwardly vicious, simply cannot understand the necessity of righteous anger — especially long-term righteous anger. But the hard fact is this: There's no forgiving a person who isn't sorry. God doesn't do it, and man shouldn't either.
Spare me the shrieks of outrage. What I'm saying is both scriptural and intuitive, and it's corroborated by the Doctors of the Church and the Magisterium. The belief in unilateral forgiveness, that we somehow must "forgive" those who neither want forgiveness nor have any remorse for their sins, is a preposterous novelty of 20th-century pop-Kristianity. It's pagan utilitarianism that's been dressed in Christian garb by well-meaning sentimentalists. In the words of apologist Jimmy Akin, "This attitude of hyper-forgiveness seeks to cloak itself in the teachings of Christ; in reality, it goes far beyond what Christ asks us to do and even what God himself does." We need to bury the concept forever.
Before we go any further, we need to define forgiveness. Put simply, forgiveness is the "pardon or remission of an offense" (John A. Hardon, S.J., Modern Catholic Dictionary [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980], 216). And even from this bare definition, one can intuit just how asinine it is to suppose that forgiveness towards the obdurate is not only possible but that it's a veritable moral obligation. Why, pray tell, should anyone aspire to pardon the offense of a perpetrator who remains defiantly attached to the very misdeed that was at the heart of a rift? The rectitude of forgiveness lies precisely in the fact that the aggrieved party is acknowledging that a fundamental change has occurred in the penitent offender. In a certain respect, a penitent is no longer the same person that committed the offense, so pardoning the offense becomes an act of justice. But absent such a conversion, "forgiveness" is a bald-faced lie. And Christians don't lie.
Scripture teaches that we are to forgive as God does. For example, in Luke 6:36, Christ commands the faithful, "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful." In Ephesians 4:32, St. Paul exhorts, "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God has forgiven you." When Christ hands down the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:12, He teaches His followers to ask that the Father "forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." The Catechism of the Catholic Church confirms that we hold fast to the words of the gospel by vitally participating, from the depths of our hearts, in the divine model of forgiveness (¶2842).
The divine model, of course, necessitates repentance on our part as precondition for receiving God's forgiveness. The Catechism tells us that in order to receive forgiveness in the sacrament of penance, the sinner must have contrition, the "sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again" (¶¶1450–51). It further stipulates, "Among the penitent's acts contrition occupies first place" (¶1451). Indeed, contrition is the very state that "disposes one to obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance" (¶1453). Simply put, there is no forgiveness of sins without contrition on the part of the sinner. This is how God deigns to lavish His infinite mercy upon us. And since our forgiveness is to mirror God's, we're not to forgive those who don't express contrition.
Christ Himself explicitly ratifies this conclusion. He tells us, "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive him" (Luke 17:3–4, emphasis added). Note the conditional nature of Our Lord's command to forgive. Christ's sentence consists of the limiting clauses (protases) "if he repents" and "if he ... turns to you seven times and says, 'I repent,'" followed by the contingent main clauses (apodoses) "forgive him." Christ is therefore restricting our duty to forgive to certain instances. He is teaching that forgiveness hinges on and is subsequent to repentance, that it's not to be extended absolutely, but only when the wrongdoer has remorse for his sin — animi cruciatus and compunctio cordis (see CCC, ¶1431). The renowned International Bible Commentary reaches the same conclusion in its treatment of the verse in issue: "Sin is not to be overlooked, nor lightly passed over; the wrongdoer must be rebuked. ... Repentance must precede forgiveness" (F.F. Bruce, ed., The International Bible Commentary, rev. ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986], 1216–1217).
The Parable of the Prodigal Son, which provides us with the preeminent model of Christian mercy, confirms that contrition is a sine qua non for forgiveness. In the famous parable, a wayward son asks for his share of his father's inheritance, which he proceeds to squander on a life of turpitude. He ultimately falls into destitution and has a moment of clarity wherein he begins to regret the crooked path he's walked. So he returns to his father and confesses, "Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (Luke 15: 21). Only then is the father able to forgive his son and to receive him back with paternal clemency. Notice that in the story, the father does not go to his son and "forgive" him when the son is still obstinate in his sin and living in a distant land; instead, the father waits patiently for his son to return home with a contrite heart before running out to him.
The Tradition of the Church, of course, comports with Scripture on this matter. Saint Thomas Aquinas himself confirms that forgiveness can only follow on the heels of repentance. In his "Commentary on the Lord's Prayer," the Angelic Doctor states that the duty of the Christian is to "forgive those who ask to be forgiven" (Thomas Aquinas, The Three Greatest Prayers: Commentaries on the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Apostles' Creed, trans. Laurence Shapcote [Manchester, NH: Sophia, 1990], 147). While Aquinas adds that the perfect should seek out their offenders to call them to repentance, he doesn't claim they must forgive those who lack contrition (ibid.).
Pope John Paul II similarly pans the idea of unilateral forgiveness. In his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, which is dedicated entirely to the theme of mercy (thereby imbuing the document with significant magisterial weight on the matter), the pontiff decries the "ordinary human opinions about mercy" that "see mercy as a unilateral act or process, presupposing and maintaining a certain distance between the one practicing mercy and the one benefitting from it, between the one who does good and the one who receives it" (§14). According to John Paul II, "Such opinions about mercy fail to see the fundamental link between mercy and justice spoken of by the whole biblical tradition, and above all by the messianic mission of Jesus Christ" (ibid.). "True mercy," he writes, is "the most profound source of justice" (ibid.). Thus, he arrives at the gospel's countercultural message to our conflict-averse age:
Properly understood, justice constitutes, so to speak, the goal of forgiveness. In no passage of the Gospel message does forgiveness, or mercy as its source, mean indulgence towards evil, towards scandals, towards injury or insult. In any case, reparation for evil and scandal, compensation for injury, and satisfaction for insult are conditions for forgiveness (ibid., emphasis added).
The saintly pontiff also teaches that "forgiveness is ... the fundamental condition for reconciliation, not only in the relationship of God with man, but also in relationships between people" (ibid.). So the unilateral "forgiveness" that abounds today is nothing but a cheap psychological Band-Aid; it's certainly not a means to genuine love and fraternity.
Pope Francis has also tied forgiveness to repentance. In his book of reflections on the Lord's Prayer, Francis explains that we "cannot live without forgiveness" because "every day we do wrong to one another" (Our Father: Reflections on the Lord's Prayer, trans. Matthew Sherry [New York: Image, 2018], 90). Thus, he reproaches the faithful to apologize liberally so that forgiveness can take place:
We have to take stock of these mistakes, due to our frailty and our selfishness. But what is asked of us is to heal right away the wounds that we cause, to repair immediately the threads that we break. ... And there is a simple secret for healing wounds and dispelling accusations. It is this: do not let the day end without apologizing, without making peace between husband and wife, between parents and children, between brothers and sisters. ... If we learn to apologize right away and to forgive one another, then wounds heal, marriage becomes stronger, and the family becomes an ever more solid house (ibid., 90–91, emphasis added).
Notice that the pope places the onus to apologize on the guilty party; he doesn't prematurely saddle the victim with the obligation to forgive. Pope Francis sagely perceives that it is contrition that heals wounds, not the ersatz unilateral forgiveness championed by worldlings.
This also explains why an all-merciful God can, without contradicting His own nature, banish the wicked to eternal perdition. Because God's mercy is infinite, He can, of course, forgive any sin for which a transgressor has contrition. However, contrition is a product of grace (CCC, ¶¶1432–1433), and the damned are completely cut off from such grace, which they've definitively rejected. So the damned cannot muster contrition and therefore cannot receive God's forgiveness. If forgiveness could be extended to the unrepentant, then the existence of Hell would prove ipso facto a defect of forgiveness in God, which is a theological absurdity.
Baked into the proposition that we have a duty to unilaterally forgive the unrepentant is another distinct error — the notion that anger is per se wrong. If, after all, the duty to forgive does not turn on the contrition of the wrongdoer, the victim would be bound to immediately and unconditionally forgive all offenses. Of course, this is nothing short of sheer nonsense; such a course of action would in and of itself comprise a sin against charity. The idea is a direct attack on Scripture, which tells us, "Be angry, yet do not sin" (Ephesians 4:26). Aquinas speaks to this particularly, writing in his magnum opus, "If one is angry in accordance with right reason, one's anger is deserving of praise" and "inasmuch as the movement of the sensitive appetite is directed against vice and in accordance with reason, this anger is good, and is called 'zealous anger'" (Summa Theologiae II-II, Question 158, Art. 1).
In fact, it is sinful not to be angry when confronted with evil. Aquinas writes that the "lack of the passion of anger is ... a vice" and a "sign that the judgment of reason is lacking" (ST II-II, Question 158, Art. 8). Since there's no sin in harboring righteous anger, there can't be a duty to forgive those who don't repent. Quite the opposite — according to Aquinas, unilaterally "forgiving" is itself a sin, because "unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices; it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but even the good to do wrong" (ibid., quoting St. John Chrysostom).
Some attempt to overcome the imposing body of evidence that unilateral "forgiveness" is foreign to the Christian religion by making facile appeals to the fact that Christ prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified Him, by saying, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). But this is as daft as believing Mary had children other than Christ because the Bible speaks of the Lord's "brothers" (see Mark 6:3). It's bad exegesis and even worse Christology. Aquinas specifically addresses this point in the Summa, stating, "Our Lord did not pray for all those who crucified Him, as neither did He for all those who would believe in Him; but for those only who were predestinated to obtain eternal life through Him" (ST III, Question 21, Art. 4). In other words, Christ only prayed for the future forgiveness of those who would repent of such insuperable blasphemy — He was certainly not praying for the forgiveness of those who would opt to remained fixed in their opposition to God.
Nevertheless, the psychotherapy class — with the support of many Christians — is committed to peddling the dishonest coping mechanism that is unilateral forgiveness. In an article for Psychology Today titled "Why Forgiving Does Not Require an Apology," Robert Enright defines forgiveness as the "moral virtue in which the offended person tries, over time, to get rid of toxic anger or resentment." He advises his hapless readers to
Start with the inner quality of a motivation to rid yourself of resentment and the inner intention to be good, within reason, toward an offending person. If that person has no inner sorrow, never intends to apologize or to make amends, then you do not exercise the outward quality of forgiveness directly to that person. Yet, you still can have the intention to reconcile if the person substantially changes and the interactions become safe.
In other words, sinfully stifle your righteous anger, disregard the spiritual work of mercy of "admonishing the sinner," and uncharitably pretend that a serious transgression never took place by forging ahead in a relationship with a person who's proved to be intransigent in his malice, thereby forsaking justice.
But hey, it's OK because, per Enright, the ends justify the means: "A growing body of research shows that as people forgive by exercising the moral virtue of forgiveness by trying to be good ... toward an offending person, then the forgiver can reduce not only in anger but also in anxiety and depression and improve in self-esteem and hope." As with any perversion of truth, this psychobabble is unhinged and inhuman, but apparently, that doesn't matter because it can be cathartic for people to allow themselves to be treated like doormats, charity and justice be damned. It's therapist-approved Stockholm syndrome.
Would that Enright were an outlier, but, unfortunately, his kind is legion. In fact, his saccharin ideology has established itself as the conventional wisdom, as the reigning "gospel" of the world.
Another cloying internet dispensary of treacherous advice, Joyce Santos, urges people to "forgive without an apology" because "forgiveness is about you — not the person who wronged you." She concludes that sometimes we just have to "let go of the original problem that caused the pain" so our days become "easier to live." Yeah, not so much. It's the blind leading the blind, smug and self-assured in their error. And no one wants to correct them and be defamed as "unmerciful," because optics have replaced substance in the depraved West.
Catholic psychologist G.C. Dilsaver gives the proper response to this claptrap, and he's worth quoting at length here. In his book Psychomoralitics, Dilsaver inveighs,
In regard to past trauma, mental health professionals and others often prescribe the coping mechanism of forgiveness. Here a person will unilaterally "forgive" those that have hurt him so as to get past or be done with that hurt. Such supposed unilateral forgiveness also allows a person to feel virtuous. ... But unilateral forgiveness is not possible, rather it is an intentional and defensive forgetfulness that only buries the hurtful offense. For true forgiveness has as its prerequisite the victim's full acceptance of the psychomoral pain of an offense against him.
In fact, true forgiveness is by definition a bi-lateral process that occurs when the hurt is shared in a receptive manner by both the victim and the perpetrator. In forgiveness, the perpetrator is humbled and sorrowful; that is, the perpetrator is receptive to the humiliation and sorrow of his committed offense, rather than fighting it. So too, in forgiveness the victim is forgiving; that is, the victim is himself receptive of the pain of the offense against him and not reacting egoistically or revengefully against it. It is thus when both perpetrator and victim share the psychomoral pain of the offense that true forgiveness occurs.
Without a penitent perpetrator, the best a victim can do unilaterally is to be receptive to the pain caused to him and therefore not allow it to fester in the realm of the ego. This receptivity places the victim in the position of proffering forgiveness if and when the perpetrator is also receptive to the pain he has caused the victim. Again, it is the receptivity to the pain itself, the humiliation and sorrow, that allows a victim to be free of the festering hurt and debilitating defenses that can occur in a reaction to an evil done unto him. Pretending one is over an offense, by unilaterally saying, "All is forgiven," is but a coping mechanism that allows that offense to fester, even if buried deep (G.C. Dilsaver, Psychomoralitics [Imago Dei, 2018], 195–196).
So the real answer to unrepented offenses against us is to accept the resultant wounds in a spirit of mortification, uniting our pain with Christ's suffering on Calvary, offering it to God as a pleasing sacrifice. We can pray to God that He may deliver us from our trials when it pleases Him to do so, in view of the overall good of our souls. But we must also accept that it may be the divine will that we carry our Cross and feel its piercing splinters for the remaining days of our earthly sojourn. In that case, we must train ourselves to assent to the divine will, and to trust that God is the beneficent doctor, who tends to the souls of His children with fathomless solicitude. The slings and arrows of wicked men, thieves and sharpers are integral to our sanctification. So thank God for them. And remember the comforting words of St. Thérèse: "Suffering is the very best gift [God] has to give us. He gives it only to His chosen friends."
As for the proponents of unilateral forgiveness — quit foisting your coping mechanism on people as if it were a moral imperative. And especially don't presume to do it under the veneer of Christianity.
Christine Niles has written a counterpoint to this article here.
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