Why We Should Forgive Those Who Aren’t Sorry

News: Commentary
by Christine Niles  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  February 14, 2023   

'While we were yet sinners Christ died for us'

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My colleague, David Gordon, who authored the article "Stop 'Forgiving' People Who Aren't Sorry," invited me to write a counterpoint after learning I disagreed with his position. And so in the spirit of fraternity, I accept his invitation.

The main thrust of his article is that we are to follow God's model of forgiveness, and because God does not forgive us unless we repent, we too should not forgive our enemies unless they repent. He quotes, among others, St. Thomas Aquinas and Pope John Paul II as support, citing the pontiff's 1980 encyclical Dives in Misericordia ("Rich in Mercy"), where the pontiff indicates that satisfaction for injury is a condition of forgiveness.

According to David, any view to the contrary is based on little more than pop psychology, which would see evil swept under the rug and tolerated in the name of a superficial, false peace. As proof, he quotes secular psychologists who put forth shaky reasons for unilateral forgiveness.

First, it's important to define terms. It seems that David's definition of forgiveness is more akin to reconciliation — in which case, I largely agree with his points. True reconciliation, authentic restoration of friendship, cannot occur unless the one who commits the harm repents and seeks forgiveness.

In such cases, as Scripture makes clear, we are obligated to forgive: "Then Peter came up and said to him, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven'" (Matt 18:21–22).

But if we define forgiveness not necessarily as reconciliation but as the willingness to release one's enemy from the justice and punishment he deserves, instead willing his good, even offering one's sufferings for his repentance and conversion, then I cannot agree with my colleague's conclusions. 

Neither do they comport with the life of Christ, nor countless saints — including one of the saints he quotes: Pope St. John Paul II.

Pope John Paul II with Mehmet Ali Ağca (1983)

Who can forget that image of the pontiff, sitting face to face with Mehmet Ali Ağca in an Italian prison cell in 1983, Ağca looking intently into the face of the man he tried to murder two years earlier in St. Peter's Square? The bullet missed the pontiff's heart by mere inches, and the pope would credit Our Lady of Fatima — on whose feast day the assassination attempt took place — with saving his life. He would eventually have the bullet encrusted in the crown of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

Long before this, in fact, only moments after the attempt on his life, as the ambulance was racing through the streets of Rome carrying his bleeding body to the hospital, the pope forgave the man who tried to murder him.

While he publicly forgave Ağca two months after the attempted assassination, he revealed in an open letter that "the possibility of pronouncing it [forgiveness] before — in the ambulance that brought me from the Vatican to the Gemelli hospital where the first and decisive surgery was performed — I consider the fruit of a particular grace given to me by Jesus."

As he lay in his bloodstained vestments, not knowing whether he would live or die, he forgave.

"The act of forgiveness is the first and fundamental condition so that we aren't divided and placed one against another like enemies," he wrote. "It's important that not even an episode like that of May 13 succeeds in opening an abyss between two men, creating a silence that would result in breaking all forms of communication."


Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square,

immediately after being shot (May 13, 1981)

It was a profound example of mercy and arguably the most powerful witness of his entire pontificate, and one of the reasons he is now a canonized saint. 

Long before Ağca expressed any remorse for his crime, the pontiff forgave. In that ambulance, as he lay in his bloodstained vestments, not knowing whether he would live or die, he forgave.

He did not wait for repentance. He did not wait for his would-be assassin to say sorry. He did not justify unforgiveness by insisting that his enemy first show remorse. He forgave. Two months later, he would repeat that expression of forgiveness, this time in public — and still at a time when Ağca had not repented.

Pope John Paul II in the hospital after being shot

There is no doubt that John Paul II's example of mercy, modeled after Christ's own, played a large role in Ağca's eventual conversion to the Catholic faith, 31 years to the day the pope visited him in prison. 

Ağca would return to the Vatican in December 2014, laying white roses at the pontiff's tomb as an expression of gratitude to the saint who helped save his life by saving his soul — which all began by that singular act of mercy first shown in an ambulance moments after the bullets were fired.

"A thousand thanks, Holiness," Ağca said at his tomb. "This is a miracle that goes on. The mystery of Fatima goes on. Long live Jesus Christ!"


Mehmet Ali Ağca in St. Peter's Square with white roses

to lay at Pope St. John Paul II's tomb (2014)

Other saints set similar examples. Saint Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, forgave his murderers as they were stoning him to death. Saint Maria Goretti, stabbed during an attempted sexual assault, forgave her attacker as she lay dying in the hospital. Saint Rita of Cascia endured physical abuse and cruelty at the hands of her husband, but forgave him and prayed for him, eventually seeing him convert. When he was murdered by a rival family, she publicly forgave his murderers.

Indeed, there exists the witness of countless martyrs of the Church, from the earliest days to recent centuries, who died at the hands of their killers with a prayer of forgiveness on their lips.

Saint John Vianney wrote, "The saints have no hatred, no bitterness; they forgive everything, and think they deserve much more for their offenses against God." And St. Augustine exhorted, "If you are suffering from a bad man's injustice, forgive him, lest there be two bad men."

While We Were Yet Sinners

Any discussion of forgiveness can only be had against the backdrop of the life and death of Christ and the example He set. One Scripture verse puts everything into stark focus: "But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).

"While we were yet sinners" — i.e., while we were yet dead in our sins, unrepentant, without remorse, Christ died for us. We had done nothing to merit it at that point — indeed, quite the opposite. We were worthy of eternal damnation. But He chose to extend His radical mercy to us "while we were yet sinners."

Another Scripture verse bears mention, even though my colleague dismisses it as irrelevant: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). Christ made that plea for his tormentors while He was on the Cross.

David quotes Aquinas, who explains that Our Lord was asking forgiveness only for those of his tormentors who would eventually repent. He was not praying for those who would never repent.

But this in no way contradicts the exhortation to forgive one's enemies. First, unlike Christ, we cannot see into the hearts and souls of our enemies to determine who will repent and who will not; therefore, we cannot withhold forgiveness from our enemies. Second, it remains the case that Our Lord asked for their forgiveness while they were unrepentant — in fact, they were far from repentant, relishing in their cruelty.

He did not wait for them to show remorse before making His plea. He did not wait for them to say sorry. He prayed, "Father, forgive them" — as they were tormenting him.

David expresses concern that forgiveness without repentance leads to turning a blind eye to evil or tolerating wickedness. But forgiveness does not need to mean this, any more than Christ's own plea from the Cross for his tormentors was turning a blind eye to their evil or tolerating their wickedness. It was in fact that plea for mercy that obtained for his enemies the grace to repent.

It bears repeating that if David means by forgiveness reconciliation, then of course sinners cannot be reconciled with God until they express contrition and repent. But if he means by forgiveness the forgoing of the just punishment they deserve for their crimes, then it simply does not comport with Scripture, the life of Christ or the lives of the saints. 

Mercy goes beyond justice, and involves showing goodness and kindness to those who do not deserve it. This was the life of Christ in sum — one of radical mercy. Pope John Paul II called Christ "Mercy Incarnate." His life cannot be understood apart from this.

In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas argued that mercy is the greatest of God's attributes: "If we consider a virtue in terms of its possessor, however, we can say that mercy is the greatest of the virtues only if its possessor is himself the greatest of all beings, with no one above him and everyone beneath him."

He did not wait for them to show remorse before making His plea.

Man's sin infinitely offends an infinite God. Our sin should result in eternal punishment, a just result for offending an infinite God. Man has no way of atoning for that sin, because he is imperfect and finite.

But God, Who, "not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance," broke the cycle of retribution by becoming the Victim for our sins, taking our place and suffering the punishment we deserved, in order to spare us eternal damnation. 

It was God's love that moved Him to extend such mercy to us. There is nothing we did (or could do) to merit this. It was sheer grace, borne from God's incomprehensible love. And this is how we (who are called to be "little Christs") are called to love others; and part of that love is extending the same mercy Christ extended to us — utterly unmerited, undeserved, generous, overflowing.

In Matthew 5:44, Our Lord commands, "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." If you can do this, you are already exercising forgiveness toward your enemies, in the same way Christ exercised forgiveness from the Cross toward his tormentors, wholly unrepentant and without contrition.  

No Qualifiers

While my colleague chooses to focus on Scripture verses that qualify forgiveness (Luke 17:3-4), he ignores a number of verses without qualifiers:

"Forgive, and you will be forgiven." Luke 6:37

"And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins." Mark 11:25

"For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." Matthew 6:14–15

Then there is the line in the Lord's Prayer: "And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors" (Matthew 6:12).

As St. Thomas Aquinas explained in his Commentary on the Lord's Prayer, "for if thou forgivest not, thou wilt not be forgiven. … If therefore, you say it with the lips, let the heart fulfill it." It does not say, "forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors, as long as they repent." The verse is clear that if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. Period.

My colleague cites Aquinas to distinguish between two types of forgiveness — the forgiveness of the perfect and the forgiveness common to all:

And it must also be known that forgiveness is twofold. One applies to the perfect, where the one offended seeks out the offender: "Seek after peace." The other is common to all, and to it all are equally bound, that one offended grant pardon to the one who seeks it: "Forgive thy neighbor if he hath hurt thee; and then shall thy sins be forgiven to thee when thou prayest."

Aquinas is merely repeating what Scripture commands: If our brother repents, we must forgive. Everyone is bound by this. No Christian is permitted to withhold forgiveness from the one who asks.

But there is nothing in Aquinas' words to indicate that Christians must or should withhold forgiveness from one who is unrepentant. In fact, there is nothing in Scripture that forbids Christians from forgiving those who do not ask for forgiveness. This is something that David extrapolates from the text, but nothing that the text itself commands. 

As Professor Montague Brown writes in his essay "St. Thomas Aquinas on Human and Divine Forgiveness":

[T]he virtue of Christian forgiveness is one of active reconciliation. It is not just the nobility of controlling one's anger and not taking vengeance, or even of patiently waiting until the offender might come asking for forgiveness. Rather it is pro-active, seeking out the offender who is one's enemy as God seeks us out, even as we are his enemies through sin, even as we are set on rejecting him. We must do the same. Real forgiveness requires it, and our God requires of us real forgiveness.

The Hardest Work

Forgiveness is hard. It is in fact perhaps the hardest teaching of Christ. As fallen human beings, it's in our nature to try to make the hard teachings easier, to bend Christ's commands to our will rather than bend our will to Christ's commands. But if we are serious about the call to sainthood, then we must follow Our Lord's command: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). 

He does not say, "Try, but settle for second best." He says, "Be perfect." That verse follows, just a few verses earlier, the command to "Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you" (Matthew 5:44).

Such perfection as Christ commands is impossible without God's grace. Striving against our human nature — prone to anger, vengeance, hatred, self-love — is grueling and demanding work. It is a daily, sometimes intense struggle. But it must be done. 

And the efforts pay off. Those who forgive their enemies are the souls most at peace. They are magnanimous, generous souls whose happiness does not depend on their enemy's disposition, but rather is rooted in the incomprehensible love and mercy of God, which more than make up for the harms inflicted by their enemies. Such souls know that God will vindicate them and that their enemies will face justice — if not in this life then the next.

David closes his article with a beautiful way to approach suffering:

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.

While this is the right answer, I would challenge him to go farther; instead of stopping at self, think and pray for one's enemies, too. Offer the harms they've inflicted on oneself for them, for the good of their souls. Seek their repentance, not because it will benefit oneself, but because it will benefit them

If Pope St. John Paul II had followed the counsel to refuse forgiveness until his enemy apologized, the world would've been deprived of one of the most powerful human testaments to mercy — mercy modeled on that of Christ Himself, Who died for us "while we were yet sinners."


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