Sense and Nonsense: On Forgiveness

Surprising doctrines are heard of late. Our private lives and public lives, it is suggested, are completely different. We are quite astonished that our inner self can even recognize our outer self. We cannot judge, not merely “lest we be judged,” but also because we can conclude nothing about our inner life from our external actions. Apparent moral monsters may be saints; saints whitened sepulchers. Only God can judge, and He isn’t talking.

Yet, we find pleas for forgiveness but not much guilt. Since many ways of living exist, several of which are contradictory to each other, the best we can do, evidently, is to live and let live, not try to make sense of it. The only really dangerous type is the one who suggests the existence of “standards” that apply universally, that some things are right or wrong here and everywhere, in this time, in past time, in future time.

The question of who can forgive sins, moreover, has a long history, dating back at least to The Fall. But why worry about “forgiving” precisely “sins,” unless we acknowledge the possibility that we can sin? If no one can or does sin, the world ought to be a pretty placid place. Yet we are constantly blaming ourselves and others. We think it proper to do so. We can only do so, however, if we recognize that deviant actions affect others in the world.

Basically, we cannot “forgive” ourselves. Why? The reason is that when we sin, we deal with someone other than ourselves. Indeed, we touch the order of all things, hence our nobility. It may be possible that our sins can be forgiven, but not unless we recognize that we caused them, that we recognize why our actions were wrong. In other words, we cannot be forgiven without our implicit or explicit acknowledgment of the norm or law that we violated.

When we talk of “doing penance,” we mean an act consequent on our understanding of what we have done. Penance and punishment are external, often public, signs that we recognize our causality, our failure to uphold what is right. Plato says that accepting punishment is a sign of our work to restore the norm or standard that we knowingly violated.

The term “conscience” refers to a final judgment we make about whether what we do upholds that moral standard. It is in our “conscience” that we are aware of any discrepancy between what we do and what we should do. Indeed we cannot know certain things obscure to us, but we may also choose not to examine our conscience precisely in order to do what we choose.

In his book On Love, Josef Pieper remarked that “forgiveness is one of the fundamental acts of love. But what specifically is meant by that? Certainly it does not mean ‘letting be’ something bad, simply not regarding it as important—as though it were a mere oversight. We forgive something only if we regard it as distinctly bad, not if we ignore its negative effect.” Thus forgiveness requires that we, sinner and forgiver, live in the sane moral universe. Forgiveness is an act of love, not of blindness. Love sees evil and names it. It does not ignore it or call it something else or claim that it is not important. We can only love those who identify evil correctly. This is why we can love the sinner and hate the sin, because the sinner can also, if he wishes, name the sin.

“Only forgiveness takes the other’s personal dignity seriously,” Pieper continues. We must be willing to be truthful, to see the other as someone who has “done something” wrong. “Forgiveness seems to assume that the other himself condemns (‘repents’) what he has done and that he accepts forgiveness.” So we cannot “forgive” what is not repented. “If we attempt to ‘forgive’ someone even as he stands by his wickedness and does not seek forgiveness, we are literally declaring him not of sound mind, not responsible for his actions…. We can forgive and pardon only something that has been done to ourselves.” Thus, the burden of forgiveness rests solely on the shoulders of those against whom the sin was committed. Neither we nor God can forgive what is not acknowledged as a sin, a wrong. Thus, Mark’s Gospel rightly begins with a command—”repent.” Without this repentance, no forgiveness is possible.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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