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Choosing forgiveness - The modern 'f-word'

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Forgiveness is not an easy choice, for anyone. But forgiveness is a basic component of the Christian story, and the Christian life.

Still, for many people, forgiveness is a confusing subject — when is forgiveness enabling? Are Christians required to forgive? How we do it?

The Pillar’s Charlie Camosy spoke this week with two forgiveness experts: a priest and a psychologist. Fr. Thomas Berg and Dr. Timothy Lock - who work together at St. Joseph Seminary in New York - have co-written “Choosing Forgiveness: Unleash the Power of God's Grace,” a new book that explores the meaning of forgiveness, and its importance.

Berg and Lock have a lot to say about what forgiveness really means. If you need to forgive - or be forgiven - you might find their remarks worth reading.

Living a Christian life, almost by definition, means making countercultural choices. Yet it seems like the possibility of forgiveness in our culture seems more foreign than ever.

In the face of social tensions, hyper-partisanship, the anonymous nastiness we can unleash on social media, is there an opening for forgiveness in our culture today perhaps?

Berg: When you think about how the digital age has allowed us the possibility of anonymous, drive-by, kamikaze, sniper-fire anger and vitriol — from the nasty email, to the hateful comment in the com box, to the twitter street warfare — it gives you a window on a dimension of moral and cultural deterioration that, these days, most people seem to take for granted.

Lock: It’s kind of like: “I’m right. You’re wrong. So, I’m going to get in your face about it and manipulate the conversation so you are silenced.”

It’s hardly dignified, respectful conversation with another person. Yet somehow this has become acceptable discourse.

Berg: In the context of the Church, the thing I find so disturbing is how this same cultural deficit has so easily invaded the mental spaces and the hearts of so many Catholics, who in their everyday level of nastiness and uncharitableness are largely indistinguishable from non-believers.

And I’m not talking about just nominal Catholics.

I’m talking about what goes on amongst presumably committed Catholic Christians, in our places of worship and ministry, our parishes, our chanceries. The level with which, in the day-to-day operations of the local Church, we seem to just shrug our shoulders and tolerate cultures of hurt, vengefulness, back-biting, defamation, slander, you name it – honestly it’s an enormous scandal.

I wrote extensively about this in my first book, “Hurting in the Church.”

So it’s no wonder, inside the Church or outside, that we find such resistance to the very idea of forgiveness. And it’s a bad sign when you see so many presumably committed Catholics who don’t even want to try to forgive.

I’m guessing there’s a lot of Catholic folks out there who might see the title of our book–and kind of sneer!

Forgiveness for some sounds squishy and weak – you know, because we’re all supposed to be self-assertive and self-affirming and empowered and all that stuff.

Lock: As a Catholic psychologist, I get this all the time in my private practice. And my clients are mostly devout Catholics, including many priests and religious.

If I bring up the topic of forgiveness, I can be looked at as offering some type of psycho-spiritual-babble. On the flip side, not everyone, but there are plenty of us that can think of forgiveness as some kind of quick fix — and if I can be honest I’ll put myself in this category too, at least sometimes.

We can think of forgiveness like saying “abracadabra” over an upside down top hat and imagining a white rabbit of forgiveness to appear. Just “forgive and forget” - easy peasy.

When I bring up forgiveness in therapy, I’m not talking about any of these caricatures of forgiveness. But I think the mere mention of forgiveness touches something deep within, and we are - on some level - afraid of what this might mean. So, yeah, many people recoil when the topic comes up.

Berg: But at heart, if a Christian is resisting forgiveness, we’re really resisting the most radical invitation of Christian transformation. We’re supposedly trying to follow, and imitate, and image for the world, the One who “was silent and opened not his mouth,” who allowed himself to be unjustly scourged, humiliated, nailed to a cross, who forgave his torturers.

The radical, central truth of Christianity is the Father’s forgiveness mediated to us through Christ. Christ calls us to the supreme transformation of grace through becoming forgivers in Him and through Him. Grace takes up our acts of forgiveness and makes of them a central dimension of Christian living and worship!

But I think there’s a lot of Catholics for whom such a series of considerations, which we dive into in the book, are unfortunately today quite foreign. That is, in part, what motivated us to write.

And yet, you suggest that multiple fields — psychology, philosophy and sociology especially — have taken great interest in the concept of forgiveness over the past decade or so. What’s going on here?

Lock: In the past 20 years there has been a literal explosion of research into the psychological understanding of forgiveness. Part of why I didn’t learn much in graduate school about forgiveness is because the field was just starting to come of age. And the forgiveness research primarily started in educational psychology which focused on developing and applying forgiveness curriculums in the schools (grammar school, middle school, high school).

It was not until the early 2000s that the advances in the psychological understanding of forgiveness made its way into the clinical scene. This is when I learned how to integrate the path to forgiveness into the regular psychotherapy I was offering my clients.

Berg: I’ll just add that the same is true in the fields of sociology and philosophy–it’s now the stuff of doctoral dissertations. It’s also become a huge part of the self-help industry.

Forgiveness is obviously at the heart of the Christian mystery--our redemption in Christ. That should be a powerful motivator for Christians to forgive those who have offended us. Does that explain why it's so hard?

Aren't Christians obliged, in a sense, by their faith in Christ to forgive?

Lock: Allow the psychologist to dig the hole a little deeper.

I love your question, Charlie, because my clients ask me this all the time. This is one of the reasons I hate forgiveness. I would be lying if I did not admit that I have a love-hate relationship with forgiveness. This is one reason why.

Our Lord says in Matthew 6:14-15, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

So, some of my clients have said that they feel like they are in a double bind or a catch 22 with these words from Jesus.

Berg: Are we obliged as Christians to forgive?

It’s interesting theologically. And I think the answer is in a sense, “yes and no,” and we explore this in the book. On the one hand, it would seem pretty clear, from the Lord’s Prayer and other expressions in the Sermon on the Mount, that Jesus clearly expects his followers to forgive others for the offenses committed against them. And for good measure, later in the Gospel of Matthew, we are again reminded: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

So Jesus is big on forgiveness!

The disciple should feel compelled by the Master to forgive.

And yet, forgiveness ‘because I am obliged to forgive’ paradoxically fails to be genuine forgiveness. The essence of forgiveness is right there in the word in English: “for-give-ness.”

Forgiveness entails in some sense the giving of self, a self-emptying, a renunciation for the other. But how can there be self-gift where there is mere obligation? How can there be self-emptying love without freedom?

And tragically, especially in the context of the worst possible traumas such as sexual abuse, forgiveness is often weaponized, either by the perpetrator or more commonly by others who supposedly should be in a position of supporting and accompanying the victim: “Come on now. You need to forgive and move on!” “Just let go of the anger.” “You know what God expects of you–forgive and just get past this thing.”

And this is really bad when it’s coming from a priest (especially in the confessional), or a pastor or someone in Church leadership.

But when forgiveness is born of the free choice of the one offended, the reason it can be so healing, in part, is because among its many other beneficent effects, forgiveness returns agency to the victim. Forgiveness is an immensely empowering thing. It contributes greatly to restoring the dignity of the victim. But again, all this must begin in the free, non-coerced, generous and graced decision of the victim.

Lock: Jesus’ commandment to love is very similar. Our Lord tells us in the Gospel of Luke, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

This verse is not meant to come at us like a pair of handcuffs that force us to love. That’s ridiculous. You can’t mandate love. You can’t demand love. You can’t coerce love. Our decision to love God must be a free choice. So, I think we can understand this better if we receive it as an invitation to love Our Lord.

Likewise with forgiveness. Our Lord saying, “If you forgive others…” is not meant to come at us like a pair of handcuffs that force us to forgive or else! Again, that’s ridiculous. You can’t mandate forgiveness. You can’t demand forgiveness. You can’t coerce forgiveness. Our decision to forgive must be a free choice. So, I think we can understand this better if we receive it as an invitation to forgive. This is the Lord offering us wisdom and guidance as a good Father would do.

Your new book is unique because of the backgrounds you both bring to the topic of forgiveness.

Can you say a little bit about this? And maybe say a little bit about what motivated you to work on this project together?

Berg: I was ordained to the priesthood in the year 2000. Tim received his doctorate in clinical psychology in the year 2000. Two regular guys passionate about healing broken hearts, we began our journeys at about the same time. Little did we know our paths would come together a few years ago. We felt we both had plenty of experience–I in pastoral ministry, Tim through his practice–that we could share. We both realized that in those settings we have spent years helping people deal with the pain and struggle of trying to forgive.

Lock: As a psychologist working primarily with Catholic folks, issues of resentment, anger, and unforgiveness often appear. Either clients begin psychotherapy knowing that this is an issue, or as folks work through various issues in their lives, they realize that they need to focus on forgiveness to reach the deeper levels of healing. My graduate training in a secular university offered little education in the topic of forgiveness.

Once I started my practice, I had to supplement my otherwise fine education with an understanding of forgiveness, and particularly an understanding of forgiveness from a Catholic perspective. But there were no real texts specifically written for Catholics, for clients or for therapists.

Fast forward 20 years and Fr. Tom and I began working together at St. Joseph’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of New York. Our common goal was to form seminarians to be happy, healthy, and holy priests. But our conversations of pastoral care and clinical experience seemed to have a lot of overlap. Coincidentally, we had both worked with dozens of survivors of sexual abuse (including abuse perpetrated by Catholic clergy), abuse inflicted on children and adults.

We both shared our desires to help individuals rebuild their lives as they deal with the traumas they have experienced. Fr. Tom worked with many penitents and spiritual directees and he found there was a need to grow in an understanding and experience of forgiveness. Likewise, in my clinical practice, I refer to forgiveness as the “F-bomb” because forgiveness is so misunderstood and raised at the wrong time can cause further injury to clients.

I think we found a real simpatico because we have the same goals - the healing of our clients - and we come at the topic from slightly different, yet complementary, perspectives. Psychology, working in the order of nature, and moral theology and Catholic spirituality, working in the order of grace.

One of my favorite courses from my doctoral work in moral theology was titled simply ‘Mercy and Justice.’ One of the major concerns some have about forgiveness comes out of their concern for justice–that is, giving a person or group what they are due.

How do you understand the relationship between forgiveness and justice?

Berg: Great question. Let me say right off the bat (and I will circle back to it) as we explore in the book, forgiveness is not opposed to justice–to the contrary of what many people think. Let me try to unpack that placing my answer in the context of Church’s crisis of clergy sexual abuse. As I suggested in my answer to the previous question, survivors of abuse have too often experienced and suffered the weaponization of forgiveness. In fact, in these circles, forgiveness is often referred to as the “f-word.” And that’s very understandable.

This is why I find it very helpful with a lot of people, especially with survivors of abuse who genuinely want to forgive their perpetrator, to think in terms of wanting the best for the perpetrator. To be able to want the good, the best, for someone who has hurt us, is often a valid litmus test of whether or not we are actually in a place of forgiveness. I might struggle to say “I forgive,” but if I can say “I want the good for this person, I want them to be OK, I want them to find mercy and blessing” — if I can say that and mean it, well, then I’m actually in a place of forgiveness.

Lock: I like to think of this as living “under the umbrella of forgiveness.”

As Catholics, we have a certain understanding that forgiveness is the desired response to an offense. It’s in our blood. Probably because we’ve prayed the Our Father prayer so often. Something deep within knows “it’s the right thing to do”. So, living under this forgiveness umbrella, we can fine tune our forgiveness.

We can move from a general level of forgiveness, like “I forgive the perpetrator for everything”, to a real specific level of forgiveness. This deeper level allows us to look closely at the wounds and name the particular ways we were hurt and offended - and forgive each one by name. When we can do that, our forgiveness is deep and we experience freedom.

But we don’t start at that level. We start at a broader place, under the umbrella of forgiveness.

Berg: So, if we can say “I want the good for this person,” we are definitely under the umbrella of forgiveness.

Now, here is the upshot. The best for the perpetrator includes that they be held accountable, that they be brought to justice. In this way, forgiveness and justice are not only not contradictory; forgiveness includes a will to seek justice–precisely because it is in the best interest of the perpetrator.

Lock: Let’s say when I was 10 years old, I was sexually abused by my mother’s boyfriend. When I am 18, I report the abuse and bring the abuser to trial.

Does this mean I do not forgive him? No. I can forgive him and I can testify to the crime he committed against me. If I forgive him, I am not prosecuting him as a punishment. I am prosecuting him for other reasons. For example, I know that child abusers tend to repeatedly abuse children. Perhaps I prosecute him with the hope of protecting other children from abuse, and that he will get the treatment and the help he needs, and also be removed permanently from those circumstances which could allow him to abuse in the future.

Berg: We actually explore this in the afterword of our book, in which we consider how forgiveness can become more robustly an element of the Church’s response to the abuse crisis and contribute to the Church’s healing.

Forgiveness is one of a broader set of practices of restorative justice which the Church still needs to turn to–urgently–if we are ever to become agents and instruments in the hands of the Holy Spirit of the much deeper healing within the Church yet to be achieved in the wake of crisis of clergy sexual abuse.

Charlie, you recently explored this in a wonderful interview with our friend Daniel Philpott of Notre Dame University.

Restorative justice is typically defined as a process in which all stakeholders in the offense come together to seek resolution, to deal with the aftermath of the offense and the future implications for all the stakeholders involved. The focus is the victim and their needs. The aim ultimately is about healing for the victim, and for all those involved, and even some degree of reconciliation for all involved, including the perpetrator. It at least aims at all this–even while recognizing that not all these aims might be attainable.

Such an approach is a far cry from what quickly became, especially after 2002, the normative approach in the crisis, namely, one of retributive justice focused on damage control for the institution, and taking the easy route of doling out monetary compensations to victims–often after having first betrayed their trust and trampled upon their dignity by treating them as mere litigants. And that frankly has been a crushing failure for a Church called to live self-emptying agape-love, to be Mother, to reflect God the Father’s tender love and providential care. It has been a scandalous betrayal of our identity as Church.

For the Church to embrace more robustly and normatively the practices of restorative justice–including forgiveness–-to inculcate this as a habituated response to the crisis of clergy sexual abuse will require nothing less than a profound institutional examination of conscience, and quite frankly deep repentance on the level of the institutional Church. It will require years of much more honest truth-telling about the causes of this crisis, it will require us to dedicate more time–far more than we’ve mustered at present– to listen to victims and to their stories. It will require a radical return to being a Church self-consciously aware of its call–not to a regime of litigation and monetary rewards–but to the ministry of reconciliation.

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