Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Forgiveness no matter what (but not necessarily reconciliation)

Forgiveness is the demand of the Gospel that can be the hardest to meet, at least when forgiveness is undertaken with the seriousness of purpose the Gospel and most of the Christian tradition understand it to require.  But what constitutes the act we call "forgiveness?" I attempt to answer this question in a paper I have just posted, Forgiveness No Matter What: Justice and Love among Equals, the abstract of which appears below.   

My argument for forgiveness "no matter what" does not imply, let alone entail, that those who forgive as they should should also reconcile with those they forgive.  Current events make it timely to be clear on where forgiveness ends and the distinct question of reconciliation can begin.  With Pope Francis and a growing chorus of Catholic bishops asking now for forgiveness for the acts and omissions of  so very many bishops and priests having to do with the sexual abuse of children, vile and sometimes criminal acts and cover-ups, it bears emphasis that, on my account of forgiveness, forgiveness, although it is to be given no matter what, does not entail reconciliation. A victim who has managed truly to forgive his or her offender may nonetheless have good and sufficient reason to avoid anything like reconciliation with the offender, no matter how contrite or eager for reconciliation the offender may be.  Even victims who can bring themselves to forgive bishops who concealed sexual crimes may surely have the best reasons for insisting that the offending bishops be removed, by the Pope, from office and duly punished.  Forgiveness is a moral act of love among equals, and as such it is agnostic concerning the strictly prudential judgments that should determine how to interact, if at all, with forgiven offenders. 



Abstract: This paper argues that, given an understanding of human persons as having good reasons to act for the natural happiness of which they are capable, forgiveness is properly defined as the extension of the due love of self of a person who has been offended to his or her offender, upon realizing that he or she has been offended. 

Every account of forgiveness presupposes some moral anthropology, and the teleological account of the human person made explicit here, with the help of the work of Thomas Aquinas and Alasdair MacIntyre, postulates a human function that in turn provides the person who would qualify himself as a rational agent good reasons for choice and action.  Those reasons include, when the rational agent has suffered an injustice in the form of an offense, choosing, on the one hand, to hate the injustice per se but, on the other, to love first himself and, by an extension of that love between persons who are by nature equals, his offender. The basic idea, pursued in conversation with a wide range of contemporary accounts of forgiveness, is that the obligation to forgive one’s offenders is unconditional exactly because it follows from the indefeasible good reasons a human person has to love himself or herself, even in the face of offense and any consequent misdirected desire to hate his offender.  

Forgiveness “no matter what” does not entail reconciliation with one’s offender; the self-loving forgiver may have good and sufficient reasons that in fact bar reconciliation with his offender, even the repentant and contrite offender.  But an offended person never lacks good and sufficient reason to love himself with (here in Aquinas’s terms) amor amicitiae and amor concupiscentiae, nor, upon reaching the correct judgment that he and his offender are moral equals, his offender with those same two forms of love.  Forgiveness involves willing the goods for one’s offender that escaped him when he chose to perpetrate the offense.

The analysis stresses the importance to forgiveness of what Harry Frankfurt called “second-order desires” because of the central place of forgiveness in preventing lives from going wrong because of misdirected desires, e.g., the desire to hate one’s enemy.  The analysis grapples with the implications of the inequality of persons’ capacities to form second-order desires and, further, to reach the judgment that we are essentially one another’s equals.  I also consider the place of grace, the divine gift by which the human person with a natural end is given also a supernatural end, in a complete economy of forgiveness. Finally, the paper suggests why modern nation states lack the important capacity to show offenders anything approximating the loving forgiveness by which those who have suffered injustice are bound back together with those who have done the injustice.



Brennan, Patrick | Permalink