Truth and Forgiveness

If the best of all possible results from recent political developments were to occur — a big if — the real problems that beset society will yet remain unfixed. The reason is that those real problems involve an order that lies well beyond political solutions. They are problems related to the family, to “relationships” (in the broadest sense), to morals, and to truth. If the modern State has only a limited jurisdiction in the first three, it seems to be positively allergic to the fourth.

Ultimately, it is a matter of people actually perceiving reality (the conformity of our mind to which is the very definition of truth), accepting it, and living accordingly in their private, family, and social lives. In using the term “reality” here, I include both natural reality and what has been revealed to us of supernatural reality.

To live according to the truth demands, among other things, the acquisition of virtue by carrying out acts proper to those virtues. Here, I would like to consider the quintessentially Christian act of forgiveness. It is worth our attention for several reasons, the most pressing of which is, in my opinion, what appears to be a terrible hardening of hearts in the world. We who strive to be counterrevolutionary, anti-Modernist, and in every way contrary to the spirit and maxims of the world need to keep in mind that the great saints practiced not only the virtues most immediately associated with Christian militancy, like fortitude, fidelity, and fearlessness, but they also practiced the “little” virtues — like mercy, meekness, humility, and kindness.

No, there is no contradiction. As Father Garrigou Lagrange reminds us more than once, the mark of the saint is the simultaneous practice of seemingly contrary virtues, like meekness and fortitude.

The subject of forgiveness immediately elicits some familiar biblical passages. Pride of place here must go to the words of Our Lord when He taught His disciples how to pray: “And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). And Our Lord goes on to append an inspired “footnote” to this verse after He completes the prayer: “For if you will forgive men their offences, your heavenly Father will forgive you also your offences. But if you will not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offences” (vs. 14-15). Over and above its being a fantastic apologetical proof of the necessity of good works for salvation (withhold forgiveness and you’re not forgiven: i.e., you’re damned), this passage clearly obliges each one of us to practice forgiveness.

Saint Luke records another passage where Jesus makes our forgiveness by God contingent on our forgiving others: “Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).

In at least two places in his epistles, Saint Paul commands us to forgive others as God has forgiven us. To the Ephesians, he writes, “And be ye kind one to another; merciful, forgiving one another, even as God hath forgiven you in Christ” (Eph. 4:32).

A similar passage is found in the Epistle to the Colossians. Significantly, this particular verse is part of the Epistle reading for the Feast of the Holy Family, which means that if we read it with the mind of the Church as manifested in the liturgy, we will know that the Apostle’s directives here are a guide for a holy family life: “Bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if any have a complaint against another: even as the Lord hath forgiven you, so do you also” (Col. 3:13). Married folk, take heed!

Is forgiveness a virtue? No, according to Saint Thomas, it is an act of the virtue of mercy, which virtue inclines us to have pity on our neighbor. In his Commentary on the Our Father, Saint Thomas says that we are all bound to forgive those who seek our forgiveness. He cites Ecclesiasticus 28:2: “Forgive thy neighbor if he hath hurt thee: and then shall thy sins be forgiven to thee when thou prayest.” Showing the connection to mercy, he adds, “And from this follows that other beatitude: ‘Blessed are the merciful.’ For mercy causes us to have pity on our neighbor.” While all are bound to forgive those who ask our forgiveness, the perfect (i.e., those well advanced in the spiritual life) actively seek out their neighbor to forgive him, says the Angelic Doctor.

Perhaps we can consider the greatness of forgiveness in light of the sublimity of the virtue of which it is an act. Saint Thomas argues that charity is greater than mercy because charity has God as its object, but “of all the virtues which relate to our neighbor, mercy is the greatest, even as its act surpasses all others, since it belongs to one who is higher and better to supply the defect of another, in so far as the latter is deficient.” (The quoted passages in this and the next paragraph come from Saint Thomas’ Summa Theologiae.)

Now, forgiving others is not the only act of mercy, which is, in general, a “grief for another’s distress,” by which a man “supplies the defects of his neighbor.” Such a description gives mercy a fairly broad scope. According to Saint Thomas, who quotes Saint Augustine on the point, mercy “obeys the reason when mercy is vouchsafed in such a way that justice is safeguarded, whether we give to the needy or forgive the repentant.” If sin, with its consequent physical death and suffering, had not entered the world, there would be no need for mercy — not, at least, as a human virtue. It would still exist as a divine perfection in the Trinity. Moreover, charity — from which mercy results, according to Saint Thomas — would still exist as a virtue among the unfallen children of Adam.

Now, if we review the fourteen works of mercy, we will see in them a litany of so many of the corporal and spiritual defects of our neighbor that each work is intended to help remedy. And one of these (the fifth of the spiritual works of mercy) is “to forgive offenses willingly.”

The question is sometimes asked: Do we have to forgive those who do not ask for forgiveness? To the best of my knowledge, Saint Thomas has not addressed the point directly. Tim Staples makes, I believe, a very cogent argument for the negative response to this question. In summary, the argument is that we are not obliged to be more forgiving than God, and He demands contrition and repentance in order to forgive, as we know from such passages as “the sorrow that is according to God worketh penance, steadfast unto salvation” (II Cor. 7:10), and, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity” (I John 1:9). The validity of the sacrament of Penance depends upon contrition, so clearly God does not forgive unconditionally. Further, when Christ commands us to forgive a brother who has wronged us, He conditions the command on the brother’s repentance: “Take heed to yourselves. If thy brother sin against thee, reprove him: and if he do penance, forgive him. And if he sin against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day be converted unto thee, saying, I repent; forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4).

Such a withholding of forgiveness is not to be confused with bearing a grudge, which is a sort of petty resentment not at all compatible with any Christian virtue.

As Mr. Staples points out, while we are not obliged to forgive those who are not sorry, we are obliged to love them with theological charity — which is to wish their good, ultimately, their salvation. We are to love our enemies even if, for some good reason, we have not forgiven them a particular wrong for which they are not sorry. Further, we should recall that forgiveness is an act of the virtue of mercy. We can exercise mercy toward such a person in other ways than forgiveness, for instance, by praying for him to be contrite for his sins. Certainly, we must be disposed to forgive our impenitent brother, else how will we forgive him if he becomes penitent? We cultivate such a disposition by the practice of the virtues of mercy and charity. Humility also, which makes us cognizant of our own sinfulness and need for forgiveness, certainly helps. In fact, it is indispensable, because the proud man cannot easily overcome the affront to his personal majesty!

When Saint Thomas says, as we mentioned above, that the perfect man seeks out the brother who wronged him in order to forgive, he probably has in mind a charitable conversation by which that perfect man’s kind words enkindle a desire for forgiveness on the part of the wrongdoer. Such a person would be a peacemaker, which requires not only the virtues, but also the working of the Gifts of the Holy Ghost — especially Wisdom, which, according to Saint Thomas, is the gift proper to peacemakers.

And we can use a few more of those.