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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Catholic Perspective on Forgiveness

The concept of forgiveness is a key aspect in one’s participation in the Catholic faith. This Catholic notion of forgiveness can find its origins in the Bible. The Psalmist writes in Psalm 103:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits;
He pardons all your iniquities,
he heals all your ills.
He redeems your life from destruction,
he crowns you with kindness and compassion.

Yet, while forgiveness originates in God, there are conditions for the one forgiven: He must pray for forgiveness; he must confess his sins; he must turn away from sin and repent, or teshuvah.

Ultimately, Gods abundant mercy and forgiveness become the grounds for the covenant, which is a catalyst for Gods repeated act of forgiving his people.

Jeremiah the prophet declares (14: 20-21):

We recognize, O Lord, our wickedness, the guilt of our fathers; that we have sinned against you. For your names sake spurn us not, disgrace not the throne of your glory; remember your covenant with us, and break it not.

In the Gospels, the most radical change in the theology of forgiveness lies in Jesus claim to possess the divine authority to forgive sins. In the second chapter of St. Marks Gospel, Jesus says to the paralytic: “Your sins are forgiven.” Hearing this, the scribes ask, “Why does this man speak that way? Who but God alone can forgive sins?”

Jesus counters by asking if it is easier to cure a man or forgive his sins. He states: “That you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth&#133. I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.” (Mark 2:10-11).

In John 8, we again find Jesus confronted with the precepts of the Law of Moses in the case of an adulterous woman who is brought to him. The prescriptions of the Mosaic Law call for the woman to be stoned to death. While not denying the legitimate claims of the law, Jesus says to the crowd, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

If no one is willing to forgive this woman, then who among them has the right to ask for forgiveness? The result is that once they are reminded of their own sins, the people are moved to mercy for the woman – not only for her sake, but for theirs as well.

Jesus calls attention to the pervasive presence of sin to break the circle of retaliation created by sin. In so doing, Jesus replaces the expected norms of justice with an appeal to active, unconditional forgiveness. It is by forgiving the injury that the future of reconciliation opens. The wounds of division and hatred are overcome.

By becoming a victim himself and, as such, acting as the one who forgives, Jesus reveals a new logic in human relationships, one not based on the dictates of retribution but on the demand for mercy.

It follows that forgiving the offender becomes the basis upon which Christians request forgiveness of ourselves. This notion is enshrined in the heart of the Lords Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Forgiveness, then, is sine qua non, the requirement for a true worship of God.

As sure as the follower of Jesus experiences Gods love by loving his neighbor, so too does that believer experience the forgiveness of God in the act of forgiving his neighbor.

Forgiveness is both the result of Gods action and a condition for it. As our appreciation for experiencing Gods forgiveness grows within us, so our capacity for forgiveness expands.

Because forgiveness is so essential to the message of Jesus, it is not surprising that in his first post-Resurrection appearance, Jesus gives authority to his apostles to exercise forgiveness in his name. St. John in 20: 21-23 records the appearance of Jesus in the upper room:

As the Father has sent me, so I send you&#133. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.

Catholic theology finds here Jesus intention to establish a sacrament of forgiveness in a formal rite of penance. In this rite, the priest absolves the penitent of his or her sins, but only when the penitent has confessed with true sorrow and a firm purpose of amendment or conversion.

All of this presumes, however, that the penitent, who is the offender, is alive and personally offers a verbal confession of his or her sin. One cannot confess the sins of another, even those of a close family member. Furthermore, one does not know for certain the degree of guilt that is borne by another conscience.

This means that Catholics living several decades after the Holocaust can feel great shame and remorse for the tragic wrong of that event, but cannot confess guilt for actions that were not their own. Admittedly, this complicates the process of reconciliation between Catholics and Jews, but does not present an insurmountable hurdle. True sorrow for past offenses can offer an incentive to develop relationships in spite of, yet not forgetting, the past.

This is the core of a Catholic theology of forgiveness. Jesus was given the authority to mediate on Gods forgiveness. This forgiveness is not rooted in the dictates of retribution, which would demand “an eye for an eye,” but rather in mercy, which demands the brother be forgiven.

Mercy breaks the cycle of vengeance and retaliation created by sin. It opens a space to a new creation that Jesus establishes with his own testimony of unconditional love. Thus, if an offense that cannot be forgotten can be transformed by this love through the power of the Holy Spirit, such an offense can become the source of compassion toward all others who are unjustly offended.

The Most Reverend John C. Nienstedt is the Auxiliary Bishop of Detroit.

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