The Catholic doctrine of forgiveness is delicately balanced with her doctrine of justice, partly because the latter provides the context for the former. Injustice can be defined as any violation of the way people should treat each other; some injustices are more serious than others, some have worse consequences, some affect a greater number of people, but all are offenses against relationship. And every human person is related to every other human person, at the very least by being fellow ikons of God, to whom we are all related as his ikons.
Thus, every act of injustice has four effects: it damages the victim; it damages the offender, by exacerbating any tendency they have to behave this way; it damages the relationship (however distant) between the offender and the victim; and it damages the relationship between the offender and God. (1) Forgiveness is the name for a restored relationship between the offender and the offended parties, whether human or divine. Note that this is a restored relationship: forgiveness has to be accepted as well as offered to be complete, otherwise it is only readiness to forgive. And accepting forgiveness involves a certain condition of the heart, which we’ll turn to now.
For a relationship to be genuinely fixed, the person who broke it has to be genuinely sorry. And being genuinely sorry involves not only owning up to what you’ve done, both to yourself and to the other person, but wanting to fix the damage you caused, because that damage matters. This is why, in Catholic practice, the sacrament of reconciliation normally requires (2) verbal confession (as opposed to just “knowing in your heart” that you’re forgiven) and acts of penance (to help repair what you’ve broken) (3).
There is one additional thing to consider here, what the Church calls indulgence. Forget whatever history you were taught about these in high school, I guarantee you it was wrong. An indulgence is an added act of voluntary kindness on the part of the victim: a decision to help repair the damage on their own initiative. An example would be someone who was the victim of a theft, where the thief repented and promised to make good on the money stolen, freely choosing to waive their right to part—even, in an extreme case, all—of the debt. Obviously, a wise and loving person is going to be very judicious in how they indulge people who’ve hurt them and apologized, partly for their own sake and partly because it is actually good for us to experience consequences when we do the wrong thing. (This is also why, in Catholic practice, most indulgences are only partial—i.e., they don’t cover all the consequences of our sins—and/or have some fairly stringent conditions attached, lest they become more of a temptation than a kindness.) But, allowing for all sorts of grey areas about when it’s smart and how far it should go and the impression it gives, indulgence is, intrinsically, a legitimate thing a person can do.
(1) We can’t really damage God, per se, since he is immaterial and self-existent. Or rather, we can damage Him only in the context of the Incarnation—that being what the Passion was. But since most of humanity was spared direct involvement in the Passion, the closest we normally come to damaging God is by proxy, in the person of our neighbor.
(2) Normally requires: because there are circumstances in which these things aren’t possible. The point is not that fulfilling these requirements is an essential ingredient God can’t work without, but that deliberately shirking or lazily neglecting these requirements is a sign of not being as sorry as you need to be.
(3) This is why most penances are either prayers or acts of charity. The former help to repair us (since we damage ourselves as well as others by sinning), the latter act as general reparations to humanity. Of course, when we have sinned against a specific neighbor, no penance serves, or is meant to serve, as a substitute for an apology to that person and an attempt to make things right with them.
Images via Pixabay