Forgive And Forget?

Forgive And Forget? April 28, 2024

Jesus holding a woman.

Following the biblical tradition, Catholicism greatly emphasizes forgiveness and justice by seeking to balance the desire for justice and the need for forgiveness. At the individual level, that entails forgiving those who harm us while seeking justice. However, forgiveness and justice appear to be contradictory concepts. How can we forgive someone for a wrong while simultaneously asking that they be punished in accordance with the dictates of justice? 

In this essay, I will examine the Catholic teachings on forgiveness and justice and argue that charity is a necessary condition for obtaining forgiveness and enacting justice.

I think there are two definitions of forgiveness relevant to this essay. The first is psychological in nature. In this sense, forgiveness may be defined as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness

The second definition takes on a more theological sense. Here, forgiveness involves a “letting go” and a cancellation of a debt owed. Applying this definition allows one to gain insight into Christ’s own words to the apostles. “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose [forgive] on earth shall be loosed [forgiven] in heaven.” (See Matthew 18:18).

Within a biblical worldview, forgiveness is closely tied to sin. Because sin incurs a debt (owed to God and often to other people), forgiveness can be understood as relieving the sinner of the costs of paying back what is owed. Of course, finite humans cannot adequately compensate an infinite God for sin. It is here that we require the salvific work of Christ. 

From the Catholic perspective, there is a kind of divine reciprocity to forgiveness. That is to say that God forgives us in direct proportion to how we forgive others. “But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.

The concept of sin incurring a debt also appears in the secular realm, although analogically. When a person commits a crime, society seeks some type of reparation. This can take the form of monetary payment to the injured party and/or incarceration for the criminal. This point leads to the second aspect of forgiveness: justice.

 The classic definition of justice is rendering each his due. That seems quite simple but quickly becomes more complex as one examines the concept. First, who is the arbitrator of determining one’s due? The secular answer is those in power. That, of course, is not the Catholic or biblical answer. The biblical view is that God imbues human beings with certain rights that are knowable by virtue of natural law. Since God is the source of these rights, others cannot remove them without violating natural law. 

A second problem is determining what, if any, relationship exists between justice and revenge. Revenge may be defined as inflicting harm on another as punishment for injury caused by that person or group. Unfortunately, such a definition does not distinguish it much from justice. 

Nevertheless, a biblical survey suggests a clear distinction between justice and revenge. Followers of God are to pursue the former and eschew the latter. Catholics are to “Make justice our aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.” However, vengeance belongs solely within the purview of God. “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves… for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” 

The distinction between justice and vengeance allows us to focus on the concept of restorative justice. Restorative justice seeks to rectify the imbalance caused by sin and injustice. Vengeance, on the other hand, seeks only to inflict pain upon another for an actual or perceived crime.  Still, a question remains. How can justice be obtained if forgiveness requires us to “let go” of a wrong committed?

I think there are two ways of addressing this dilemma. The first is to see forgiveness as lying solely within the realm of the psychological, which makes forgiveness entirely subjective. In contrast, justice, as a manifestation of natural law, is objective. Viewing it this way allows one to forgive another while at the same time seeking justice.

The second way to address the relationship between forgiveness and justice is to see both as being grounded in the theological virtue of love. In a theological and biblical context, love is not the sentimental feeling we generally associate with the word. Rather, love is an act whereby one wills another person’s good. The ultimate good is God. Love, then, is willing God on another person.

Accepting this definition of love allows us to interpret an otherwise difficult biblical passage correctly. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (See Matthew 5:43-44). We are to will God even on those who hate us.

Despite this, it is essential to realize that forgiveness without justice is sentimentality and an affront to God, and justice without forgiveness is a danger to peace. How is the balance between forgiveness and justice maintained?

To forgive does not mean to forget. Rather, it means relinquishing any ill will or hatred toward someone who has caused harm. Forgiveness allows one to move on, which is different from forgetting. It allows one to reach a place where we are not consumed by what has happened, where the other person’s sin no longer controls us. Forgiving someone else brings us freedom. 

Finally, forgiveness does not mean that justice should not be sought. The sacrament of confession provides a model for the relationship between forgiveness and justice. 

As all Catholics know, the sacrament of confession entails admitting one’s sins, showing remorse for one’s actions, and expressing a desire to be forgiven. Nevertheless, even after all this, the Catholic is given penance. He is, after a fashion, punished after he is forgiven. The divine justice that condemns is also the love that restores.

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