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April 15, 2024

The Nature of Forgiveness

By Bernie Pilarski

San Francisco Archbishop William Levada was recently named by Pope Benedict XVI to be his successor as prefect of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The appointment brought immediate criticism from a number of groups. Of particular interest to me were the comments from the groups that represented victims of clergy abuse. They were disappointed by the Vatican action, fearing that it was one more indication that the Church was not doing enough to address the concerns of the victims.

No group has any reason to believe that Archbishop Levada is involved in any personal misconduct, nor have there been any allegations that he was involved in any cover-up of misconduct, and I pray to God that that is true. Yet while he has apparently no personal culpability, Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said "Levada had a dismal record on responding to the molestation crisis."

There is a drama that is being played out here — a drama that is as old as humanity and indeed, the drama at the core of the Church. An offense has been committed, and the offended party is inconsolable. The fact of the matter is that there is no action that can be taken nor any price that can be paid that can heal the wounds of the offended party. The offending party may sincerely regret their action, they may ask or even beg forgiveness, but they are powerless to move the situation forward. Both parties are mired in the consequences of the offense, and will remain so until the offended party forgives the offending party.

And there is no compelling reason to offer forgiveness.

I happened up on a break room conversation the other day. One of my co-workers, an older black man, was holding forth on the conspiracy against the black man. He is old enough to have been a young man in the Fifties and Sixties at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The Catholic Church itself conspired with those who oppressed the black man, he said. It taught that the black man had no soul and so could rightfully be owned as property. I might have tried to argue that the Church has always baptized black men, that since the time of Thomas Aquinas taught that slavery was sinful, but my co-worker would not believe me, and there most certainly are more than enough instances of Catholics, including clergy, who were slave owners and who would have defended slavery. An offense was committed, and the offended party, even unto the tenth generation, is inconsolable. Both parties will remain mired in the consequences until the offended party forgives.

And there is no compelling reason to offer forgiveness.

I knew a man who was a tank commander in World War II. He was a large, imposing man with an enormous hands and a thunderous voice. He was a natural for the role of "bad cop" in the interrogation of prisoners. He would have the prisoners convinced that what little time they had left on earth would be filled with pain and suffering, and then he would leave and allow the "good cop" to come in and buy the information they needed for the price of deliverance from evil. He operated in the European theatre, but his enemies were the enemies of the Allies. Forty years later, he found himself in Nagoya, Japan. In the subtle posturing that goes along with any negotiation, the man across the table from him drew up proudly, and perhaps defiantly, and said that he too had been in the war, and had himself been in command of a tank. There was a tense moment where, my friend readily admits, he wanted to leap across the table and attack his enemy, even though the war had ended forty years before, even though he was there to commit his business to a joint venture that would be lucrative for both parties. Offended parties, mired in the consequences.

And what reason could there be for forgiving? Each of these men had witnessed the killing. They had held the broken bodies of the dying. Who could ask them to forgive?

Is there a chance in hell that there is a Palestinian or a Jew who will say, 'My children are dead, it is now time to live as neighbors?"

In hell? No.

It is the unreasonable nature of forgiveness that roots it in the stories of the divine. Forgiveness is one of the principle gifts of Allah, Yahweh and Christ's Father. Our religious tales are not merely for entertainment around the campfire. They are the repository of the deepest held values of a people. They are the explanation of who we believe we are, and how we fit into the universe, and as in any tale, the importance of an idea is imparted by the power of the image. Bravery, fidelity and honor belong to the Knight in shining armor or the man from Krypton. Evil is a monstrous dragon or ruthless world dictator. And so it is that forgiveness is the action of the God. An action so bold as to be heroic. A supernatural act.

I wonder sometimes if those of us in the religion game don't see forgiveness as too much of a commodity. The line "...forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us..." becomes not an invitation to greatness but a price tag, a quid pro quo where we barter for divine favor, where we want to obtain enough favor to avoid damnation but we certainly don't wish to overspend. I wonder sometimes if we haven't forgotten that forgiveness is ceded to the divine because it is part and parcel of the ultimate act of divinity -- creation. In every sacred tale, be it Bible or The Lion King, Gita or Batman, evil is destruction, good is creation. Evil threatens life, good fosters life.

Forgiveness is an act of creation. No matter what has transpired before, forgiveness renews the hope that the future will unfold in a manner that fosters goodness and life.

At times, like now, forgiveness is desperately needed, yet it seems so far beyond reach as to be humanly impossible to obtain. Have we reached the point where in desperation we throw the switch to illuminate the Bat Signal? Or perhaps, in earnest, do we turn to prayer?

And now we have reached the drama at the core of the Church. Once again, as a result of its own actions, the Church stands in need of forgiveness, a forgiveness to which it has no claim. As more of its dioceses are forced into bankruptcy, and every time it must stand in court and face criminal charges, the Church may pray to God for deliverance.

It is my prayer that the Church will see the reflection of the divine in the eyes of its accusers and realise that its deliverance has already begun.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-05-30
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