On Forgiveness

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In a homily at Santa Marta (January 23), Pope Francis spoke of “forgiveness.” “God always forgives! He never tires of forgiving. It is we who tire of asking for forgiveness.” The Pope recalled the “how many times” question of Scripture – the “seventy times seven.” He did not mention the sin against the Holy Spirit that would not be forgiven. That sin is usually interpreted to mean that the sinner who chooses himself cannot be budged. It cannot be forgiven because it will not be admitted.

Before forgiveness, the sin must be acknowledged. This acknowledgment is what the priest has to hear and judge. Usually, the promise to “sin no more” is presumed. If I confess my sins but do not plan to change my ways, it is difficult to see what forgiveness might mean. Thus, Francis adds: “If you have lived a life of many sins, many bad things, but at the end contritely ask for forgiveness, He forgives you, straight away. . . .We need only to repent and ask for forgiveness.”

That God the Father sent His only Son into the world so that sins might be forgiven is at the heart of Christianity. Virtually everyone knows from experience that something is wrong in his human condition, something no one has ever quite defined or fully eradicated. Some like to think that the cause of this recurrent historical disorder is the very idea that a man can do something wrong or evil. All we need to be perfect is rid ourselves of the silly claim that good and evil exist.

Yet sin seems connected with our very condition. Christianity is not new because men suddenly realized that they sinned. Rather, they did not know what to do about the evils that they sent into the world because of their sins. Evidently, not any way would do. The forgiveness had to be placed in the hands of someone authorized to forgive. No ordinary person possessed this capacity.

Of the billions of people who have lived on this planet, few have heard of this forgiveness of sins that revelation postulates. Among those who have heard of it, not many practice it. To cover this situation, we talk of being sorrowful. God will forgive even if we know nothing of the context of the sacrament on the forgiveness of sin. Some would extrapolate this view to save everyone. Others would suspect that, if everyone is forgiven, no matter what they do, why bother being good? The good and the bad are equally redeemed with or without the sacrament.

Folk art: Salvation Mountain (near Calipatria, CA) by Leonard Knight

Folk art: Salvation Mountain (near Calipatria, CA) by Leonard Knight

On Sunday, June 3, 1781, Boswell talked to Samuel Johnson about original sin in “consequence of the fall of man, and the atonement made by our Saviour.” Johnson asked Boswell to record these further reflections: “With respect to original sin, the inquiry is not necessary; for whatever is the nature of human corruption, men are evidently and confessedly so corrupt, that all the laws of heaven and earth are insufficient to restrain them from crimes.” Whether we agree with this view or not, Johnson adds that all mankind has recognized the problem and sought means to atone for sin by some sort of sacrifice.

“The great sacrifice for the sins of mankind was offered by the death of the Messiah, who is called in Scripture: ‘The Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.’” Johnson continued. “To judge of the reasonableness of the scheme of redemption, it must be considered as necessary to the governance of the universe, that God should make known his perpetual and irreconcilable detestation of moral evil.” One is hard pressed to find anything more insightfully stated on what is at stake in the reality of forgiveness.

Of particular interest in this passage of Johnson’s is not the emphasis on God’s forgiveness but on the causes in the world itself, the existence and detestation of moral evil. Put briefly, something needs forgiveness. Moreover, no humanly concocted rite or absolution is sufficient to accomplish this atonement. If the Father forgives our sins, whatever they are, it is not because of any remarkable gesture on our part. It begins with a real sacrifice, a real “Saviour.”

God might well have left us in our sins. That He did not does not minimize their heinousness, but emphasizes them. We live in a world that does not choose to admit that anyone sins, that claims evils can be eradicated by technical, economic, or psychological means.

The sticking point of the Father’s forgiveness is not on the side of God, but on our side. The one sin that cannot be forgiven is the one we insist on committing, the sin that says that we need not acknowledge moral evils in our souls or in the encouragement that they receive from our culture.

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About James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, and Reasonable Pleasures.

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