Forgiveness: some comments on Lucy Allais’s ‘Aspirational Forgiveness’
This is one of those topics in which philosophers are uneasily aware that there is a theological background to ordinary thinking, without understanding, or wanting to get involved in, the theology.So a couple of thoughts about that might be useful, although I’m far from being an expert on that either.
The ‘foundational prayers and creeds’ Calhoun refers to as establishing the Christian idea of forgiveness is presumably the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.’This is illustrated by the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, and other passages.I note this because an easy way in to the theological literature is to see the discussion of either in biblical commentaries, or, especially, the petition-by-petition discussion of the Lord’s Prayer in the 16th C. Catechism of the Council of Trent, or the new Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Two important things which are worth saying are these: Christian forgiveness is not exactly obligatory, since there is great emphasis on its being voluntary; and Christian forgiveness does not wipe away all need for punishment.Both these points are important, but easy to miss.
On the first: The major incentive for forgiveness is the desire for a similar forgiveness from God.And in each case, what actually happens in forgiveness is that the forgiver disclaims at least some what is owed to him in justice.(This obviously can’t be obligatory: it can’t be a requirement of justice to waive what is just.)Since we forgive what is owing to us personally, we can forgive an injury without being unjust; it is supererogatory.(We have the right to give up what we have a right to demand.)However, in the context of a Christian’s relationship with God, a failure to forgive others would be scandalous, since God has forgiven each of us much more—hence the parable of the unforgiving servant, who refused to forgive a trivial debt, having been forgiven himself a vast one.If we hope, not for justice, but for a supererogatory forgiveness, from God, we have to behave in a parallel way ourselves.
This is, incidentally, in line with your interpretation of Bishop Butler.Butler is following the standard orthodox line here, as given in the Catechism of the Council of Trent, for example.Feelings of resentment may remain, and insofar as they are involuntary, should not be a cause for scruples in the Christian, who has genuinely given up plans for revenge etc..
On the second: In withdrawing our claim on what is owed to us, we don’t necessarily obviate the need for punishment, let alone repentance.It is interesting that you mention absolution here, because, odd as it may seem, real absolution does not remove one’s liability to punishment.What it does is commute eternal punishment due to mortal sin (if the penitent has confessed a mortal sin), to temporal (ie non-eternal) punishment (ie purgatory).This is still due to God’s justice, even though the penitent has clearly received God’s forgiveness.
And even this kind of absolution is only possible because of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.Christ’s sacrifice is an offering to God which is sufficient to make up for all the sins throughout history, and Christ made this offering available to us to satisfy God’s justice, making God’s forgiveness possible.God forgives (ie, no longer requires what is owed to him in justice, which is eternal punishment), because he graciously accepts the offering of Christ, offered by the penitent in lieu of what he owes God.(So God’s forgiveness is still supererogatory, but it does not go so far in merely giving up the demands of justice, as to trivialise the wrongdoing and the wrongdoer: a point emphasised by Richard Swiburne in his book on atonement.)
On the other hand, sins which are forgiven are ‘blotted out’, not merely ignored, and no longer act as a barrier in one’s relationship with God.This is in sharp contrast with the Lutheran and in general Protestant view, in which God merely ignores our sins.In Catholic thinking, God makes us genuinely better people.Our souls are injured by sin, and they are healed by God when he forgives us.
It is interesting to think of the philosophical debate in the light of this doctrine.If one doesn’t want to talk about God, but wants to give a sympathetic account of the intuition that forgiveness is possible and good, and even quasi-obligatory, the paradoxes your paper started with arise very quickly.However, it still makes sense to say that one is not being unjust in waiving what one is owed; and that this is a good thing, when seeking to restore a relationship with someone who is seeking forgiveness.What is not possible to see is how justice might be satisfied from a different source, ie Christ’s sacrifice; and how forgiving others has an important role in one’s other important relationship, ie with God.
Forgiveness of the unrepentant, I think, is a slightly different animal, although the same word is used.I think that the theological context of this is the command to love one’s enemies, and pray for the persecutors, and not curse them.Again, in the original context this is motivated by reference to the parallel with God’s attitude, which is to love everyone, and to seek their salvation—God does not desire the destruction of the sinner and so forth.And as before, while as an individual one gives up one’s claim on the person persecuting one, the need for the latter to repent, and to be punished/ do penance, remains.And again this is all connected to the way in which Christ took on the burden of sin in dying on the cross.But whereas the point of forgiving the penitent—God forgiving us or us each other—is to restore the relationship, the point in forgiving the unrepentant is to seek his good, and not his (moral) destruction.
In one sense God has already forgiven all sins, because he has accepted Christ’s offering, which is sufficient in justice to make up for all sin.But in another sense God’s forgiveness awaits the sinner’s repentance, which involves the sinner’s pleading of Christ’s offering on his own behalf.What we imitate, here, is God going after the sinner—the lost sheep—and trying to win him over by doing good to him, and not merely abandon him to his just punishment.As with the other kind of forgiveness, without the theological background this is harder to understand, but I think that the supererogatory nature of wishing well to the persecutor, without denying the seriousness of his wrongdoing, is still intelligible.
The example of the adulterous husband illustrates some of these issues.In Catholic teaching adultery (and ‘unreasonable behaviour’, which would cover physical abuse) gives the injured party the right to separation (of ‘bed and table’).(The conditions for to annulment and remarriage are a separate matter.)If the injured party should forgive the adulterer/ abuser, this is the giving up of what is belongs to her by right.The good of the relationship would usually be a powerful reason to forgive, and thereby restore the relationship, but as you say there are limits, most obviously where physical abuse is concerned.In the scenario you describe, the beaten wife might give the husband the forgiveness of not seeking revenge, but not go back to him, even if he expressed repentance.
I hope this is helpful.In light of what I’ve said, one thing I would look out for in this debate is whether the different participants accept the possibility of supererogation.A lot of people don’t, and if you don’t, I think the paradoxes of forgiveness are insoluble.