The Nature of Forgiveness — Is it Humanly Possible?

"The Return of the Prodigal Son" (detail) by Murillo

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” (detail) by Murillo

The exalted nature of forgiveness is attested to by the fact that it presupposes a number of other virtues.  Consider three virtues in particular: justice, clemency, and mercy.

Justice has the nature of an equation: Borrowing 10 dollars requires returning 10 dollars. When justice is violated, punishment or restitution of some kind is required. Herein is the timeless significance of bringing the scales of justice back into balance. Injustice demands a counterbalancing repayment. Clemency goes beyond justice, to some extent ignoring the need for precise balancing, and reduces the payment. For example, clemency may be used to reduce a 60-day sentence to 15 days. Mercy goes beyond both justice and clemency to wipe away the need for punishment. It does not turn a blind eye to the offense committed, but it does pardon the offender.

Forgiveness goes beyond those three virtues, but without negating any of them. Justice, clemency, and mercy provide the very foundation that allows forgiveness to be a possibility. Forgiveness goes beyond mercy and treats the offense as if it never happened. It wipes the slate clean, as it were, and gives the transgressor a fresh start.

On the part of the person forgiven, the virtues of humility, sincerity, and hope are presupposed. In this way, forgiveness represents a truly exalted virtue because of the foundational virtues it presupposes in both the forgiver and the one forgiven.

Humanly Possible?

So exalted is forgiveness that it has long been described as supernatural. “To err is human, but to forgive is divine.” Or, to modify this timeless maxim slightly, “To err is human, but to forgive is superhuman.” By contrast, systems of justice are incapable of dispensing forgiveness. A sign posted in a Los Angeles police station brings this point home both accurately and humorously: “To err is human, to forgive is against departmental policy.”

Systems are not only incapable of forgiving, but are often vehemently opposed to it. A few years ago a successful businessman died whose name happens to be well-known to enthusiasts of baseball trivia. National newspapers that carried his obituary didn’t begin in the customary manner of mentioning his accomplishments or the members of his immediate family, but in the following manner: “Fred Snodgrass, whose muff of a fly ball cost the New York Giants the 1912 World Series . . .” Society remembers Fred Snodgrass, along with “Wrong Way” Corrigan and a populous class of similar individuals, solely in terms of a single, inexcusable, though often trivial, misadventure.

In order to be in a position to appreciate the reasonableness of forgiveness — and the accompanying horror of condemnation — one must stand on a platform built on its foundational virtues. It is comparable to a father lifting up his child so that the lad can see over the heads of the people in front of him to see the parade.

No Islands

The secular world has its penitentiaries, just as hockey has its penalty boxes and baseball scorecards have their error columns. The kind of forgiveness the world usually offers is of a bogus variety — that of forgiving yourself. This concept of self-forgiveness is, in part, the consequence of modern secular psychology that has inflated the importance of the individual as an individual. Popular self-help books such as How to Be Your Own Best Friend, Winning Through Intimidation, How to Get Divorced from Mom and Dad, and others, create the impression that the individual is an island unto himself.

But forgiving oneself implies a radical form of personal disunity. Can one divide oneself into two parts: the part that bestows forgiveness and the part that receives forgiveness? And how would the former part receive forgiveness or rise above the latter part to presuppose that it can dispense forgiveness? And along what lines (fault lines?) of the personality can such a division be made?

The essence of forgiveness concerns not individuals as such, but relationships. Forgiveness repairs a damaged relationship between man and God, as well as between man and neighbor. The two great commandments — to love God and to love neighbor — reiterated in the Lord’s Prayer, underscore this meaning of forgiveness.

Exalted and Mundane

In Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus, a demented Antonio Salieri, now an inmate of an insane asylum, rolls through the hallways in his wheelchair dispensing “forgiveness” to his fellow inmates for the “sin” of mediocrity. The Salieri character went mad precisely because he could not succeed, despite trying with all the power he could muster, to forgive himself for not being a composer equally talented as Mozart.

An individual cannot forgive himself anymore than soap can clean itself. Humility is the virtue we need to be ourselves. Forgiveness is the virtue we need in order to repair our relationships with others.

In the absence of forgiveness — or the presence of unrepaired relationships — the field is wide open for the unchecked spread of deadly vices. This is the theme of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s most enduring play, Der Besuch der alten Dame (The Visit of the Old Woman). In the play, first staged in 1956, Claire Zachanassian, now a very wealthy woman, returns to the town that unjustly condemned her and drove her out 45 years earlier. Her unforgiving attitude hardens into hatred for all the townsfolk. Drawing on a huge amount of inheritance money, she exploits the greed of the people of Güllen, seduces them into murdering her principal defamer, and leaves town with the diabolical satisfaction that the collective guilt of the people will plague them for many years to come.

Here is the fundamental paradox of forgiveness: it is supernatural and presupposes many foundational virtues while it is also elementary and necessary in order for people to get along with each other. Forgiveness is both exalted and mundane. This paradox may seem easier to grasp when one realizes that God, exalted as He is, remains with us to guide us in our relationships with Him and our neighbors every step of the way.

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About the Author

Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, St. Jerome’s University, Waterloo, Ontario; a Visiting Scholar, Holy Apostles College and Seminary; a Distinguished Visiting Teacher, St. Hyacinth College, Granby, Massachusetts; Faculty Member at: Catholic Bible College of Canada; St. Joseph’s College, Edmonton; Mater Ecclesiae, Rhode Island; Domus Mariae, Rhode Island; John Paul II Institute, Melbourne, Australia; and a Lecturer for the Sisters of Mary Immaculate, Cambridge, Ontario. He is the author of 21 books, including, How to be Virtuous in a Not-So-Virtuous World with Fr. Bill McCarthy, MSA (Los Angeles, CA: Queenship, 2007); several hundred articles in scholarly journals and in anthologies, and articles and essays appearing in other journals and magazines and in newspapers; and innumerable book reviews in a variety of publications. His education includes: B.S. Stonehill College, North Easton, MA 1959 (General Science); A.B. Stonehill College, 1961 (Philosophy); Gregorian University, Rome, Italy, 1961-2 (Theology); M.A. St. John's University, Jamaica, NY, 1965 (Philosophy); and Ph.D. At. John's Univ., 1969 (Philosophy). His Master's dissertation was "The Basic Concept in Hegel's Dialectical Method" and his Doctor’s dissertation was "The Nature of the Relationship between the Mathematical and the Beautiful in Music". He is married to Mary Arendt DeMarco and they have five children.

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  1. Professor: I was very interested in this article and have specific questions related to the sections referred to as “No Islands”. As an American Catholic, this “No Island” resonates profoundly with me right now.

    In this section you state: Popular self-help books such as How to Be Your Own Best Friend, Winning Through Intimidation, How to Get Divorced from Mom and Dad, and others, create the impression that the individual is an island unto himself.

    I certainly agree that no individual is an island unto itself. We are interdependent, yet, secular culture elevates the perception of a “real man” as strong and independent and able to survive in the world on his own with no help or cooperation from anyone else. Many images too numerous to list portray this such like the “Marlboro Man” cigarette advertisements and many “heroes” in adventure movies etc. Also, in the USA, there is a survivalist mentality expanding where people store food, guns and ammunition in order to survive solely on their own instead of depending on an interdependent society. Many of these people actually hope and pray that civilization unravels and devolves so that they can demonstrate their superior survival skills. In such a scenario, the summit for them would be for you and I to be ill prepared for the collapse, and, instead of helping us to survive even though we were unprepared (altruism), they would relish us dying & may even withhold food or use weapons to hasten our demise. This is the growing mentality of “Man as Island” which I find frightening. It is the complete antithesis of what Jesus Christ teaches.

    Secondarily, one of two political parties in the US fosters this independent mentality and refers to it as “freedom”. They confuse freedom with license and anarchy.

    This political party states that the opposing party is creating interdependent people and making us weak. What bother mes the most is that the Bishops and the Church hierarchy in the USA side with the political party that fosters this islandic philosophy because this party purports to be the party of “life” and opposes abortion. The Church falls for this disingenuous ruse time and time again.

    I would be interested in your response. Thank you.

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