Thinking Anew – The challenge of forgiveness

It’s commonly believed that the big alienating issue surrounding Christianity, especially for the Catholic Church, are matters dealing with sexuality. And there’s something in that observation. But issues surrounding forgiveness might also create the occasional hiccup.

Tomorrow’s Gospel (Matthew 18: 21 -35) is the familiar story of Peter asking Jesus how many times must he forgive his brother if he wrongs him. He asks Jesus should he forgive him seven times. Jesus answers: “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.”

In the first reading tomorrow from the book of Ecclesiasticus we are told to “Forgive your neighbour the hurt he does you”.

Easy to talk about forgiveness, easy to sit and write about it. Living it is another matter.


Recently a homeless man died on the streets of Dublin. It made national headlines. It was later discovered that he had a criminal record, including crimes of indecent assault. In this newspaper last Saturday Simon Carswell observed that “the focus was no longer on how he died but on how he lived”.

Some weeks earlier there was a controversy over the celebration of an anniversary Mass for a man who had murdered his children and wife. The opponents to the Mass argued that the man did not deserve such a focus.

Nowadays on the conclusion of a serious court case we sometimes see and hear the relatives and friends of victims express their strongly held views on the sentence handed down to the guilty party. Of course, people have to pay for their crimes. That’s a given. But in the vocabulary of Christianity, forgiveness is always part of the wider story. And that’s the central theme in tomorrow’s Gospel reading. We have been asked to “forgive from the heart”.

Easier said than done.

I’m a priest and in my theology studies there was always great emphasis placed on the redemptive aspect of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. God became man to save us. The sacraments are about giving life and the sacrament of reconciliation is where God forgives us our wrong-doing. And, at least according to any Christian theology worth its name, there is no sin, no wrong-doing beyond the pale. We have always been told that there is no sin too great for God to forgive. Indeed, it’s a core value of the sacramental life of the Catholic Church.

For example, the demands of justice which do not allow paedophile priests back into active ministry should not be confused with a lack of forgiveness. It goes without saying that crime is heinous, but of course there are grades of evil/wrongdoing/badness. All sexual crimes, especially against children and vulnerable adults are particularly heinous. But as a Christian it is not possible to say they are unforgivable. If it is, then the entire edifice of Christianity needs restructuring.

Medical evidence shows that paedophilia is recidivist. Paedophiles cannot be cured. That makes it abundantly clear that priests who commit such crimes must and can never be allowed work in priestly ministry. And that’s exactly what the church did not do in the past.

But has the church not got an obligation to perpetrators of all crimes to offer them forgiveness when and if it is asked for? Forgiveness can be messy, it might cause great discomfort for large organisations and their lawyers.

We understand but we do not condone the behaviour of people who are hurting behaving in a revengeful way outside courtrooms when sentences are handed down. Shouldn’t we be concerned when a church which speaks so loudly about forgiveness treats its priestly perpetrators of heinous crimes as outcasts?

It’s easy to write and talk about forgiveness. But if we are really to say anything meaningful about it and try to say something of worth about it and tomorrow’s Gospel, we will inevitably be walking on eggshells and entering a most dangerous territory.

“Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times”.(Mt 18: 22)

But forgiving never means condoning.