Professor explains the healing virtue of forgiveness

Forgiveness isn’t easy. Necessary, perhaps, but definitely not easy. And yet we know from Scripture, pop psychology and firsthand experience that refusing to forgive doesn’t do anyone any good. Jesus said we must forgive those who hurt us — over and over, 77 times, to be exact. But how do we reach that spiritual and emotional place where forgiveness becomes possible?  

Robert D. Enright, professor of human development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness, talked to Our Sunday Visitor about the benefits of forgiveness. 

Our Sunday Visitor: When many Catholics hear the word “forgiveness,” they probably think first of confession and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But your research and writing on forgiveness goes so far beyond that. Can you tell us about the broader significance of forgiveness? 

Robert D. Enright: The Church, in her wisdom, has rightly focused on the sacramental aspects of forgiveness. After all, we all know that to forgive someone is very difficult, especially if the injustice against us is grave. We as Catholics know that we need grace to successfully forgive another. The Sacrament of Penance opens us to that grace. It makes the genuine forgiveness of others possible on a deep level in that we can offer love to the one who hurt us, just as Jesus Christ offers love to us despite our sins. 

The work of my colleagues and me over the past 26 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been to look at forgiveness as a moral virtue. How do we develop that virtue so strongly within us that we are able to offer forgiveness even to those who have severely wounded us by their unfairness? We have worked, for example, with incest survivors, men hurt by the abortion decision of their partner, people in drug rehabilitation, emotionally abused women and even people with cardiac disease. We have developed a 20-step model of how people forgive, explained in my book“Forgiveness Is a Choice” (American Psychological Association, $19.95). 

OSV: So often forgiveness is seen as something one person “gives” to another, but you turn that upside down and say that the person doing the forgiving is also getting something in return — peace of heart, release of anger perhaps. How does that work?  

Enright: It is the paradox of forgiveness: As we give, God gives to us. As we grow in forgiving others, we become more Christlike, which draws us to the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, where Jesus pours himself out for us. It is all connected: Our being hurt, our forgiving, our making amends for sinning against God and our intimately receiving God’s love through the Mass and the Eucharist. 

OSV: You talk about the power of forgiveness for those who have suffered terrible traumas — incest, sexual abuse, adult children of alcoholics. Can you explain forgiveness and its relationship to justice in those instances? 

Enright: Aristotle counseled us more than 2,300 years ago never to practice any of the virtues in isolation from the other virtues. One should not, for example, practice courage in isolation from wisdom, for in doing so, a dog lover who is also a nonswimmer might be compelled to jump into the raging river to save a dog’s life, only to lose his own. It follows, then, that we are never to practice forgiveness while putting justice on the shelf. Is someone rude to you? Forgive him if you wish and then ask something of him. Ask him for greater civility. This is a protection for the forgiver. She does not put up with nonsense as she forgives. In fact, as she forgives, she examines the unfairness and so should be developing her sense of justice alongside forgiveness.

OSV: In 2012 you’ll be speaking at a Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, where the sex abuse scandal has rocked the Church. Is it hard to introduce this idea of forgiveness when people are so outraged by what has taken place?  

Enright: We must realize that forgiveness itself goes right into the heart of woundedness. Forgiveness exists where there is the greatest pain — the pain of betrayal. So, yes, forgiveness in the context of sex abuse is to enter into great pain and suffering. Do we refrain from bringing forgiveness into this situation simply because there is so much pain? Do we refrain from bringing forgiveness into this situation because some people are not ready for forgiveness? Forgiveness itself is more courageous than that, and I know that some people are ready to place forgiveness right into the very heart of this matter. We must realize that to forgive is not to throw justice out the window. The two work as a team to keep each other honest. Not all will choose forgiveness at present. This is their choice and so we must respect the choice to refrain for now and we must respect those who do wish to forgive. 

OSV: You didn’t come to this topic of forgiveness as a Catholic, but your research led you back to the Church. What caused that turn for you? 

Enright: Many, many professors, in whatever they study in the academy, drift from God. Their studies become their God. I have worked for the past 33 years in a major secular university, with many opportunities to go down a similar path. Yet, by the grace of God, my studies of forgiveness have been instrumental in drawing me back to God and to Mother Church, the Catholic faith. 

As for my own part in all of this, I simply followed the argument wherever it led (to paraphrase Socrates). In my studies of forgiveness, I was passionately interested in finding out the truth of what forgiveness is. I have come to realize that the deepest understanding of forgiveness is this: As we forgive, we enter into the mystery of Christ and forgive as he has forgiven us. More deeply even than that, I have come to realize that as we forgive, Christ in his love, allows us to suffer with him on his cross for the redemption of the one who hurt us. 

We Catholics know this as redemptive suffering and it has a biblical basis in Colossians 1:24 and is explained in theological terms in Pope John Paul II’s soaring apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris. Forgiveness as redemptive suffering actually transforms all of the pain that we have suffered at the hands of others into something beautiful — to suffer with Christ, out of love for him and our injurer, to bring about that person’s salvation. It is only in the Catholic Church that this truth is completely explained and encouraged. If I have followed the truth wherever it leads, and if the truth, goodness, and beauty of forgiveness is found in redemptive suffering as explained by Mother Church, I can do nothing else. I must be a Catholic, to which I come with great joy.

OSV: You have a new book in the works. Can you tell us about that? 

Enright: I have two new books in the works. “The Forgiving Life,” to be published within the year by the American Psychological Association, is my most ambitious work to date. The point of the book is to help the reader systematically forgive all people who have been seriously unjust, from the reader’s childhood, adolescence, early adulthood and so forth up to the present time. The book encourages the forgiveness of parents (when this is necessary, and it is not always necessary), siblings, husbands and wives, one’s own children, employers, and all who have left the reader with resentment.  

The book offers an opportunity to grow very deeply as a forgiving person, wiping the slate clean of all past resentments. We so rarely are encouraged to do this. The book makes the resolution of all these resentments possible. 

The other book, which will be an edited volume, is titled “The Church as Forgiving Community.” A number of notable scholars will reflect on how the Catholic Church, in our age of skepticism with a kind of “show me” pragmatism, can support people in their own growth as forgivers. This includes the encouragement for each parishioner, who so chooses, to foster the growth of forgiveness on the levels of the parish, the parish school, the family, neighborhood, and the wider community. The book will be a challenge for individuals and for parishes to bring forgiveness to the world.  

Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, has agreed to write the “centerpiece” chapter for the book. 

Mary DeTurris Poust’s most recent book is “The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass.” (Alpha, $16.95).

Saintly Wisdom of Forgiveness (sidebar)

“If we want to be judged mercifully, we ought also to be merciful toward those who have sinned against us. For only so much will be remitted to us, as we have remitted to those who have injured us however spitefully. And some dreading this, when [the Lord’s Prayer] is chanted by all the people in church, silently omit this clause, for fear lest they may seem by their own utterance to bind themselves rather than to excuse themselves, as they do not understand that it is in vain that they try to offer these quibbles to the judge of all men, who has willed to show us beforehand how he will judge his suppliants. ... Just as we desire to be judged by him, so we should also judge our brethren, if they have wronged us in anything, for ‘he shall have judgment without mercy who has shown no mercy.’” 

St. John Cassian 

“Praised be my Lord for all those who pardon one another for his love’s sake, and who endure weakness and tribulation; blessed are they who peaceably shall endure for you, O most high, will give them a crown.” 

— St. Francis of Assisi