Not Entitled to Forgiveness

(Homily for Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A)

A letter in our daily newspaper described the forgiveness of sin as an “entitlement.” Normally I wouldn't pay attention to the theology contained in letters to the editor. However, a man employed full-time in formation of Catholic youth wrote this one.* It got me wondering if that is how our young people picture God’s forgiveness: a distant entitlement program like Social Security or Medicare? If you meet certain qualifications, it is there when you might need it. Impersonally dispensed by some remote entity, it requires nothing of the recipient except a few formalities.

That is hardly the forgiveness Jesus speaks about today. According to his parable, it costs an enormous sum - more than the value of a man’s property combined with the servile labor of his wife, children and himself. (Mt 18:25) Only one man could pay such a price. I am not talking about Bill Gates. His incredible fortune would not equal the tiniest drop of Jesus’ Blood.

What forgiveness requires of the recipient is also huge. He must be willing to forgive his brother from his heart (Mt 18:35). In a previous homily I explained the difference between excusing and forgiving. The former is a mind game, while the latter is a daily, sometimes even hourly, giving of oneself.

No one is entitled to forgiveness. Shakespeare knew this well:

Use every man after his
desert, and who should scape whipping? (Hamlet Act ii. Sc. 2)

We do not forgive someone because he deserves it. That is simply justice, fair play. Forgiveness is beyond justice; it is not a human capacity, but a divine gift. When St. Paul describes that gift, he say love "does not brood over injuries," but rather "bears all things." (I Cor 13:5ff.) I don't know about you but I am doing a pretty good job not brooding over injuries...when I am asleep.

This is an area of much self-deception. Once a man told me how lucky he was that he never holds grudges and, in the next breath, recounted - for the fiftieth time - some slight from twenty years back. Remembrance of injuries undermines our efforts to becoming loving people. Love, which at its core is forgiveness, is something we all desire, but cannot attain by human effort or ingenuity. We might put up a good front, but it usually takes little to see through it.

Just as we cannot forgive by our unaided will, so no one can say he is entitled to God’s forgiveness. God gives it at the exact price we can afford – free. But he does not dispense it impersonally. One can only receive it as part of a personal relationship with Him in Jesus. Forgiveness, in fact, is the relationship. After Peter's cowardly betrayal, Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

I must be honest. I am very concerned about the Church adopting the language of “zero tolerance.” Once again, Fr. Neuhaus summed it up well:

The perception of the Catholic Church might be substantively changed. No longer will the Church be understood as, in James Joyce’s marvelous phrase, "Here comes everybody." It may come to be seen as a community for people who do not have some awful secret in their past. People burdened with a past may begin to seek out some other church community that, following a venerable precedent, "welcomes sinners and eats with them" (Luke 15:2).

In some cases civil society may have to lock a person up and throw away the key. But as Jesus’ Church, please God, may we never do that.

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*"Each of us is entitled to the forgiveness of sin promised in the Gospel. Father Jaeger is so entitled, but that entitlement does not automatically extend the right to priesthood." The writer goes on to describe the priesthood as "a privilege and not a right." While I agree no one has a right to the priesthood, "privilege" is not the correct word. Gift, yes, but also a duty - like being father of a family. I do not say this to diminish the seriousness of what happened some two decades ago and I believe the writer has a good point that some bishops still have not addressed their own culpability. However, it seems to me Archbishop Hunthausen and his successors did a credible job dealing with this issue:

The media have not reported on dioceses which have effectively dealt with this issue. In the Archdiocese of Seattle, for over a decade we have used graduated sanctions, which allow the Archbishop to weigh the individual circumstances of each case and apply sanctions commensurate with the gravity of the particular case. These graduated sanctions may include recommendations for a penalty of dismissal from the clerical state, following the norms of canon law, or a return to restricted ministry with monitoring, counseling, and an appropriate level of disclosure.

In every case, the Special Cases Committee of the Archdiocese, comprised of therapists, civil and canon lawyers and a pastor, review the facts of the case, the therapeutic and monitoring report and provides a recommendation for the Archbishop’s consideration. Almost all the allegations of sexual abuse of children and minors go back over two decades. It seems to me the approach of the Archdiocese is sounder than a blanket “zero-tolerance” policy – especially in the case of a priest, repentant of his misdeeds, who has shown by two decades of monitored ministry that he poses no threat to children.

Perhaps the bishops in Dallas had no alternative than adopt a rigid policy which “even for a single act of sexual abuse of a minor – past, present or future – the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry.” (Charter, article 5) We live in an unforgiving society. However, we are also part of a universal church so the Charter must receive a “recognitio” from the Holy See before becoming effective. Let’s pray for God’s guidance for the Holy Father and his advisors. See Putting Sexual Abuse Crisis in Broader Context

Spanish Version

From Archives (for Twenty-fourth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2011: How to Forgive
2005: He Remembers Their Sins in Detail
2002: Not Entitled to Forgiveness
1999: Forgive or Excuse?

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Bulletin (Finance, School, Relgious Ed, St. Lorenzo Ruiz, Sept 11 Observance)

Announcements

Boston Globe's Misleading Article on Catholic Church

Pictures from 2002 Vacation Bible School (July 29 - August 2 Session)

Registration Form for Fr. Corapi Conference (Holy Family, Seattle, October 25-26, 2002)

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