How Does Forgiveness Work Anyway?

Gods-forgiveness[1]Evangelicals like to simplify the whole “forgiveness” equation. “Just believe in Jesus and all of your sins will be forgiven” they say. Whereas for Catholics it’s a bit of a tangled mess, involving penance, absolution, reconciliation, contrition and so on. So how does forgiveness actually work? There are a couple of key terms to consider:

  1. Forgiveness
  2. Confession
  3. Contrition
  4. Absolution
  5. Penance
  6. Repentance
  7. Reconciliation

Generally speaking, forgiveness follows that sequence. Lets see if we can shed some light on the “forgiveness equation” simply by clearly defining the terms involved.

An Interpersonal Ordo Salutis

Forgiveness

Firstly, with regards to God’s attitude to us, forgiveness is unconditional and always and everywhere given. We should also strive to adopt such an attitude of being always and everywhere forgiving towards those who hurt us.

But what exactly is forgiveness? A good working definition would be “adopting an attitude of willingness to reconcile towards someone who has wronged you”. Now, it’s possible to adopt such an attitude towards someone without that someone even realising that they’ve wronged you, and without that person apologising or asking for forgiveness. According to this definition, forgiveness is compatible with anger. You can forgive someone and still be angry at them. This is how God feels towards us: he is constantly forgiving us and he never withdraws his forgiveness, even if we don’t seek it or express contrition. However he also feels angry that we do not come to him in sorrow and repentance.

So forgiveness is what you have to do as the person who has been wronged, but in order for the situation between two people to be fully repaired, the person who wronged you has responsibilities to attend to as well. Namely, they must experience and express contrition.

Confession

Confession goes hand in hand with contrition. You have to actually know what it is that you’ve done wrong, and then verbalise this to your victim. This way everyone is on the same page; everyone acknowledges that what happened was a problem.

Once you’ve named what you’ve done wrong, felt and expressed contrition, and received absolution of your guilt, you can get on with trying to actually fix the situation and return the relationship to a better state.

Contrition

If forgiveness is when the person who has been wronged seeks reconciliation and begs for their oppressor to be contrite, then Contrition is when the person who commit the crime seeks reconciliation and begs for their victim to be forgiving.

Contrition is where someone fully understands the wrong that they have done and feels the pain of sorrow and regret as they consider the sinful/harmful action. Such contrition needs to be felt, but also verbalised. This is why during the sacrament of confession, prior to the formula of absolution the penitent is required to say some prayer of contrition.

When someone has wronged you, the shortest act of contrition they could deliver would simply be the word “Sorry”. Other variations are possible too, such as “I apologise”, or “Please forgive me”. When someone comes up to you and says these words, they are expressing contrition, seeking your forgiveness.

Absolution

Absolution pertains to the sensation of guilt. Absolution is a promise. When God says (through the priest), “I absolve you of your sins”, this is a sacramental promise which is a shorthand way of saying something like “Don’t worry, remember that I forgive you, remember that I always forgive you. You don’t need to feel guilty about anything, so stop feeling guilty!” It’s not so much the sins that are absolved, it’s the guilt that is associated with those sins in our mind. Absolution washes away whatever guilt we might be feeling.

We can absolve each other of sin. Whenever someone feels guilty, a supreme act of mercy on the part of the victim is to say “I absolve you of your guilt, go and sin no more” to their oppressor. God delights in saying this to us, and we should delight in saying the same to each other.

Absolution rides on the back of forgiveness. It is a manifestation of forgiveness. As mentioned, it’s possible to have an attitude of forgiveness towards someone without ever telling them about it. However absolution is when you express your attitude of forgiveness to the person in question. It is only appropriate to do this after they have expressed contrition however. Forgiveness and contrition may go unexpressed, but it is only once these attitudes are verbalised and communicated that reconciliation can occur.

Penance

Penance is the third element of Reconciliation. After both contrition and forgiveness have been expressed by the criminal and the victim, there remains the fact that the actual situation has not yet been rectified. For example if the criminal stole a large sum of money from a victim, then it would make sense for the criminal to give that money back to the victim.

However discernment is necessary. Perhaps the criminal is not able to repay the debt to his victim. For example if the criminal is stealing bread to feed their children from some massive faceless corporation. In this case, it depends entirely on the mercy of the victim. If the victim is charitable enough, they might completely waive the requirement of penance, or reduce it to some token action. This often happens in Catholic penances, where a couple of prayers are proscribed, rather than some massive action.

So penance is essentially optional and depends on the mood of the victim. The victim may have already forgiven the criminal, but may still demand some sort of show of penance in order to rectify the situation as best as is possible. Then again, they may just let it go; forgive and forget.

Repentance

Also known as “A firm purpose of amendment”. This is where you sincerely adopt the attitude and disposition that you will do your best not to repeat whatever fault it was that you had commit. It’s where you “turn away” and “renounce” your crimes, whatever they may be, and vow never to do them again.

This is crucial in the whole forgiveness equation, because it would be somewhat silly if you went to all the trouble of expressing contrition, seeking forgiveness, doing penance, and then immediately repeating the crime with no qualms.

Reconciliation

The final step. The return to the original blissful state of relationship that existed prior to the fault. Once the victim and penitent have both gone through the previous 6 steps successfully, reconciliation has been achieved and all is well again. The friendship is restored.

Summary

forgive-fight-anger-stubborn-1598x900[1].jpg

This “sequence of forgiveness” applies both with regards to our relationship with God and our relationships with each other.

Basically, in order for reconciliation to occur,

  1. The victim has to adopt an attitude of forgiveness while the criminal has to simultaneously adopt an attitude of contrition.
  2. The criminal has to verbally confess what they’ve done and the contrition they feel.
  3. The victim has to verbally express their attitude of forgiveness, and thus absolve the criminal of their guilt.
  4. Depending on the situation, some sort of penance may be expected of the criminal by the victim. For example returning stolen goods. This may not always be possible however and therefore the victim should adopt a stance of mercy and waive this requirement as appropriate.
  5. The criminal makes a solemn vow of repentance, sincerely promising not to repeat the crime.
  6. Viola! Reconciliation has been achieved. The relationship has been restored.

Interestingly, God is never really a “victim” in the sense that he is invincible and nothing we do can really harm or offend him. For this reason, sacramental penances are more for our benefit than for his benefit, because our sins primarily harm our own souls: we are simultaneously the criminal and the victim; the one harming and the one being harmed. As such we need to be able to reconcile with our selves, we need to express contrition to our selves, and we need to forgive ourselves.

Applying this, perhaps you have commit the sin of gluttony and found yourself drastically overweight. In this case you are both the victim and the criminal. What you need to do is forgive yourself, express contrition and confess all the bad choices that led you to your obesity, and then give yourself the penance of hard exercise, to be continued until you are back in shape. Then vow never to repeat these bad decisions, and there you go: you have reconciled with yourself and restored yourself to the more perfect state from which you fell.

Here’s a summary matrix of reconciliation:

ReconciliationMatrix.PNG

 

“All Things Are Lawful”

free[1].jpg

1 Corinthians 6:12,10:23 DBHNT:

All things are lawful to me – but not all are beneficial. All things are lawful to me – but I will not be overpowered by any of them.

All things are lawful – but not all are expedient; all things are lawful – but not all edify.

According to these quotes from St Paul, no action is inherently evil in and of itself. And yet the Christian traditions are insistent on the reality of objectively sinful actions that are never permissible. How do we reconcile this?

Answer: Whether or not an action is evil is determined by the context surrounding the action. So for example, Sex, Killing, Theft, Lying, Self-Pleasure, Abstinence, and using contraceptive products are not inherently evil actions. The context surrounding the action determines whether or not these things are grave. When does killing become murder? When does sex become rape? Killing and murder are the same action, but with different contexts. Sex and rape are the same action, but with different contexts. Sex and killing are always lawful, but murder and rape are always unlawful. But the unlawfulness of murder and rape does not flow from the actions involved, it flows from the context surrounding those actions

Sex

Definition: Intercourse between two or more people
Rape is sinful = Sex + anyone involved does not consent
Adultery is sinful = Sex + everyone involved is consenting to the act + three conditions must hold:

  1. It’s with someone you’re not married to
  2. There is the possibility of pregnancy
  3. You don’t intend to marry them in the event of pregnancy.

If any of those three conditions aren’t met, the sex is lawful.

(Commentary)

  • Having sex with someone you are not married to, whilst still being married to someone else, is not a sin under this schema, SO LONG AS there is no possibility of pregnancy.
  • However, having sex with someone you are not married to, whilst still being married to someone else, might lead to tensions and issues in the marriage such as jealousy and spurned emotions and it would therefore be unwise to engage in such behaviour if you are aiming to minimise pain for both yourself and your partner.
  • Homosexual sex comes up as lawful, because there is no possibility of pregnancy

Killing

Definition: To end a life
Manslaughter is not sinful = killing + it’s unintentional.
Execution/self-defence is not sinful = killing + it’s intentional + three conditions must hold:

  1. The victim himself is guilty of murder
  2. The victim must pose an ongoing, immanent mortal threat to someone
  3. All other possible options have been exhausted

If those conditions aren’t met, then the action of killing becomes the sin of murder

(Commentary)

  • This is why in modern, stable societies, which have the luxury of prison systems, the death penalty is never appropriate. It is always possible to lock the prisoner away and attempt to reform them.
  • Whereas in a post-apocalyptic/anarchic society which doesn’t have the resources to hold the guilty indefinitely, execution may be necessary to prevent further harm to the weak and innocent.
  • Abortion remains a form of murder under this scheme, because even though the foetus may pose a threat to the mental or physical health of the mother, the foetus has not commit any actual crime deserving of death and there are always other possible options.
  • Killing of animals is always murder (unless there is some sense in which an animal can be “guilty”. An area for further enquiry)

Theft

Definition: Taking something that doesn’t belong to you
Stealing is sinful = theft + you don’t intend to compensate
Borrowing is not sinful = theft + you intend to compensate

Lying

Definition: Speaking a statement that is factually false, or withholding a relevant truth.
Deception is sinful = Lying + the intent is personal gain at the expense of others
Protection is not sinful = Lying + the intent is to shield the weak and vulnerable from harm

Self-Pleasure

Definition: Wanking or schlicking. Sexual self-stimulation
Masturbation is sinful: Self-Pleasure + the arousal is connected to any other actually sinful act.
If that condition does not hold, self-pleasure is not sinful.

(Commentary)

  • Any mental sexual fantasy is permissible.
  • Pornography is permissible, so long as the acts depicted are not sinful. (For example, rape fantasies are permissible, but no ACTUAL rape or adultery should be involved. Everyone should be enthusiastically consenting and there should be no danger of pregnancy)

Condoms, the pill and abstinence

Definition: Self explanatory
Contraception is sinful: Using these things for selfish reasons such as “I don’t want to have kids”
Birth control is not sinful: Using these things for practical reasons and in a temporary capacity. Such as avoiding pregnancy with someone you’re not married to, or avoiding pregnancy at a certain period of time where it would be in-optimal.

Worship

Definition: Giving awe, respect, reverence (technically latria) to something
Idolatry is sinful: Worship + the object of worship is something other than God.
If what you worship is not other than God, the worship is lawful.

Exploration Of “Same-sex Marriage” Under Catholic Moral Law

The Boundaries Of The Loves

There are four kinds of love: Agapic, Platonic, Romantic and Erotic.

Agape is the best kind of love: it is the kind of love embodied by Christ on the cross, it is the love which lies at the essence of divinity. Agape is a love that we are called to extend to literally everyone – including our enemies. This love has the purpose of producing a just, stable, ideal society.

Platonic love is the love between friends. It occurs between people of any gender. Platonic love is ordered towards the individual enrichment of each of the friends. Friendships may arise and dissolve spontaneously as time goes by.

Romantic love is for committed lovers. The lovers may be of any gender, male/male, female/female or male/female. Speculatively, it may be possible between more than two people at once. This love is ordered towards the vocation or mission of the people involved: they are dedicating their lives to their partners. Vows and formal promises may be made, binding the partners together. In principle, these relationships are dissolvable, however this requires official process and dispensation, and ideally the promises are adhered to for an entire lifetime.

Erotic love is reserved for a man united to a woman in marriage. It is ordered towards the creation of children, and the strengthening of the indissolvable bond that exists between this married couple. Divorce is not possible; once a marriage has been contracted, it can never be dissolved (even if all the different loves involved become absent).

Does Catholic Moral Theology Allow For Same-sex Marriage?

Philosophical Background:

  1. Everything has a purpose. To thwart something’s purpose is to sin.
  2. The purpose of erotic love is to create children and bind married spouses together. Anything which thwarts this dual purpose is sinful.

Catholic Sexual Ethics Summarised As Five Simple Rules:

  1. It is sinful to ejaculate outside a vagina
  2. It is sinful for a person to engage in erotic stimulation if they do not also have the intention and ability to engage in completed copulative sex (ie. ejaculation inside a vagina) some time in the future.
  3. It is sinful to engage in erotic stimulation with someone to whom you are not married.
  4. Sodomy (erotic anal stimulation) is always and everywhere sinful.
  5. Only a committed relationship between a man and a woman can be referred to as a marriage.

Implications Of These Rules:

  1. The sort of romantic commitment embodied in marriage is forbidden between no two people, regardless their of gender, age, race and so on (That is, there is no Catholic moral principle preventing such love): Men can romantically commit to men; women can romantically commit to women. The only restriction is that of mental and emotional maturity and rationality being possessed by both parties entering into the relationship. The church needs to recognise this and make allowances for official, formal, liturgical vows of public commitment to be made between same-sex couples. We also need some new terminology to describe such relationships: they are not marriages, but they are not mere friendships either; perhaps “Consecrated Romance” would be appropriate.
  2. Erotic stimulation is forbidden between same-sex couples, as these relationships do not amount to marriage.

Observations:

  1. Masturbation is sinful (rules one and two).
  2. Condoms are sinful (rule one)
  3. Romantic physical signs of affection between same-sex couples are fine. For example hugging, hand holding, kissing on the cheek and briefly pecking on the lips are all permissible.
  4. Erotic stimulation between same-sex couples is forbidden, so french kissing is not permissible in public or in private and genital stimulation is strictly out of bounds.
  5. Oral sex is permissible, but only in the context of foreplay between a married couple.
  6. Erotic stimulation is something that should only occur in private. French kissing in public is inappropriate even if the couple are married.
  7. Same-sex attraction is not a disorder unless it strays into eroticism. It is perfectly ok to feel romantic attraction to someone of the same sex.

The Bottom Line:

Same-sex marriage is possible so long as you don’t call it marriage and the couple doesn’t have sex.

Drugs

shutterstock_170939975[1].jpgI got into an argument today over whether or not weed is moral or immoral and whether it should be legalised. Unfortunately it was two against one and I totally lost the argument, however it put me in a reflective mood for the rest of the day.

At one point I brought up the fact that alcohol is legal and yet it is by all accounts more harmful than weed; my opponents response was that alcohol is physically harmful whereas weed is mentally harmful (as if this makes any difference). After some protestation from me, they made a point which completely stumped me: It’s all about the intention. The intention when you drink a glass of wine is not to get drunk, whereas the intention when you smoke weed is to get completely baked “off your tits”. I was unable to answer this point. It raised the question for me, “Is it really sinful to smoke weed with the intention of getting high?” The Catholic catechism would seem to imply so. However after some reflection, I have come up with the answer “not always”.

Context is an important factor in the discussion. Is it wrong to intend to get high? I say “no”, so long as you are in an appropriate context. An appropriate context would be a weekend off from work or study, where you don’t have any other obligations to attend to and can well and truly kick back and relax. If as part of this recreational Sabbath you desire to alter your state of mind – via chemical assistance or otherwise – that is completely ok. People have many ways of altering their brain chemistry for the purposes of recreation, including dancing, listening to music, eating, drinking etc.  In this sense, smoking weed is just another form of recreation.

An inappropriate context for smoking weed and intending to get high would be if you are about to pilot a passenger aircraft loaded with people. The mild dissociative effects could be disastrous and cause you to crash the plane. Another inappropriate time to smoke weed would be right before your wedding, or before an important exam. There is a time and place for everything, however the time and place for weed is during recreation; not during everyday life. Exactly the same arguments can be applied to the responsible use of alcohol. It would be entirely inappropriate to turn up to work or your own wedding inebriated.

This principle can be extended to almost all drugs. No drug is intrinsically immoral so long as it is taken in a recreational context. If you have a weekend free and have no obligations to meet, then by all means take LSD and enjoy the profound spiritual experience that it provokes. If you are going to a music festival and there is some MDMA on offer, then by all means feel free to partake (Although MDMA is a complex drug and there is more to say about it).

Drunkenness is an interesting case, seeing as St Paul explicitly names it as a sin in his epistles. Speaking from experience, there have been times when I have socially drunk to the point of drunkenness, and yet I didn’t do anything sinful, feel any increase in temptation, say anything stupid. I just felt on a slightly different plane of reality. There have of course also been other times when I have been drunk and done lots of stupid things. And being drunk to the point of vomiting is a sign that you are physically disrespecting your body, which is the temple of the lord. However the state of mind of being “drunk” is not inherently sinful. It’s only if you get “totally wasted” and start saying and doing stupid stuff, vomiting etc.

Of course context is not the only consideration when tossing up the morality of taking drugs. Something else to consider is the side effects. If the drug is known to cause severe physical and mental harm even with casual use, it should not be taken – even in a recreational context – unless there is some way to offset this harm. For example MDMA is known to cause slight-yet-notable, permanent brain damage if it is taken alone. This is because MDMA works by increasing the rate of serotonin consumption in the brain to a point where the brain literally runs out of serotonin. At this point when there is no more serotonin, the receptors that would usually receive serotonin start to eat the dopamine in the brain instead. However dopamine is toxic to these receptors and ends up killing them off, leading to brain damage and an extreme hangover. All of this can be avoided simply by taking a serotonin supplement at the same time as the MDMA. In this way you get an awesome high and no hangover, no brain damage, no harmful effects. One friend of mine reported that he actually felt even healthier after the MDMA wore off than before he had ingested it, solely because he had also taken a serotonin supplement.

The sin with drugs is not so much the taking of them as it is the addiction to them. Smoking a casual joint every 3 months with some mates is completely fine. However if you get to a point where you are craving weed at every hour of the day and are sneaking out of the office at regular intervals to light up a fat one – this is a habit that is interfering with your life. It is similar to alcoholism: having a casual drink with the boys after work is fine, but once you’re addicted to booze it starts to invade every other aspect of your life.

Addiction is also relevant when it comes to some of the harder drugs: Heroin, Cocaine and Methamphetamine. In these cases, the drugs are actually physically addictive because they target the addiction center of our brain (The dopamine system). Theoretically it is possible to take these drugs casually without becoming addicted to them, and I have heard anecdotes from people who have successfully tried them without getting hooked, however the common story is that these drugs lead to total addiction and an utterly ruined life. In this situation you have to ask the question “am I tempting fate by taking this drug?” and the answer is very much “yes”. In this way, taking these harder drugs is immoral, because they are inherently addictive and as such are much more likely to lead to addiction and a ruined life.

Every drug has side effects which need to be considered too. For example excessive marijuana use can lead to schizophrenia. Excessive psychedelic use can activate latent bipolar. Excessive cocaine use can lead to mania and psychosis. None of these dangers make casual use of the drug inherently immoral, however they must be taken into account when assessing whether or not it is “tempting fate” to take the drug in any given situation. “Tempting fate” is definitely sinful.

The conclusion of the matter is that it is ok to desire to change your mental state (read as: get high), so long as it is in a recreational context and you have assessed the risks in your personal situation and found ways to mitigate them. For example when taking psychedelics it is advised to find a good “set and setting”, otherwise you run the risk of having a bad trip. Or as mentioned, when taking MDMA it is highly advisable to take a serotonin supplement such as 5-HTP so as to avoid brain damage. There is nothing inherently sinful about striving to change your mental state: monks do this all the time during intense contemplative prayer. Chemicals can be used to assist the process and so long as they are used in a responsible manner, there’s nothing sinful about them.