“The Relationship of Forgiveness and Mercy to Justice and Reconciliation
A theological paper submitted to
Rev. Steven Beseau S.T.D., Assistant Professor of Moral Theology
Athenaeum of Ohio/Mount St. Mary’s Seminary of the West
in partial fulfillment of the course requirements for
CL 230 – Fundamental Moral Theology
Charisse D. Rubio
Cincinnati, Ohio
April 20, 2018
Table of Contents
Introduction ......................................................................................................................... 1
Unconditional Forgiveness isn’t Optional .......................................................................... 2
Forgiveness and Mercy are Compatible with Justice ......................................................... 3
Forgiveness versus Reconciliation ...................................................................................... 5
Summary ............................................................................................................................. 8
Bibliography ....................................................................................................................... 9
The primary text of catechesis in apostolic times was Jesus’ Sermon on the
Mount, which contains the teaching: “If you forgive others their transgressions, your
heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your
Father forgive your transgressions (Matt 6:14-16).
This sermon is a “summary of
Jesus’ teaching on justice and the moral precepts appropriate for his disciples.”
A key
component of his teaching is The Lord’s Prayer, which the Catechism of the Catholic
Church identifies as “the most perfect of prayers…[that] not only teaches us to ask for
things, but also in what order we should desire them.”
One of the petitions of The Lord’s Prayer is forgiveness for our sins an act of
We have hope in God’s mercy because of His unconditional love for us.
However, there is an important and daunting prerequisite: Jesus teaches that “this
outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those
who have trespassed against us.”
The purpose of this paper is to discover both the meaning of God’s teaching on
the necessity of unconditional forgiveness (mercy) and how there can be justice in
forgiving even someone who isn’t sorry for the harm or evil he has done. It will also
address the fact that being open to forgiveness is an act of mercy that involves a choice
All biblical citations in this paper are taken from the New American Bible, Revised ed.
(Charlotte, NC: Saint Benedict Press, 2010), unless otherwise noted.
Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, Translated from the 3
ed. By Mary Thomas
Noble. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 164.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference,
2000), § 2763.
Ibid., § 2838.
Ibid., § 2840.
by the offended person; while reconciliation is an act of justice involving both the
offender and the offended.
Unconditional Forgiveness Isn’t Optional
Throughout His public ministry, Jesus Christ teaches the necessity of forgiveness,
which is so much of the essence of the Gospel.
According to Pope St. John Paul II,
Jesus teaches us about the mystery of mercy, to "forgive always," which St. Paul
expressed in his exhortation to 'forbear one another in love.'"
The perfect model of this
forgiveness is Jesus Christ, Our Redeemer, who prayed on the Cross: “Father, forgive
them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
In his “Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy,” Pope Francis also
reminds us that forgiveness is not optional:
Pardoning offences becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and
for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse
ourselves. At times how hard it seems to forgive! And yet pardon is the
instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart. To let
go of anger, wrath, violence, and revenge are necessary conditions to
living joyfully. Let us therefore heed the Apostle’s exhortation: Do not let
the sun go down on your anger(Eph 4:26). Above all, let us listen to the
words of Jesus who made mercy an ideal of life and a criterion for the
credibility of our faith: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain
mercy’ (Mt 5:7).”
Jesus insists on forgiveness as much for the sake of the one offended as for
that of the offender. Pope Benedict XVI affirms this: “Forgiveness is not a denial of
John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia, Vatican Website, Nov. 30, 1980, § 14, accessed Apr. 3, 2018.
Ibid., § 15.
Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, Vatican Website, Apr. 11, 2015, § 9, accessed Apr. 4, 2018,
wrong-doing, but a participation in the healing and transforming love of God which
reconciles and restores.”
St. John Paul was convinced, by experience and by what God has revealed, that
order can be fully restored to wounded mankind only through a “response that combines
justice with forgiveness.”
While both the granting and accepting of forgiveness may
make us appear weak or feel devalued, in reality it leads us to a fuller and richer
humanity, more radiant with the splendor of the Creator.
Forgiveness and Mercy Are Compatible with Justice
We have all been hurt, sometimes by malicious acts or words, other times by
conflict or rejection, and often by unintentional insensitivity. There are so many
interactions and situations that result in deep pain and suffering or in the loss of
something or someone dear. In these instances, forgiveness can be very difficult. Most
objections to unconditional forgiveness fall under one of the following two reasons, and
leads to resentment: First, it fails to take the wrong sufficiently seriously. Second, it
may show a lack of self-respect or self-esteem.”
Regardless of the reason, forgiveness is not dependent upon the remorse felt
and/or expressed by the offender; nor is it a prerequisite for the offender to apologize and
make restitution. The true spirit of forgiveness is not a feeling but a choice to offer
Benedict XVI, “Message on the Occasion of the 18th Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy
of Social Sciences,” Vatican Website, Apr. 27, 2012, accessed Apr. 4, 2018, https://w2.vatican.va/content/
John Paul II, “No Peace without Justice, No Justice without Forgiveness," Vatican Website,
January 1, 2002, § 10, accessed April 3, 2018, http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-
Ibid., § 9.
Eve Garrard and David McNaughton, “In Defense of Unconditional Forgiveness,Proceedings
of the Aristotelian Society 103, no. 1 (September 2002): 40, accessed April 6, 2018, http://at.opal-
unconditional mercy while desiring justice that does not seek retribution but instead
balances the need for correcting wrong with the desire for the good of all involved.
The idea of showing mercy (forgiving a wrong) and letting go of the desire for
retribution (perceived as justice) can seem irrational and impossible. St. John Paul points
out that this difficulty often comes from thinking that justice and forgiveness are
“But forgiveness is the opposite of resentment and revenge, not of
justice… because human justice is always fragile and imperfect, subject as
it is to the limitations and egoism of individuals and groups, it must
include and, as it were, be completed by the forgiveness which heals and
rebuilds troubled human relations from their foundations... Forgiveness is
in no way opposed to justice, as if to forgive meant to overlook the need to
right the wrong done. It is rather the fullness of justiceinvolving as it
does the deepest healing of the wounds which fester in human hearts.”
A prominent convert and professor, J. Budziszewski, with a special interest in
virtue ethics, points out that one needs an understanding of both justice and mercy to
comprehend how to forgive when it appears impossible:
But to most people today it is not easy to see how justice, which involves
punishment, and mercy, which involves remission or forgiveness of
punishment, can both be virtues. Contemporary culture swings between an
excessively softhearted interpretation of mercy which leaves no room for
justice, and an excessively hardhearted interpretation of justice which
leaves no room for mercy.
St. John Paul in his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris tells us that God’s mercy
“corrects in order to lead to conversion.”
Even when God chastises, His "punishments
were meant not for the ruin but for the correction... [and are] in fact, a sign of great
kindness...Therefore He never withdraws His mercy from us" (2 Macc 6:12-13, 16).
John Paul II,No Peace without Justice, No Justice without Forgiveness," § 3.
J. Budziszewski, Commentary on Thomas Aquinas's Virtue Ethics (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2017), 160.
John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris [Christian Meaning of Suffering], Vatican Website, February 11,
1984, § 12, accessed April 3, 2018, https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-
Forgiveness versus Reconciliation
Forgiveness, according to St. John Paul, is primarily a personal choice that has a
“divine source and criterion” urging us “to go against the natural instinct to pay back evil
with evil.”
St. Thomas Aquinas helps us understand the impact of this personal choice to
offer forgiveness: “the interior act of virtue is a choice, the exterior act of virtue proceeds
from the choice, and the disposition of virtue causes the choice.
Therefore, being
open to forgiveness is a necessary disposition prior to our interior act of forgiving, which
is the decision to forgive. We may need to make the choice to forgive repeatedly when
the temptation to ill-feelings and retaliation reoccurs. However, the offender is not a
participant in this choice because our disposition, interior act, and subsequent virtuous
action of forgiving occur in the private realm of the offended person’s interior.
Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling, and requires God’s grace to overlook faults,
to seek healing for hurts, and to love our enemies. Forgivenessdoes not involve
demanding a return or remorse from the other person: neither is it tolerating, exonerating,
or condoning that person’s actions.”
Another benefit is that it prevents giving the
offender control over our decision to forgive, especially when the offender denies
responsibility for what he has done or refuses to express any remorse.
The offender,
however, does maintain control over participating in reconciliation.
John Paul II,No Peace without Justice, No Justice without Forgiveness," § 8.
Budziszewski, Aquinas's Virtue Ethics, 160.
George F.R. Ellis, “Afterword: Exploring the Unique Role of Forgiveness.” In Forgiveness and
Reconciliation: Public Policy & Conflict Transformation, (Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press,
2001), 405.
Forgiveness “is to offer mercy to someone who has acted unjustly”
but “not to
condone, excuse, forget, or even to reconcile.”
By making the personal choice to
forgive, however, we open the door to reconciliation an act of justice that restores
balance in a damaged relationship through restitution as opposed to a demand for
retribution. Acknowledging “the profound truth that reconciliation is not simply an end
in itself,” the USCCB Subcommittee on the Third Millennium teaches that
“reconciliation is for the sake of communion... There can be no forgiveness and
reconciliation without unity and communion with God and with one another.”
In 2011,
Pope Benedict XVI delivered an apostolic exhortation which provided an extensive
description of reconciliation:
“‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you, says the Lord, and he adds ‘not
as the world gives do I give to you’ (Jn 14:27). Human peace obtained without
justice is illusory and ephemeral. Human justice which is not the fruit of
reconciliation in the ‘truth of love’ (Eph 4:15) remains incomplete; it is not
authentic justice. Love of truth – ‘the whole truth,’ to which the Spirit alone can
lead us (cf. Jn 16:13) – is what marks out the path that all human justice must
follow if it is to succeed in restoring the bonds of fraternity...Reconciliation, then,
is not limited to God’s plan to draw estranged and sinful humanity to himself in
Christ through the forgiveness of sins and out of love. It is also the restoration of
relationships between people through the settlement of differences and the
removal of obstacles to their relationships in their experience of God’s love... In
the wake of a conflict, reconciliation...restores a union of hearts and serene
coexistence... Victims have a right to truth and justice.”
Reconciliation is an act of justice, which is a virtue “directed toward the common
Robert D. Enright and Chad M. Magnuson, “The Church as Forgiving Community: An Initial
Model,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 36, no. 2, (June 2008): 114, accessed April 12, 2018,
Subcommittee on the Third Millennium, Jubilee 2000: A Year of the Lord’s Favor A
Reflection on Forgiveness and Reconciliation, (Washington D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic
Bishops, 1998), 13.
Benedict XVI, Africae Munus [Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Church in Africa in
Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace], Vatican Website, November 19, 2011, accessed April 16,
2018, § 18, 20-21, http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-
good… [and] is essentially directed toward what is right (fair and equal) in our relation-
ships with others.
According to St. Aquinas: “Unlike other virtues, justice is always
Falling under commutative justice,reconciliation preserves an
equality between persons by rendering what is due to each [person]… in situations in
which the suffering or loss of one is balanced by the suffering or loss of another.”
While restitution is an act of commutative justice,”
“a person establishes the equality
of justice by doing good… and preserves the already established equality of justice by
declining from evil.”
This means that we “do good by… respecting the just claims of
other persons, and we avoid evil by avoiding harm… to other individual persons.”
Therefore, reconciliation requires participation of both the offended and the
“Jesus called for replacing an eye for an eyewith love for one's enemies
(Mt. 5:38-43). Following this call, Pope John Paul II argued that
forgiveness must often accompany justice if reconciliation is to be
obtained; otherwise retributive justice may lock people into a repetitive
cycle of violence and counterviolence rather than leading to recon-
Christopher Kaczor and Thomas Sherman, Thomas Aquinas on The Cardinal Virtues: Edited
and Explained for Everyone (Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press, 2009), 60.
Ibid., 59.
Ibid., 61.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. Fr. Laurene Shapcote, vol. 17 (Lander, WY: The
Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012), IIa-IIae, q. 62, a. 1.
Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIa-IIae, q. 79, a. 1, quoted in Kaczor and Sherman, Aquinas on
Cardinal Virtues, 62.
Kaczor and Sherman, Aquinas on Cardinal Virtues, 62.
David Hollenbach, “Reconciliation and Justice: Ethical Guidance for a Broken World,”
Promotio Justitiae 103, no. 3, (Rome: 2009): 2, accessed March 15, 2018,
This paper discussed Jesus teaching that God's forgiveness and mercy are
contingent upon our first forgiving others. Unconditional mercy by forgiving trespasses
is required, even when the offender does not have remorse. Forgiveness is a personal
choice to show mercy to the offender and, accordingly, requires an act of mercy on the
part of the offended person. In addition, forgiveness shows an openness to reconciliation,
which is an act of justice requiring collaboration and participation by both the offender
and the offended to restore the relationship.
In The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to maintain a disposition of forgiveness
and openness to reconciliation as a condition for God’s forgiveness. St. Aquinas explains
that “whoever is so disposed that he is prepared to give pardon to anyone who asks, he
will not lose the fruit of this prayer as long as in general he does not have hatred for
Therefore, a person who has chosen forgiveness and who is open and ready for
reconciliation indicates the reality of a decision that is not dependent upon a request from
the offender, but on the mercy and love within his interior.
The words of St. John Paul, in his message for the celebration of the World Day
of Peace, summarize the thesis of this paper wonderfully:
“My reasoned conviction, confirmed in turn by biblical revelation, is that
the shattered order cannot be fully restored except by a response that
combines justice with forgiveness. The pillars of true peace are justice and
that form of love which is forgiveness… The followers of Christ, baptized
into his redeeming Death and Resurrection, must always be men and
women of mercy and forgiveness.”
Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Aquinas Institute, Inc., version:
18.0323.1929, 2018, chap 6, lec 3, § 957, accessed April 3, 2018, https://aquinas.cc/180/182/~1698.
John Paul II, “Celebration of the World Day of Peace," § 2, 7.
Aquinas, Thomas. Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. Aquinas Institute, Inc., 2018.
Accessed April 3, 2018. https://aquinas.cc/180/182/~1698.
———Summa Theologiae. Translated by Fr. Laurene Shapcote. Vol. 17. Lander, WY:
The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012. Quoted in
Christopher Kaczor, Thomas Sherman. Thomas Aquinas on The Cardinal Virtues:
Edited and Explained for Everyone. Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press, 2009.
Benedict XVI. Africae Munus [Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Church in
Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace]. Vatican Website,
November 19, 2011. Accessed April 16, 2018.
———“Message on the Occasion of the 18th Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy
of Social Sciences.” Vatican Website, April 27, 2012. Accessed April 4, 2018.
Budziszewski, J. Commentary on Thomas Aquinas's Virtue Ethics. New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic
Conference, 2000.
Ellis, George F. R. “Afterword: Exploring the Unique Role of Forgiveness.” In
Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Public Policy & Conflict Transformation,
395–410. Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2001.
Enright, Robert D. and Chad M. Magnuson. “The Church as Forgiving Community: An
Initial Model.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 36, no. 2. (June 2008).
114–23. Accessed April 12, 2018.
Francis. “Misericordiae Vultus.” Vatican Website, April 11, 2015. Accessed April 4,
2018. https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_letters/documents/papa-
Garrard, Eve and David McNaughton. “In Defense of Unconditional Forgiveness.”
Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 103, no. 1 (September 2002): 39-60.
Accessed April 6, 2018, http://at.opal-
Hollenbach, David. “Reconciliation and Justice: Ethical Guidance for a Broken World.”
Promotio Justitiae 103, no. 3. (Rome: 2009): 1-4. Accessed March 15, 2018.
John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia. Vatican Website, November 30, 1980. Accessed
April 3, 2018. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-
———“No Peace without Justice, No Justice without Forgiveness." Vatican Website,
January 1, 2002. Accessed April 3, 2018. http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-
———Salvifici Doloris [Christian Meaning of Suffering]. Vatican Website, February
11, 1984. Accessed April 3, 2018. https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-
Kaczor, Christopher and Thomas Sherman. Thomas Aquinas on The Cardinal Virtues:
Edited and Explained for Everyone. Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press, 2009.
Pinckaers, Servais. The Sources of Christian Ethics. Translated from the 3rd ed. By Sr.
Mary Thomas Noble. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America
Press, 1995.
Subcommittee on the Third Millennium. Jubilee 2000: A Year of the Lord’s Favor – A
Reflection on Forgiveness and Reconciliation. Washington D.C.: United States
Catholic Conference, 1998.