As Catholics, we understand that there is a Gospel call toward forgiveness — yet forgiveness is never an obligation, but a creative act of possibility and grace.
Together, we can work to dispel common myths about forgiveness and open up new possibilities for reconciliation and healing.
Myth #1: Forgiveness means forgetting the past.
As theologian Fr. Robert Schreiter writes, “In forgiving, we do not forget; we remember in a different way” (The Ministry of Reconciliation: Spirituality and Strategies).
Indeed, in our forgiveness journeys, we cannot and should not forget the history of violence and harm. Rather, we must learn to let go of the anger and hatred that feeds the cycle of violence. This release of negative emotions through forgiveness allows us to build, in the words of Pope Francis, “a shared hope stronger than the desire for vengeance” (Fratelli Tutti, 226).
Myth #2: Forgiveness is incompatible with justice.
On the contrary, justice and forgiveness are intimately linked. When someone forgives, they do not give up their right to seek justice.
In Dives In Misericordia, St. John Paul II says that without the presence of merciful love, justice gets distorted into revenge. (Think: “An eye for an eye.”) The end goal of mercy is true justice, which addresses harm while also affirming the human dignity of all persons impacted.
To Pope Francis, mercy and justice are two dimensions of a single reality, working together towards the fullness of God’s love. “God’s justice,” Francis writes, “is his mercy given to everyone as a grace that flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (Misericordiae Vultus, 21).
“Forgiveness is precisely what enables us to pursue justice without falling into a spiral of revenge or the injustice of forgetting” (Fratelli Tutti, 252).
Myth #3: Forgiveness is weak.
Experientially, we know that forgiveness is challenging and can require inner strength and external support. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of God’s mercy as a sign of his strength: “It is proper to God to exercise mercy, and he manifests his omnipotence particularly in this way” (Summa Theologiae).
An ancient collect of the Mass offers a similar insight: “O God, who reveal your power above all in your mercy and forgiveness. . .” (Misericordiae Vultus, 6).
Recognizing that forgiveness is difficult and that it is understandable that some people are unable to forgive, Pope Francis states that forgiveness “shows its strength by refusing to take revenge” (Fratelli Tutti, 243).
For Fr. Schreiter, the vulnerability that love and mercy require is a sign of strength. Vulnerability is not weakness or “an unwanted deficit of power,” but a freely chosen stance of trust and love (The Ministry of Reconciliation).
Myth #4: Forgiveness demeans victims of harm or negates the harm done to them.
Forgiveness is compatible with seeking justice for the survivors of wrongdoing and does not negate their pain and suffering. Forgiveness is not demeaning but a free choice by the survivor, through which survivors reclaim personal agency and redefine their relationship to the past.
As Pope Francis explains, “Free and heartfelt forgiveness is something noble, a reflection of God’s own infinite ability to forgive. . . Those who truly forgive do not forget. . . They break the vicious circle; they halt the advance of the forces of destruction.” (Fratelli Tutti, 250-251)
In justice, no one can or should be forced to forgive, and no other person can justly forgive on behalf of victims.
Myth #5: Forgiveness cannot happen unless the perpetrator repents.
The truth is that, as an act of freedom and renewed personal agency, survivors can and do forgive without regard to the attitudes of the wrongdoer. It is possible for survivors to let go of their anger, to envision and create a future not controlled by the past, without first reconciling with the perpetrator of the harm they suffered.
Consider the words of St. Paul: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
In the salvific plan of God, love precedes repentance. People must know their innate dignity as children of God, prior to being called to transformation.
Love, including in the form of forgiveness, has a transformative power which can help move people who have caused harm to repentance.