Forgive, but Don't Forget

Speaking of books I like, I'm a huge fan of the writing of Frank McCourt. In particular, I like the editions of his books on audio tape, read by the author himself. It's a joy just to listen to his warm voice with its gentle cadences, and it also enables you to listen to the stories while you're running or driving a car or sitting quietly with your eyes closed on a winter's evening. In a big comfy chair. With a glass of Ardbeg or Laphroaig. You'll have to do a fair amount of rewinding.

Angela's Ashes was, in some ways, a difficult book for me. The wit and charm is more than compensated for by the misery and squalor, and in some places it can be rather tough going. In the end, of course, you come away admiring a person who could survive all of that to become a successful teacher and writer without killing a half dozen people along the way, but your admiration for McCourt's virtues is balanced by a certain hatred for those who harmed him so deeply. It is no fun to hate people whom you don't know, but it is even less fun to hate people whom you know to be people who, if they were doing their jobs properly, you would be respecting rather than hating. The people who treated McCourt most despicably were his teachers. If you're a teacher yourself, it is almost impossible to read Angela's Ashes without seriously wanting to throttle someone. But it's too late--those teachers are all dead, and you can't dig them up just to have the pleasure of killing them again. But the worst of it is not the frustration that there's nothing you can do about what happened in the past, it's knowing that you've been seduced into hating people.

What's wrong with hating really evil people? Besides being sinful, it commits a category mistake: the proper object of hatred is not persons but vices. Persons are inherently good, created in the likeness of God; although they often fall far short of what God intends for them, they nevertheless remain imagines Dei, and it is sinful to hate them precisely because hating them rather than their vices, is a misuse of our own faculties, a falling short on our part to live in the way that God intends for us to live.

Easier to say than to do, as Frank McCourt himself ably demonstrates. His first two books, Angela's Ashes and 'Tis, are filled with lyrical passages about the evils of the teachers and priests who stood in the way of his happiness, but there is no escaping the habitual conflation of these evils with the persons who perpetrated them. It would be rash, I think, for me to say that we all make this mistake; but I'm tempted to say it anyway, since whether or not we all make it it is common enough for most people to know instinctively what I'm talking about. Indeed, most people know what I'm talking about so well that they will disagree with me that it is a conflation in the first place--they will say "Of course there's nothing wrong with hating the people who perpetrate evil--if they weren't evil themselves the evils that they do wouldn't get perpetrated in the first place, and for that these people deserve punishment."

Romans 5.8 tells a different story.
But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
Contrition and repentance are necessary conditions on forgiveness, but it is worth noting that St Paul emphasizes that Christ died for us prior to anything like contrition and repentance on our part. This tension between God's willingness to die/forgive in anticipation of our contrition and repentance and our own unwillingness to forgive the sins of others when we are very angry at them is interesting to me. On 14 January there was an interesting interview with Frank McCourt on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. If you decide to listen to it for yourself, be sure to read the excerpt from McCourt's new book, a memoir called Teacherman printed on that web page. As usual, the prose is purple and the tale compelling. But one passage really jumped out at me:
I could lay blame. The miserable childhood doesn't simply happen. It is brought about. There are dark forces. If I am to lay blame it is in a spirit of forgiveness. Therefore, I forgive the following: Pope Pius XII; the English in general and King George VI in particular; Cardinal MacRory, who ruled Ireland when I was a child; the bishop of Limerick, who seemed to think everything was sinful; Eamonn De Valera, former prime minister (Taoiseach) and president of Ireland. Mr. De Valera was a half-Spanish Gaelic fanatic (Spanish onion in an Irish stew) who directed teachers all over Ireland to beat the native tongue into us and natural curiosity out of us. He caused us hours of misery. He was aloof and indifferent to the black and blue welts raised by schoolmaster sticks on various parts of our young bodies. I forgive, also, the priest who drove me from the confessional when I admitted to sins of self-abuse and self-pollution and penny thieveries from my mother's purse. He said I did not show a proper spirit of repentance, especially in the matter of the flesh. And even though he had hit that nail right on the head, his refusal to grant me absolution put my soul in such peril that if I had been flattened by a truck outside the church he would have been responsible for my eternal damnation. I forgive various bullying schoolmasters for pulling me out of my seat by the sideburns, for walloping me regularly with stick, strap and cane when I stumbled over answers in the catechism or when in my head I couldn't divide 937 by 739. I was told by my parents and other adults it was all for my own good. I forgive them for those whopping hypocrisies and wonder where they are at this moment. Heaven? Hell? Purgatory (if it still exists)?
I don't have time for people who blame Pius XII for everything, but I doubt he's all that serious about that; the story that really intrigues me is the one about the priest in the confessional. I remember that passage from Angela's Ashes pretty well, because it stood out for me at the time. Think about the implications of this incident as it is described here. It's hard for me to tell what is meant literally and what ironically in this passage, but we can have a go at it simply on the basis of what we know about confession and absolution.

Suppose two people go to confession; one of them is genuinely contrite for having sinned against God, the other is not. The former understands that a crucial bond of love has been broken by something that he did, the latter either does not believe or does not understand this. The former goes to confession for one reason: to restore the bond of love that used to exist between him and God; the latter goes to confession for a different reason: he is afraid of going to hell.

Of these two attitudes, which does Frank McCourt show to the world in this passage? Clearly the latter, in spite of the fact that he couches these stories in the form of a blanket forgiveness. His forgiveness rings a little hollower with each passing clause. He seems to think (whether this passage is intended ironically or not) that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is itself a necessary condition on going to heaven, and that getting into heaven is the primary reason that one goes to Confession in the first place. He may even think, though I believe this probably is just irony, that the Church really would have been responsible for him going to hell, even though he was the one who separated himself from God to the extent that he needed to do something to mend the broken relationship. Notice that he complains that the priest says that he did not "show a proper spirit of repentence." Possibly he did not--we are not given any evidence one way or the other. If he was not repenting of what he had done, why should he receive absolution? If he was truly penitent, then his getting into heaven was not contingent on a misguided priest saying words over his head. His not knowing this may be due to the terrible catechesis that he received at the hands of other misguided priests, of course, but that was a long time ago, and this passage was written recently. Any decent person would find out the facts before going around casting aspersions--perhaps he ought to have had a look at the Catechism. One suspects, however, that his anger runs too deep for that: he no longer wants to know anything about Catholicism. Indeed, he probably thinks he already knows all that he needs to know, because the knowledge of what happened to him in the past is the only relevant knowledge to an angry person. This is the great tragedy of misdirected anger--it becomes directed at righting perceived wrongs using methods that are subjectively perceived to be the best recourse. It has little to do with understanding and compassion, even while it bemoans the lack of those things in one's own case.

Much of McCourt's writing about the Church shows evidence of having come from a mind that is guided, spiritually, primarily by the emotion of fear, rather than the spirit of love and forgiveness. Angela's Ashes, and to a lesser extent 'Tis, are filled with descriptions of the terror of hell and the superstitions that drive many poor and uneducated people to do strange and bizarre things. One of my favorite passages has to do with McCourt's first Communion, when he is badgered by his grandmother into going to Confession three times on the same day for various little pecadilloes he commits, including throwing up after receiving Communion, thus puking God himself into grandmother's back yard. It's a marvelous story, even though it does make one rather sad about the generations upon generations of ignorant folk who perverted a beautiful religion that concerns only God's infinite and unconditional love for us into a religion of creepily empty rituals and superstitious fears. Sad for them, mind you, sad for what they missed out on.

It was not their fault, obviously, that they missed out on the beauty of their own religion. It was the fault of the terrible teachers who filled them with lies rather than the Truth. Why not hate those teachers, then? Because the lies are the proper objects of our hatred, not the people who told them. They were acting out of ignorance, for the most part, and one does not hate an ignorant person, one educates him--it is a condition calling for a corporal work of mercy, not punishment. We do not punish a sick person, we give him medicine, and ignorance is a form of spiritual sickness.

I am eagerly looking forward to reading Teacherman, but for me it will be an occasion for sadness in ways that it may not be for other readers, because I have long lamented McCourt's bitter history with the Church. He, too, needs education rather than punishment, and one has to believe that it's never too late for an education--especially if one is a teacher.


Tom P. said…
Fear of going to hell as your reason for going to confession is perfect valid. It is called imperfect contrition or attrition and although it is imperfect it is still makes a valid confession. In fact, fear of hell is defined as a gift from God by the Council of Trent. in fact, the Council of Trent makes it prtetty clear that the sacrament of Penance is not required when the sinner makes a perfect contrition! So if the priest really did refuse to pardon McCourt's sin because he wasn't "sorry enough" then the priest was very wrong and didn't understand the Catholic faith.
Scott Carson said…
Ummmm...isn't that precisely what I said?

Well, with one exception--I hope I didn't say that fear of going to hell is "perfectly valid" as a reason for going to confession. It's hard to see how imperfect contrition can be perfectly valid--but you're right, it can certainly be among your reasons for going to confession, as long as it's not your only reason.
Tom P. said…
No, that's the point! According to Trent fear of hell can be the ONLY reason you go to confession. The only other requirement is that you don't have an INTENT to sin again. So going to confession because hell scares the **** out of you is sufficient.
Tom P. said…
Just to be clear, if you go to confession because you are afraid of going to hell, even if you have no love for God whatsoever, as long as you are not a willful sinner and don't intend on sinning again (although you are fairly certain that you will), then you have made an imperfect contrition and your sins are forgiven. This is according to the Council of Trent and further clarified by Papal decree by Alexander VII.
Tom P. said…
Looking back over your post there is a lot that is wrong in there. For example, you seem to belittle the fear of hell among certain people, who you appear to look down upon. Well, Trent said that fear of hell is, in fact, a gift from God. Also, you say, "If he was not repenting of what he had done, why should he receive absolution?" Because repentance only requires that you do not intend on sinning again. Unless the priest could have looked into McCourt's mind, there is no way that he should have withheld absolution. Fear of God is a valid feeling for us poor humans when faced with a all powerful deity who will send us to eternal suffering unless we follow his rules. And if fear works to keep you out of hell then go for it.
Scott Carson said…

You've misunderstood the teaching of Trent. Check out the Catechism on this one--it'll set you straight.

You also don't seem to understand what repentance is--but that's one for another day.
Tom P. said…
You know what I hate? People who say, "You don't know what you are talking about and if you would go read this 5,000 page book you would see that I am right and you are wrong." I have seen from your posts (not just this one but others as well) that you actually have a fairly poor understanding of Catholicism. But here is the teaching of Trent:

"And as to that imperfect contrition which is called attrition, because it is commonly conceived either from the consideration of the turpitude of sin, or from the fear of hell and of punishment, the council declares that if with the hope of pardon, it excludes the wish to sin, it not only does not make man a hypocrite and a greater sinner, but that it is even a gift of God, and an impulse of the Holy Spirit, who does not indeed as yet dwell in the penitent, but who only moves him whereby the penitent, being assisted, prepares a way for himself unto justice, and although this attrition cannot of itself, without the Sacrament of Penance, conduct the sinner to justification yet does it dispose him to receive the grace of God in the Sacrament of Penance. For smitten profitably with fear, the Ninivites at the preaching of Jonas did fearful penance and obtained mercy from Lord."


"If any man assert that attrition . . . is not a true and a profitable sorrow; that it does not prepare the soul for grace, but that it makes a man a hypocrite, yea, even a greater sinner, let him be anathema".

and finally from Trent again...

"The Church not only regards the godliness of fear as a motive to repentance, but expressly defines that attrition, though it justifies not without the Sacrament of Penance, nevertheless disposes the sinner to receive grace in the sacrament itself."

I'll let you decide for yourself whether you are ananthema. As for me, I actually know what the Church teaches. I would suggest that you try to find out what it is.
Tom P. said…
And I promise this is the last... I checked the CCC thinking that perhaps the Church had some new-fangled theories that made Trent no longer infallible but I need not have worried. 1453 says exactly what I have been saying all along. Fear of eternal damnation combined with the sacrament of Penance is sufficient for absolution.
Scott Carson said…
Now Tom, you're allowed to post silly things, and your allowed to post pointless things, but not all at the same time.

Yes, I know what the teaching is. What I'm saying is that you have failed to understand it. I stand by that judgment.

Thanks for the promise, by the way.

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