VATICAN CITY — For more than a quarter of a century, psychologist
Robert D. Enright has been a pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness —
the kind of guy Time magazine once dubbed “the forgiveness trailblazer.”
He’s probed the mental and physical benefits that incest survivors, adult
children of alcoholics, cardiac patients and others can enjoy if they choose to
show mercy to those who have done them wrong.
His work has taken him to global hotspots, with a schools program of “forgiveness
education” for Catholic and Protestant children in Northern Ireland, and a new
project to promote e-mail dialogue among Jewish, Muslim and Christian children
in Israel and Palestine.
But while forgiveness carries strong associations with religion, Enright has
always supported his claims with empirical data alone, insisting that his
method is usable by “theists and nontheists” alike.
The study of forgiveness has nevertheless ended up nurturing Enright’s own
faith, ultimately bringing him back to the Roman Catholic Church of his youth.
He is now preparing, for the first time, to make that faith explicit in his
Enright was not a churchgoer when he embarked on this line of research in 1985,
but as he tells it, his discovery of the field that would define his career
came in answer to a prayer.
Seeking to help a graduate student in search of a thesis topic, Enright decided
while driving one day to ask God for a suggestion. He recalls that “one word
came back: forgiveness.”
Today, at least 1,000 academic researchers and “countless therapists”
specialize in forgiveness studies, Enright said, but at the time, a library
search turned up not a single piece of scholarship on the subject in any of the
Enright found himself drawn to the area and began leading a seminar on
forgiveness at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he was a tenured
Among the assigned readings for the seminar were selections from the
scriptures of various religious traditions.
Those texts raised questions that led Enright back to back to Christianity:
first to what he describes as a liberal Methodist church, then to an
evangelical Protestant congregation, and finally back to Catholicism.
A major turning point in both his spiritual development and his understanding
of forgiveness, Enright said, was the death of his wife Nancy from kidney
cancer in 2002. That ordeal, which left him a single father of two young boys,
taught him the power of redemptive suffering.
“Forgiveness as Redemptive Suffering” is the working title of a book that
Enright will be writing with his son Kevin, 23, a recent college graduate who
plans to pursue graduate studies in philosophy. The book will be Enright’s
first major statement of how religious faith has informed and expanded his
understanding of forgiveness.
“The Catholic Church and only the Catholic Church can tell us what forgiveness
really is in the fullest sense: a uniting of your suffering with Christ’s
suffering, which we bear on behalf of those who have hurt us, for their
salvation,” he says.
The church has traditionally emphasized the sacramental aspect of forgiveness
as something granted by God, Enright said. But over the last three decades,
especially under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, he’s seen a growing
emphasis on “person-to-person forgiveness.”
That emphasis has inspired a vision that Enright calls “The Church as Forgiving
Community,” which is also the title of a forthcoming book he is editing, with
essays by psychologists, philosophers and theologians.
In making the case for forgiveness — including a Feb. 28 lecture at Rome’s
Pontifical University of the Holy Cross — Enright recommends measures such as
parish-based discussion groups on forgiveness, and forgiveness-focused
religious education for children.
Enright believes forgiveness is also an essential part of the church’s recovery
from the clergy sex abuse crisis, and plans to raise that issue when he speaks next
year at a Eucharistic Congress in Ireland, a country where the church has been
hit especially hard by pedophilia scandals.
Anticipating passionate reactions from church critics, he stresses that
forgiveness “does not mean letting bygones be bygones,” or sparing abusive
priests their just punishment.
“But mercy tempers justice and makes it better,” Enright said, even as it helps
victims themselves to heal.
Along with its internal benefits to the church, Enright said, an emphasis on
person-to-person forgiveness can bring new adherents into the fold. Just as
many Westerners have adopted Eastern spiritual practices such as meditation and
yoga, non-Catholics who are drawn to the church’s methods of forgiveness could
find themselves delving more deeply into the faith that spawned them.
“People start forgiving others and they say, ‘Hey this is good stuff, it sets
me free and helps my relationships. What’s the next step?’” Enright said.
In a “pragmatic, show-me-what-works age,” forgiveness has powerful evangelical
appeal, Enright said. “But this goes way beyond relaxation. It’s surgery for
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