Forgiveness expert explores religious dimension
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."
has 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.
work has taken him to global hotspots—to a school program of
"forgiveness education" for Catholic and Protestant children in
Northern Ireland and to a project to promote e-mail dialogue among
Jewish, Muslim and Christian children in Israel and Palestine.
while forgiveness carries strong associations with religion, at one
time Enright supported his claims with empirical data alone, insisting
that his method is usable by "theists and nontheists" alike.
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 work.
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
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."
at least 1,000 academic researchers and "countless therapists"
specialize in forgiveness studies, Enright said, but in 1985 a library
search turned up not a single piece of scholarship on the subject in any
of the social sciences.
Enright found himself drawn to the
subject and began leading a seminar on forgiveness at the University of
Wisconsin at Madison, where he was a tenured professor. 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 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.
church has traditionally emphasized the sacramental aspect of
forgiveness as something granted by God, Enright said. But over the last
three decades, especially under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict
XVI, he's seen a growing emphasis on "person-to-person forgiveness."
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.
making the case for forgiveness—including a February 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.
believes that forgiveness is also an essential part of the church's
recovery from the clergy sexual abuse crisis, and he 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
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.
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
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 the heart." —RNS