Catholic Lawyers Guild: Forgiveness

On April 6, 1994, an airplane carrying the ethnic Hutu president of Rwanda was shot down on its approach to Kigali airport. At the time, Immaculee Ilibagiza was a 22-year old college student, home with her family in Rwanda for Easter. Her book, "Left to Tell," recounts the ensuing three months of horror, in which 800,000 Rwandans -- mostly Tutsis like herself -- were slaughtered.

Immaculee lost her parents, grandparents, brothers, and seven uncles. She avoided capture only by hiding for 91 days with six other women in a bathroom the size of a small closet. Already thin, she wasted away from 115 to 65 pounds during those three months. The most remarkable thing about her story is her reaction to this ordeal: "I believed that God had spared me during the genocide for a reason, to talk to as many people as I could about how He had touched my heart ... and taught me to forgive."

We can hardly imagine such a complete breakdown of civil society in the United States, in large part because of our respect for the legal order. We collectively surrender our primal desire for vengeance in return for a peaceful system of justice that settles disputes and corrects wrongs. In this system, lawyers represent the interests of aggrieved and offending parties and see that the rules are observed.

But even in our civilized judicial order, the temptation exists for lawyers to approach their duties with a martial fervor better suited to more primitive methods of dispute resolution. The Catholic lawyer must not succumb to this, whether from a desire to succeed, to build a reputation, or to curry favor with high-paying clients. We should instead try to cultivate the virtue that Immaculee exemplifies so well -- forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a divine gift and an obligation. St. John tells us that the risen Christ gave his apostles the power to forgive on his behalf. Those of us who lack that sacramental mission also resolve to forgive each time we recite the Lord's Prayer. It is, we say, a condition for our own forgiveness.

It is unfortunate that forgiveness is not more often associated with the practice of law. In law school we are taught to cultivate a very different virtue: zeal. Zeal in defense of a just cause is an admirable quality. We owe it to our clients when they come to us having suffered some wrong at the hands of their business associates, their competitors, the government, oil companies, their neighbors, or others.

But for all of our zeal, we must remember that the law is not war. The people on the other side of our lawsuits and transactions are adversaries in the courtroom, perhaps, but not the enemy. They are children of God, and our brothers and sisters in Christ. There comes a time in every adversarial relationship -- in most cases after recompense has been made -- when wounds must be healed. This is a process in which we must assist when possible, and to which we must certainly never create obstacles.

Forgiveness merits -- and sometimes receives -- broad application in our legal system. Our pre-trial diversion programs for minor first-time criminal offenders often prevent one moment of bad judgment from ruining a young person's life. On the other hand it may be a lack of forgiveness that explains our enthusiasm for the death penalty -- for revenge upon murderers, even at the expense of their ability to show contrition and seek forgiveness over time.

But forgiveness is not just an issue for the system at large, or a requirement for good sportsmanship when dealing with opposing counsel. Rather, each individual lawyer must apply it robustly. It is not enough, for example, to invoke forgiveness after a case is over. By then, depending on how attorneys have conducted themselves during a case, it might be too late.

Consider the ugliest child custody cases, in which parties produce dubious accusations and bring forth embarrassing, irrelevant, wounding details once shared in confidence. Absent a willingness to keep the possibility of forgiveness in sight at all times, any case can become like this -- a contest of who can sling the most mud to increase his own chances of success. This can so poison an already strained relationship that it becomes impossible to heal later on. Virtuous zeal tempers a "win-at-all-costs" mentality. We must teach clients that our aim is victory, not destruction.

St. Matthew tells us of the paralytic whose compassionate friends brought him on a mat to Jesus. Jesus did not immediately cure the man, but instead told him, "Take heart, son: your sins are forgiven." Even when Jesus finally healed the man's paralysis, it was his act of forgiveness that most surprised and amazed those in attendance. "They were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men."

Christ died that we might be forgiven. In so doing he made forgiveness the foundation of our faith. When we contend with our brothers and sisters at law we should behave accordingly. And when we find that most difficult, it might help to remember what Immaculee experienced, witnessed, and forgave.

John Garvey is the president of The Catholic University of America. Prior to becoming Catholic University president, Garvey was the dean of Boston College Law School.