Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Call for Forgiveness

In two articles published last week, one trustee and one Jesuit raised the question of forgiveness.  The basic argument for each was that the faculty ought to respond to Fr. Biondi’s February message with forgiveness since he was demonstrating that he had listened.  So the faculty was not just guilty of being malcontent and whiny, but now hard-hearted and unchristian in its collective attitude.  There was a way to resolve the campus crisis, both articles implied, if only the faculty would respond in the correct way instead of personal animus against the President.

One might say that the President’s supporters were playing the “forgiveness card” and the faculty should simply treat the two articles as propaganda.  That may happen.  By invoking forgiveness the two authors have shifted the argument from professional relationships to personal ones.  If that is what they want, then they only increased the onus on SLU’s leadership, not lightened it. And if they want to conflate the personal and professional, let me state clearly and loudly: I am more than happy to forgive Fr. Biondi.  I’m a theologian and a medievalist, whose research takes him constantly into the deep quagmire that is the theology of penance and reconciliation.  Forgiveness is a theological concept I know very well.  I know that forgiveness is what I as a Christian must do and it is never an option.  But, I also know that forgiveness compels the one forgiving and the one seeking forgiveness to do some very difficult things.

As parents who are trying to instill the values of contrition and forgiveness in two wonderful daughters, my wife and I have come to realize that they can only become effective with another important factor: trust.  While we started to teach our girls by instilling the habits of saying “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you”, we began to realize that those habits would only transform into intentional acts if our daughters learned to trust each other.   We have learned the more time we spend helping them build trust with another, the more natural the acts of confession and forgiveness will become.  It is not easy, as any parent will tell you.

I have yet to hear the President, any trustee, and few Jesuits for that matter, talk about trust.  Even if they want to dismiss the faculty complaints and consider their actions incongruent with the problems and challenges the University is facing, the fact remains that trust between the President and the faculty has been obliterated.  No one has addressed that.  Now one may think that I would lay the blame solely at the feet of the President, but the destruction of trust is never the fault of one person alone.  As a community—administration, faculty, students, staff, trustees—we all share the blame of what we are experiencing now.    However, this is when leadership matters: when we are all to blame, it is incumbent upon leaders to move us all forward.

In relationships where trust has been destroyed, therapists tell us that if the relationship is to be restored then all behaviors have to change.  Neither party can behave in the way they did in the past.  Trust is restored when contrition yields palpable changes.  This means that while the six principles are a start, they do not address the primary behaviors that have eroded trust.  If Fr. Biondi seeks forgiveness (and there is the rather important point that Fr. Biondi has not yet asked for anyone’s forgiveness), I am compelled to forgive him; but then he is compelled to change almost everything he does as President.  Forgiveness is not about condoning past actions, or necessarily forgetting about them.  It is a path towards change not a return to the past.  If Fr. Biondi yields to transparency, along with sharing the care of this university, shifting his focus once again to the academic mission of the University and embodying the Jesuit mission—if he does all that, he will begin the hard process of restoring trust and present as well an amazing model of how we can transform SLU together.   Oh, and like me he is compelled to forgive—the faculty in his case, especially those whom he feels have hurt him the most. If he cannot do all of this, then he is obliged to leave and let someone else heal this community.  Either way, SLU will gain a new President.

If both authors wished to use forgiveness to circumvent the grievances of the faculty, they have in fact chosen a more difficult path.   Forgiveness is not a magic wand that will make all the problems go away.   In the end, it may be more prudent for the two authors to leave the personal to Fr. Biondi and his confessor, and instead focus their energy on prodding the Board to respond to the No-Confidence votes. This keeps the issues in the professional sphere, where there is still much to examine.

James Ginther, PhD, is Professor of Medieval Theology and Director of the Center for Digital Theology

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