By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
JEFFERSON CITY — “I apologize” and “I forgive you.”
How much different would the world be if those words were spoken more often, even among family members, Dr. Ed Hogan asked in his keynote speech Oct. 4 at the annual Missouri Catholic Conference Assembly.
But instead, the professor of systematic theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis told Catholics who came from throughout the state that the culture around them is trapped in a moral relativism that does not recognize right or wrong, and thus sees little need for either apology or forgiveness.
“Nothing is wrong and no one needs to be forgiven,” Hogan said.
“That is precisely the point at which relativism fails. It denies the need to ask for forgiveness, and it denies the need to give it,” he said.
“The problem is, our world desperately needs both,” Hogan said. “We need a world in which people are ready to ask — and to grant — forgiveness. How would the world be different, how would Missouri be different, how would our own homes be different if the five most common words spoken were “I apologize” and “I forgive you”?
By both seeking and granting forgiveness, the world would build the culture of mercy that Jesus exemplified in his own life, and that Pope Francis is now calling the world to build, Hogan said.
“What we need, and what Pope Francis is asking us to do, is to build a culture of mercy,” he said. “The central habits of a culture of mercy are apology and forgiveness. “
Hogan said that the “law of apology” is one of the spiritual laws that God wrote into the universe, just as God wrote physical laws such as gravity.
“The law of apology says that when you apologize genuinely, it changes things. It opens up a space in a relationship where you can begin again,” he said.
“But here’s the rub. The spiritual laws don’t work like the physical laws in this sense — they aren’t automatic. We have to decide to use them,” Hogan said.
“We’re free to ignore the spiritual laws God has written into the universe. But it’s not like ignoring gravity which works whether we want it to or not. It’s like ignoring medicine which only works if we take it. If we ignore spiritual law, we lose out on the benefits they offer,” he said.
Moral relativism prevents people from using the benefits of apology and forgiveness, Hogan said.
“With relativism, there is nothing to apologize for,” he said.
“But if we’re honest, we know that’s not true,” Hogan said. “Something is wrong and sone one needs to be forgiven. In family life, we know that from both ends. Sometimes we need to apologize and sometimes we need to forgive.”
But neither apology or forgiveness is easy. They must both be sincere, he said.
He called “I’m sorry if anyone was offended,” a fake apology.
“That’s not an apology,” Hogan said. “An apology means you are sorry for your actions, not other people’s reaction,” he said.
Hogan also said “It’s OK” is a fake forgiveness.
“The truth is something more like, ‘It’s not OK. What you did was wrong. And it hurt me. But I forgive you,’” Hogan said.
But both apologizing and forgiving require spiritual work, he said.
“Picking up a rock requires physical effort,” Hogan said. “Picking up a hurt requires spiritual effort.”
Far easier, he said, is the relativism that requires no effort.
“There’s nothing that needs to be forgiven. It’s all good,” he said. “But truthfully, there are things that need to be forgiven. I need to be forgiven and I need to forgive.”
There is danger in ignoring that truth, Hogan said.
“If you ignore something that needs to be forgiven, it doesn’t go away,” he said. It festers in your heart, and it festers in your relationships. Then you die with the one thing on your heart that can’t be there — unforgiveness,” he said.
Indeed, Jesus warned in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that the measure of God’s mercy that will be given to his people will be the measure that they have given to others.
“How would you like God to ignore the things that need to be forgiven in you as you have ignored them in others?” Hogan asked.
“By getting us to ignore the law of forgiveness, relativism is a threat to our salvation,” he said.
“My fellow parents, our families cannot participate in that. We can’t raise whole and holy children in that atmosphere. We have to build a culture of mercy by applying the law of forgiveness in our relationships,” Hogan said.
“There is a better approach, more important and more fruitful,” he said.
Hogan reminded his audience that Jesus was instinctively drawn to mercy. He went and responded to those who needed mercy.
Pope Francis is drawn to mercy also by instinct, noting that the most certain way to stop a papal motorcade is for it to pass a person in need, especially a sick child.
“What I notice about myself is that I hesitate,” Hogan said. “I have to talk myself into it. Then I will do the right thing. That is because I do not yet have the conversion of desires to Jesus. Relativism prevents us from needing the humility to admit and face the challenge of conversion — conversion of our thoughts, conversion of our actions and conversion of our desires.
“Relativism is rooted in pride. Pride prevents us from admitting we were wrong. That’s an obstacle to spiritual growth and to salvation,” Hogan said.
Relativism is also rooted in cowardice, Hogan said.
“Relativism means no one can ever be wrong. That means no one else can be wrong. That means I never need to muster the courage to stand up and say, ‘Hey, that’s wrong.
And I’m going to do something about it,’” he said.
Courage “is a gift we need to pray for and a virtue we need to exercise. It begins in the family. It begins with you and me,” Hogan said.
“But stop and think about it. Part of the reason people are eating up relativism is that it feeds our pride and it feeds our cowardice. We are growing morally obese on these,” he said.
Only upon a foundation of humility and courage can a culture of mercy be built.
Hogan noted that Pope Francis is taking the approach of a spiritual director in order to lead toward that culture of mercy.
“He senses that people are afraid of God’s judgment because they don’t believe in his mercy,” Hogan said. “Because of that fear, they find it easier to deny that there is a right and wrong than to admit, ‘I have done wrong.’
“So we’re caught between denying that there is right and wrong, and never being able to object to anything, and admitting that I am a sinner because I have done wrong and therefore there is no hope for me. That’s the root dilemma of a culture of despair,” Hogan said.
“People cope by drinking, by using drugs and watching pornography, all the while claiming there is no right and wrong. People become hollow like an addict in our souls, all the while screaming out ‘Help me’ and wondering if anyone hears us,” Hogan said.
In his famous, wide-ranging interview that drew the world’s attention in September 2013, Pope Francis was asked who he was.
“I am a sinner,” he replied.
“Pope Francis seems to be saying that the first way to approach this situation is not to insist that another person is a sinner. The first step is to let people know I am a sinner, and I have received God’s mercy,” Hogan said.
“He wasn’t only telling the truth about himself. As a spiritual physician, he was giving a diagnosis and prescribing the remedy by example,” he said.
“When we follow the pope’s example, when we take the medicine of humility because we believe in divine mercy, we let other people know that it’s OK to admit that there is right and wrong, and it’s OK to admit that we have not lived up to it,” Hogan said.
“We can testify: ‘I am a sinner. I have stood before the judgment seat in the power of his gaze. And there I found mercy rather than condemnation,’” he said.
“Because I know he sees me through the eyes of mercy and chooses me, I can live in hope and joy. I can testify heaven is possible for sinners,”
“That’s the joy of the Gospel,” Hogan said.
“My plea today: Families make that visible. Be a living example of the joy of the Gospel,” he said.
“When people see from our example that there is mercy for sinners, that heaven is still open, they can lay down their spiritual defenses, admit there is right and wrong, admit they have done wrong, and still have hope,” Hogan said.
“Is there somewherin your life you need to apologize? Do it,” he said.
“Is there somewhere in your life you need to forgive? Don’t wait,” he said.
“Is there somewhere in your life you need to exercise humility? Do it,” he said.
“Is there somewhere in your life you need to exercise courage? This is the day the Lord has made,” he said.
“Apologize, forgive, be humble, have courage,” Hogan said. “That is building a culture of mercy.”