ROME – Scientific study of the world has been around for a while now, so it’s rare these days to meet the founder of an entirely new branch of science. That, however, is what you’ve got in full living color in the person of Robert Enright, a Catholic who teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and who pioneered what’s today known as “forgiveness science.”

In essence, it’s a scientific attempt to answer two questions:

  • First, how does forgiveness actually work?
  • Second, what are the consequences of forgiving someone for the one who does the forgiving?

Enright has spent the last thirty-plus years developing hard, empirical answers, including a four-phase, twenty-step process to lead patients to forgive. He insists data prove it has positive effects, including tangible reductions in anxiety, anger and psychological depression, and gains in self-esteem and optimism about the future.

Enright is in Rome this week, to speak at a Jan. 18 conference on forgiveness at the University of the Holy Cross, the Opus Dei-sponsored university here. He’s applied his tools in some of the world’s least forgiving places, including Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine, and Liberia.

Here’s how associated Enright is with the subject: He actually writes a blog titled “Ask Dr. Forgiveness,” sponsored by the International Forgiveness Institute he helped found.

He sat down with Crux the day before the Santa Croce gathering to talk through the results of his work, including his impressions of Francis, the “Pope of Mercy,” and whether there’s a “Francis effect” in making the world a more forgiving place.

“I can’t discern a ‘Francis effect’ because I haven’t looked for it,” he said.

“It seems to me that when you hear leaders talking about the importance of forgiveness, that might have a greater impact than other kinds of, shall we say, forgiveness interventions, where others suggest it,” Enright said.

“If we see a leader, especially a major leader of a major denomination of the world, I’m guessing this could have a very powerful effect on the inner workings of people’s hearts,” he said – while cautioning, naturally, that he’d need to collect some data to back that up.

The following are excerpts from Crux’s conversation with Enright.

Crux: Science and forgiveness aren’t exactly terms that seem to go together naturally. Most of us probably think about forgiveness as highly subjective, spontaneous, unpredictable, the kind of thing you really can’t replicate in laboratory experiments. How do you turn that into a science?

Enright: There are two ways.

First of all, you can ask the question, how do you go about forgiving? If you read the Bible, you’ll hear that it’s a good thing, and you’ll hear stories, for example, of Joseph forgiving his brothers, or Jesus telling us in the Lord’s Prayer that we need to forgive. But, the Bible is a book for salvation, not a psychological text, it doesn’t tell us how we actually go about forgiving. That’s psychology’s job.

Another question is, once a person goes through a forgiveness process, what happens with this person in terms of their thinking, their feeling, their behaving, and their health, including their physical health, when they actually forgive? That’s a scientific question, where we can actually measure how a person is doing once they walk a path of forgiveness. That’s the science of it.

What does that science tell us? What are the consequences of forgiving?

We can do what we call randomized experimental and control group clinical trials, where we take a group of people – let’s say, people who are in drug rehabilitation – and we screen those people. We end up dealing with people who have experienced unjust treatment toward them and they’re still hurt and there’s unresolved pain, and we put them through the forgiveness process.

What we tend to find is that when people take the time, and willingly choose to forgive – which basically means getting rid of the resentment toward the other, and offering goodness of some kind toward the other – there is a paradoxical tendency for the person who forgives to become lower in anger, lower in anxiety, even lower in psychological depression, which is very difficult to change. There’s an increase in self-esteem, or liking oneself after being beaten down, and developing a sense of hope for the future and being open to a patched-up relationship if the other is willing. However, to forgive is not the same thing as to reconcile, so we don’t always expect that.

You’re saying you can quantify those outcomes? That is, there’s a quantifiable difference between somebody who forgives and somebody who doesn’t on those measures?

That’s exactly correct. We have control groups, where we have people who don’t go through the forgiveness process, and we compare how they’re doing after, say, a four-month treatment or a one-year treatment, to the experimental group. We find statistically significant differences between the people in these two groups. For instance, people who forgive tend to have lower psychological depression than those who are part of the experiment but who haven’t been taught to forgive.

Talk about your experience of trying to apply all this in the real world. After you’re done here in Rome, for instance, you’re moving onto Northern Ireland, where you have a project. In such battle-scarred parts of the world, does your science work?

We start with the children in battle-scarred parts of the world, whether it’s Belfast, Northern Ireland, Galilee, or Liberia in Africa, because children’s hearts are still open to the possibility of recognizing the personhood of the other.

We work with six-year-olds in Northern Ireland, for example, where we have them talk about and learn about forgiveness through picture books, story books. They see characters who get into trouble, they get into a mess and it looks like they’re not going to get out of it, and sometimes they forgive and sometimes they don’t. We talk about how characters who forgive have a different outcome in the stories oftentimes.

By seeing story characters forgive, students as young as six years old, and we measure this, actually can decrease in their anger from clinical levels of anger – which means that a psychologist who looks at an average profile in Northern Ireland would be worried about this six-year-old – down to normal levels of anger. In this case, it’s not even by going through a process in our forgiveness therapy, but simply learning about forgiveness through stories.

That’s how powerful forgiveness can actually be.

What about what predisposes somebody to forgiveness? I’m interested in the extent to which religious faith is part of the picture. Do you find religious people are more inclined to forgive?

Our science shows us that people who are very religious are more willing to forgive those who are not in their family. In other words, they have a wider net.

But with regard to the depth of hurt, we’re all the same. We all bleed in the same way. Our hearts are hurt in the same way when people treat us unjustly. Religion is not a palliative right away to getting hurt. Religion might help the person who’s having trouble with their boss, for instance, work through a process of forgiveness and be healed of the resentment that could make them miserable not only in the workplace, but they go home and kick the cat! It helps them reduce their anger, which could be pervasive, even against those who didn’t even hurt them.

We have a pope at the moment who’s all about forgiveness and mercy. Every pope preaches forgiveness and mercy, of course, but he has a particular emphasis. Do you see that translating into Catholics becoming more forgiving people? Can you discern a “Francis effect”?

I can’t discern a ‘Francis effect’ because I haven’t looked for it, but it’s a great question and I’m going to pay more attention after you said that.

It seems to me that when you hear leaders talking about the importance of forgiveness, that might have a greater impact than other kinds of, shall we say, forgiveness interventions, where others suggest it. If I’m a 16-year-old and mom or dad suggest I should forgive, I might say, ‘Yeah, I’ll try that tomorrow.’ But if we see a leader, especially a major leader of a major denomination of the world, I’m guessing this could have a very powerful effect on the inner workings of people’s hearts. It could at least get their attention and make them think, ‘Maybe I should take this more seriously then I have been.’

You ever find yourself depressed looking around at social and political life in America today, which in many ways seems more unforgiving than ever?

I never get depressed over that, I get challenged by it. In other words, we have fertile ground here for the possibility of people thinking about forgiveness – not only as a way to heal themselves and the frustrations they have, but to mend fences if people would only take the time to look.

It doesn’t mean we’re all going to be on the same political page, but we will see the personhood of the other, we will acknowledge the inherent worth of the other, therefore even in our frustration, I can predict, we would respond differently to the other. We wouldn’t exclude or excoriate them, we wouldn’t condemn them, we wouldn’t dismiss them out of hand. We may disagree with their polices, with how they want things done in the world, but we’d be doing it human-to-human, an ‘I’ to an ‘I’. We’re not doing that very well right now, because forgiveness is not part of the equation.

In the Catholic Church, one of the most painful and difficult conversations about forgiveness has centered on the clerical sexual abuse scandals. Just yesterday, Pope Francis met a group of victims of abuse in Chile. To forgive in a situation like that doesn’t mean to forget the injustice that’s been done, right?

That’s exactly right. In fact, I would not ‘encourage’ anyone to forgive until their hearts are ready. In other words, it seems to me we don’t want to force forgiveness on people, they need to be drawn to it. That means they may need time to think about it, to come to terms with the fact that they’re not excusing the wrong, they may not want to reconcile, they’re not going to throw justice under the bus, and that they’re not going to forget what happened so much as gain some distance from the pain.

If people see that, and they’re drawn to it, then I want to work with them. If they say I’m not ready yet, then we have to be very gentle with this idea of forgiveness. It’s very powerful, either to change in a positive way or to discourage, and we don’t want to use forgiveness as a weapon.

What about cultural differences when it comes to forgiveness?

I’m going to give you an answer that Aristotle over 2,000 years ago taught me. He said there’s a difference between the essence of a virtue, such as forgiveness, and its existence. I have found, and I travel all over the world because of the forgiveness work, that the essence of forgiveness does not change across culture. It’s a positive response to another human being, not because of what they’ve done to me, but in spite of it. I’m trying to be good to those who are not good to me – it’s the paradox of forgiveness, and it’s the heroic aspect of forgiveness.

The existence of forgiveness, however, how it plays out, can be radically different across culture. Here’s an example: It’s Sierra Leone, which is very near Liberia, where we do forgiveness education. There’s a ceremony called Fambol Tok, meaning ‘family talk.’ In this ancient ceremony, which has been revived recently, a whole community comes together around a bonfire at night. People talk with one another, as a community, about the difficulties and injustices they’ve faced. The one who is an offender will come forward, they talk it out together, and then communally, as a public display, they give and receive forgiveness. Then they have a little ceremony of holding hands together.

That’s radically different, for instance, from the Catholic confessional, which is very private and anonymous for the person who goes. There’s Yom Kippur, which is also different from the Catholic confessional, and so on.

If you look at Fambol Tok versus two people sitting down over coffee in America, and just getting rid of their differences through dialogue, the existence of forgiveness is radically different, but the essence is a healed heart through being good to people who have not been good to you.