Winter 1984, Vol. 36, No. 4, pp. 355-364.

Clare Wagner:
      Current Trends: Reconciliation: Can We Live without It?

Sister Wagner, O.P., with a background in teaching and preaching ministries, is currently serving in the Office of Catholic Education in the archdiocese of Chicago.

ONCE upon an ancient time, a disaster separated God and humankind. Literally disaster means a tearing apart from heavenly bodies; a separation of earth and heaven, humankind and God. Since that time, our God has been saying through the religious experiences of prophets, peasants, and holy people of all centuries, "Come back to me. Let us be reconciled. We belong together." Even when God concretized this desire in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, the response of the human race was and is partial. Because the process of reconciliation with God and among God's people is as old as the human race and the reunion will be complete only in the Kingdom, no one is surprised to notice a continual need for it in each individual and among peoples. Right now, however, the need for reconciliation in our world seems to have reached crisis proportion in some sense.

In the media, the word reconciliation is heard on the lips of diplomats and politicians, and the nuclear bomb is being named the darkest symbol of non- reconciliation. Both in the Peace Pastoral and in the 1983 Bishops' Synod, reconciliation was linked with global concerns. No one asks the public figures what they mean by reconciliation when they speak of it in the context of international relations, but could this new attention hint that it is a reality whose time has come -- perhaps out of our desperation? Is there a new awareness of some crucial need to open up our understanding of this human, spiritual reality as a means of healing our deeply wounded world?

Some members of the Catholic church are concerned about the state of the sacrament of reconciliation. Polls indicate that 37 percent of the Catholic population no longer participates in the sacrament and that 45 percent fewer are going to reconciliation now than were going five years ago.(1) This crucial question has a right to be asked: If there is no awareness of the God of forgiveness and no real sense of sin, then why should attention be given to reconciliation? These questions deserve at least as much focus: If there is a spirit of reconciliation alive in the world, where is it? Are there ten reconciling people, that the globe might be spared? And if there is a major obstacle to the growth of a spirit of reconciliation among members and groups of the human community, what is its name and how can it be dealt with?

This article will examine three incidents which reveal a conscious effort to achieve reconciliation. It will also look at an attempt to identify and describe some specifics about evil in the human personality and to note its effects in the human community.

Reconciliation means the bringing together of that which belongs together but which is apart.(2) The phrase "that which belongs together" implies the vision of harmony, peace, and oneness in the entire universe as it is described in Isaiah and throughout Scripture. To call the Kingdom-vision to mind accentuates our distance from it and our critical need for reconciliation. Paul speaks in Ephesians of Jesus as the peace between the previously alienated Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2) and the building of all these groups into a temple which is holy. "That which belongs together" has to include the United States and Russia, the black and white powers in Africa, the ordained and nonordained in the church, family members who hurt one another, homosexual and heterosexual people. A first step toward the renewal of a spirit of reconciliation in our time is awareness of the need for it. Such awareness is cause for hope.

Though global consciousness is essential when searching for the presence or absence of any spiritual reality, there is danger of noticing only hostility and divisions when we look at the whole human community. Individual faith journeys can be overlooked or seem insignificant, when, in fact, history is influenced by great risks taken out of spiritual motives for the sake of integrity even by one humble person. Hearts change one at a time; mass conversion, or spiritual awakening, is not really possible at all. The most effective prevention of group evil is individuals' awareness and fidelity to conscience. A Mylai massacre is possible only when individuals act who are numbed or have temporarily, at least, lost conscience and awareness of the effects of their actions.


This first incident to be examined honors the sacredness of the individual. It represents the innumerable instances of unnamed and unrecognized reconciliation rituals that happen with increasing frequency. Perhaps a renewed understanding of reconciliation in our world and church ought to include the sense that everyone is responsible for reconciliation. It ought to include the notion that, in a very real way, a grandmother can be a minister of reconciliation.

Reconciliation involves three major steps. The first step is becoming aware that there is pain or hurt or sin or separation that needs to be acknowledged and felt and worked with. The second is seeking, or offering, forgiveness, as the need may be. Love gives impetus to this step. Finally, there is the coming together -- the reconciliation.(3) The unusual thing about the true incident which follows is that all three steps in this process were experienced in one encounter. The quality and closeness of the relationship between the young girl and her grandmother and the faith of the grandmother were important factors. The young woman is exactly right in identifying her pregnancy as a hurt, as something which could separate the two women or seriously threaten their relationship. A few lines from their conversation will reveal an honest and loving encounter and, I suggest, an unplanned yet authentic reconciliation ritual.

"Grandma, I have something to tell you which is going to hurt you very much. I am going to have a baby and I'm getting married," the girl announced in her simple, very direct manner. Her surprised grandmother wept briefly, was silent for a moment, and then called her by name and said, "You are right; you have hurt me; you have broken by heart." Having acknowledge her pain, later in the evening the grandmother moved to another topic: "Have you been to see a priest and get yourself straightened out?" They dialogued awhile, the grandmother predominantly in the role of compassionate listener. Near the close of this conversation, the girl said, "When I go to see the priest, I will tell him most about hurting people -- you, mom and dad, others too -- and about causing pain and not being responsible; those are the more serious things I have done." After a pause, Grandma responded, "Just so you do what you think is right." Then came a series of "concern" questions about health and family and plans and needs. After assurances that all was well, the two embraced and the young woman prepared to leave. As they reached the door, her grandmother took the girl's face between her hands, kissed it, and said, "I want you to know now that I am with you, and if I can do anything at all to help you, you just let me know." The young woman then left.

The most striking thing about this story, and perhaps the most important in relation to reconciliation, is that it lacks pretense. The girl had the capacity to take responsibility to tell her grandmother about the matter and to acknowledge in her first words the hurt she knew she was causing. She was direct and honest about her weaknesses as she perceived them; and she clearly wanted to do what was possible to acknowledge what could separate her from her grandmother and ask, verbally and nonverbally, for reunion immediately. The grandmother allowed herself tears, hurt, and even articulated her brokenhearted ness. Later she gently confronted the girl about "going to a priest," which was a concern of hers. There was no playing down or concealing feelings, thoughts, or concerns. Yet there was absolutely no condemning, coercing, or controlling. Both embraced at the end, and the added gesture of holding the girl's face, kissing her, speaking reassurance and support touched the realm of unconditional love. They would not ever think to acknowledge their exchange as ministry, yet these are the kinds of persons and events upon which a new spirit of reconciliation can be built. They acted out in this incident the capacity of the Christian community to take responsibility for forgiving and healing one another as Christians did in the very early days, except that this was in a new context and with some new understandings.

The next incident is a no less personal exchange but more complex because it involves a group and because it reflects only the first stage of the process of reconciliation -- the naming of the hurt. This incident as evidence of a stage of reconciliation is hopeful. It is based on a vision of a community of equals and on a belief that in some future time the struggle cited here will lead to renewed life. The context was a day on "women's issues" to which people from a given area were invited. In a discussion group on women and the church, people began to name feelings which they were experiencing then toward the church. A young mother with a three-year-old on her lap said she could not bring her daughter to eucharistic liturgy because she did not want her to grow up witnessing inequality; this made her frustrated. A young priest said his new awarenesses about women in ministry was creating a distance between himself and others in his ordination class; this made him sad. A middle-aged man was disturbed by a liturgy in which the sanctuary was filled with males; it made him fearful for the future. These comments, and many more by women expressing distress more often than anger, were articulated with pain and hope. Underlying the feelings and shared experience there and in similar discussions is a crisis of inequality. It is valuable to recognize this kind of expression as a first stage of reconciliation and to acknowledge an openness for dialogue. The continuation of this process is dependent on the talking together of women and men, of ordained and nonordained people, with the intention of struggling, understanding, deliberating together. They need to study together, pray together, and be honest. Only in that way will the possibility of the next stage of reconciliation be possible. And anything is possible with God!

A third story brings into focus a volatile situation -- United States relations with Nicaragua. The Witness for Peace group has the intention of undermining, as it were, the forces of alienation inflicted by structure, government, and greed. The phenomenon of the Witness for Peace group exemplifies a contemporary struggle for reconciliation. This group is highly organized. It has seven regional offices in the United States. It does research, provides consciousness-raising materials on Nicaragua, and facilitates sending literally hundreds of people to and from Nicaragua. None of those functions is the reason why the group is included here. Rather they are included because many little -- meaning "powerless"people like ourselves and of all ages and varied experience are choosing to go on what they see as a mission of reconciliation. They say with their bodily presence on the border between Nicaragua and Honduras and other places in the country that they believe in peace and in nonviolence. They risk their very lives sometimes to say, by being there, that Americans love and care about the Nicaraguan people.

Great stories of human interaction are told when they come home. One time they were praying with a group of native people and a native woman whose son had been killed by the contras called out in a loud voice, "I forgive you," and began to embrace the Americans. In a way, she named the mission of the group -- to receive the forgiveness of a persecuted people, to own the sin of our nation, and to give an embrace of peace in a war-torn country. "The community's role extends beyond its own borders, since the message of reconciliation must be mediated to the world."(4)

The existence of this group and their activity reflects the complexity of the reconciliation process when it is taken beyond the confines of personal or small-group interaction. Hurt, pain, sin, and separation are perceived so differently by various groups that healing appears almost impossible. The involvement by the United States military in Nicaragua is seen by the Witness for Peace group and others as injurious or sinful, but by other groups within this nation as helpful and peacemaking. The reform being effected by the Sandanista government is lauded by many missionaries and condemned by some Nicaraguan bishops. The majority of those in complete disagreement on this issue claim the same God, even the same gospel values and the same love for humankind. Furthermore, a growing alienation among various groups with differing perceptions on Central America (or any major issue) creates new matter for reconciliation. The current crisis in regard to reconciliation mentioned in the opening paragraph is highlighted in the situation respecting this tiny, struggling country.


Any movement toward a greater understanding of human evil is positive and a significant help in identifying what must be faced in individuals and groups if a spirit of reconciliation is to prevail in our world. M. Scott Peck's book People of the Lie is a current and valuable contribution to the study of human evil. It is an effort to identify and describe some specifics about that evil. The author is cautious about his subject and in awe of the mysterious nature of evil. His methodology is to use case studies, available research, extensive reflection, and, certainly, considerable prayer in order to carefully draw some conclusions about evil as it resides in certain human personalities. His intent is expressed in the subtitle of the book, "The Hope for Healing Human Evil." This section will rely on key ideas in his book in order to present at least an introductory picture of what it is that we must resist.

Human evil is a psychological malady, but any psychology of evil must be a religious psychology; it must not be "purely secular but a science in submission to love and the sacredness of life."(5) Christians are prone to identify sin and human evil as one. Although a relationship between them is obvious, it would be dangerous and incorrect to simply identify them. We are all sinners, but we do not all have evil personalities. We all miss the mark, are imperfect, do evil deeds now and then, need to grow and to ask forgiveness. Those are the very things that an evil personality would vehemently deny.

Although Peck makes a judgment about given personalities as evil and offers a description of such a personality, he does not determine the level of responsibility of the person. Any judgment at all is made only for the purpose of healing, never to condemn (how like Jesus and the very early Christian communities with sinners!). It does, however, become clear in the description of the evil personality that some level of responsibility for the condition belongs to the person.

According to Peck, the central defect of the evil personality is a complete refusal to acknowledge any sin in the self; there is no toleration of a sense of one's own sinfulness. How very different this is from the young pregnant woman mentioned above, or from the members of Witnesses for Peace, or from the people struggling with the crisis of inequality in the church. The evil personality flees consistently from any self-exposure and the voice of conscience; thus such a person would rarely be found in spiritual direction or therapy or any in-depth relationship that might threaten this person's perception of self as perfect. There is complete dedication to preserving one's self-image of perfection and the appearance of moral purity and goodness. In fact, such people are to be pitied because of the terrible fear they live in that their image will be damaged, though their fear is not always conscious. They do, in fact, live a lie. Great self-absorption is necessary to protect and preserve the image. "If the evil personality had no sense of right or wrong, self-deceit would be unnecessary; there is no need to hide something"(6) and that hiding is done at any cost.

An activity characteristic of evil personalities is scapegoating, which is done through projection. Those who perceive themselves above reproach, logically lash out at anyone who reproaches them. If persons regard themselves as faultless, then, when some conflict occurs with family or world, the fault must be with family or world. The "other" must be named bad in order to preserve the "goodness" of the evil personality.

Spiritual growth, transformation, and, certainly, reconciliation have no place in the evil personality. To invest energy in growing spiritually, even to have that desire, one must acknowledge a need to grow, and this is entirely incompatible with the self-understanding of the evil personality. Human evil is defined by Peck as the "exercise of political power -- the imposition of one's will upon others by overt or covert coercion -- in order to avoid spiritual growth or to preserve the integrity of one's sick self."(7)

Narcissism is another characteristic of the evil personality. Narcissism, excessive self-absorption, is often annoying; but some of it is expected at given periods of psychological and even spiritual growth. It is, however, as Peck says, a condition out of which human beings normally grow. Erich Fromm names the kind of narcissism found in the evil personality, group, or nation "malignant" narcissism. It is characterized by an unsubmitted will. Healthy adults submit themselves in one way or another to something higher than themselves, either God or truth or love or some other ideal, but there is no submission on the part of evil personalities. They claim invariably that they are right. They have extraordinary and remarkable power in the way they control others, or try to.(8)

No wonder Jesus was unusually hard on the Pharisees. It was a striking act of love for the individuals and for society that moved Jesus to confront them, to use the strongest words available in an effort to break through their powerfully defended image of perfection. And, as we know, he was not remarkably successful.

Serious human evil, as Peck defines it, is part of the history we have made and are making. It is blatantly recognizable in group behavior, yet individuals make up and control those groups. We remember the Crusades, the treatment of American Indians, the Inquisition, Mylai, and countless other collective events. Peck's hope is that in-depth study of serious human evil will enable the healing professions to recognize it, judge it for the purpose of healing, and develop ways to cure evil personalities. These insights can be of great assistance to all concerned about directing their energies, with the help of God's Spirit, to the spiritual healing of the human community.


Human evil, according to Peck's explorations of it, is noticed most easily in institutional or group behavior. What ethics are operative in choices made to kill or not to kill? How much malignant narcissism is involved? Crusades, Inquisition, torture, war have nothing to do with Christ; neither does arrogance or revenge.(9) While churches condemn the nuclear arms race and consumerism, those who support both to the highest degree are not only welcomed and accepted but looked to for contributions toward, and support of, Christian institutions. When have we heard large religious or national institutions say: "We have been wrong. We are struggling and not sure. We have made a mistake; therefore we change our policy and repent of our pride and our mercenary behavior"?

Can we -- individually and collectively -- look forward to a time when we can be comfortable with our imperfection? Can we be strong enough to admit our sinfulness and brokenness? Is it possible that we can grow out of, let go of, a need to be on top, victorious, most powerful, flawless? Only then will we not need a scapegoat. The individual, family, church, nation, and globe are threatened by evil. Competition, division, and hostility mark relationships at all levels. Reconciliation, at least awareness of its necessity and movement toward it, is a survival need.

Yet, there are ten reconciling people -- and many more -- in the human community, enough that the globe could be saved. We can point to the young woman, the grandmother, the people struggling for equality in the church, the women and men risking a great deal to take a peace message to Nicaragua. Parishes and small communities must develop ways to foster among peoples a spirituality that enables them to recognize evil and to know that each person is in a process of continual conversion, or spiritual awakening, throughout life. A recognition of our common humanity, our dependence on God and one another, our own potential for good comes through attention to spiritual growth. Preaching and teaching about transformation, prayer, loving one's enemy, the fullness of the baptismal call to discipleship, mission and ministry as the privilege and responsibility of every mature Christian have not been given their proper place. In fact, as Mary Collins states in an article on reconciliation, "pastoral programs aimed to counter the cultural myth of innocence and the projection of evil outward will have a disorienting effect on Christian peoples who have learned to protect themselves against pain and powerlessness."(10) Such disorientation is essential. It could begin, however, by churches' coming to see their primary reason for existing as the spiritual development of their membership. Through this emphasis, awareness, such as moved the Nicaraguan woman to heroic forgiveness and the young pregnant woman to consciousness of her irresponsibility, can grow in the human community. And all the separations within and among us can begin to be healed, and that which is apart but belongs together can begin to come together.

  1. Thomas Sweetser, "What Ever Happened to Confession?" New Catholic World 227 (January-February 1984): 31.
  2. Davis Donnelly, "The Human Side of Forgiveness," ibid., p. 29.
  3. Ibid., p. 29.
  4. Kate Dooley, "Reconciliation in the Early Church," ibid., p. 27.
  5. M. Scott Peck, M.D., The People of the Lie (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), p. 47.
  6. Ibid., p. 75.
  7. Ibid., p. 74.
  8. Ibid., p. 78.
  9. Ibid., p. 11.
  10. Mary Collins, "Culture and Forgiveness," New Catholic World 227 (January-February 1984): 15.