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James Martin, S.J.January 15, 2013


I have some very complicated feelings about Lance Armstrong's upcoming confession and, I presume, apology on Oprah Winfrey's show.

As a Jesuit, a priest, a Catholic and a Christian, I believe that everyone deserves the opportunity for forgiveness.  Our faith is founded on a forgiving love.  It’s surely the hardest part of being a Christian, but perhaps the most essential.  Jesus himself forgave his executioners from the Cross.  Later, after the Resurrection, Jesus forgave Peter, after Peter denied him three times before the Crucifixion.  And Jesus asked his followers to forgive one another “seventy times seven” times.  Finally, one of his most famous parables is the Prodigal Son, who is forgiven by his father even before asking for pardon.

So it’s pretty clear what the Christian is supposed to do: hard as it may seem, forgive.

Lance Armstrong warrants forgiveness as much as any sinner does—myself included.  And I salute him for finally coming clean about his moral failings and his crimes, if that is what he indeed does on Ms. Winfrey’s upcoming show.

On the other hand, the extremely well-documented stories about his actions, which apparently included suborning other teammates into doping, were shocking. I’m well beyond the age where I expect my heroes to be squeaky clean (and after the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church I’m even more jaded about such things). But the malign  and continuing pressure that Mr. Armstrong exerted on his teammates still seemed shocking. He has done damage to the sport, as well as to sport in general. 

On the third hand, his upcoming announcement that he will testify against officials who turned a blind eye to doping seems too quick, almost opportunistic, for my taste. At least he is cooperating with law enforcement officials at this point, but it seems (and this is an entirely subjective) an odd thing to announce as soon as you have confessed. It’s as if you’re still in the confessional and start telling the priest about other people’s sins.

Like I said, I have very complicated feelings.

One useful way of understanding all of this may be the Catholic Church’s Rite of Reconciliation, i.e., aka the Sacrament of Confession. Traditionally, three things are required for a good confession. 

First, you need to confess your sins fully. The temptation here (and I’m speaking both as a confessor and a confesee) is to tell only what is expedient, convenient or less painful. Imagine Peter saying, “That third time I denied you, Jesus? Well, I didn't mean that one as much.” Second, you must have true contrition. That means you’re actually sorry for having done what you did. Notice that’s doesn’t mean, “If anyone is offended, I’m sorry,” but rather, “I’m sorry.” Finally, you must demonstrate (and have) a “firm purpose of amendment.” That means a real desire not to sin in that way again. Only then does the person receive absolution from the priest, who speaks on behalf of the church and in God’s name. 

Absolution, though, also is predicated on something else: penance. This is something that is often overlooked in modern culture—even in the church, where while some church leaders in the abuse crisis confessed their failings, they never seemed to perform any public penance. (And I don’t count penances undertaken by an entire diocese, which seem not only vague but asking for “penance” from the wrong people.) 

The Rite of Reconciliation is meant not only to communicate God’s forgiveness, but also, as the name suggests, reconcile the person to God and the community. To that end, an act of penance usually helps the person take concrete steps towards reconciliation—it’s a physical or spiritual gesture that helps to make amends. Penance isn’t something done for its own sake, but from a desire to return the person, and the community, to wholeness. After all, the sacrament is not about how bad the person is, but about how good God is. 

Often (but not always) that act of penance includes something that another person, or other people, can see. That is, it’s often done for someone, or some group. For example, returning a stolen object and apologizing to the owner. Doing an act of charity for a person you’ve harmed. Doing some form of public service for a group you've wronged. For reconciliation with God demands reconciliation with the community.

So maybe if Mr. Armstrong confesses his sins, is truly contrite, and has a firm purpose of amendment, and then does penance, forgiveness will come his way.

But that doesn't mean he should be considered a moral leader, much less a role model. Nor does it mean that he needs to be welcomed back as a noble or even admirable sports hero, as if nothing had happened. To take an easier model, you might forgive a person for stealing money from your company, but you’re not going to make him the treasurer. 

On the other hand (how many hands is that now?) Jesus did just that for Peter: he takes the man who denies him and makes him head of his church. Part of this was meant, I would suspect, to serve as a visible sign for the community, demonstrating how deeply he forgave the man; and part of it was, I would suspect, a manifestation of Jesus’s desire to choose someone who understood his own weakness. 

Where does that leave us with Lance Armstrong?  No one knows what is going on in his soul--not even Oprah.  I’m inclined to say that, as a Christian, we should forgive.  But forget?  All I can say that if a young person asks me for an example of how to “live strong,” I’ll look elsewhere.

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Carlos Leon
11 years 1 month ago
I personally don't see why "I" or anyone not in direct contact with Lance Armstrong has to forgive him. Being a Catholic I believe he hurt God, family, friends and maybe some unknown others . His apologies need to be directed at them not us who read about him . By physical standards, his accomplishments are still great, by moral standards not so great and by spiritual standards he needs God's help . It is just another attack by we who have planks in our eyes and cast the first stones . I pray he embraces God's goodness and becomes the person that God wants him to be and only Lance can discover that, not us. God will forgive you Lance because he loves you, it is a good place to start.
John Coppola
11 years 1 month ago
we all need God's help Carlos. We forgive because I am sure you pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as WE FORGIVE those who tresspass against us." Right? It is our responsibility to forgive. Lance Armstrong cannot "hurt God". No one can "hurt" God.
Jim McCrea
11 years 1 month ago
No. He is a liar and a scam artist. He does not appear to have fully admitted his errors and fully apologized. And has he expressed a firm amendment of sinning no more?
John Coppola
11 years 1 month ago
I don't understand the purpose of this long monologue on whether we should forgive Lance Armstrong? First of all what did Lance Armstrong do that needs any type of forgiveness? He took performance enhancing drugs or other substances to do better at one of most grueling sports competitions in the world the Tour De France. He managed to win the race a record number of times. He was never detected by sophisticated testing methods to have taken the enhancing substances. He lied that he ever took them. He cheated at a sport. He was a sports hero. Anyone who knows sports well knows also that taking anything to enhance performances cannot in the end be a major deciding factor of whether you actually win anything. You still have to be in top condition, extremely talented and skilled. Did these substances really enable him to win the races, probably not. There were a whole host of other things related to his racing that the substances would have had no bearing on whatever, like strategy, bike choice, maneuvering amongst the riders, knowing the terrain, watching pace etc.. Maybe they helped him get a better time on a few legs of the race, get up a hill faster.The real reason those two home run hitters both beat Babe Ruth's record in one year, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa was not because either of them or both were taking steriods. It was mostly because the pitchers were giving them fast balls evenly paced right down the middle of the plate all year! It was a show. Why hasn't anyone been able to come close to those stats since then? Now onto the forgiveness question. With all due respect Mr. Martin you either forgive, or you don't. A Christian of any stripe who does not put a moral imperative on forgiveness in all cases is not a Christian. Did Mr. Armstrong confess his "sin" to society. Absolutely. Was it difficult for him to do so and has he "repented". Absolutely. How do I know? Because he has basically tossed away his sports legacy, his reputation and has become a target of condemnation and scorn the world over. If that is not a repentance I don't know what is! We regular folk cannot even imagine the level of stress and self disappointment he is going through. Jesus did not go off on a lengthy conversation when forgiving all kinds of people, he simply forgave even when people did not confess, the adulterous woman, the paralytic man are examples. Where's the grey area here? Forgiveness is ultimately a matter of letting our own anger, frustration and disappointment go. Letting it dissipate like a cloud slowly breaks up in the sky. If we don't follow Jesus' example, who do we follow? "Who here is without sin...cast the first stone."
Tom Schneck
11 years 1 month ago
Of course we forgive him just as we hope for forgiveness for our transgressions. It is our calling. What Lance admitted to Oprah was that performing enhancing drug use was like pumping up the tires, checking the water bottles, etc, not a big deal at the time. That was the cycling culture at one time, but not later. Unfortunately, he also intimidated others and lied over a time, but Lance was a brilliant rider who took risks, led his teammates in unique ways, shared victories with others, helped many public causes and inspired cancer patients and people everywhere to aspire to fitness. That is part of his goodness and should not be forgotten, even though we see that Lance, like the Wizard of Oz, is a man who is not at all as mythical as he seemed at one time.
Bruce Snowden
11 years 1 month ago
Yes,that's the Christian thing to do.I think it was in the 50s when a big cheating scandal by Cadetsl happened at West Point and they were expelled and barred from every secular U.S. college, at which point Cardinal Spellman Archbishop of New York opened all Catholic Colleges to the expelled Cadets saying, "To err is human, to forgive is Divine!" Would Christ act differently?

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