Pardon Me

In a secular age, who offers absolution?


Illustration by Ken Niimura

Like many intoxicants, the potency of forgiveness varies by its dosage. In its mildest form, it’s a social lubricant, since smoothing over petty grudges helps us get along with each other. But in stronger concentrations—when forgiveness is undeserved but offered anyway—it can be a profoundly radical act.

In therapeutic quarters, the noblest thing you can do is forgive yourself. If you can’t—or if you don’t deserve it—traditionally, that’s where God steps in. But who’s offering absolution in a secular age? Ann Bauer’s warmly satirical novel Forgiveness 4 You offers an answer from a neoliberal dystopia: the marketplace.

The novel’s narrator is Gabriel McKenna, a horny tattooed former priest with—surprise!—a secret past. If a Catholic can be a mensch, Gabe is one. He’s the kind of guy whom strangers trust. And many of them do more than trust him: They are prone to confessing their worst sins to him at the most inopportune times. A tailor confesses to Gabe that he lingered too long over his wife’s dying body to donate her organs; a man who carelessly killed a fellow teenager years ago with his car needs absolution in order to allow himself to drive again. There’s something mystical about Gabe’s magnetism—he’s “marked”—but he takes it in stride and offers those who open up to him calm, compassionate wisdom. And he offers them forgiveness.

Gabe lives on the South Side of Chicago, and earns pennies at a bookstore where the owner pushes literature but the top seller is a series of “ladies’ sex thrillers.” One snowy afternoon a fortysomething advertising executive named Madeline Murray wanders into the shop. Gabe is instantly attracted to her, and invites her to sit down, have a cup of tea, and share her story at length. (Speaking of ladies’ sex thrillers … ) “What bothers you the most?” Gabe asks her, doing his thing. Finally, he gives her what she really needs: “I forgive you. And God already forgave you, long ago.”

Madeline finds her conversation with Gabe transformative, and her businesswoman’s mind wonders if other guilty people would pay for such clear, simple relief. She quickly dreams up Forgiveness 4 You, “a faster, more service-oriented route to achieve spiritual peace than traditional religion or psychotherapy.” Gabe will meet with clients privately, hear their confessions, and offer nonreligious absolutions that nonetheless come with an ex-priest’s moral imprimatur. The initial fee Madeline has in mind for this cross between church and therapy is $2,000 to $5,000 per sin. “Why not take what this guy has,” she emails her PR-whiz friend, “and monetize it?”

In real life, of course, only monsters use the word monetize. But Madeline is not a monster. Bauer could have gone for sour and easy laughs at the expense of the ambitious single ad executive who wants to wring cash out of one of the last remaining untainted intimacies. Instead, Bauer treats Madeline with compassion. She is a complex, smart woman capable of great empathy herself. In the rom-com version of Forgiveness 4 You that could very well someday exist, I hope Madeline isn’t forced to repent too completely of her careerism.

Ann Bauer.

Photo by Sara Rubintsein, Rubinstein Photo

Which isn’t to say Forgiveness 4 You is free of all rom-commery. There are mix-ups and coincidences, affairs and backstabbing. Gabe refuses to forgive his first client, throwing the whole enterprise into question. And while the business hurtles forward toward launch, his relationship with Madeline becomes more complicated. The poor priest and the sharp-elbowed adwoman make an unlikely couple, to say the least, but ultimately the book is more interested in affairs of the soul than of the heart.

Many characters in the book share a question in common: Is it possible to be Catholic without being so, well, religious? A ditzy young strategist, for example, hopes for “some liberal pope who’s going to sanction birth control and gay marriage.” Throughout the novel, there’s a longing for the beauty and even the structure of the Catholic Church but without the stuff that often justifiably offends modern progressive sensibilities. In my experience that’s a struggle experienced by many people raised in religious traditions that they can’t in good conscience fully embrace as adults. For some people it’s easy to say “What nonsense!” and move on into shining secular freedom. But for others—maybe we’re just weaker!—it’s more complicated. Where, outside the church (or synagogue or mosque), do people get to sit down and regularly contemplate the deepest questions of existence with a group of not-quite-strangers but not-quite-peers? We can’t take undergraduate philosophy classes forever. And philosophy classes don’t have music—not to mention forgiveness, love, and coffee hour.

Midway through Forgiveness 4 You, a figure appears offstage and changes everything: a new pope, “one of the good guys,” Gabe calls him. (Gabe and Madeline are making out in a conference room as the white smoke begins to puff, which everyone at the office is paying attention to because “no one does branding like the Catholic Church.”) Pope Vincent embraces disabled children and changes the Catholic Church “forever” by saying, “Who am I to judge?” in response to a question about gay clergy. In the real world, the pope’s use of that line was a momentary encouragement to progressives but not much more. In the novel, the church magically becomes both cool and morally acceptable, tidily excusing Gabe’s re-engagement with it and worrying Madeline and her team that old-fashioned confession—their competition—will come roaring back.

In religious settings, forgiveness has tougher partners, including sin and repentance. That language doesn’t translate well to marketing strategies, so Forgiveness 4 You can’t engage as deeply with Catholic theology as some might hope. In Madeline’s world, “sin” is only a problem if it makes you feel bad. But the comfort that Gabe’s confessors feel is real. In a world without God, maybe relief is as close as we can get to redemption.

Forgiveness 4 You by Ann Bauer. Overlook Books.

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