Guilt is as inescapable as death and taxes. If you have a conscience, you’ve got guilt. The feeling of guilt or remorse is exclusive to humans. No other animal has this. Dogs may look guilty, but that’s just dread when they’ve done something they know will upset you. If you had never found the garbage strewn about or the mess in the corner, that dog would have no trouble sleeping at night.
Unfortunately, guilt has been given a bad rap. When the “Sixties” infused anti-establishment, guilt-free living into society, life became all about self-indulgence minus the after-thought. The proscribed behavior was not to stop guilt-inducing activities but instead to reject religious standards.
The problem with mocking the rules and then belittling the guilt is that it turns truth on its head. Here is an example. Sidney leaves home for college and begins skipping Sunday Mass. He feels guilty. So should he relieve himself of guilt and return to Sunday Mass attendance or convince himself that the guilt is the real problem and not the fact that he did not worship or receive God on the Sabbath? Guilt should be the motivator to make correct choices instead of continuing to make bad choices and then to relieve oneself of guilt by attacking the standard for good.
While many foolishly worked to erase our instinctive moral guide, the term “Catholic guilt” became code to mock the workings of a healthy conscience. The words “Catholic” and “guilt” were linked to reflect an attitude that Catholic teaching and spirituality was psychologically unhealthy. Even Wikipedia has an entry for it:
Catholic guilt is the feeling of remorse, self-doubt, or personal responsibility that results when a Catholic or lapsed Catholic engages in sinful acts. Habitual obsessive guilt over trivial or imagined sins is the error of scrupulosity.
The thinking is often that Catholic guilt is bad and people should liberate themselves from outdated morals. God, Church teaching, the Ten Commandments, going to Confession, listening to the Pope…these all became symbols of the Church’s way of controlling people and making them feel guilty.
Why is it that Catholics are associated with guilt? The answer seems obvious — our Church has rules that don’t change (in regards to tradition and teachings, not customs.) People who don’t want to follow rules (God’s loving guidelines for a holy life) attack the rule maker.
But do Catholics really experience guilt more than non-Catholics? A recent survey published in June of last year says “no”. Or at least not among today’s teenagers according to the study based on data from the National Study of Youth and Religion. The survey included 3,290 teens. About 24 percent—819– were Catholic.
For instance, if they cheated at school or lied to their parents, the Catholic teens indicated that they are no more likely to feel guilty than their non-Catholic peers. It is worth noting, though, that the study also showed that going to confession relieved some of the burden for Catholics. Granted, this is a small study and it only looked at teens but should these results be considered good or bad? Should Catholics feel guiltier than the next guy when sinning?
I, for one, would have seen such a result as a good thing.
For the record, there is such a thing as bad guilt. Trying to manipulate someone using guilt or being over scrupulous by feeling guilty about everything is unproductive and unhealthy.
Another unhealthy way to feel guilty is to wallow in it. Some people cannot get beyond guilt. Such a situation reflects a lack of faith in God’s mercy and forgiveness. This is not what Jesus taught us in the Gospels. If you feel guilty about everything or you can’t stop feeling guilty, then it’s a situation of guilt gone awry and it is not serving its intended purpose. But aside from the misuse or over use of guilt, this feeling that nags at your conscience is a good thing. It is our moral compass.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church , 1776 "Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment . . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths."
Now that, my friend, is what Catholic guilt is really about—God’s loving call to us to return to him when we have strayed. Those that mockingly use the term “Catholic guilt” are missing the love.
Historical Rejection of Guilt
The Protestant Revolution arose, in part, from a rejection of feeling guilty. Martin Luther found no consolation in the confessional. Even after going to confession, he still felt guilty. Eventually, he rejected confession and Catholic teaching, coming up with the new doctrine that once we believe in Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, it’s a done deal. Jesus already died for our sins, so we don’t need to feel guilty about them anymore. His blood will cover us.
Catholics agree that the blood of Jesus saves us, but we still believe that we must make reparation for our sins. Revelation 21:27 states that nothing unclean will enter the kingdom of heaven, so we believe that purgatory purifies the soul before it can reach heaven. Catholics also believe that Jesus gave us the sacrament of confession to heal us from sin. Jesus forgave sins while on earth. After he rose from the dead and appeared to the apostle for the first time, he sent them out into the world in his place and told them that those whose sins they forgave were forgiven. “’Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” (John 20:21-23).
If believing in Jesus as our savior was the only prerequisite for heaven, then why was Jesus talking about sin again after the resurrection? Christ did come to free us from our sins, to lead the way to holiness. He invited us to come follow him, but acknowledged that we will stumble and fall so he gave us the gift of the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Catholics turn to confession not just to relieve themselves of guilt, but also to acknowledge failings, confess them and receive forgiveness and the graces to grow spiritually stronger. This tradition is rooted in the Gospels and early Christian history.
During the Fourth Lateran council in 1215 the sacrament of Reconciliation was reaffirmed—not invented as some anti-Catholics have falsely stated. Early Christian writers attest to the fact that this sacrament was the constant practice of Christians from the beginning as a way to draw nearer to God.
Putting Guilt to Use
As Matthew Kelly says in his book Rediscovering Catholicism , “People striving to excel in any area of life want to know their weaknesses so they can work to overcome them. This striving for excellence is precisely what needs to be re-ignited in Catholics today. Reconciliation is the perfect spiritual tool to re-ignite our passion for excellence in the spiritual life.
Fr. Michael Van Sloun, pastor of St. Stephen in Anoka, MN, wrote a 10-part series on Reconciliation for the Catholic Spirit Newspaper . In it, he states: “Guilt is not a curse, it is a blessing. Guilt means that a person knows the difference between right and wrong, and feels badly after doing something wrong. To not feel guilt after doing something wrong is “out of line,” to be a sociopath, someone who is so hardened to sin that an evil deed does not create inner turmoil. … Good Christians are highly offended by their own sins, and work vigorously to eliminate all wrongful actions in their lives.”
The goal of guilt is to get rid of it. Not by pretending it’s okay to sin, but to confess, repent and try to do better.
In addition to taking advantage of the sacrament of Reconciliation, Fr. Vansloun suggests: “One of the best ways to monitor sin is with a daily examination of conscience. Every evening sometime before bedtime, the person does an honest and humble review of the day to check for sins.
“The person first asks for the help of the Holy Spirit, and then conducts a careful review of the day, from morning to night, to go over one’s thoughts and deeds. Then the person tries, to the best of his or her ability, to name sin, ask God for mercy and pardon, and promise to do better tomorrow. Then the person goes to sleep.”
To be honest, I’m one of those people with a tendency to feel guilty. It’s easy for me to end the day and feel guilty about one thing or another. So, I have worked to adopt a healthy reaction to guilt, to use it as a corrector and motivator. I was even feeling a little guilty for not writing anything for Catholic Exchange of late. See? It worked.