Catholic Guilt is Not a Thing

In 1905, G.K. Chesterton published a letter to the editor in the Daily Times, the London newspaper founded by the famed littérateur Charles Dickens. In this editorial, Chesterton criticized political theorists who said that the problem of human unhappiness could be solved by implementing the right political or economic reforms.  Chesterton believed these socio-economic theories were too structural  and collective, failing to take account for the fundamental broken nature of humanity and personal sin. The reflection occasioned one of Chesterton’s most quotable quips:

The answer to the question, “What is Wrong?” is, or should be, “I am wrong.” Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby. (Daily News, August 16, 1905)

The debate between Chesterton and the political theorists reflects a tension that has existed through the duration of human society, namely between individual and collective responsibility. On the one hand, society can only be as good and wholesome as the people who comprise it; if individuals fail to grapple with their own demons, those same demons will haunt the halls of our social institutions, frustrating even our best attempts at social betterment. On the other hand, individual virtue is not always sufficient to overcome the hurdles of systemic injustice; even the best athletes fail in a game where the rules are unfairly stacked against them. Just society requires a balance of personal virtue with just institutions in order for the individual and collective responsibility to coalesce into the common good.

Catholicism has always captured this balance very well, with its dual emphasis on the necessity for personal virtue as well as social consciousness. The dual commitment can be traced back to the Two Greatest Commandments of Christ, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:36-40). From the command to love God above all flows the Christian pursuit of personal holiness, while from the command to love our neighbor entails our obligations to society.

Modernity increasingly upends this harmonious balance by heaving ever more stress on the collective side of the spectrum, believing—like Chesterton’s political theorists—that happiness can be achieved with economic and political reforms. This increasing emphasis on a “structural” approach to social ills is grounded in the presupposition of materialism: the assumption that matter is all that exists, and all every other aspect of life is construct emerging out of material conditions (culture, religion, patriotism, etc.). It is a worldview that seeped in from Marxism and underlies the thought of the global elite. For globalists, happiness consists in increased access to $10 sneakers and processed foods.

In the face of this, the Church’s insistence on personal holiness looks antiquated and anachronistic. We see this derision in the mockery of so-called “Catholic guilt,” a trope wherein Catholics are said to be guilt-obsessed to the point of neurosis, wringing our hands about incidental personal flaws, exaggerating personal culpability, and loving suffering to the point of masochism. This is all exemplified in the modern derision of the Sacrament of Confession, where we allegedly yield control of our consciences up to spiritual tyrants who use their authority to keep us in subjection.

Like many stereotypes, this one gets the facts correct but misses the point entirely. Yes, Catholics do scrutinize the interior movements of the heart. Yes, we do give considerable thought to personal culpability. And yes, we do train ourselves to embrace suffering. But are these things signs of a guilt-ridden and neurotic psychosis? To be sure some are, but any educated Catholic should also realize that this is not the vision the Church proposes for us. Catholicism encourages us to approach questions of guilt and personal responsibility with balance. It is not “guilt-ridden” to make a thorough examination of one’s motivations and urges. It is not neurotic to understand that even objectively good actions can become corrupting when done from impure motives. It is not masochistic to come to the mature realization that suffering can play a redemptive role in our lives through acceptance of the things we cannot change. And it is certainly not an act of dehumanizing self-abasement to confess one’s wrong in the presence of Christ’s ministers to receive the absolution promise by the Son of God.

“Catholic guilt” really isn’t a thing; or I should say, it’s only a thing to people who have become disconnected from any sense of private guilt. For such people, sins are only bad to the degree that they pose a quantifiable harm to society. But the sin that is private, committed in thought and known to none but God and the sinner, well, such a fault is brushed aside as trivial at best—or an example of neurosis at worst. Issues relating to discrimination, the economy, or the environment are treated with the utmost gravity; pride, envy, and lust are dismissed as unimportant—or even lauded! The person who devotes time and resources to fighting climate change is a hero; the person who devotes time and resources to fighting their own pride is self-absorbed and guilt-ridden. A man who abases himself before the public and confesses his social sins in a Tweet is taking responsibility; a man who abases himself before the Lord’s priests and confesses his personal sins in private is neurotic.

For moderns, a structural approach to human misery is the only valid remedy. Other approaches that focus on personal culpability for individual moral failings (like sacramental confession) are ridiculed as ineffective and psychologically unbalanced. The modern view thus represents the negation of the classical idea of culpa, one’s individual, personal responsibility for faults committed. People who commit evil only do so because they, too, are victims of greater societal ills.

It goes without saying that this view is antithetical to Catholicism. Catholics do not have a problem with guilt; rather, the world has a fundamentally upended the careful balance between personal virtue and community responsibility. If we look unbalanced to the world, it is only because the world has fallen off the teeter-totter.

Photo by Amy Moore on Unsplash

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Phillip Campbell is a history teacher for Homeschool Connections and the author of many books on Catholic history, most notably the Story of Civilization series from TAN Books. You can learn more about his books and classes on his website. Phillip resides in southern Michigan.

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