Is Guilt Peculiarly Christian?

A student once said to me, with an air of confidence that was wholly unjustified, that we would have a far better world if there were no guilt.  He was assuming that guilt is some kind of artificial quirk that prevented people from being happy.  Well, to give the devil his due, he was, without realizing it, half right.

Guilt is the recognition of one’s complicity in wrongdoing.  Francis Braceland, M.D. and Michael Stock, M.D. remark in their study Modern Psychiatry: a Handbook for Believers that “guilt is an objective state, existing when the individual has broken a law or moral imperative.” Since the world has suffered from a great deal of wrongdoing, guilt is very real. 

Now, if there were not a single instance of wrongdoing (sin in the Christian vocabulary) there would be no basis for guilt.  This is highly unlikely to ever happen, despite moralists’ strong and stern warnings against all wrongdoing.  On the other hand, to commit wrongful acts—larceny, assault, adultery, blasphemy, murder—without feeling any sense of guilt, is pathological.  Our world would most assuredly not be better off if it were replete with pathological characters.

My student would have been on safer ground if he had said that the world would be far better if more people sought forgiveness for their sins.  In this instance he would have been acknowledging both the reality of guilt and how it can be expiated.  If Christians, throughout the ages have been accused of being scrupulous, it is simply because in their desire to be better human beings they are acutely aware of their sins.

History makes it abundantly clear that guilt is not, by any means, peculiarly Christian.  Guilt was fully recognized before Christianity came into being and in countries that are not Christian.  Anna Elizabeth Wilhelm-Hooijbergh has published the fruit of her research in a book entitled, Peccatum: Sin and Guilt in Ancient Rome.  The Old Testament fully acknowledges the reality of guilt.  The same can be said for books that provide the moral basis for other religions.

The reality of wrongdoing (or criminal acts) is definitively established by the courts since the pursuit of justice would not be possible without making the crucial distinction between “guilty” and “not guilty.”  The recognition of sin and its expiation through forgiveness are universally acknowledged.

It is to Christianity’s credit that it fully recognizes sin, guilt, and forgiveness; the same cannot be said of the secular world.  “To err is human, to forgive is against departmental policy,” reads a sign posted at the Los Angeles Police Department.  Richard Nixon will never be forgiven for the Watergate fiasco.  The obituary for Fred Snodgrass, who had a successful career as both a major league baseball player and as a businessman, reads as follows, “Fred Snodgrass, whose muff of a fly ball cost the New York Giants the 1912 World Series…” Lawyers do not forgive; they prosecute.  The world does not forgive, and neither does it forget. 

To err is human, but to forgive is divine, hence the importance of the Christian religion.  It is able to do what the world cannot do.  It can remove guilt by expiating it.  Erich Fromm, who is not a Christian, points out in his book, The Sane Society, that “All figures show that Protestant countries have a much higher suicide rate than Catholic countries” and suggests that “the one explanation for this is the more adequate means to deal with a sense of guilt by the Catholic Church.”  Father Alfred Wilson, C. P. states in his book, Pardon and Peace, that modern psychologists have found from practical experience that many nervous breakdowns can be traced to a sense of guilt from unconfided and unforgiven sins.  He remarks that Sigmund Freud admitted that, among his cases of serious psychological disorders, he never had a genuinely practicing Catholic.

Catholic poet and essayist, Phyllis McGinley, in her Introduction to the Time edition of C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, states that “of all losses man has sustained in the past hundred years, no deprivation has been so terrible as the abandonment of guilt.”  Not interpreting sin as a faux pas, an indiscretion, an embarrassment renders man ineligible for the forgiveness that allows a person to return to wholeness.  It is well known that repressed guilt can cause serious levels of anxiety.

Genuine sin, that is, real sin, is often confused with false sin.  False, or neurotic, guilt may result from a person being scrupulous or failing to live up to certain social values that are entirely arbitrary.  Psychiatrists help patients to distinguish sins that need to be forgiven from the mere feeling of guilt that does not require forgiveness.  Paul Tournier has distinguished true from false guilt in terms of the former having its source in an opposition to God, while the latter originates in an opposition to the laws of men.

Breaking a mirror is not a sin nor does it bring bad luck.  Knocking on wood or throwing salt over one’s left shoulder do not expiate guilt. Forgiveness does.  

So no, guilt is not peculiarly Christian.  It is universal.  In fact, the Catholic Church has been and continues to be best prepared to acknowledge guilt and provide a remedy for it in the form of forgiveness. By sinning, one strays from reality as well as from himself.  The expiation of guilt through forgiveness provides a certain freedom for the penitent which allows him to return to reality and at the same time, to his better self. 

Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He is is the author of 42 books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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