Catholic Guilt

Both my parents were raised Catholic, but only a couple of my mom’s siblings still attend Church. I asked my mom whether she would have continued to go to Church if she hadn’t married my dad (who comes from a more strict Catholic background), and she said yes. Hoping for some insight into my mother’s spirituality, I asked her what would have made her continue attending Church while the rest of her family fell away. She said, “Well, I’ve always had a high propensity for guilt.”

I admit it: I was disappointed. Nothing about God. Nothing about the beauty or history of Catholicism. Just guilt. (To be fair, I know my mother’s spirituality goes much deeper than that; the foundation of my faith does indeed come from her teaching).

I’ve challenged the guilt-centric view of religion multiple times over the years, but I find myself falling prey to the same types of thinking. Recently, I’ve begun exploring a new, non-Catholic church. Because I’m often out of town in the summer, I looked forward to my next Sunday in town so that I could attend once again. But the next Sunday that I was in town happened to be Pentecost.

As I drove to “the new Church,” I agonized over my decision to go. It was one thing to attend a non-Catholic church on an ordinary Sunday . . . but on Pentecost? How could I abandon my Catholicism at such a time?

Incidentally, the new church had changed their schedule for the summer, and I ended up arriving just as service had ended. By that time, it was also too late to attend my regular Catholic service. There was a moment of dismay when I thought I’d miss service altogether that Sunday, and I wondered for a moment if this was a punishment from an Angry Catholic God. But then, I relaxed when I remembered that one Church in town does evening Mass on Sundays. Phew!

I don’t think guilt is a particularly helpful emotion, and I’m disappointed by how often my own religious decisions are tainted by (or motivated by) guilt. But I’m also curious about other perspectives on this. Is Catholic guilt a damaging throwback, or is it a manifestation of our conscience? The result of brainwashing from authorities hoping to hold on to their power, or God’s voice in our hearts? I personally believe it’s the former in both questions — but I have the feeling the institutional church would work hard to convince me it was the latter. And I just might believe them.

8 thoughts on “Catholic Guilt

  1. Hi Lacey,

    I’m mid-conversion from Protestant to Catholic, and have been trying to get to the bottom of this stereotypical “Catholic guilt” phenomenon. Over on my blog, I’ve had a few posts up about it, and some angry comments as well. It seems there is a pop-culture “Catholic guilt” thrown about in the media that is God’s voice in your heart. It has to do with remorse for many common sins like pre-marital sex and abortion. In those cases, I’d say guilt is merited and people tend to want to blame it as imposed by their religion rather than caused by any real guilt on their part.

    There is also (and here’s what an angry commenter brought to light) a darker side to guilt in the Catholic Faith, though not strictly Catholic. It has to do with authority figures abusing followers and telling them they’re only sinful and bad, ignoring the tenets of the Faith and the greatest commandments to love God and neighbor, and focusing on sins rather than the forgiveness of the cross. There are puritanical perversions in every religion, including Protestantism and of course, Catholicism. This perversion of the Faith is not condoned by the Church, nor is it a natural consequence from any of its beliefs and practices. It is strictly an abuse and perversion of those who want to make themselves feel holier than others.

    Catholicism is not about guilt, but is only construed that way by either those who misunderstand it or those who abuse it for their own purposes. It is about salvation in Christ, suffering with Him so that we may be co-heirs and share in His glory as well. It is about the resurrection of the dead and being justified and sanctified that we may be reunited with God. It is beautiful and joyful. Just look at the saints of the Church, the ones who follow her tenets perfectly. They don’t bemoan their guilt, but rather shine the love of Christ.

    Please don’t give up on Catholicism. Obviously, since I have been drawn into it, I believe the truth of Christianity lies in the Catholic Church. She is the bride of Christ, entrusted to the Apostles by Christ to convey the grace of God to His body. Without Apostolic succession and Tradition, we can only find what we want out of Christianity in the denomination of our choice, not the truth of the gospel as taught by Christ and the Apostles. Please don’t abandon the graces that God has made available to you in the sacraments. The Catholic Faith is beautiful and historical, but it is also true. If you do delve more into history, the Reformation, the Church Fathers, etc. it becomes undeniable. But also, the more I learn about the beliefs of the Faith, and follow them and gain experience, the more wisdom I realize is in all those rules, even where I kicked and screamed in protest before. I know if you learn more about your faith, it will become your own, and you will see that beauty of the Church.

  2. Oh Lacey, how right you are. Its frustrating. I am dealing with a resident at my nursing home right now who has quite an overactive guilt complex. I keep remembering a priest I had when I was in college who instead of saying, ‘keep from us all anxiety’ (the priest’s “solo” part of the Our Father) would say ‘keep us from all useless anxiety’. Aha! I thought. Helped me to understand a little bit more about the purpose of emotions, the fuctions (and disfunctions) they play in our lives. There is a function to guilt as Stacey mentioned above, that helps us to repent, change our ways, etc. But after that, we ought to move forward.

    The resident I mentioned above feels guilty about EVERYTHING. Literally. She ties it to religion, naturally, but I think it has to do with self hatred. Its *can* be a way of punishing the self, even beyond the remorse God would have us express. I challenged her to believe in God’s forgiveness (of course, her idea of what her sins are don’t seem like sins to me but they’re real to her). And because she holds onto it even after the promise of forgiveness, not by our merits but by God’s mercy, it definitely seems more about our self image than anything else.

    Of course, I only know about this woman’s tendencies because I fight them in myself too!

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  4. As a former Catholic and current atheist (no I’m not interested in telling anyone they’re wrong or being told that I’m wrong), I’m not really sure what fuels Catholic guilt. All I can say is, after years of renouncing Catholicism, my intense guilt and self hate have not dissipated. I likely need a shrink and while I can’t 100% blame Catholicism for it, the very nature of Catholicism is conducive to a heavy conscience. I’m not sure exactly why but I have a few theories. We are constantly shown somber imagery of Jesus’ suffering as we “worship” in huge, dimly lit buildings that make us feel small and overwhelmed (cathedrals were actually designed with this in mind). We are told to confess our sins to another person who talks to God for us, because we’re not worthy. Speaking of confession, we have to put ourselves through the humiliating act of confession so that we can be “clean” before we can receive Christ. We’re shown images of people who have “given their lives to god” as role models, but in doing so, they live in what most functioning adults consider misery. Also, Catholic churches have pretty lame concepts of fellowship. Basically, there isn’t much that’s fun and positive about Catholicism. The best thing about Catholicism compared to other Christian sects is that Catholics encourage education and science. To their chagrin, it causes many of us to question…….

  5. People who convert to Catholicism can’t understand the guilt. They’re studying all of this as adults, who made the choice to believe this. They have distance and the ability to understand and then disagree with scripture and teachings. Children can’t do that. When you tell a five-year old that someone died for them because they are sinners it’s going to mess with their head. If, say, a child’s mother died because of their birth they’re going to an incredible amount of guilt. It’s a similar thing, but in Catholicism, you spend hours and hours and hours staring at this person, who loved you, bloody, dieing, and tortured, and then you learn about all the ways you caused that and how you will never, ever be able to repay him. You memorize poems and rituals and songs to try to make up for what you have done. You are a disappointment, you are deeply, profoundly flawed and will never even begin to right the wrongs you’ve caused. I spent the first twelve years of my life apologizing, for everything. I talk in my sleep; all night, every night, I apparently plead for forgiveness, just saying ‘sorry’ over and over again. I feel like Atlas, sometimes, but then I feel guilty about that because it presumes that I am carrying any greater a burden than the rest of humanity and that’s very conceited.
    I found an Evelyn Waugh quote about this, I think it kinds of explains what I mean:
    “Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out. Waking up with sin in the morning, seeing the curtains drawn on sin, bathing it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, feeding it, showing it round, giving it a good time, putting it to sleep at night with a tablet of Dial if it’s fretful. Always the same, like an idiot child carefully nursed, guarded from the world. ‘Poor Julia,’ they say, ‘she can’t go out. She’s got to take care of her little sin. A pity it ever lived,’ they say, ‘but it’s so strong. Children like that always are. Julia’s so good to her little, mad sin.”

    Needless to say, I am not very happy as an older teenager. I’ve spent much of my life quite depressed (which I’m sure is chemical, but religion sure didn’t help). I’m officially an atheist, but deep in my mind I am sure there’s a hell and I’m going. I’m considering becoming a nun and living in a cloister, but I really can’t bring myself to believe in god…

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response to this post. You bring up such an important distinction in the difference between those who were raised within a certain mindset and those who came to it as adults with their reasoning faculties fully developed. Your comment has also given me greater insight and compassion for my own parents, who get mired in the “Catholic guilt” complex, no matter how much I try to insist that Catholicism isn’t really about that. But they both grew up prior to Vatican II, when guilt was emphasized more strongly, and it doesn’t matter whether or how much things have changed … as adults they still carry the burdens of what was instilled in them in childhood.

      I’m sorry to hear about your struggles with depression. I’ve been there, too. I’ll keep you in my thoughts and in my prayers. Keep speaking out and sharing your stories.

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