Saturday, September 24, 2011

Catholic Guilt

The ability to recognize one’s guilt is an essential element of man’s psychological makeup. The guilt feeling that shatters a conscience’s false calm and the criticism made by my conscience of my self-satisfied existence are signals that we need just as much as we need the physical pain that lets us know that our normal vital functions have been disturbed.

Values in a Time of Upheaval, 80

Reflection – Oh, that Catholic guilt! That’s what everyone knows about Catholics, right? Guilt ridden, shame-filled neurotics, one and all!
I don’t know. I’m Catholic (in case you didn’t know…) and I can’t say I’ve been overly troubled with neurotic guilt in my life. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, in a Church climate where little moral instruction was given us (frankly), and the fear of God’s judgment and Hell was virtually non-existent, I’ve actually had to spend much of my adult Catholic life working on developing my conscience and having a proper sense of sin.
Maybe I’m weird. But I really don’t think so. When I hear Catholics of my generation or younger going on about their neurotic Catholic guilt, it makes me wonder, really. Where does that come from? Because it doesn’t come from the kind of instruction we received in our parishes and schools, for the most part. The corner of the Catholic Church I grew up in was a pretty conservative backwater in my day (I mean that in a nice way), and even so there was precious little indoctrination about sin and hell there.
I guess the bigger question might be where guilt, period, comes from, Catholic or otherwise. And is it always neurotic? Is there a proper place for guilt feelings, and what might it be, and what are we to do with them?
This quote from Ratzinger is very helpful, in a nice concise way. By comparing it to physical pain he helps us see what guilt is for. None of us would like to be unable to experience physical pain, I would imagine. We all know that pain is nature or God’s way of giving us immediate information that something has gone wrong in our bodies, so that we can do something different or take care of ourselves in whatever way we need to.
Guilt is a form of pain, but not a bodily pain that tells us our physical plant has gone wrong. It is a moral pain that tells us we have done or are doing something wrong.
Now with physical pain, what do we do? We analyze the pain. We try to figure out what is causing it. We evaluate how serious it is. If we are unsure, we consult an expert (a doctor). And we decide if it’s just something we have to live with or if there is something we can do differently to feel better.
The moral pain of guilt is the same – we are to use our minds to evaluate this feeling. What have I done or not done? Is it truly wrong? How serious a wrong is it? Do we need to consult someone about it? And then, the magic question, ‘what am I to do differently’? In other words, what do I need to repent of?
Guilt can be misplaced or exaggerated or erroneous in some other way. And if we are always suffering from misplaced or exaggerated guilt, we are indeed neurotic, whether we’re Catholic or not! But, as we know not to ignore physical pain (lest we end up prematurely dead), we shouldn’t ignore or stuff down our guilt, either, lest we end up spiritually dead. The feeling of guilt means something has gone wrong in our lives, pure and simple. So, let’s make it right.

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