Catholic guilt can be a good thing.

The Catholic Church is not as medieval as people think. It’s far from perfect, but it has a tradition that is very relevant in these times. It is the belief in reconciliation. Reconciliation is a concept that modern educators, and  justice ministries deal with all the time, but they’re laughably behind the church on this.

The sacrament of reconciliation in the Catholic Church takes a bit of a beating from non-Catholics. A common joke is the idea that a Catholic can do whatever he wants; all he need do is confess his sin and all is forgiven. This belief is a fallacy – unfortunately one that is likely believed by many catholics themselves (hence the joke). The truth about the Catholic concept of reconciliation is that forgiveness is contingent on the confessor being truly sorry. A well-conscioned Catholic would believe that you may be able to fool the priest – maybe even yourself, but you’ll never fool God. Catholics are taught that the sinful act is really a symptom of a bigger problem: a sinful heart. And they’re taught that EVERYONE has a sinful heart – everyone! So who can be saved? This conundrum is the source of Catholic guilt – a knowledge that on our own, we are sinful beings. This theme is not exclusive to Catholics. Every religion recognizes hubris, but few instill it into their children like Catholics.

Popular psychology over the years has rightly recognized the crippling effect of guilt. For example, women who have been assaulted, often feel guilt about becoming victims. Surely this can’t be healthy, but Catholic guilt is a different thing. Catholic guilt is a recognition of one’s fallibility. It’s a recognition that being wrong, or doing wrong is inherently human, and as such, it is only avoided through the nurturing of a well-informed conscience, as well as “the grace of God”. In secular terms, “the grace of God” can be looked at as the fortunate confluence of circumstances that reduce the attractiveness of doing wrong. But in every life, situations occur that cause a person to lose his dignity – if not in action or word, at least in thought. We lash out hurtfully at people, or we forgo our morals when opportunity or desire (or both) increase the likelihood behaving badly.

An understanding of one’s fallibility is very important, as it allows a person the ability to look objectively at his own behaviour and recognize his treachery while still being able to keep his ego intact. Without being able to admit to one’s own culpability, a person can never truly engage in restitution, because in order to view himself as a decent person, he will have to make excuses, misappropriate blame, or deny. He will not be able to properly forgive himself and move on, and therefore he will run the risk of assuming his maladaptive behaviour into his ego.

Consider the example of a person who needlessly steals from a store. If he can not look objectively at his behaviour and recognize his culpability, he is unlikely to be able to resolve not to repeat the behaviour. On the other hand, if he can look at the behaviour as something that is objectively wrong, and if he can accept the blame for it, he can attempt to put it behind him, and do better in the future. Furthermore, it allows him to view other people as worthy of forgiveness. This connection is the essence of restitution. It may seem self-evident, but there are many people who can’t look objectively at their behaviour. In fact, any priest will tell you that many Catholics are not endowed with this sense of “guilt” (for lack of a better word).

The concepts of human culpability and forgiveness can, and should be taught. The secret to endowing our children with the ability to internalize these concepts must lie in child-rearing. However this is accomplished, it is extremely important. Without it, we cultivate a population of antisocial self-centeredness, and our society is doomed to fail. It is hard to know if we are getting better or worse in this regard. To see the unconscionable behaviour of many people, even some of our most powerful politicians, one might think the latter is true.

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2 thoughts on “Catholic guilt can be a good thing.

  1. Marie and I spoke on a similar topic this afternoon: the need for more shame in society (and the educational realm, specifically). I suppose this differs somewhat from guilt in the sense that it does not presume that we are already at fault; instead, we are at fault when we behave faultily, and this warrants not only private shame but public shaming as well, I believe. Without public shame, people don’t often know how to feel shame privately. Without shame at all, people have a tendency to come to the conclusion that they can do no wrong or feel that running from their shames is an answer rather than learning how to improve oneself so as to less frequently behave shamefully.
    As for confession, what happens when someone truly believes he is sorry for what he has done, but—after absolution—behaves similarly? I imagine this happens a lot.

    1. Thanks for you comment, Mike. Absolution is a theological idea, is it not? Otherwise, how could a priest forgive you for wronging someone else? But in a practical sense, I’m sure you’re right: there are people who, after seeking absolution, repeat the same wrong behaviour over and over. I guess that lack of sincerity comes from incomplete moral training. Morality must be taught – either directly and purposefully, or, in the case of a “Lord of the Flies” scenario, through the pressures of the realpolitik.

      I think we need to learn right from wrong when we’re quite young. For me this was definitely accomplished through shame: at first the shame of punishment or withdrawal of affection, and later, by the shame of recrimination through dialogue. A lot of people have an immature sense of right and wrong, only seeing “wrong” as “getting caught doing wrong”. If they can get away without sanction, their conscience seems to let them off the hook. It never ceases to amaze and disappoint me.

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