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.