Catholic Guilt or Catholic Conscience?

I recently read a blog post at “Young Adult Catholics: A Blog of NextGen at Call to Action” on “Catholic guilt.” With evident sincerity, the blog-poster asked these questions:

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?

She goes on to say that her personal belief is that for both questions, the former is true.

I know what you’re thinking. It should go without saying that Catholic guilt is emphatically not “the result of brainwashing from authorities hoping to hold on to their power.” That idea is, of course, a kind of “conspiracy theory.” And one should not take conspiracy theories seriously – that is, one shouldn’t put stock in ideas that ascribe evil, explicitly held intentions to large groups of people without extremely good evidence to back it up. Or to put it somewhat simplistically, the very fact that a body of paternal figures teach a moral standard that makes you feel uncomfortable does not mean that they are therefore evil men who just want to control you. From an impartial perspective, it’s extremely more likely that, right or wrong, the hierarchy are by and large sincere men who want to guide people on the way of salvation, lead them to a life of happiness, and/or help them achieve moral excellence according to the the Christian ideal as they have received and understand it. The conspiracy theories, assuredly, have more to do with adolescent authority issues than they have to do with reality.

But if Catholic guilt is not the result of an evil conspiracy, neither is it merely a myth. I propose that Catholic guilt is the result of the complexity of the Christian doctrine of redemption, and the thorny spiritual reality corresponding to it. This spiritual reality is always being accomplished, or being stifled, in the hearts of each of us. And so if the personal belief of the young Call to Action Catholic, on this matter, can be criticized, so also can her questions be singled out for their profound ‘aptness’. In other words, these are not “throw-away” questions. They need to be asked; and it is commendable that this person asks them with such honesty and sincerity.

Why are these questions about Catholic guilt so important? Questions about guilt are so very important – because the answers have to do with a critical step in the spiritual life of every person. To put it another way, everyone needs to come to grips with the true meaning of guilt and the moral law. In biblical, Pauline terms, a person needs to die to the Law (Mosaic and moral) so as live anew for Christ, according to the Spirit of God.

Now although this transformation happens by faith and baptism – it is no less a process that gradually takes place as the grace of baptism increases in the soul. In saving the Christian disciple from sin, Christ’s Divine Life leads him through a transition from reliance on the law to reliance on the love of God in Christ. This is a transition from guilt to freedom.

But what is the purpose of the law? Saint Paul, speaking of the law (primarily the Mosaic law) and of sin, wrote:

If it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness… Sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and by it killed me. So the law is holy and just and good… It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin… (Romans 7:7b-8a, 11-12, 13b)

Sin, then, is within the person; and the law “shows sin to be sin.” When, through the law, a man knows that what he is doing is wrong, then he experiences guilt. He is no longer in ignorance, but knows what he is doing – sin has been “shown to be sin.”

However, sin, having been shown to be sin, is not thereby conquered. The law has no power to justify. It merely becomes the case that “I do not do the thing that I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15b). St. Paul calls this “the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2). This is where the transition to reliance on the love of Christ and to freedom comes in. Once and for all in baptism, but gradually in the process of our sanctification, the love of God manifest and accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ frees us to fulfill the requirements of the law:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8:1-4)

So the moral law has a purpose. As Paul says elsewhere of the Mosaic law (Galatians 3 & 4), it it like a child’s tutor. We have to follow a tutor’s lessons always, but when we grow up we don’t need the tutor anymore; that is, we have to follow the moral law always, but as we mature spiritually (walking more and more in the Spirit of God, living more and more by the love of Christ), we need it less and less to fulfill its purpose of stirring up our consciences, of pricking us with guilt. When Jesus encounters the rich young man, he tells him that following the commandments will bring him salvation; until the man shows by his response that he yearns for greater spiritual conquests, and Jesus tells him, “Follow Me.”

What does all this mean for “Catholic guilt”? I do not say that Catholic guilt is merely the growing pains of the spiritual life. Assuredly, and to their discredit, many of those who passed on to us the Gospel have done a better job acquainting us with our childhood tutor than with our Divine Bridegroom. These teachers-of-the-faith (priests, catechists, parents, etc.) have left many of us with a robust sense of guilt, without a correspondingly robust sense of the profound reality of God’s forgiving and transforming love. That is the terribly unfortunate reality. But that is also as far as it goes – that is, there is no great conspiracy by a power-hungry patriarchy to oppress the people of God, with only a spirit-filled movement of freedom-loving lay prophets to expose them. That tired narrative is self-serving to its adherents; and if, as we know, the law is a childhood tutor who teaches us, through guilt, that we are sinners constantly in need of the transforming love of God, then it is clear that this narrative, in facilitating the casting off of “oppressive” moral norms, also stunts the spiritual growth of those under its sway.

I don’t mean that last statement as a universal rule – I cannot read anyone’s heart. But the uncomfortable feeling known as “guilt” is meant to be a “Godly grief, [producing] repentance” (2 Cor. 7:10); therefore, when by a turn of the imagination, people make it into something else, guilt can no longer fulfill its purpose. When people look at guilt and the Church’s teaching of the moral law, and refuse to see the teaching/correcting love of God, they may be robbing themselves of deeper spiritual growth.

Is Catholic Guilt a manifestation of our conscience, the voice of God in our hearts? Primarily, yes.

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2 thoughts on “Catholic Guilt or Catholic Conscience?

  1. These teachers-of-the-faith (priests, catechists, parents, etc.) have left many of us with a robust sense of guilt, without a correspondingly robust sense of the profound reality of God’s forgiving and transforming love.
    That, to me, is the key…mystery blogger! Thank you.

  2. You are very welcome, amolibri.
    Of course, the next step is responding in a healthy way to the imbalanced view we’ve been given. And it is emphatically NOT the right response to dissolve the moral teachings of the Church in the name of mercy and love. Mercy and love, further, lose their very meaning that way.

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