Catholic Guilt

“Good ole’ Catholic guilt.”  Undoubtedly you have heard this expression or a similar rendition.  Yet, what is meant by it?

I propose that there are two possible meanings that sit in contradiction to one another.  First, it can mean how one knows what the right action is, doesn’t want to do it, does it, and is thankful that they followed the truth that they knew and feel at peace.  This, I propose, should be the only path of “Catholic guilt,” but, as experience tells us, it isn’t.

On the opposite pole, “Catholic guilt” is most often used by TV and everyday people to mean the following: one knows what the right action is, doesn’t want to do it, rebels against truth and goodness, and is mortally burdened by the weight of their decision, a weight that continues to bear down upon them the further they persist in their wrong actions.

Now, these two meanings do not apply only to Roman Catholics, but similarly apply to all mankind.  Catholic — “katholikos” in Greek — means “universal” and this “Catholic guilt” is truly a universal experience.  We all have experienced knowing what the right action is, not wanting to do it, and either deciding for or against that which is true and good.

In the first step – that where we know what the right action is – our intellect is in play.  It assents  to that which is true.  In the case where we completely know what is right and we are not unsure, our intellect then presents it to our will. Our will, which seeks the good, than must move towards the truth so as to remain in accord with our final end, the ultimate good.  Yet, our body’s appetites and our own propensity for vice (concupiscence) challenge the truth to get their way.  Though the will cannot not act towards the good, since there are competing goods – that of abiding by the truth or that of, say, a physical pleasure – the will could choose an apparent good (pleasure) instead of our ultimate good, that is union with God who is Truth. Thus, even when our intellect knows what is true, our will is still that which moves us to act one way or the other.  Knowledge does not, as Plato so posited, force the wise man to be the good man.

Therefore, when we face the dilemma of “Catholic Guilt” and we will in accordance with that which is good, we feel relief and we feel lighter as we are literally more in accord with our heavenly end.  We are like a hawk being raised up by an updraft; effortlessly being elevated without friction.  However, if we choose only an apparent good and feign ignorance of the ultimate good, we are again like a hawk, but are grounded by the rain, driven further and further into the mud by the weight of our actions pounding against us.

What makes this guilt so poignant is knowledge of the truth and willed ignorance of that same truth . When one knows God’s revelation and then wills against Him, their faith is dead and oh how great the weight!  Faith is a gift from God and in faith, the will — itself first moved by God — moves the intellect to assent to truths the intellect could not come to without revelation. Yet, once we have so willed, we truly know them and should we ever choose against them by choosing an apparent good over true good, we act against what we know to be true and good and then the proverbial “Catholic guilt” enters.

No matter what religion you claim, we all experience this because it is truly universal for the law is written into our hearts.  We all know the truths of the natural law and cannot will against these truths without willing against our intellect and against God Himself.  When we commit wrong actions — when we sin — how do we truly get free of our guilt and vicious deeds?  Modernity, through television and movies, proposes their favorite example of this dilemma:

1) One starts an extramarital affair.
2) One feels guilt.
3) One continues the affair.
4) One goes to “confession” without any intention of ceasing the affair.
5) One is “free.”
6) Everyone laughs at how ridiculous the whole thing was — just the silly and trivial bluster of the Catholic Church’s moral teachings making “good” people feel guilty about nothing.

What modernity doesn’t show or discuss is the final step:

7) “Catholic guilt” takes root and continues to haunt them, driving them down into a schizophrenic life.

It is not enough to spout platitudes about how “sorry” we are for our actions; we must amend our actions if we are truly contrite. Or, if we are so chained down by our vicious life, we must truly strive to break free from sin even if we cannot do so perfectly.  Without this, without the intention, the willed intention to amend one’s life, we cannot break free of “Catholic guilt” because we are still actively willing against what we know to be true and good and we have not been restored to God’s grace.

Now as one continues to persist against the truth they know, they of course suffer natural consequences for the action, but most devastatingly, who they are — their very essence — begins to fracture.  As they will that which they know to be untrue, they must desperately rationalize their actions and even violently attempt to expel the knowledge their intellect understands.  But, they cannot expel truth once the mind grasps it.  So, instead, they become schizophrenic in their actions; they act more and more against truth, more and more against their own mind that knows.  They become frenzied and their rejection of truth in one area of their life continues to fracture their whole selves until every facet of their life is opposed to the truth.  Yet even then — when they have turned utterly away from the truth in every thought and deed — they still cannot escape the truth for they rebel not only against their own mind, but against God Himself.

Modernity offers many remedies: “Self empowerment” seminars; new age mysticism; psychoanalysis; drugs; entertainment; yet none of these can free us from the demands of truth.  The only cure is the cessation of wrongful actions — to amend one’s life — and restore our relationship with God.  I know only one way to do this, to be free from the weight of sin, and that is to seek the medicine He prescribed.

O my God, I am heartily sorry for
having offended you, and I detest
all my sins, because of Your just
punishments, but most of all because
they offend You, my God, who are
all-good and deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve, with the help of
Your grace, to confess my sins,
to do penance,
and to amend my life.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:9-10)


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