“Catholic guilt” came up recently in a conversation about psychology and religion. It also came up sometimes back in my grad school counseling classes. In these conversations, I often hear the question, “Isn’t “Catholic guilt” psychologically unhealthy?” I think it’s a great question.
Can there be something unhealthy about guilt? I think so. How can we clarify healthy vs. unhealthy guilt?
First, what does unhealthy look like? I think you can sort our unhealthy reactions to guilt and sin into two broad categories: the holier-than-Thou pharisee of Luke 18:9-14, and the over exaggerated self-loathing and slogging that’s become the punch line of jokes as “#CatholicGuilt.”
Let’s look first at the pharisee. We’re familiar with the tale:“The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). This is the self-sufficient sinner who seems unaware of his need for grace. He may avoid looking at his own sin, or deny it exists entirely. We take this position when we say, “my sin isn’t as bad as so-and-so’s sins” or when we relativize our sins, “it’s not really that bad, I don’t really need to confess it.” We take this position when we exalt ourselves and also when we say “thanks, God, I’ve already got it figured out and I don’t need Your help.”
The other category that wins us the punch lines of “Catholic guilt” is the response to sin and weakness of exaggerated self loathing. Those in this category set up camp in the “For you are dust” verse (Gen 3:19) — dirt, scum of the earth, worthless — and they don’t take into account the rest of the Good News. They seem to be stuck in the “unworthy sinner” position without ever opening the door to God’s grace. It’s almost like they say “I’ll humble myself, but I refuse to let You exalt me.” And while some historical trends such as flogging and mortification probably helped create the punchlines for this kind of exaggerated guilt being a Catholic thing, it’s been interesting to notice throughout my years of good friendship and conversation with our Protestant brothers and sisters that this vein of response to sin is alive and well in their faith traditions as well. We take this position when before weakness or sin we throw up our hands and say “I’m guilty of everything, I feel bad all the time about myself.” We also take this position when out of an exaggerated fear of sinning and an anticipation of heavy guilt, we simply avoid the world in an attempt to keep “a clean collar.”
One common root
So what makes both of these positions unhealthy? Are they both equally unhealthy? I think they both grow out of an underlying root of a lack of healthy self love, fed by a very subjective view of themselves. What do I mean by that?
The pharisee from the parable is trying to prop himself up with external deeds. He says to himself, “I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get” (Lk 18:12). When we justify ourselves before others or God, it’s usually from a place of insecurity or anxiousness. It may sound backwards, but think of it this way – if I knew who I was before God, and I was secure in my self before Him, would I feel any scrambling impulse or need to justify myself? I also find it interesting that the Gospel says he was “praying to himself.” Stuck in his own head and his own subjectivity, he couldn’t see how un-holy he was behaving, and how the true model for holiness was in the publican he was despising. In this self-sufficient position, this unhealthy reaction to sin and weaknesses keeps the person from growing in holiness because he’s deceived himself into thinking he has already arrived.
The #CatholicGuilt position also shows a lack of a healthy sense of self. It’s a little easier to see here because of all the self-loathing. But what might miss our gaze is that beneath the refusal to allow God to exalt the lowly, there is also an avoidance of responsibility. If I’m a totally worthless sinner incapable of getting it right, I can also justify my staying in bed all day and not trying. This happens when we allow ourselves to get so overwhelmed by what we perceive as exaggerated failures that we simply lie down and give up. Again, there is a lack of objectivity about self. We take this position when we say “Well if I can’t get it right, I’ll just quit trying.” In this self-loathing position, this unhealthy reaction to sin and weakness also keeps the person from growing, because they refuse their own responsibility to work with God’s saving grace and open the door to Him.
I think we all fall into these positions in our spiritual lives from time to time. I tend to take the pharisaic position myself, though now and then if I’m worn out from holding that one-up stance, I’ll fall into the helpless #Catholicguilt hole, too. Getting objective about ourselves has to do with self awareness, with being willing to observe and notice when we’re falling into these unhelpful positions.
Let’s get objective!
Here’s a few helpful indicators of when we’re engaging in one or the other category of unhealthy guilt. Stemming from a lack of a sense of self and lack of objective view of oneself before God, I think both positions or reactions involve:
- a certain amount of anxious reaction to perceived pressure
- a certain defensiveness
- a certain avoidance of responsibility
- and a certain distance or pulling away from God
The more we can observe ourselves and start to notice these inner reactions to sin and weakness, the more we can start to get more objective about those sins and weaknesses, and the healthier (and more helpful and productive) our guilt becomes. When we strive for honesty with ourselves before God, we can start to see ourselves as God sees us.
“Since our point of view must be neutral we will not find it in ourselves nor in our neighbors, but we must transcend both and take our stand in God. Everything receives its measure and value from God, He is the measure in all things…” Fr Joseph Kentenich ¹
To take our stand in God! To see ourselves as God sees us! This objectivity is the humility that lives in the tension between “we are dust” and we are “no longer slaves, but friends” of Christ (Jn 15:15). Remember the attitude of the pharisee who, although he said God’s name, was “praying to himself.” Yet the publican, although knowing he was unworthy to lift his eyes to heaven, trusted in God’s mercy and spoke straight to Him from his heart:
13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 18:13-14).
Healthy love of self
This is the humility of a child of God, who reaches out with faith to God, rather than anxiously distancing from Him. The child is able to do their part, to be responsible for their own growth, because they know that although it is not entirely up to them (ie God’s grace is sufficient), that God also respects the free “yes” He gave His children, and won’t save us without us. Thus this is also the place where healthy self love is born. And since sin involves others, a healthy self love is the first thing involved in healthy love of others.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” He told the scribes. The measure for the love of neighbor is, therefore, a sound love of self which must bear three qualities: It must be honest, resourceful and ever ready for sacrifice.” ²
Working to get objective about ourselves through taking our stance in God helps us build a solid sense of self, and knowing our selves better helps us get more objective. This happens not when we stare at our own belly buttons, but when we gaze into Gods eyes.
Also, in this way our originality before God is heightened and solidified – because I’m allowing myself to be measured by God according to His will for my life, and not by comparing myself to others or by getting caught in own stubborn will. With this approach to our spiritual lives, we can gain new clarity and also new room to grow, in such that the fruitfulness of confession can really be enhanced. I find that confession is especially helpful towards spiritual growth if I work with a regular confessor who gets to know me well. After all, another person’s perspective is incredibly helpful towards getting objective our selves. Small groups, our family and our close friends can also be wonderful sources of perspective. This is the healthy role of community in our spiritual growth!
During this Advent season of reflection and renewal, may we strive to be more open to this process of growth. Let us stop grumbling and allow God to use our weaknesses and sins to start growing, that we may know peace, and that our inner life may become a clear, warm and welcoming stable to receive our Lord at Christmas.
Blessed Mother Mary, you who sing in one breath of your own lowliness and of the great things done in you by God’s mercy, show us the way this Advent season. Help us to open our hearts to the mercy of God, and draw close to Him as His child. Bear Him anew in our hearts, that we may bring His mercy and love to a world in need. Amen.
Advent Challenge: During this first week of Advent, prepare for a good confession in this spirit of objectivity and a healthy self love. If you aren’t able to make it to confession this week, plan a day that you can make it, and stick to it. Begin to prepare now by setting aside at least 20 minutes to talk with the Lord about how things have been going, and strive for humility and honesty before Him! Remember that growing is a slow process, and He is our good, merciful Father who is ready to shower us with spiritual gifts if we ask. Blessings to you my friend!
- Everyday Sanctity, M A Nailis, p 247
- Everyday Sanctity, M A Nailis, p 253