Every once in a while, I run across the claim that Christianity—and Catholicism in particular—is a faith that leads its adherents to live their lives riddled with guilt. I hear it most commonly from former Catholics who have either moved to other Christian denominations or have fallen away from religious practice altogether. “I left the Catholic Church,” many of them say, “because I could no longer stand the guilt.”
This seems to imply something very novel: that we should rarely or never experience guilt. If we were perfect, or close to it, that might be true . . . but we aren’t. One of the central tenets of the Christian faith is that human beings are flawed, broken creatures with an innate tendency toward sin. In other words, we do bad things. This is why it makes little sense to condemn Christianity for its adherents’ and leaders’ hypocrisy; our faith is possibly the only one in the world that openly admits it is full of imperfect, sinful hypocrites. The Church isn’t a temple for the saints, but a hospital for the sinners. When we fall short, we have (or should have) some self-awareness about it. A good Christian knows he isn’t perfect, but is trying to move steadily in that direction. He’s trying to overcome his sins, but to do this he must be aware of them. He must know right from wrong, and this knowledge will surely lead him to feel guilty when he does something in the latter category.
We expect this kind of self-awareness from others all the time. When somebody wrongs us, we want them to feel bad about it and apologize. To use an extreme example, consider a murderer standing trial. If he shows remorse—sorrow and guilt for what he has done—he is likely to receive a more lenient sentence than if he un-repentantly claims that the victim deserved it. We recognize a lack of guilt in this case as a sign that the murderer is a sociopath, and deserves the worst that the court can offer him. We recognize an honest expression of guilt, on the other hand, as a first, tentative step toward possible redemption.
I have been a Christian for most of my life, and specifically a Catholic for four years now. Throughout my Christian walk I have been faced with feelings of guilt from time-to-time, and it does happen more often now that I have united myself with the Catholic Church. Why? Because, with the help of the Church and her teachings, I have worked to deepen my understanding of the moral law and have developed a better, more thorough knowledge of right and wrong. This has helped me foster a greater awareness of my own faults. I could wallow in that guilt if I wanted to, and I could decide to blame the Church for it, but I don’t. When I feel guilty, I have enough self awareness to know that it’s because I’ve done something wrong, not because of the Church, the Christian faith, or God.
Through repentance and reconciliation, particularly through the Sacraments, I can excise my guilt and begin anew with sure knowledge that my sins are forgiven. My guilt cannot become the constant, poisonous, ‘Catholic guilt’ of the stereotypes except through my own obstinacy—my refusal to acknowledge my sins, seek forgiveness, and do better next time. In other words, if I am constantly racked with guilt, I have nobody to blame for it but myself.
Leaving one Christian community for another, less demanding one—or abandoning Christian community altogether—doesn’t actually solve the problem once you get mired in this kind of obstinacy. It’s just a way of convincing ourselves that the guilt we feel is the enemy, rather than the sins and failures that prompted it. This is a clever evasion, and it often works for a while, but the fact remains that right is still right and wrong is still wrong. Those guilty feelings will resurface sooner-or-later, and will continue doing so until we address their cause. Our conscience will still tug at us until we acknowledge it and reconcile ourselves to the truth.
Guilt is meant to prompt us to seek forgiveness, to right our wrongs, to better ourselves. When properly understood, it’s a healthy, positive emotion and a sign of a well-formed conscience—a sign that we know right from wrong. Only when we refuse to acknowledge it for what it is does it become the terrible burden that so many make it out to be.