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Maybe it’s time to leave excess ‘Catholic guilt’ behind

A healthy conscience moves us to God, but self-hatred in our lives can be dangerous

Published: October 19, 2022   
Aprille Hanson Spivey
Spiritual director Debbie Eckert speaks with one of her spiritual directees in the Spiritan Center at St. Joseph Church in Conway Sept. 30. Eckert said most people come to spiritual direction suffering from guilt.

Guilt is universal, starting with Adam and Eve’s original sin. And guilt isn’t all bad. It can be God’s divine gut-check for us, a way to recognize we need to be led back to his mercy.

But the term “Catholic guilt” can take on different meanings. It’s a cultural phrase that has seeped into generations of Catholics, parishes and pop culture. The phrase even has its own Wikipedia page.

Understanding how guilt can be good or dangerous in our lives can help us open our hearts to God’s mercy.


‘Life in fear’

“I’m not sure there’s any specific kind of guilt you would call ‘Catholic,’” said Simon, a parishioner at Christ the King Church in Little Rock. “Because we have historically in our catechetics talked a lot about sin and urged folks to confess and to examine conscience, I think the Catholic thing is being aware of sin and therefore being aware of our inherent guilt about our behavior.”

Guilt is a feeling of having done something wrong. “Catholic guilt” is tougher to define, but it’s ultimately feeling guilty concerning faith, from breaking Church teaching or having thoughts contrary to what the Church teaches. It can manipulate a Catholic into doing something for the Church or give people the idea they have to “earn” God’s love, which is not Church teaching but rather the love of God that inspires good works.

The phrase’s popularity in society could also be that the Church does not follow the Protestant salvation teaching of “once saved, always saved,” said retired clinical psychologist Dr. George Simon.

“I’m not sure there’s any specific kind of guilt you would call ‘Catholic,’” said Simon, a parishioner at Christ the King Church in Little Rock. “Because we have historically in our catechetics talked a lot about sin and urged folks to confess and to examine conscience, I think the Catholic thing is being aware of sin and therefore being aware of our inherent guilt about our behavior.”

Catholics should not wallow in guilt but move to contrition, defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again.” (catechism, no. 1451)

Father Mauricio Carrasco, pastor of St. Augustine Church in Dardanelle, St. Andrew Church in Danville and Church of the Assumption in Atkins, said, “Catholicism has, or the place out of which it has operated out of, has been just trying to get us to see our fallenness. That is good. That is a healthy thing. In Spanish, there’s a term called ‘verguenza,’ which literally means shame or embarrassment. So to be ‘sinverguenza’ is to be without shame or without guilt and that’s not a good thing.”

The phrase is more common for Catholics who grew up before changes during the Second Vatican Council from 1962-65. Simon, 74, lived “a whole lot of my life in fear” because of the way he was taught as a child about Church rules.

“We were warned about the dangers of sin” and the consequences of hell, he said. “Boy, I made sure I had that scapular on, and I just tortured myself before going to sleep by doing an Act of Contrition because I dreaded the thought of perishing with sin on my soul and end up burning. … Yes, we should be sorry for our mistakes, and we should repent and vow to do better, but to torture ourselves because we made a misstep; that’s really harmful. That’s the key right there — the self-torture that guilt invokes.”

Other unhealthy examples of guilt have permeated throughout Church history, from paying for indulgences to religious vocations.

Father Carrasco, who was ordained a priest in 2012, remembers many warnings in seminary about understanding, “is this your vocation or is this your mother’s or grandmother’s vocation because your family had a sense of guilt like they owed something to God?”

Debbie Eckert, a spiritual director for six years at St. Joseph Church in Conway, said the phrase “Catholic guilt” brings two thoughts to mind.

“I love my mother, but I can hear her saying, ‘You better be good or else Jesus is not going to love you,’” the 66-year-old said with a laugh. “Bless her, she was just doing what she was taught.”

But like so many other older Catholics, Eckert said she grew up believing it, which impacted most of her adult life until she went through spiritual direction training.

“A lot of people equate God loving them with doing good and doing right … ‘Do this and God will love you.’ And it’s so prevalent in so many people’s lives. They believe in order for God to love them, they have to do things for him, they have to be good and it’s a shame because that’s not how he operates,” she said.


Manipulation or motivation?

Father Carrasco said guilt is a “motivating force” still seen today.

“I think we as Catholics, unfortunately, have manipulated that and learned to manipulate it as parishioners to get people to do something,” he said.

He pointed out the often-used phrase, “The Lord has just put it in my heart that you are the one” to lead this ministry or speak at a Catholic conference.

“If I say no, I’m saying no to Jesus? I already feel guilty. Be very careful about that,” Father Carrasco said. “That’s a way of basically saying if you don’t do this, you should feel guilty because this is the Lord asking you to do that. … Think of how easily a priest could manipulate people with Catholic guilt. ‘I’ve been here for you all these years; you’re not going to do this for me?’”

But Father Carrasco is quick to point out that Church teachings, like the Ten Commandments, are “not up for grabs,” even if a person does not feel guilty when breaking them.

“Here’s the danger that comes with that — we can add to God’s word or we can interpret it in such a way that we decide what people should feel guilty for. Oftentimes, when we take that liberty, we are trying to manipulate them into something we want,” he said.

One example, he explained, is “Honor your father and mother.” But Jesus made it clear there is a time, as with a husband and wife, when family priorities shift. So if a mother makes her son feel guilty about putting his wife first, it’s an example of Catholic guilt.

Simon often heard about Catholic guilt from his patients, some for just thoughts and not actions.

“One example that’s so common these days is dealing with the urge to act out sexually. The fear of doing anything that might violate” Church teaching, including premarital sex, Simon said. But instead of facing those desires and reconciling them with God, a person might turn to pornography to “self-medicate” from the guilt.

The Pharisees often used guilt in rule-following against Jesus and his disciples, like performing healings on the Sabbath.

“What he tried to tell us is the law of love precedes it all,” Simon said. “With love as our motivator, we’re on a much straighter path to holiness.”

Eckert said she believes the Church has already “turned the corner” in promoting love instead of guilt, particularly for young Catholics. (See sidebar).

“I think older Catholics, and I’m including myself and even Catholics in their 40s and 50s, we were taught a lot about how to obey the rules to be Catholic and now I think we’re hearing more about what it means to be a Catholic Christian and have a relationship with Jesus,” she said. “It’s a relational experience and not just a bunch of rules we obey to be good Catholics.”


Well of mercy

Catholicism is the only religion with the sacrament of reconciliation, allowing believers to bring guilt, or more intentionally contrite hearts to the priest, who is in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”) for forgiveness from God.

“You take it to the confessional because with anything that goes wrong in our lives we can use it for good or let it destroy us,” Father Carrasco said.

Guilt can trap people in a cycle of self-hatred. Compunction or contrition, translated literally as “to grind,” allows a believer to grind a heart of stone “much in the same way you’d want to pierce through like the ground if you’re trying to find a well,” Father Carrasco explained. In Scripture, Jesus “broke open” the heart of the Samaritan woman at the well, telling her she was forgiven for her sins, making her a well of mercy.

“We don’t hear that she left feeling guilty but filled with joy. That is what happens when Jesus uncovers our sins,” Father Carrasco said. “The living waters of the resurrection begin to gush forth from our hearts.”

Simon said he gained wisdom about guilt from two different psychological schools of thought — “Neurosis is a substitute for legitimate suffering” (Carl Jung) and “Guilt, in particular, is a cheap substitute for legitimate suffering” (reinterpreted by Alfred Adler, inspired by Jung).

Thinking about it from a Catholic standpoint means “it’s a lot easier to sin and feel bad about it than it is to really get a grip on things and commit yourself to being and doing better,” he said.

“Doing better” is what Catholics are called to do every day. Eckert said almost every spiritual directee she sees is struggling with guilt. Depending on how deep their wounds go, it can be hard to understand the reality of true forgiveness.

“Believe what the Church teaches — your sin has been forgiven. Don’t keep going back to it. If you commit it again, that’s why it’s so important to have a good confessor to offer counsel in the confessional,” she said. “What does God’s word say to me? That I am loved. It takes practicing. You have to keep walking in it until it clicks for you.”

Some might fear the confessional, but it's a place that destroys the idea of “Catholic guilt." 

“If whatever pain or brokenness you experience in your heart does not lead to a gushing forth of God’s mercy and love for you, then you are not carrying the contrition to its true end,” Father Carrasco said. “Contrition is never meant to be a destination, but a way to something good … We don’t need to let guilt have the final word. Guilt should never have the final word. It’s Jesus who should have the final word. That’s the meaning of the cross.”

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