Why Catholic guilt is good for you

Since becoming Catholic, I’ve fallen madly in love with the confessional (Getty Images)

Nothing quite irritates the spleen like that phrase “recovering Catholic”. It used to be that folks who drifted away from the Church were lapsed – not a phrase you hear much in, say, the Cof E, where it is assumed that one is not practising unless otherwise stated. Now everyone’s “recovering”, as if Catholicism were a close relative of alcoholism.

What exactly are they recovering from? Why, the guilt, of course – the infamous Catholic guilt. When they were only young, Father McSomething would stoop up to the pulpit and explain how their girlish little sins would land them an eternity stewing in Lucifer’s pot roast, which is mostly potatoes and the meat is white with fat.

I met many recovering Catholics in the Anglican churches of my youth. They are a natural home for people who like the trappings of Rome but prefer Canterbury’s moral relativism: “Only God can judge you, but He’d rather not. Here: throw some more incense in the thurible.”

I don’t pine for the full Angela’s Ashes treatment, but I wish I had had some Catholic guilt growing up. The only thing worse than an overbearing parent is a negligent one. As a mainline Protestant in Catholic schools, I was made to sit through all the First Confession classes, the teachers listing the sins one must tell the priest or else Catholic Jesus would be extremely cross. (Don’t swear, don’t touch yourself, don’t put your elbows on the table, etc.) It made me feel inadequate. Didn’t Protestant Jesus care whether I was a good person?

I found myself dwelling on one chapter from early childhood: that blissful period when you’re old enough to tell right from wrong, but on a purely theoretical level. I found a $20 bill on my counter top and aimlessly shoved it in my pocket. Then, an hour later, Dad called me into the kitchen. “Michael, have you seen the 20 I left here?” I shook my head no; but, seeing how distressed he was, I took it from my pocket and said: “You can have mine, though.” The look of unfathomable disappointment he gave me was worse than any slap on the rear.

The Church teaches that there are two reasons to avoid sin. One is fear of hell, which is sufficient; the other is love of God, which is perfect. The former is what everyone means by “Catholic guilt”, and should really be called Catholic fear. The latter, the love of God, is Catholic guilt – and it’s a wonderful thing.

Guilt isn’t, after all, the feeling you get when the headmaster calls you into his office for fighting in the playground, which I relished. I strutted down those hallways bursting with pride, jutting out by bruised jaw and looking down my bloody nose. Fear is imperfect, if only because we might find the sin is worth the sanction. Guilt is the feeling you get when Dad finds out that you – his child, for whom he’d give his very life – have pilfered a measly $20. That’s perfect contrition. Fear is born of selfishness; guilt of love.

Anyway, because I knew God loved me, I knew I had it in my power to disappoint Him. But my Anglican pastors refused to tell me how. In fact, they seemed more intent on telling me what God wouldn’t be upset with me for. He’d love me even if I was promiscuous, or drunk, or Buddhist. And no doubt they were right. But I could get all that from Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. Surely the Church doesn’t exist to tell God how to be a good Father, but to teach us how to be good sons and daughters. I fell into a state the Church calls despair and became what she calls scrupulous. I was obsessed with the sins I wasn’t sure I was committing. My prayers were very little more than, “Please, God, whatever I’m doing wrong, forgive me.”

Which is why, since becoming Catholic, I’ve fallen madly in love with the confessional. The Church has this down to a science. She follows the formula every mother knows: “Your Father’s upset with you for X, but don’t worry. Do Y to show how sorry you are, and never do it again.” Then, finally, that blessed assurance: “Of course He still loves you. Don’t be silly.”

Imperfect as we all are, we can’t help but disappoint those we love most. There are only two ways to shake off that guiltiness: reconciliation or apostasy. We can either confess our sins and do penance, or we can turn God out of our hearts altogether.

This is my plea to lapsed (or “recovering”, if you must) Catholics: please don’t run from your guilt. Don’t turn your back on God. Just go talk to your Mum. She’ll know what to do.

Michael Davis is the Catholic Herald’s US commissioning editor

This article first appeared in the September 8 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here