Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Joys of Catholic Guilt

Graham Greene
(picture by Forgács Máté).

One of the things I often heard about in vague terms before becoming a Catholic was ‘Catholic Guilt’. There were those who seemed to pride themselves upon it. I picked up some notion of it from reading Graham Greene’s novels, with their heroes tortured by a sense of wrongs which could never be righted, evils which could never be undone, sins which could never be forgiven. In those days I could easily dismiss anything Catholic as not really being Christian, so I came to a vague conclusion that Catholics couldn’t therefore believe in Divine Grace.

That’s the problem with picking up your ideas about Catholicism from non-practising Catholics. You’ll encounter a jumbled assortment of half-truths, corrupted truths and distorted truths, which are far more dangerous than lies. In fact, I’ve come to learn from painful experience that the non-Catholic Catholics are very good at leading others swiftly down the broad road to destruction. The US health secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, being a prime example.

So what is this Catholic Guilt? What is peculiarly Catholic about having a strong sense of sin? Archbishop Fulton Sheen put it well when he said that a Catholic suffers more from wrongs he commits, simply because he loves more. It becomes so much more personal. If you have the idea of church as something like a police force, trying to catch you committing sins so you can be hauled before the courts and publicly disgraced, or like a stern schoolteacher who enforces conformity and insists that you do what they say ‘just because I say so’, then of course you will come to feel that offending this authority is no great matter. In fact, such offenses may be the way to liberate yourself from a burdensome responsibility which is only preventing you from reaching your individual potential.

But when you come to know the Church as your Mother, and when you come to know that this loving Mother was born from the womb of Our Blessed Mother, and is identical with the Body of Our Lord, who suffered so intensely out of love for each one of us, then it becomes a personal matter. Then you know that to break with this tender Mother is to separate yourself from one who loves, nurtures, protects.

I will never forget the deep sense I had in my first week following reception into the Church, when I had received Holy Communion for the first time: I just knew that there was a Presence inside me that I did not want to offend. Why would I want to do anything to separate myself from that great love?

The true understanding of Catholic guilt is that it is so painful because it is a fall from such heights of grace. The deeper the love affair, the more heartbreaking is the sense that this love is endangered, that it could even come to an end. And we know, as Catholics, that it could. We know we could lose that state of grace, not because God rejects us, but because we reject Him. The guilt is a blessing, because when we feel it, we know that something is wrong, and we can do something about it through the Sacrament of Confession. God forbid that I should ever cease to feel the pain of separation from Our Lord.

Posted by Anthony Radice (A Tiny Son of Mary).


  1. So glad you posted this here, I thought this was brilliant.

    1. Stuart, you're too kind! Thank you for your encouraging words.

  2. Good post. I find Catholic Guilt is a 'badge of honour' worn by the lapsed. The rest of us may feel it more, but talk about it less, and go to confession.

  3. A couple of comments on this. The first one is that you - and Archbishop Sheen (whose talks I love) - should be careful about saying Catholics are more loving than other Christians. You can't know that, and it harms the heart to think along such lines. Secondly, I think guilt may be the wrong word to use for what you are talking about. You are speaking of the how the Holy Spirit shows us where we sin, and causes our heart pain to realize how we have 'grieved the Spirit'. For me, there seems only a moment when I feel guilty; already Jesus has gone ahead of me and His grace takes my guilt away. This isn't through some salvation theory I've been taught, it is straight from His eyes that gaze in love at me. So what I'm saying is that what is enduring is an ever more tender conscience, not a sense of guilt. That is always momentary, for "He is greater than our hearts".


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