A friend of mine, who interestingly is Mormon, recently commented on my apparent lack of remorse over something. She asked jokingly, “Where’s your Catholic guilt?”
I said, “I don’t carry any.”
She appeared confused and asked, “Are you giving up on being Catholic?”
I replied, “No, of course not. I just don’t carry around this notion of ‘Catholic guilt’.” I went on to say, “The idea of ‘Catholic guilt’ is something that was created by mean people, perpetuated by superstition, and believed by an ill-informed laity.”
She just sort of starred blankly at me. Since she was just playing around with me, I don’t think she was prepared for my serious response. I will take this opportunity now to explain my definition of “Catholic guilt” and what's wrong with it.
First, I think the notion was “created by mean people.” Think about God. Think about His love. Think about what He experienced in His incarnated self: a traitor’s kiss, the scourging, the weight of the Cross, and finally, the crucifixion. All of humanity’s sin was placed upon Jesus Christ and through His gift of self to the Father, mankind is elevated as it awaits a new heaven and a new earth (cf GS 37-38, 2 Pet 3:13).
When we consider who alone could possess that type of love, that amount of love, are we really thinking about someone who wants us to feel “guilty?” Feeling guilty is an emotional response, like anger, jealous, hate, or envy. It doesn't feel good. The precursor to feeling guilty is typically created by someone who wishes to yield some kind of control over us. By creating an environment where we "feel guilty," a person can manipulate us to also feel happy (lessen guilty feelings), feel sad (increase guilty feelings), or feel angry (blame another for feeling bad).
To feel “guilty” is not the same as contrition, which is rooted in scripture and is even considered by psychologists to be something different than guilt.
What is the difference between guilt and contrition? Actions! Feeling guilty, like any other emotion, can be overcome by experiencing a different, stronger emotion. Another emotion can make the guilty feeling fade temporarily or even go away completely. That is not true for a person experiencing contrition. Psychologist Dr. George Simon summarizes it this way:
The contrite individual 1) doesn’t make excuses, minimize, justify, or try to save face but humbly acknowledges their failures and shortcomings and sincerely strives to make amends, and 2) makes genuine and sustained efforts to not only to do better in the future but also to be a better person. Contrition is much more than saying you’re sorry or appearing sorrowful. It’s proving through your actions that you really are sorry and working hard not to find yourself feeling sorry for the exact same failure in the future.
That definition is very much in line with the Catholic understanding as expressed in our, Act of Contrition: “…I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin."
The second part of my definition of "Catholic guilt" is that the notion has been, "perpetuated by superstition."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines superstition as:
The attribution of a kind of magical power to certain practices or objects, like charms or omens. Reliance on such power, rather than on trust in God, constitutes an offense against the honor due to God alone, as required by the first commandment.
A person cannot fully comprehend the countless amount of practices which Catholics throughout the ages have engaged in order to be more "holy." I'm not even talking about things on global scale, I'm just thinking about individual little things people do. For example, most Catholics would say believing that rubbing a "lucky rabbit's foot" yields good luck is superstitious, yet some of them believe rubbing the foot of a statue before crossing oneself is somehow spiritually beneficial.
One of the primary downsides of so many superstitious acts, disguised as religious piety, is that when a person forgets to do them (or refuses to do them) they believe a divine penalty is incurred.
Venerable Louis of Granada wrote the following about God's attributes and our attitude towards Him:
Hence He is infinitely wise, infinitely merciful, infinitely just, infinitely good, and, therefore, infinitely worthy to be obeyed, feared, and reverenced by all creatures. Were the human heart capable of infinite homage, infinite love, it should offer them to this supreme Master. For if reverence and homage must be proportioned to the greatness and dignity of him to whom they are offered, then the homage we offer God should, if we were capable of it, be infinite also (The Sinner's Guide, Chapter 1).
This beautifully expresses what our desire to love and worship God should resemble. Instead we concern ourselves with superstitious acts and imagine that the Divine Being - he that is "pure act" (Aristotle) - is somehow angered because we failed to keep them.
Finally, the third part of my definition of "Catholic guilt" is that it is believed by a "ill-informed laity." This comes closely on the heels of superstition. For people who are swayed by supertistious acts, they are obviously not fully in touch with the truths expressed by the Catholic faith.
A strong argument could be made that the Church has not done itself, or its adherents, any favors by overlooking some of the things people do in the name of the Faith. Instead the Church has given official sounding names to the objects used in these misplaced devotions (i.e. sacramentals) and to the acts people perform with them (i.e. traditions with a small "t"). Commonly, this is found as part of a broader "inculturation" of the Faith effort.
The bottom line is, if the laity are "ill-informed" it is because the Church needed to do a better job of informing them!
So that is how I see the notion of "Catholic guilt." In short, it is not a positive notion. Rather, David's confession to God after his sin with Bathsheba (Ps. 51) is a good starting place for properly understanding the Catholic notion of contrition. Remember, it's not about just feeling badly about our sin, it's about changing the way we act!