Catholic Guilt

I was watching Dead Zone the other night with Chris, the episode “Transgressions” in the final season. At one point, Johnny tells Sarah he just feels so guilty, and she quips, “It’s all the Catholics you’ve been hanging around.” Odyssey 5 also comes to mind in which someone tells another, “You’re Catholic, you always feel guilty.” After I finished reading Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, I decided I was too harsh on her, that she wasn’t being deliberately malicious, and decided to email her and ask why she made certain characters Catholic. She responded by saying “Because [she has] many Catholic friends who suffer guilt until they realize how much God loves them.”

Where did the “guilty Catholic” come from? Personally, I have never met a Catholic who’s tortured by guilt. I feel no guilty motivations for any “works” I may do, though Lord knows I have plenty in my life to feel guilty about. When I asked Chris, he joked, “I feel guilty for not feeling guilty!” Although as far as I can tell, this stereotype has little basis in reality, it is a widespread and deeply ingrained stereotype. I can only speculate as to its origin.

The Original Guilty Catholic

Maybe we can look back to the Reformation. Martin Luther was initially wholly motivated by guilt. At least that’s the picture I got from his biography, Luther the Reformer. He ran from pilgrimage to pilgrimage, in a frenzy to rack up his good works points and wipe out his guilty debts, which eventually led to his “faith alone” epiphany. Repeatedly, he was told by his fellow monks to look to the cross, but was plagued knowing he could never do enough to be righteous, and stand before a righteous God, of his own merit. When I accused Luther of pride in a conversation with a friend, because Luther somehow believed his sins were too great for the usual method of salvation from the cross, he told me this form of pride is called despondency. I’m willing to venture that the generic guilty Catholic stems from despondency. I think Luther’s pride is also seen when he believed that he was the only one whose interpretation of Scripture was correct, and that his belief was enough to save him. Focuses way too much on himself to be of Christ. Enough about Luther, the original guilty Catholic.

Why Catholics Might Feel Guilty

The difference between Protestants and Catholics in how we see ourselves, is that Catholics believe what we do matters, but we take full credit for our sins, and only share in any credit for the good we may do by God’s grace. Of course, many of the far removed Protestant denominations believe the same thing (my parents and I agree on the technicalities of this issue, a great relief!), but this was a crucial breaking point during the Reformation. “Faith alone” means what we do doesn’t actually matter in that it doesn’t affect anything, it is merely proof of faith without our free will. Always keep in mind, Luther emphasized grace to the point of condemning free will in even our decision to accept Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. Calvin took things further and said our damnation and even our sins are designed by God to increase His glory, we have no choice in anything. Both thought that any effort on our part was pride, and that any claim to glory on our part was an attempt to take away glory from God. Of course, increasing the glory of His loved ones increases His glory, especially since we can only be glorified if we become like Christ. How can that be prideful?

This kind of disconnect with our actions doesn’t make much sense, and it scrambles any of the beauty of our relationship with God because free giving of our selves is crucial to any real relationship. If what we do doesn’t matter, then why are we here? That’s why many Protestant denominations have drifted back to Catholic dogmas, without a clue as to their roots.

So here is the defining Catholic feature: we must do things. There’s really not much that we must do, and Augustine assessed it as a very easy yoke to bear indeed, especially compared to the old law. There are observances of a few “sweet” sacraments, and obedience to those in authority. Like any kind of guilt, I’m assuming that of the guilty Catholics (I’m sure some do exist though I haven’t met them), comes from knowing that either you’ve done something wrong or you haven’t done what you should do. In the Catholic Faith, what we should and shouldn’t do is more clearly defined than in many other faiths or denominations, so I guess it makes sense that there is a guilty Catholic stereotype. Maybe it has sprung, not from real experience with guilty Catholics, but from what people imagine they would feel if they were Catholic and had to follow “all those rules”.

It’s true that the Catholic punishments are also well defined. There is the sacrament of reconciliation and penance. Usually, people are instructed to right their hearts through prayer, not to sin again, and are forgiven. Doesn’t sound awfully guilt inducing to me, but hey, I haven’t actually gone through it yet. Then there is the punishment of Purgatory, although as C. S. Lewis puts it, our souls cry for the purifying fires of Purgatory. We would not wish to stand before a righteous God without being purified. The pain of Purgatory is a sweet pain when thought of that way. The only real catch in all the Catholic rules is that we must mean it. Everything is vain without faith that bears fruit in love. If someone obeys all the rules, and goes to confession, does their penance, etc., but does so without love of God or faith in His mercy and salvation, they must know in their heart they haven’t fulfilled the greatest prerequisite to accepting God’s grace. So is the guilty Catholic really the same as a guilty Protestant, just better defined?

Why Catholics Shouldn’t Feel Guilty (and most don’t)

Of course, those familiar with Catholic beliefs know we can never merit our salvation, and even the good works we do are not by our own merit, but Christ’s. Salvation and our lives here on Earth are not about us, and we need to avoid pride, which leads us to believe it is. Instead, we must realize that all we are capable of is cooperating with Christ, and allowing God’s grace to work in our lives. Any good that we do or have is only by God’s grace. So the pressure to “earn” salvation would seem to me an entirely invented pressure, designed to make us feel more important than we are.

That must be the key. Realize that it’s not about us! It’s not about fearing His punishments or even fulfilling a list of requirements. It’s about God, and loving His laws, because you love Him and want to please Him and be conformed to His will. When we realize that, the pride of giving ourselves credit, and beating up ourselves with guilt disappears. Because then, we see that our sins are washed away by Christ’s more than adequate sacrifice. Our works are performed in earnest effort to be closer to God and conform to His will. The good we do is not ours, and the bad we do doesn’t matter in light of the cross, like Luther’s peers told him.

I don’t know how Luther could have missed it, because as I’ve said before, the heart of the Catholic Faith is sacrificing our pride, our selves, and surrendering to Christ. I know the Church of his time was a hyperactive abused thing, but it’s all there in the catechisms and councils. Guilt was conquered at the cross. We realize that nothing we do is enough to stand before a righteous God, but that He has done enough. What we do matters, because we choose to accept or reject God, His grace, and His will in our lives. We choose to respond in love or pride, and consequently feel peace or guilt.

Disclaimer

This is all more of a journal entry pondering this stereotype that I find bizzare, and doesn’t really qualify as a public statement. Do I understand it right? Or is the guilty Catholic outside my reach still?

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4 Responses to Catholic Guilt

  1. lenetta says:

    OK, I know I left a comment on one of these posts – something in cyberspace must have eaten it. Very interesting stuff, and you reminded me I need to do a post on something I heard at a funeral recently. The E-Free pastor noted that we are saved by faith alone and nothing we do makes any difference. Hubs’s cousin attends that church (much to the entire Lutheran family’s dismay) and I told him I had a question for him but needed to wrap my mind around it first. I figure I’d better have my ducks in a row ’cause I’m not so quick thinking as I used to be. (Insert grumbling about sleep deprivation.)

    Regarding guilt, I am sometimes a bit overcome at God’s love and grace and mercy because even though I know better, I still sin. And even though He knew I would, He still sent Jesus for me. Now that I’m a mom, I have a teeny tiny glimpse of God’s love for me when I think about my love for my child. Whew. How blessed we are!

  2. Stacey says:

    So what is it that you’re trying to wrap your head around with your hubs’s cousin? Maybe talking about it will help you work it out.

  3. lenetta says:

    The pastor said that we are saved by faith alone, and there is nothing we could do to gain our salvation. I think this is wrong because:
    1) we are not saved by faith – we’re saved by God’s grace freely given to us.
    2) the act of having faith, opening ourselvs up to God’s grace, is just that – an action that we must *do*. So we must perform the “work” (if you will) of faith to open ourselves to God’s saving grace for salvation.

    But I need to dig through my bible and a huge stack of books to get the whys and wherefores to strengthen my points.

  4. Stacey says:

    Yeah, that’s a funny little contradiction that nobody on the “inside” ever seems to notice. I agree with you. It’s interesting that in insisting on grace to the exclusion of free will, the Reformers went and tried to put everything in our power by saying having faith was enough to earn salvation. Of course, they had to come up with predestination to try to take it out of our hands again. And then we’re left with no relationship with God, because it has no choice in it…

    Yes, only the Catholic view makes any sense. God’s grace is needed even to turn to him, but we have a choice always to resist his grace.

    You could ask him, “Then why are we here?” If nothing we do matters, then life on Earth is rather pointless, isn’t it?

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