“That’s not how it works, Tracy. Even though there is the whole confession thing, that’s no free pass, because there is a crushing guilt that comes with being a Catholic. Whether things are good or bad or you’re simply… eating tacos in the park, there is always the crushing guilt”
– Jack Donaghy(played by Alec Baldwin)
Catholic guilt has become a humorous trope in the media and in our culture. The image it conjures is that of lapsed and devout Catholics overly worried or anxious about the simplest of things. Catholic guilt goes hand in hand with the idea that Catholics like to drink. Both tropes apply doubly to Irish Catholics.
It should be added, in my experience the people who use the phrase Catholic guilt the most are lapsed Catholics. Making a joke about Catholic guilt is up there with saying, “I went to Catholic school” as signs that someone is a lapsed Catholic. It makes sense that someone who only goes to Mass on Christmas and Easter would feel guilty. They have the reminder of the faith they left behind. I say this as someone with experience.
While Catholic guilt can be humorous it can have serious implications if it reaches obsessive leaves. Furthermore, Catholic guilt is at its core a symptom of the fall and original sin.
What is Catholic Guilt
Catholic guilt is often caricatured as this daunting sense of guilt that the Pope and God put on your back that can only be relieved by going to Mass and praying the Rosary. But this is a caricature, but the truth is God did put something on all our backs: The Cross.
Truthfully, Catholic guilt is the bad feeling you get when you know you’ve sinned. Catholics are famous for their sinning. But also the Catholic Church as the sacrament of reconciliation otherwise known as confession. Reconciliation allows you to receive absolution for your sins. It’s very cathartic.
This mechanism often leaves people feeling guilty. There is a need to go to confession. It’s a thing you have to do. It’s a thing to worry about.
Catholic guilt is one of the many cultural ways Catholics are different from protestants. Catholicism has a lapsed culture to it. One can be culturally Catholic but not a practicing Catholic. In this respect, Catholicism is closer to Judaism. Interestingly, enough Jewish guilt is a trope as well.
Catholic Guilt as Scrupulosity
Feeling bad for the sins you’ve committed is completely normal. However, a constant and distressing feeling of guilt over sins or perceived sins is known as Scrupulosity. Scrupulosity is characterized as pathological guilt about religious and moral behavior to the point of it being disruptive to a person’s everyday life. It is often viewed as a religious version of obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD.
A person struggling with scrupulosity likely goes to confession obsessively to make up for their sins. Scrupulosity can lead to anxiety and depression from the thought of eternal damnation. Furthermore, it can put a strain on one’s faith life.
There are generally two types of Scrupulosity:
1. Developmental – This type of scrupulosity is transitory and only occurs for a short duration of time. This type of anxiety is usually brought on when a person becomes serious about their faith or spend time reflecting on their lives. The anxiety is usually temporary, and the anxiety will dissipate as the person avails themselves of the ordinary means of sanctification.
2. Emotional – This is longer lasting scrupulosity. People who struggle with this form will have long periods of depression and anxiety that can last for years or even a lifetime.
Catholic guilt in the form of scrupulosity is often caused by a single faceted understanding of God. That God is some sort of exacting master. The person develops an almost religious hypochondria. Not trusting in God or the teachings of theologians. Obsessively saying the act of contrition.
If you think you’re struggling with scrupulosity, I would encourage you to find a good confessor and Catholic therapist. Scrupulosity can cause anxiety and depression in this world, it can also have consequences in the world to come.
The ultimate Iron is that scrupulosity is a sin. It is a sin because the person refuses to accept God’s mercy.
Concupiscence – Sinning
Scrupulosity and Catholic guilt are often the results of a poorly formed conscience. But the truth is people are sinners. There is truth in Catholic guilt and scrupulosity. Human beings have a natural inclination to sin. This inclination is called concupiscence. From the Catechism:
“Concupiscence stems from the disobedience of the first sin. It unsettles man’s moral faculties and, without being in itself an offense, inclines man to commit sins” (No. 2515)
Original sin, or the first sin, has been passed down through the generations since Adam and Eve. The sacraments of Baptism removes original sin from our souls. But it does not remove our inclination to sin. It is the effect of original sin that remains after baptism.
So while original sin is removed at baptism, people are still liable to sin and inclined to sin. In the Catholic faith there are two types of sins:
1. Mortal Sins – These are the most serious types of sins. They are an active choice against God. There are three conditions that need to be met for a choice to be considered a mortal sin. It needs to be of a Grave Matter, the person needs to have full knowledge that is a sin, and the person needs to have done it with full consent.
2. Venial Sins – A venial sin is a sin that meets one or two of the above conditions. Usually, a person doesn’t realize they committed a venial sin.
A person who commits a mortal sin needs to go to confession in order to receive absolution and to be eligible to receive the Eucharist. Venial sins do not need to be confessed, but it is a good idea to do it anyway.
Getting Over Catholic Guilt
There are hundreds of articles out there by lapsed Catholics about how they need to get over Catholic guilt. But that’s not how you get rid of guilt. The best way to get rid of guilt is to apologize and make amends. I’d encourage anyone suffering from Catholic guilt to go to confession and to learn more about the Catholic faith. It can be difficult if you haven’t been in a while. But trust me, you’ll feel better.