In Praise of Catholic Guilt

Now that I’m Catholic, I spend a lot more time feeling guilty than I used to. “Ah-ah!” the world would say, “Catholic guilt! Told you being Catholic was no fun.” I’d heard of this concept all my life, and I too had a vague image of Catholics walking around all tense and frowny-faced, too held back by unnecessary guilt to live life to the fullest. I felt bad for these sad sacks, thinking that that was the sort of thing that one would need years of therapy to get over. So it’s been interesting, then, to find that Catholic guilt is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.

Before I was Catholic I had much less guilt—not because I never did anything wrong, but because I told myself I never did anything wrong. It’s perfectly natural to get that uncomfortable feeling of remorse if you’ve done something bad, so if you want to avoid feeling guilty, you only have two options: Stop doing bad things, or change your definition of what is bad. In typical modern fashion, I opted for the latter. If my conscience bothered me after passing along some juicy neighborhood gossip, I’d worm my way out of it by telling myself that I was merely sharing information, not gossiping. If I felt nagged by the fact that I’d been rude to someone, I’d assure myself that they deserved it. My creativity knew no bounds when it came to massaging my moral code so that I could avoid that uncomfortable feeling of guilt.

It was a shock, then, when I became Catholic, and assented to an immutable moral code that no human has the authority to change. All my mental acrobatics to rationalize my way to self-canonization were useless against the clear laws that God gives us through the Church ... and suddenly I found myself experiencing a sensation that I had spent my whole life running from: guilt.

At first it was no fun, and I spent too much time beating myself up for my many failures. But then I began to change. I began to rely on the sacrament of reconciliation in a real way, pouring out my guilt in the confessional, and received good counsel, grace, and the freedom of knowing that I was forgiven in return. Seeing how hopeless my own efforts were at the whole “not doing bad stuff” thing, I turned to the Eucharist for strength as I never had before. I began to approach God as my Lord and much-needed Savior, rather than as an intellectual concept.

What I found is that guilt is the natural and healthy result of having a clear moral code, and that there’s no way to grow personally and spiritually without it. We all do bad things sometimes, and it’s a normal response to feel bad about it. It is only when we embrace those feelings of remorse—instead of running from them—that we can take a hard look at where we went wrong and what we need to do to make ourselves better people in the future. My life has changed tremendously since becoming Catholic: I’m more happy and more peaceful, and even though I have a long way to go, I’m a much better wife, mother, daughter and friend than I used to be. By following the Church’s teachings and learning to develop a relationship with God, my life has become more rich and fulfilling than I ever thought possible ... and it all started with a good dose of Catholic guilt.

P.S. Speaking of things that changed since becoming Catholic, I’ll be talking about my conversion from atheism on EWTN television on Tuesday (July 19) on the show “The Choices We Face,” at 6:00 PM Eastern. I’d be delighted for you to tune in!