“Catholic guilt” is a malady invented by sarcastic anti-Catholics. Its real name is a “well-formed conscience,” because that’s what kicks in when you are doing something you should not. Guilt. Repenting and vowing to do better is the remedy.
Neither of these names is to be confused with scrupulosity, which is a whole ‘nother animal of feeling guilt minus sin.
Every now and then I come across a snide reference to Catholic guilt. It portrays a normal functioning conscience as a bad thing, preferring instead to opt for sinful indulgence without regret. Their remedy it is to develop a mindset of guilt-free sinning. That is not healthy. That is a psychopath.
I once heard a priest point out in a homily that the apostle Judas actually had a conscience which worked properly. He simply did not remedy the pain as he should have. Judas could have been an example of the greatest act of mercy in all of history by asking God for forgiveness, but instead, he sought to end the pain by ending his life.
Archbishop Sheen’s insight
Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen explained in his book, Life of Christ that instead of repenting to God, Judas repented to himself. Sheen contrasted Peter and Judas’s remorse.
“We must be sorry for our sins in order for God to forgive them. Turning our remorse inward leads to despair because we cannot forgive our own sins. Only God can do that. We actually do not know for certain that Judas was impenitent up until his last breath, but only that he gave into despair and hung himself. Peter, by contrast, repented his betrayal of Christ and was forgiven.”
Sheen pointed out that Judas’s sorrow was about himself. “Scripture does not show that Judas attempted to save Jesus, only that he had a bad conscience, which he attempted to relieve by returning the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders.”
It’s worth noting that no one is supposed to live with guilt. Catholics turn to confession to acknowledge failings, confess them, and receive forgiveness and the graces to grow spiritually stronger. Early Christian writers attest that this sacrament was the constant practice of Christians as a way to draw nearer to God.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Deep within his conscience, man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment . . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths,” (CCC 1776).
“Guilt is not a curse, it is a blessing, according to Father Michael Van Sloun, pastor of St. Stephen in Anoka, Minnesota, who wrote in a 10-part series on Reconciliation for the Catholic Spirit Newspaper. “Guilt means that a person knows the difference between right and wrong, and feels badly after doing something wrong,” he said. “To not feel guilt after doing something wrong is out of line, to be a sociopath, someone who is so hardened to sin that an evil deed does not create inner turmoil. Good Christians are highly offended by their own sins and work vigorously to eliminate all wrongful actions in their lives.”
When Jesus appeared to St. Faustina, he told her that he would rather be merciful than just towards sinners. He gave her the Divine Mercy Chaplet calling it the last refuge for hardened sinners and a powerful tool in the fight for souls. St. Faustina wrote in her diary that Jesus said, “Oh, what great graces I will grant to souls who will recite this chaplet. (848) I want the whole world to know My infinite mercy. I want to give unimaginable graces to those who trust in my mercy (687).
Jesus does not want us to live with guilt either. Rather, he wants us to give it to him so that he can forgive us and fill us with his grace. Guilt is natural and healing supernatural. Anyone opposed to that, has much bigger problems than Catholic guilt.
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