a woman holding a compass as she faces a body of water Catholic guilt

Catholic guilt gets a bad rap. But guilt is actually an amazing spiritual survival instinct that God built into our humanity to reorient us back to our proper identity – back to who we really are. In other words, the fact that you feel guilt is because you’re so good! Read on to find out more!

Hear me out about Catholic guilt

A quick Google search on “Catholic guilt” results in all sorts of interesting (and many distasteful) articles and cartoons. 

Despite the fact this is largely unscientific data, I’d say it’s accurate to conclude that most people do not consider Catholic guilt a positive thing!

In one (crass) article highlighting the differences between Jewish and Catholic guilt, the writer quipped “The Jews set aside one day each year to atone for their sins. It’s called Yom Kippur. Catholics have a somewhat similar concept. It’s called life.”

The stereotype that intense, lifelong guilt is part and parcel of being Catholic runs deep, and it’s because of this that what I say next might be shocking: 

Catholic guilt is actually a really good thing. 

(I know, it sounds crazy. But hear me out!) 

I am not saying I think it’s a good thing to believe we’re supposed to be engaging in self-flagellation, or crawling on our knees to the confessional, dwelling only on how bad we are as Catholics.

Far from it! I’m talking about actual Catholic guilt, not what everyone misunderstands it to be. 

To begin to understand why guilt is a good thing, we need to go back to the beginning. In the Garden of Eden, before the Fall, we walked in union with God in total peace.

Every part of our human action – everything that arose from us – was moving us toward what is true, good, and beautiful.

Then… Original Sin entered the picture.

Ever since the Fall, we have suffered from concupiscence. We’ve lost our inherent, natural inclination towards – or ease of living in total orientation to – what is true, good, and beautiful.

Why guilt is amazing

Guilt, then, is this amazing spiritual survival instinct that God built into our human constitution that is meant to reorient us back to our proper identity – back to who we really are. It’s the sense that we are not lined up with what we’re made for.

Instead of Catholic guilt being a negative thing, we have to see the underlying positive – the implicit silver lining here: the fact that you feel guilt is because you’re so good!

For instance, imagine you’re on a sailboat with a compass pointing you in the direction you want to go. When you start to stray from the course, your compass begins ringing, buzzing, warning you that you’re going off course. It wakes you up to the fact that you need to course-correct.

Our conscience is like that compass and guilt is like the built-in alarm system that alerts us when we veer off course.

As we receive grace through the sacramental life, It gets more and more well-formed; we grow in our ability to discern accurately what is in line with how God designed us and to act in a way that’s consistent with what is true, good, and beautiful.

And what is true, good, and beautiful is that you are made in the image of God, which means you are infinitely valuable. You are a living, breathing, acting-out image of the Holy Trinity – the Divine, Infinite Godhead who is the Alpha and the Omega! 

You as a person – as a human being – are a totally unique, infinitely loved, invaluable masterpiece.

I work with a lot of people who are very faithful Catholics. But I’ve discovered that people really don’t get how much they are loved. 

Our very being – our very existing – is the consequence of being loved! Yet we continue to hold onto the mindset that we have to earn our way into a relationship with God… put more simply, that we have to earn God’s love. 

This usually stems from a deeper belief we are not good enough as we are. Then, when we don’t act perfectly (as we inevitably will), feelings of guilt flare up, causing us to feel even more miserable. 

“If only” thoughts then start to flood our minds and hearts: If only I would pray more rosaries. If only I could fast better. If only I could cut out all the sin from my life. If only I could do everything just right… then I will be able to be loved.

This could not be further from the truth. 

We are made in God’s image and likeness

two hands making the shape of a heart held over the sun in the background valentine's day

We are destined to return to Him through Christ, destined for our humanity to be in union with His Divinity for all eternity. We can never earn God’s love, because we’re already infinitely loved, before we even exist. We’re loved into existence, and our love is only ever a response to being loved.

You’re like the head of security given the responsibility of guarding the masterpiece that is YOU, and with protecting the dignity and value that you have. Guilt helps you do this. 

Thank God for guilt! This is what He equipped us with to help us be able to return back to Him! He really pulled out all the stops, figured out every single angle to try to get us back to His embrace. Guilt is one of these really creative ways He does that.

It’s like He thought, “Okay, I’m giving them free will, because love has to be a free choice. With that free will they will have a choice between right and wrong. What happens if they choose to go the wrong way? How about I give them an internal compass that’s going to bring them back to me?”

That’s amazing! That’s so creative and brilliant.

So when that pang of guilt comes – that conviction from the Holy Spirit that makes us feel something negative – the only way that that is of God is if it immediately puts you back in line with who you are. Feeling that guilt, you turn back to the Father to receive His mercy, to fall down at His feet, to let your head crumple down in His lap, to let Him embrace you in His arms and console you.

If we understand and recognize the way God made us – how He built us to have this internal compass guiding us back towards Him – even when we do something wrong and feel guilty about it, we can understand our own goodness and feel the consolation of knowing that we’re made to be held in His arms. 

It’s as if He says to us “I know you can’t do it on your own. And I’m so sorry that you just tried to. I don’t want you to suffer. Come here. Let Me love you. Let Me heal you. Let Me clean your wounds. Don’t keep leaving. Stay with Me.”

Understood in this way, guilt serves as a reminder that we need our Dad – that we can’t do it on our own and that we’re not made to do it on our own; that our Dad is with us, waiting for us, ready to take us fully in His arms, no matter what, as soon as we but glance back in His direction. 

That is what guilt is for, and that’s why Catholic guilt can be considered a good thing!

(For more on this topic, check out Episode #27 of the Being Human Podcast)

Being Human Podcast

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