What is Catholic Guilt?

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The term “Catholic guilt” is generally used to describe the feelings of remorse or conflict in people who are or were raised Catholic. Sometimes this guilt is associated with specific church teachings, since when people feel that they have violated their faith’s laws they tend to feel guilty about it. The phrase also has a broader meaning, though. Many Catholic teachings emphasize the inherent sinfulness of all people, which can lead to a certain degree of self-loathing even in the absence of some obvious transgression. Guilt in this sense is usually related to inherent imperfections and daily failings that cause a person to feel that he or she is isolated from God and unworthy of reconciliation. Some scholars have linked this sort of religious-based guilt to obsessive compulsive disorder, though the results are far from conclusive.


Broad Ideas About Sinfulness

Many churches and faith-based organizations teach that sin and transgressions have separated people from the love of God or other deity, but the Catholic Church has a reputation for emphasizing this separation perhaps more vigorously than others. This is often particularly true in Catholic schools where young children are taught that they are unworthy of God’s love and are able to receive that love only through divine grace. People who grow up in these sorts of environments and with these sorts of teachings often develop into adults who feel guilty almost for existing. Many of these people remain deeply religious, but a sense of shame and sinfulness is often a big part of how they see themselves and is often the lens through which they approach their faith.

Relationship to Specific Church Teachings

Catholic guilt can also occur when a person who was raised in the faith engages in some type of behavior that the Church has declared to be wrong or sinful. Issues and practices associated with sexuality are some of the most common, and may be the cause of guilt for either a practicing Catholic or a lapsed one. Examples of prohibited practices include abortion, premarital sex, extramarital sex, masturbation, homosexuality, and the use of any type of birth control. Other sources of guilt may include divorce, not going to church, and interfaith marriage.

Guilt Generally

People who were raised in the Catholic faith are typically given very clear messages about which types of behavior are acceptable and which are not. This is not to say that people raised in a different faith do not feel guilty about the kinds of choices they make about how they will behave. Still, somehow the phrase Catholic guilt has made its way into popular vernacular. "Jewish guilt" is another common phrase.

To attach the term "Catholic" to feeling guilty about one's choices could be considered a stereotype, and unfair to people of the Catholic faith. The truth is, such guilt can affect people of various groups, Catholic or otherwise. When people do something that they feel is wrong, they will feel remorse after the fact. These feelings are generally normal, given the circumstances. People who lack the ability to feel remorse after doing something they have been taught is wrong may have some type of psychological problem that is more serious than guilt.

Potential Intersection With OCD

Some scholars have suggested that there may be a link between obsessive-compulsive behavior and guilt rooted in a religious faith like Catholicism. A number of studies have looked at the guilt felt by Catholic parishioners and leaders, often asking participants to make note of times when they experienced worry or recurring negative mental images. In most cases, the people who reported having a stronger faith were more bothered by these kinds of symptoms. This connection has led some to conclude that the intensive teachings and standards set by the Church may be related to incidences of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is a formally recognized psychological condition, though this conclusion is not widely held.

It is unlikely that Catholic guilt is really obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in disguise, at least not for most people. In some cases people who at risk of developing OCD may also be people who are naturally attracted to a life spent in service to others through religion. Those with a strong religious faith are also more likely to experience guilt, whether Catholic or otherwise, if they do something they have been taught is sinful.

Genetics also plays a role in whether a person develops OCD. It makes sense that when a person with the predisposition for OCD is raised in a strict manner, where the rules about what is right and what is wrong are very clearly emphasized, they would be more likely to experience guilt if they made choices that did not reflect what was considered acceptable according to their religious faith.


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Post 27

@BlackSheep: I read your post and I feel tremendous pity for you. I am not a Catholic, but I have great respect for the Catholic Church.

I don't know what the Catholic stance is on racially mixed marriages, but I doubt it's something they've never seen before. It's much more common these days. I also doubt you wouldn't be accepted because of your past. We're all sinners, and all have fallen short of the glory of God. No one comes into church perfect, and if you wait until you're "better" to go to church, you'll never get there. It's a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.

My suggestion is to call the priest who serves that church and

go talk to him. I can absolutely guarantee you can't tell him anything you've done that he hasn't heard before. Preachers -- Catholic or Protestant -- have heard everything.

Plus, it's not up to any church to forgive your sins. That's God's job, not the church's. In the Catholic faith, of course the priest is something of an intermediary, but in every Christian tradition, forgiveness is on God, not on the church. No human institution can forgive sins. That is in the spiritual realm and lies squarely with the Lord.

Good luck in your journey and God bless you!

Post 26

I was born a Catholic, and went to church with my nana as a girl. I was made to go to CCD which, I hate to admit, I hated, because of being picked on.

After my holy communion, I stopped going to church except maybe a few times over the years. I was always afraid of being Catholic and at the same time proud and ashamed. I am what they call the black sheep of the family. I feel the guilt of not being a righteous Catholic person of society. I still do not go to church. I have tried to go to other churches, but I feel out of place. I wish the Catholic Church would accept all types

of people and forgive their sins, because I don't think the church would accept me as a member.

There is a small Catholic Church here in my town but I'm afraid of not being accepted once they get to know me. I am ashamed of my religion of being Catholic, and also ashamed of myself for not really getting to know my religion. I am married now in a mixed race marriage. Tell me how the church would accept my husband. I don't think they will, and with everything in my past, I think the church would crumble. That's how much guilt I have.

Post 25

"If a person lacks the ability to feel remorse after doing something they have been taught is wrong, then he or she may have some type of psychological problem that is more serious than guilt."

Or you just happened to dismiss the ridiculous teaching of the church and form your own opinions about things like premarital sex, masturbation, telling the holy spirit to go blow a goat. That sort of thing.

Post 24

I read the comments from folks who are criticizing life as a Catholic and I think to myself that it's not the Catholic teachings that they object to, because those teachings originate from God's instructions to us on how to live a right life. A right life brings happiness, serenity, love while wrong choices bring illness, difficulties in relationships, difficulties in raising confident and happy children, and more.

Thus, folks here are simply objecting to God's teachings, not the Catholic faith. I think to myself that God already sent His son when humankind was in dire straits and had opted for every feel-good, easy, convenient way because we are imperfect beings who prefer to act upon our human urges. God has already sent His son to talk to us physically. I don't know what else He can do.

Post 22

The posts stating that Catholic guilt is the result of going against a particular church teaching is inaccurate. "Catholic" guilt is a sense of feeling that no matter what is done to help others' lot in life, do "the right thing" virtually all the time, and subordinate personal desires as dictated by Scripture and the Church, there remains a deep sense of personal failure and dissatisfaction. There must be something left out that will serve to open the trap door to eternal damnation.

Post 21

Post 9 summed it up quite well. My husband still lives with some of this, but not like his sisters, who have some very real hangups about their identities as humans from this horrific delusion known as Catholicism.

I'm Jewish, and we had our share of this stuff. The more Orthodox, the worse they are about women. However, those are the idiots of the tribe, and not the norm.

I was raised by a Reform (liberal) Jewish family, and I'm like night and day compared to the liberal Catholics. Even the liberal ones have this guilt thing going on, and I can't imagine having it. I can't imagine thinking that just by having sex, there's something wrong with me or

that I'm irredeemably bad forever and ever--and this is how a great many Catholic women feel and are viewed within that faith.

Meanwhile, I'm considered holy in my faith, simply for being a woman. This is why I don't have to follow as many rules as the men do. But in Catholicism, it's entirely backward, and women are considered evil and temptations. It's insane!

Post 20

People don't feel guilty after an abortion, whether they're 17 or 33 or whatever, anon59789. That's a lie propagated by liars in the Vatican. Most women feel relief. For the few who do feel guilt, it's because their superstition told them they were supposed to feel it, and they stupidly oblige.

Post 19

Catholic guilt should really be called shame to convey it's true nature. It is not the result of any action or thought. It is an attitude instilled early in a person, before they are accountable for their behavior, that they are unworthy of God's love, and therefore any love. It is reinforced by the constant insistence that we are sinners, regardless of our behavior. It is a state of hopelessness and a very real problem for many people, leading to all kinds of self-destructive behavior.

Post 18

Thank you so much anon112926 - you wrote exactly what I needed to hear.

I am a Catholic myself, and have taken a few liberties as to my beliefs and convictions (e.g., I support gay marriage, don't think that oral sex is a bad thing before marriage [Mormons are fine with it], etc.) One thing I can't get over is the "actual" sex. My boyfriend and I have been together for six and a half years, but can't get married, because he's still in school. Apparently marriage has to be this big "smoke and mirrors" hoopla nowadays, and can't simply happen out a simple exchange of vows anymore.

But it is something I'm struggling with – still struggling with. In the

modern world, if you don't have sex with a boyfriend of six-plus years, you're a witch and a prude and unwilling to be intimate with him. But in the Catholic world, if you do have sex, if you're not married, you're a nasty sinner, and hurt God every time you do it. Hell, even some traditional stories tell about how married women who became saints maintained their "purity" by not having sex while married...what?

Now, I know that the latter statement (hurting God by having premarital sex) isn't really the case, just from pure reasoning. But being in a Catholic school for 14 years (and a very dogmatic one when I was a child), it's engraved in my psyche that sex is a very bad thing. Now don't get me wrong. I don't want that lingering feeling to be there, but it is, and it's awful. Every time my boyfriend and I have "real" sex, I feel terrible, I feel guilty, even though I know I shouldn't be feeling that way. It's just a natural behavior, and our long-term commitment to each other is proof of that. But still, that "guilt" - the feeling I'm doing something awful - is there.

I am very much a "cafeteria Catholic" -- that is, I pick and choose what to believe in, and tailor my religion (which is beautiful in its own way in its traditions and teachings) in the way that best fits my life and helps me be the best person I can be while still connecting with God.

I consider myself religious (and love learning about other religions), but this guilt surrounding sex is just too much to bear. I can't enjoy it with my significant other, because again, it's almost engraved in my psyche because of all those years in Catholic school. My boyfriend understands (coming from a Catholic background himself), but can't really grasp why I can't get rid of it. He wants me to "get over it", but psychologically, I can't. Any advice would be well appreciated. Thanks.

Post 17

Catholic guilt is just guilt, period. It is prescribed to Catholics when a Catholic is conflicted about a Church teaching.

Guilt is the mind's and body's emotions acting upon an internal conflict. This conflict exists because your pride (and other vices) are not in line with what you intellectually and spiritually know is the Truth and morally right. Truth is what is revealed and taught by the Roman Catholic Church (or whatever your religion is) and you are not desiring to comply.

A truly holy person who has submitted to the will of God will feel no guilt, and will act righteously. A truly humble person can never be embarrassed as they have no pride ascribed to an action, but

do it purely for the love of another. These are all quite lofty goals, but this is God's desire for us and true joyfulness will come when we work towards these goals. Anything less results in us following our own desires, which in the end will only bring momentary pleasure (not joy) and in the end a lack of peace with yourselves.

Many will deny this or reject it. But if you read this, you know it to be true. Pray and you will find the answers.

Post 14

@post 4: So if guilt stemming from homosexuality is innate and unconnected to religious upbringing, then it should be the case that all gay people, regardless of their upbringing, should feel some level of the guilt your brother experienced and that led him to taking drugs. That's obviously not the case. Your brother has experienced such guilt and pain not because what he's doing is 'innately known to be wrong' but because he has family members like you who have drilled this sense of guilt into him. You should open your mind a bit more for his sake.

Side note: if you think his homosexuality is a 'choice' and a 'sin' then why on earth would he continue to choose

to do it while he's plagued by this guilt and major disapproval from his family? The only thing that's innate is obviously his sexuality, otherwise he would choose a different lifestyle.

If you believe God created everyone in his image and loves each person how they were created, then you're the sinner for shaming your brother into hating how God created him. If you want to help your brother, accept him for who he is and help him to accept himself.

Post 12

Catholic guilt is certainly no myth. The catholic church teaches us that we are born of original sin and that we are sinners throughout our lives.

You can't get away from it. i have renounced my faith for the farce that it is a long time ago and still the guilt continues. People who bring their children up catholic really should be tried for mental abuse.

Post 11

What a lot of garbage. I am a practicing RC have five kids and sin a lot. You guys would have problems whatever religion you happen to touch on. Just think: what would Christ have done? Remember, we can never understand god; he is all around; he is me; he is you, blaming guilt or what some nun said to you when you were 14 is a cop out - grow up.

Post 10

Guilt is the most effective form of social control ever devised. It was invented by the Jews and perfected by Rome. No more guilt!

Post 9

I was raised in a Catholic background and went to a Catholic school where only nuns taught.

The nuns were nice and then you turned into a teenager. Coming of age was a terrible rite of passage.

As a woman, your life is over once you give in to the so-called temptation. Even if you are married and have a child, you are then considered to no longer be pure.

The church wants all of us to be celibate.

I never had children and for a long time was afraid if I had sex for the first time, my life would be over with.

Every day you live with this. That is sexual guilt, catholic style. It still plagues me

to this day.

I see women with many children and my values tell me they are animalistic for not being able to control their desire. I have friends who have become lesbians and their parents make comments like, "My daughter is a good girl. she never gave in." She doesn't have a boyfriend, she only has her girlfriends. They don't realize they are gay.

Then there is the son whose parents want him to be a priest. My poor friend went to college and entered seminary to become a priest. He fell in love and got married and his mother, to this day, says he gave in to the evil temptation. And she considers his wife of 25 years to be the evil temptation.

As a woman, your job, according to the priests is to have babies. If you don't procreate then you are constantly told and reminded to live alone. If you don't date, live alone and you're miserable as a woman, then yours is the Kingdom of God when you die.

If you marry and have children, it is always thrown in your face that you gave in to temptation.

And people wonder why Sinead O'Connor burned the pope's picture.

Post 8

You reap what you sow. I have gone against the Catholic church on two occasions and it will haunt me forever. I will never marry (too old) and never have children. They say God is forgiving, but I have my doubts.

Post 7

Catholic guilt also comes from being taught that sex is in itself dirty and evil, but necessary for procreation.

Catholic children are taught from an early age that their bodies are bad, their desires are bad, that they are sinful and bad from birth and that enjoying anything is bad.

It's not that Catholics feel guilty because they've done something that's against "the rules". It's that Catholics often experience a vague sense of guilt just for existing at all.

Catholic women, especially, are taught that being female alone is a source of extra sinfulness and wrongness.

Post 6

I have found through a few friends and family, and ex convent girls, that a catholic guilt monkey sits on their back at times where the soteriological discourse is really not going to help gain clarity over dilemmas that can be perceived from variety of less fatalistic and more practical viewpoints.

Self-righteousness, judgementalism and hypocrisy are much more overtly demonstrated in the act of self- correction. I seriously think this self chastisement, or flagellation, does nothing to help self esteem or interpersonal relationships, especially in interacting with those who are somewhat diversified from that catholic solid black and white weltanschauung worldview that keeps you awake at night and gets you up in the morning.

Post 4

The guilt that ensues from engaging in practices such as abortion, premarital sex, extramarital sex, masturbation, homosexuality, and using birth control aren't peculiar to Catholics. Ask any 17 year old girl leaving the abortion clinic how she feels.

The fact is that women who have abortions often feel guilt for many, many years regardless of what religion they belong to. Why? Because deep down people know it is wrong.

Guilt, like any other feeling or emotion is innate -- God-given if you will. And the degree of guilt felt is probably commensurate with the seriousness of the activity that is causing the guilt.

For example, stealing a pen from a bank counter would make someone feel a little guilty for a

little while, committing murder or rape could lead to a lifetime of overwhelming guilt.

My brother is a homosexual who has become addicted to crystal meth. I asked him why he began using crystal meth and he explained to me that using the drug freed him from the guilt he felt when he engaged in sex with a person of the same sex.

If something makes you feel so guilty that you need to take a highly addictive drug to remove that guilt, perhaps you should stop doing it. The truth is that Catholicism/Christianity doesn't shackle us with guilt, it actually frees us from it. Amazing Grace anybody?

Post 3

Catholic guilt is unconfessed sin.

Post 2

"Catholic guilt" is, "Jewish guilt" "is a myth".

Post 1

I think the term Catholic guilt became popular because is associated with Catholics more so than other religions because Catholicism seems to direct its followers by proscription more than other religions. Or, at least, it seems to guilt its adherents for breaking proscriptions more than other religions.

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