Catholic guilt? Try again…

Confess%202.bmpWhenever someone tickles the hair-trigger of my seemingly congenital guilty conscience, the response to my reflexive mea culpa is that I am s-o-o-o Catholic. Well, yes, I hope so. Then again, the Pilgrim tradition of my youth is no slouch when it comes to guilt, so I can’t say as I took that on with my Catholic baptism. For that matter, would Jewish humor–or Judaism itself–exist without the emotional straight man of the guilty conscience?
And now comes a study showing that we Catholics (as well as other Christians) are actually no more guilt-ridden than anyone else. (Well, Jews will be studied next, so maybe they’ll stay true to tradition.) According to this write-up from Yonat Shimron, the religion writer par excellence at the Raleigh News &Observer, Roman Catholic teens feel no more guilty than other U.S. teenagers:


If they cheated on an exam, lied to their parents or engaged in serious petting, it’s not bearing down on their conscience, according to a study by UNC-Chapel Hill researchers. At least it’s not making them feel more guilty than their non-Catholic peers.
The emotional fallout of transgressing the Catholic Church’s long list of sins — venial and mortal — may be a thing of the past. Blame the decline of ruler-wielding nuns at Catholic schools, or assimilation into the wider society.
The study, to be published this month in the Review of Religious Research, is based on data from the National Study of Youth and Religion conducted by sociologist Christian Smith, now at the University of Notre Dame and Stephen Vaisey, at UNC-CH. The survey included 3,290 teens, of whom 819 were Catholic — about 24 percent, roughly equivalent to the proportion of Catholics in the U.S. population.


No doubt many doomsayers will view this as more evidence of the widespread loss of a sense of sin. But it may be more symptomatic of a hangover from the longstanding misuses of sin, and guilt, as a means of social control by religious folks (pastors and parents and the rest). Sin and guilt are useful as paths to reconciliation. I have always found the lack of a belief in forgiveness as the real nettle to grasp, and the true heart–and toughest part–of the Christian message. People of all ages resist burdens of guilt not only because they are transparently used as ways to get them to do something (and not necessarily something God wants them to do), but also because they see no way out of the bind of a guilty conscience.
It is noteworthy that the study also showed that for Catholics, going to confession did seem to lighten the burden that was felt.

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C'mon now

posted June 10, 2008 at 7:53 am

“Forgiveness” of what? Sin and sinning. The Catholic Church just needs to listen to the current Pope. He has a good grasp on the truth of scripture. God will indeed bring a repentant people back to fellowship. Forgiveness is not a hate crime, it is the only path, the same one love walks, that leads to God.

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Therese Borchard

posted June 13, 2008 at 7:12 am

This is disappointing because I have used the excuse of “Catholic guilt” to explain many behaviors. Yikes. Time to convert to Judaism. T

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posted June 15, 2008 at 12:07 am

LOL – But my grandmother was the East Coast Wholesale Retailer of Catholic Guilt, and she trained my dad.
But, I’m curious about the study. As a teacher, I don’t think that “American Teens” have the same sense of shame (like, when I realized that a little old lady or a younger kid heard me use foul language when I was jr. high) as some of us did when we were their age.

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posted July 31, 2008 at 6:15 am

aS i ALREADY COMMENTED ON THE VIDEO PORTION OF TODAY’S BLOG, I think guilt is indeed a “learned behavior that is reinforced by most organized religions. mostly because of the constant reminders that we are not worthy. The thing I’ve (finally) realized is that G-d didn’t WANT us to be worthy; it would negate His Perfect gift! He was certainly capable of creating a worthy people if that had been His desire, right? It’s our own very human imperfection that illustrates the magnoitude of Christ’s sacrifice! The other piece I can now see is that Jesus Himself rarely used guilt in terms of motivating his followers; it’ a much more Old Testament kind of thing. THAT ALONE should teach us something, don’t you think?

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