Whenever 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.