Cousin 1 says he believes the guilt his Catholic family taught him was important for his emotional development. Cousin 2 disagrees. She says that same family’s teachings about guilt did nothing to enhance her inner voice for right and wrong. Interesting discussion. But, when I get caught eavesdropping, they toss the debate in my lap.
Ah, Catholic guilt! You hear the phrase a lot.
Strictly speaking, our perserverations in Western civilization about “Catholic guilt” are actually one particular example of a much wider issue. To wit: how Western religion (the so-called Judeo-Christian culture) shapes and imprints our culture. It seems to me that any serious anthropological investigation can yield only one conclusion: The Judeo-Christian culture shapes and nurtures some beautiful things, some really nutty things and some outright pathological things.
It’s not easy to hold those three seeming disparities together as a whole. The human tendency is to jump on one and become antagonistic to the other two. There are people who will fight to the death before they will acknowledge the nutty or pathological parts of Western religion. On the other hand, there are people who would drop dead before they would acknowledge the beautiful things.
Psychology? Freud was all over this from the start (“The Future of an Illusion,” “Moses and Monotheism,” “Civilization and Its Discontents”). Somewhere in my top 10 favorite Freud quotes is, “Western civilization is a neurosis factory.” Well, yeah. When I’m neurotic (which is most of the time), my default worldview is to exaggerate my role in cause/effect. That is, to assume a much greater role and responsibility than is in point of fact regarding what is happening and what people are doing, thinking and feeling around me. This includes a phenomenon known in clinical circles as “MSU” — making stuff up (about why I probably should feel guilty).
Seen from a strictly Freudian view, I understand how he and others make the easy and (to them) obvious conclusion that religious guilt is merely a well-disguised political conspiracy. A ploy to control the masses (macro view) or at least to control your spouse, kids and immediate family (micro view). Western religion does easily breed neurosis. Consider the classic joke told of both Jewish mothers and Catholic mothers:
Question: How many (Jewish/Catholic) mothers does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: None. Nevermind. I’ll be fine. Sitting here, alone in the dark.
It’s easy to mistakenly distill Western religion to one nutty admonition: “Be good!” Nutty, because 1) I can’t, by the strength of my individual will, be good, and 2) I have mixed feelings about being good. I don’t entirely want to be!
When it comes to the question of the usefulness of guilt in shaping and inspiring a thriving human identity, I would say Western religion is, at once, beautiful, nutty and (potentially) pathological. Healthy religion knows these dangers. And psychologically healthy pilgrims embrace what is beautiful while keeping a keen watch on what is nutty or pathological.
Guilt is beautiful, holy, vital and important when it is healthy guilt. And healthy guilt is nothing more or less than the name of the grief we feel when we abandon our own values. The grief of estrangement and alienation. Healthy guilt, however miserable it feels, contains within itself a holy longing for reconciliation. (One prayer during the rosary, for example, is asking God to “give me a contrite heart.” Meaning, “Please give me the courage to let my heart break over the ways I have hurt others, etc.”) Catholicism — its rites, rituals and symbols — bears much beauty into the world to facilitate the blessings of healthy guilt, healthy shame.
The nutty or potentially pathological side of guilt happens when people, families or institutions (especially the church) peddle guilt to us with darker, perhaps unconscious motives.
If you, for example, are threatened by another’s genius, gifts and “light” (envy!), then one way to dodge the threat is to instill in that person a grave, crippling self-doubt. An anxious, paralyzing self-consciousness forcing a default posture of apology to the world for daring to be him/herself.
Or, people/institutions instill guilt because they are projecting sadism.
That is, they are reveling in the humiliation of sinners. Yes, some of our accusers are having a grand time!
Control, humiliation, hierarchy, authority, power — when discussions of guilt bear these darker motives, run away quick!
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at skalas@ reviewjournal.com.