Sunday, October 25, 2009

Got Guilt?

Whenever I hear the expression "Catholic guilt", I can't help but cringe. What does that even mean? I had struggles with overwhelming feelings of guilt long before I became Catholic. I know some folks have grown up in Catholic environments that were more concerned about right and wrong than about why right and wrong matter and Who calls us to share in His right living. This is a travesty, but honestly, not uncommon within Protestantism either.

In a sense, all proper guilt is "Catholic". Catholic means "universal", and the Catholic Church is the only Church that upholds the fullness of Christian moral truths everywhere and at all times. These truths apply to all Christians and even non-Christians whether they know it or not. So any rightly placed guilt in having done something that is truly wrong or failing to do something one ought to have done is guilt against the universal truths of moral right and wrong revealed by the Maker Himself (and defended and promoted by His Church).

The sense of being crushed under the weight of ceaseless guilt may be understandable before one has brought their failings intentionally before Christ for forgiveness, but why does it often linger for Christian folks of all different faith traditions? It's a psychological struggle to which human beings are simply susceptible. It may be conditioned by overbearing religious persons from one's life, or it may be an innate struggle with perfectionism. Sometimes we just have a hard time forgiving ourselves or believing God can forgive us when we've done something "so terrible". In a sense, it's natural to feel that way. Complete forgiveness is supernatural, and it can be hard for our human minds and emotions to grasp.

I struggle much less with that sense of lingering guilt as a Catholic Christian than when I was Protestant. The reason? The Sacrament of Penance (or Confession). When I examine my conscience as thoroughly as I can, accuse myself point blank of all intentional and unintentional sin, desire to sin no more, and hear Christ's words of absolution spoken through His priest, I know my sins are forgiven. Christ, in His mercy and understanding of human needs has given us the Sacrament of Penance so that we may hear His words of forgiveness (just as we hear His words spoken in Scripture through his chosen human authors). In Confession we find certainty to ease our tendency toward harboring guilty feelings; we hear Christ's words of forgiveness for our personal sins with our own ears.

Let us never fail to remind one another and ourselves that God is calling us to freedom... freedom from being a slave of sin, freedom from being crushed by guilt, freedom to confess and get back up and press on every time we fall, freedom to find true love, joy and happiness in our merciful Savior.

In Matthew 5:25 Christ says: "Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison." We can apply these words to those instances when we are being accused by the enemies of our souls (Satan and his fellow fallen angels). If the accusations are legitimate, agree with them, and quickly confess your crimes directly to the Judge Himself for He will be your defense and pardon. The accuser no longer has anything to hold over your head.

Reflecting on the final petition in the Lord's Prayer - "but deliver us from evil", Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P., writes in this month's Magnificat :
Christians do not try to deny their evil, rationalize it, make excuses for it, blame others for it, or despair over it - all marks of being black-mailed by the Evil One. Rather, in the knowledge of our sins, we simply turn in confidence to the Father and ask him to deliver us. The "glory" of the Christian is our great certainty when accused by what is scandalous and damning about us. We are not defined by our sin. We are defined by who we belong to: our Father.
We've all got guilt; give me the Catholic kind!