September 26, 2021
People often complain of Catholic guilt. The readings today may seem an example. What is valid in this criticism? Is there a positive role for guilt?
- Catholic guilt: feeling constantly badgered about sin, by a sense of God who is angry, vindictive and wants to condemn us.
- Good guilt is like a spiritual nervous system that calls us to repentance and be healed of sin and evil.
- Bad guilt is feeling guilty without having actually done anything wrong. It can stifle our spiritual and emotional maturity and cause more confusion.
- We need our conscience to be formed by God’s word. Without it, we are tempted by sin, prefer our own judgement and reject what the Lord is saying.
- Through the Gospel, Jesus is making us aware of what is truly dangerous for our souls. But what really matters is the eternal health of our souls.
- What is most important is believing in Jesus, loving God and loving others.
- It is very important to examine our conscience before Jesus crucified to reveal the reality of sin.
The Bible’s warnings against sin are not the expression of an angry and vindictive God. On the contrary, they’re a sign of God’s love. What Jesus is showing in this gospel is, what is the greatest danger. And what would be worth sacrificing everything He says, even parts of our body to avoid the danger of losing eternal life. Jesus’ whole message in the gospels, what really matters, even more than physical health, is believing, and loving God. And out of love for God, loving and serving our neighbor, that’s what’s most important.
A passage of Jesus to a sinful soul in Saint Faustina’s diary tells us, “My Mercy is greater than your sins and those of the entire world. Who can measure the extent of my goodness for you? I understand it from heaven to earth. For you I allowed myself to be nailed to the cross for you. I let my Sacred Heart be pierced with a lance, thus opening wide the source of mercy for you. Come then, with trust, to draw graces from this fountain. I never reject a contrite heart. Your misery has disappeared in the depth of My Mercy. Do not argue with Me about your wretchedness. You will give Me pleasure if you hand over to Me all your troubles and grief. I shall heap upon you the treasures of My grace.”
Catholic guilt. Catholic guilt is a phrase used by a number of former Catholics or current Catholics to express what they feel they’ve experienced in growing up Catholic, they felt they would describe it often as feeling constantly badgered about sin by a sense of God who is angry and vindictive, watching over our every move, just waiting for a chance to catch us doing something wrong and condemn us. And so that sense of Catholic guilt that often causes scruples, tormented by this sense of guilt. And this is true, much more, was true much more 60 years ago, but some people still experience it or speak of it. And the readings today that we just heard, are readings with a strong language condemning sin. So is this an example of Catholic guilt and what truth is there in that criticism of Catholic guilt. It helps to distinguish two types of guilt, good guilt, and bad guilt. So, what is good guilt? Good guild is like our spirit, a spiritual nervous system. Good guild is a healthy reaction to real evil and sin. Like our physical nervous system helps us to recognize and avoid physical dangers. For instance, if you touch a piece of hot metal, right away, you react against it, you withdraw your hand, because of your nervous system. Or if you’re in a smoky place, oftentimes you begin to cough, which is like a warning system from your body that it’s having a problem breathing. And so, it would be dangerous for us if our physical nervous system was not working and alerting us. And so good guilt, healthy guilt is a similar function for our souls. As physical health is good for our bodies, so moral health is good for our souls. So, what is moral health? It’s doing good actions and avoiding evil actions. So, if our conscience is in good condition, if our conscience is healthy, it will register guilt when we commit or toy with committing evil actions. It’s like a warning system, warning against doing evil actions that would damage our soul, our interior peace, our integrity. And so, the Bible’s warnings against sin are not the expression of an angry and vindictive God. On the contrary, they’re a sign of God’s love. That He is letting us know that evil, even though it often seems to be on a short-term benefit, He can see the full picture, the full truth and He knows that it’s distractive, both for ourselves and for others. How often do people, for instance, enter a relationship that seems great at the beginning, and ends up causing terrible destruction and pain. And so, the punishment for sin isn’t something that God adds on, as if He’s adding on because He got angry, the way a judge in a court of law sentences a criminal. Rather, the pain and misery, it’s the pain and misery caused by sin itself. Like say, for instance, a child playing with knives, even though his parents have told him not to, he can hurt himself, and hurt others. So, God would be a bad parent if He didn’t warn us about the destructive consequences of evil. But it’s God’s goodness and wisdom that’s given us our conscience, which helps us to experience good guilt, to warn us against committing sins. And if we have done evil, our conscience calls us to repentance, to be healed of it. So that’s good guilt, healthy guilt. But then the second kind of guilt is bad guilt. What is bad guilt? This occurs when we feel guilty without having actually done anything wrong. And that’s one of the problems with scruples. We’re feeling guilty for something that’s not actually wrong. This is an unhealthy guilt that can stifle our spiritual and emotional maturity and causes more confusion. Because an unhealthy guilt, we blame ourselves for things that are not blameworthy, or that we had no responsibility for. Just to give a few simple examples, for instance, a person I hear sometimes people confess in missing Sunday Mass because of illness. And that’s not something that is blameworthy. Or thoughts, a person feeling guilty because of thoughts that come to our head, without our consent, or thoughts, or dreams, bad dreams that a person hasn’t consented to, that person is not responsible for those things, even though they make us feel bad, but we’re not responsible for them. So, there’s no sin involved unless we consent, or even a much worse example, an abuse victim, who is made to feel guilty for the abuse itself, when they’re actually not at all guilty, but simply the victim of it. So that’s one problem that we feel responsible for something that we weren’t responsible for, that wasn’t blameworthy. And another unhealthy sign of unhealthy guilt is that we exaggerate the gravity of a sin. Some people diminish the gravity of a sin, that’s not healthy. And it’s not healthy either when we exaggerate it, for instance, a caregiver who loves the person they’re caring for, but after kind of getting worn out and burned out, can become impatient. And so, a lot of that impatience is not because they don’t love the person, but it’s simply because of the situation which has worn them down. Or person, for instance, under very heavy pressure, who begins to do something like maybe, they drink too much. And so, the drinking too much is not good. But a lot of it is not caused by malice, but because of extreme pressure, say, for instance, a soldier and battle. And to understand the gravity of a sin, we also have to take into account the situation the person is in with all the pressure, and sometimes psychological wounds, even mental illness that the person might be struggling with. So, all that needs to be taken into account. So, our conscience, to form a good judgment, needs to be formed. The Catechism speaks of this need for our conscience to be formed, formed in accordance with reason, and conformity with the revelation that God has given us. The Catechism says, “the education of conscience is indispensable for us who are subjected to negative influences,” because we’re in a world, which is given all sorts of other ideas. And so, we easily see a lot of that is from the evil one. And so, we easily pick up on the spirit and ideas and ways of seeing things of the world, the lies of the world. And so that’s one of the reasons we need our conscience to be formed by God’s word. And that’s another reason is because we’re tempted by sin, to prefer our own judgment, and reject what the Lord is saying. And so, because our own sense sometimes doesn’t want to hear, if we’re attached to something, we don’t want to hear something, telling me not to do it. So, this is a lifelong task. Because as a child, it’s important already, a child very early on begins to, in a healthy situation, begins to have a sense of right and wrong. But as you become as you grow up and become an adult, you often face sometimes complex, confusing situations. And so, we need to have our conscience which has continued to be formed. And so that’s what’s happening. In the readings today, I thought the Lord God is illuminating and forming our conscience. Because a healthy conscience is able to make these distinctions not to diminish when there’s real responsibility for sin, and not to exaggerate that responsibility. And so just to take the example of the readings today, were, for instance, this very strong word of Jesus. “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, then with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” So, there’s a very strong word of Jesus, alerting us to sin, into how dangerous sin is. And those words might seem kind of extreme. But just think about the situation of COVID right now that we’re going through. So COVID we’re being told constantly to be aware of what our physical danger of biological danger and the whole societies is being mobilized to make people aware. Everybody you know, how many of us have heard of Coronavirus, you know, two years ago. And has anyone here heard of Coronavirus and COVID? You don’t hear of anything else, right? Almost anything like fashion shows, the fashion magazine, show masks, what type of mask. Everything is about Coronavirus and COVID. So, everybody is being made aware of something. And we’re supposed to take all sorts of precautions about it. You know, the Church talks about avoiding near occasions of sin. So, you know, right now we’re kind of being told to avoid near occasions of COVID. Right? This is very dangerous, and you have to be very careful about it. And so, we’re even being told that we should change, or give up all sorts of things, because of COVID danger. You have kids who weren’t going to school, you know that when that ever happened at schools were shut down practically for a whole year or a year or two. And distance learning, you know, those of us who are older, do you ever remember something like that happening in our country. So, this was pretty extreme, businesses were shut down, even businesses sometimes went bankrupt. And people lost their jobs, because of COVID, that there was said that the danger of COVID is so great, that we have to take these extreme measures. Even churches were shut down, you can’t even go to Church, because of COVID. It’s so dangerous. And even family members died alone, because of COVID. So, whether these measures were justified or not, is another question. But the point is, that this is an example of something that somebody feels is important, and that it’s a danger big enough to call for extreme measures of awareness and sacrifice. What Jesus is showing in this gospel is, what is the greatest danger. And what would be worth sacrificing everything He says, even parts of our body to avoid the danger of losing eternal life. And so, if a society can be mobilized for an awareness of physical danger, wouldn’t it make a lot of sense for us to be mobilized to be made aware of something much more dangerous, which is the danger of eternal life, losing eternal life. And so that’s what Jesus is doing in the Gospel, he’s making us aware of what is truly dangerous for our souls, because our society tends to be very focused on bodies, physical health, and completely neglect eternal, the eternal health of our souls, which is what really matters. And so that’s why the gospel is so healthy because it’s helping us to put first things first and realize what are the greatest dangers. So, what is Jesus’ whole message in the gospels, what really matters, even more than physical health, is believing, and loving God. And out of love for God, loving and serving our neighbor, that’s what’s most important. That’s above all. And so, when Jesus says, to take the gospel today, “whoever causes one of these little ones, who believe in Me, to sin,” that is, whoever leads a little one, an innocent little one, into sin away from God, into spiritual, eternal danger. What does Jesus say? Because that’s going on all over our society now. Just want to take one of the craziest examples, one of most extreme examples, drag queen reading, in what are called story hours, where, you know, drag queens. Our kids are invited to come to our library to hear that. And so, we have a whole society, which is doing exactly what Jesus says not to do, “cause one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin.” Like so much of billions of dollars of our entertainment industry and so forth. And even education is causing little ones who believe in Jesus to sin. And how grave is that? Jesus says exactly, “be better for millstone,” for Jesus, to say these words, “to be better for a millstone to be put around their neck and cast into the sea.” That’s a big warning of the danger. So, Jesus is showing us the real dangers. And St. James who says, “Come now you rich, behold, the wages you withhold from workers who harvest in your fields are crying aloud, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the LORD of hosts. You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure, you have fattened your heart, for the day of slaughter, you have condemned, you have murdered the Righteous One, He offers you no resistance.” So those who are powerful, rich and oppressing others, even to the point of murdering them, St. James is warning them of how grave that is, and in the danger, the consequences, the eternal consequences. So, it’s making us aware of what is really important, what is really grave. And it’s also because that’s very important, because people right now are so focused, so afraid or anxious about COVID. And it’s good for us to be aware of legitimate physical dangers, because we have responsibility for our own physical health and the health of others. But it’s always much more important to be aware of the eternal salvation of our souls, of our souls, and the souls of others. And so, Jesus makes us aware in the Gospel of what is truly dangerous, and truly important, and also what is not so dangerous, and not so important. A lot of the gospel and a lot of the problem that Jesus caused was He was saying, there’s a lot of things that you’re being taught that are important, they’re not very important. A lot of the things that the Scribes and Pharisees are teaching you that are so dangerous are so bad, they’re not very important. You know, Jesus was criticized because He and His apostles hadn’t washed their hands properly, before meals, which was very part of the Jewish prescriptions. And He was criticized, they said that you are working your disciples, were working on the Sabbath when they were walking through the field of wheat and taking some grains and eating those grains. They said, that’s working on a Sabbath. And so, there’s a lot of things that the experts were telling people were very wrong and very bad. And He said, No, that’s not very important. That’s not what’s most important to God. And St. Paul, who had been such a strict pharisee, later on after his conversion, he became a great enemy of that type of legalism. He said so many of these ceremonial precepts that they were so focused on were not important. And now with Jesus Christ, how their usefulness was gone. And the circumcision, which had been so important, he says, that doesn’t matter anymore. Or like the Jews were so careful about eating pork, not eating pork, so dangerous about nothing practices. Now in Jesus Christ, that’s not important anymore. What’s important is believing in Jesus, loving God, and loving others. So, St. Paul is freed from legalism. And expressing his freedom of the children of God. So, a healthy conscience, which says what is truly important, and realizes what is not so important. And that, you know, we see that in the messages the Lord gave to Saint Faustina, where He speaks very strongly of sin, but even much more of God’s mercy. And so, the Catechism says, “We must examine our conscience before the Lord’s cross, before Jesus crucified.” And that’s very important to examine our conscience before Jesus crucified. What does that mean? Because when we place ourselves in the presence of Jesus crucified, His crucifixion reveals the reality of sin, that how grave sin is, sin offenses against God, against others and against ourselves. But it also reveals our own experience of the cross. Because we are not just sinners, we’re also victims of evil and sin that has wounded us, often that has hurt us, and that has affected us often. And so, Jesus knows how we also have been wounded and affected by sin, but we also are victims like Jesus. We’re also not just sinners, but also victims of sin. So that’s to help us be freed from false guilt. And above all, whether it’s true guilt or false guilt, always at the cross of Jesus crucified, shows us the love and mercy of God, which is greater than all sin, which is greater than all the wounds of sin, which is capable of healing, and restoring and forgiving all after Jesus says. So, I want to end by reading this passage of Jesus to a sinful soul in Saint Faustina’s diary, and if you want, you can close your eyes to listen to this. “My Mercy is greater than your sins and those of the entire world. Who can measure the extent of my goodness for you? I understand it from heaven to earth. For you I allowed myself to be nailed to the cross for you. I let my Sacred Heart be pierced with a lance, thus opening wide the source of mercy for you. Come then, with trust, to draw graces from this fountain. I never reject a contrite heart. Your misery has disappeared in the depth of My Mercy. Do not argue with Me about your wretchedness. You will give Me pleasure if you hand over to Me all your troubles and grief. I shall heap upon you the treasures of My grace.