Overcoming the Negative Version of Catholic Guilt
My favorite/least favorite question I have ever been asked is, “If heaven didn’t exist, would you still obey God?”
Don’t worry, I’m squirming in my seat too.
My first thought was, “Yes, of course I would still follow the rules. I’m a good Christian after all!” But then, I force myself to be honest. At first glance, not following the rules sounds way more fun than following them. And it makes me examine my motives for good behavior. Am I following the rules to earn heaven and avoid going to hell? Or is something else motivating me?
I remember one particular middle school religion class vividly. My teacher stood up in class and discussed a concept of “damning yourself.” She taught us that there were certain things we could do on this earth that would eternally damn us. She said there were certain sins that we could never recover from and that would cause us to turn our backs on God forever.
Without a clear understanding on exactly which sins were so serious, unhealthy “Catholic guilt” took root in my heart. It’s led me at certain times to think that if I don’t pray the Rosary in this specific way, God won’t love me. I have believed that if I don’t go to confession every week, God will think less of me. And, I have to remind myself daily that my not always following every Church teaching perfectly is not going to send me to hell. I am sure some of you can relate.
Our understanding of obedience can easily move from a free act of love to a requirement for receiving love. It’s not Church teachings that are flawed, it is the mentality behind our reasons for following them. This is where the negative version of Catholic guilt can get in the way of our spiritual growth. At its worst, it skews the beautiful purpose of obedience and makes following God to be about reward rather than about relationship.
As Christians, the lie many of us face is this: In order for God to love me, I must do particular things. But the truth is: God loves me as I am and although following God should involve obedience to Him – out of my desire to respond to His love – nothing I do can make God love me any more, or any less.
In the second part of the Young Adult Opening Your Heart series, Unshaken, we hear theologian Jean Vanier’s perspective on this:
Somewhere along the line in the history of the Church, people have become more centered upon obedience to laws than upon this relationship of love with a person, with Jesus; more centered upon justice than upon love. The heart of our faith is not law, it’s a person, Jesus who calls us into the peace and joy of friendship and of love. (1)
I don’t think Vanier said “love” three times by mistake. Love is paramount. When faith becomes saturated by rule-following for the sake of being “good,” love can’t exist in its purest form because the motive isn’t pure.
Yet, when obedience is a free, unconditional act of loving God, we will experience the freedom and beauty that the Lord so desires for us. When we choose to lean into the Sacraments and the teachings of the Church because we want to love God more, we will get to experience all that our walk with the Lord can be.
This is where the positive version of Catholic guilt can help us. Good guilt comes into play when we are not loving God as well as we could be. That unsettled feeling of guilt is God’s gift to us in that moment, drawing attention to the fact that something is drawing us away from Him. Of course, this has nothing to do with how much He loves us, but it alerts us to the fact that we have broken God’s heart. Good guilt is actually an invitation to turn back to Him.
What might change if we looked at the why behind our obedience? Are we chasing after the Lord because we want to or because we feel we have to? Are we experiencing negative Catholic guilt or is it positive? This matters.
It’s my prayer that we’d go to Mass because we want to, not because we have to. That we’d pray the Rosary because we know that it will help us to love God more, not because we believe it will make God love us more. That we’d lean into the teachings of the Church because we believe that obedience brings freedom.
I pray that you may experience this freedom that only exists in love.
(1) Father Paul Farren, Freedom and Forgiveness: A Fresh Look at the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Dublin: Columba Press, 2013), x.