"Catholic Guilt" vs. Contrition

I was recently having a conversation with my mom about sins.  Venial sins, to be exact.  The ones that are less severe in nature, and don’t result in completely severing ties with God immediately, which is what a mortal sin does.  A chaplain spending some time with our congregation recently defined a sin as, “a failure to love,” specifically, “a failure to love God.”  And, the Catholic Church has defined specific sins that are less, or more severe, in nature.

As my mom and I were discussing sins, and I was (woefully inadequately) trying to explain who determined the sin we were discussing, she mentioned, “I’m not going down this guilt trip with you.”  I told her I wasn’t on any guilt trip, but I was just trying to explain that priests, nuns, and everybody religious I had ever spoken with had referred to that specific action as a sin.  Only after we hung up did I find the multiple Biblical verses for that sin – on a Christian website, not even a Catholic Christian site!

That said, the phrase of going on a guilt trip really stuck with me.  I spent the rest of the day thinking about it, and about how I don’t currently have any guilt.  Not that I don’t do anything wrong – I just usually find remorse in the moment, and then try to confess (regardless of whether or not it is in the Confessional, or just a quick “word” to God) and move on with my day.  I actually spend very little time these days feeling “guilty” per se, but I do find moments where I am remorseful.

That was not always the case.  Soldier Boy absolutely loves to tease me about my “Catholic guilt.”  I make joking reference to Catholic guilt sometimes.  The term “Catholic guilt” is used during regular conversations with Catholics and about Catholics.

But, I want to change the reference of “Catholic guilt.”  Instead of guilt, defined by dictionary.reference.com as, “a feeling of responsibility or remorse of some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined,” I submit Catholics (as well as anyone, regardless of any or no religion) feel contrition, which means, “the state of feeling remorseful or penitent.”

Perhaps I have been going about this whole “Catholic guilt” thing wrong the whole time.  I used to really beat myself up easily, because I saddled myself with the burden of guilt.  I always took the blame, or responsibility, even when it was clear to others that the blame did not lie at my feet.  After a few years’ work on myself, between the help of my Masters program and individual therapists, I stopped allowing myself to feel guilty for every little thing.  Instead, I began to analyze the rationality behind those feelings, and working to ensure I only felt guilty at times that did warrant such feelings.

Then, I had my little epiphany.

When I commit sin, regardless of the severity, I feel remorse.  And, I want to apologize to the one I offended – whether to man or to God.  When I feel remorseful, I make it a habit to apologize immediately.  Sometimes, I grudgingly say an apology, much like a child being rebuked, but when I reflect on the situation further, I realize I acted in a way contrary to what He expects of me, as a follower and a child of Christ.  I don’t like to disappoint people, so when I do disappoint, as will inevitably happen, I make amends – I try to right the wrong.

And, I query – what is wrong with trying to apologize, and then taking a moment to promise to try harder next time?

So, the next time someone makes a joke about “Catholic guilt,” or you, my reader, beat yourself up because of your Catholic guilt, I urge you to reconsider…

Do you feel guilt or do you feel contrite?  If you feel guilt, do you have any basis in your feeling for “having” to take responsibility?  Or, are you carrying that extra burden with you because you have always done so, or someone has tried to convince you that you should carry that burden?

If you feel contrite, then have you expressed those feelings to the person that matters – to yourself, to God, to another person perhaps?  And, have you made a resolution to do better next time?  If you have done so, then let it go.  Don’t allow yourself to be saddled with feeling responsible – you cannot be responsible for people’s actions or reactions to whatever you have done, so therefore, let yourself off the hook.

All we can really control, at the end of the day, is how we act as individuals, and how we act to situations that arise throughout our day.  Don’t let yourself waste time on guilt.  Instead, “waste” your time on putting into action the thought of “do better next time.”

2 thoughts on “"Catholic Guilt" vs. Contrition

  1. Beautiful post! I think those feelings of “guilt” or as put it contrition are all the signs of a conscience that is working the way it should! Thank you Lord Jesus for that!

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  2. I agree, Debbie, that these are all signs of a conscience working!! However, it can become overburdened when one continues to beat themselves up for the guilt – which is the beauty of Confession – it allows us to ease those feelings of guilt, knowing the slate has been wiped clean for us to “start over and try to do better next time”!

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