Catholic Guilt and Catholic Complacence
By Susanna De A.
“I messed up again. I’m hopeless. I’m sick of being me. Why even bother trying again? I can’t stand me, I don’t see how God can.”
Ever heard that voice? Those words? Maybe it came after another lapse of discipline, surfing the Internet too late, and waking up bleary-eyed and headachy. Maybe it came after an ugly confrontation with a family member who brings out the worst in you. Maybe it came after avoiding another opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and love that homeless guy or that annoying neighbour. Maybe just after a lovely chat with a friend, when you realized with a sinking feeling, that yes, technically, you just gossiped, slandered and judged… again. Maybe after you lost your temper and yelled at your kids, and said some bitter accusing words… again.
You know your pet sin, the one that keeps coming back. The ones that you keep bringing to Confession, and hoping the priest doesn’t remember that you used practically the same words the last time, and the time before that.
The fact of the matter is, we are called to be saints… and we are not there yet. The sad reality of our human existence is that we are broken, weak, messed up, prone to sin, and even attracted to sin. Even when we avoid the big mortal sins, there are scores of venial sins waiting to catch us the moment we let down our guard.
This failure to be saints does not go away the moment we decide to follow Christ, not even at Baptism, not even when we (shocker) answer God’s call to become a missionary, or a youth minister, or a priest, or a religious sister.
So what do we do with this?
Most people respond in one of two ways-
“I’m only human.” That seems to be an out for most people. A friend once told me years ago that he had read in the Bible that Jesus said, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” “Obviously,” he told me, “that’s not possible, so why even try?”
It seemed unanswerable. For most people, including many Catholics, we just get used to our sin, because it’s too tiring to have to face our sinfulness. Pope Pius XII said “The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” Psychology tells us “It’s not your fault. You are just a product of your environment.” We prefer to call sins ‘mistakes’, or ‘bad choices’, thus disowning our culpability, and our responsibility to change. ‘God is merciful’, so don’t worry about your sin. We also quite easily excuse ourselves by comparing ourselves with others. “I’m not a saint, but I’m basically a good person. I mean, I’m not Mother Teresa, but at least I’m not Hitler!”
It’s easy to see the result of complacence. If it isn’t our fault, we don’t have to change. Lukewarm Catholics are the salt that has lost its saltiness. If we aren’t committed to becoming saints, our witness has lost its power, and the world remains unconvinced about Christianity. Not only does our witness suffer, but our eternal destiny may too. Habits of small sinful attitudes and actions start controlling us, and before we know it, the ‘little’ sins have desensitized us and opened the way for the ‘big’ sins.
We’ve all heard the term ‘Catholic guilt’. It’s usually used mockingly by the secular world to describe the tendency of people brought up Catholic to feel what they consider ‘unnecessary’ or ‘excess’ guilt. There IS a place for ‘healthy guilt’ for Catholics. Guilt that leads us to acknowledge our sin, and change, is a very good thing. An uneasy conscience is a gift from God.
However, there IS a tendency among people who are sincere followers of Christ to let guilt over-power and control them. They walk around with an almost visible heavy burden, a burden of constantly feeling disappointed with themselves. If you feel like God is constantly displeased or disappointed with you, and that you are a failure, maybe you are one of those people. You read about the lives of the saints, and feel guilty because have YOU picked up a dying beggar and kissed them today? You read an FMC blog, and you’re like, ‘Wow, I suck. Pack up my family and head to a third world country? I can’t even get my family to Mass without everyone furious with each other.”
People like this are far more aware of their own sinfulness and the ways that they mess up each day than the mercy of God. They see God as a demanding, perfectionist Father who gets frustrated and mad when they mess up.
This kind of guilt is NOT healthy, because instead of making us into saints, it cripples and paralyzes us. There is no place for joy in this Christian’s life, because life is nothing but one big sin trap, which they constantly fall into. People who see God like this often treat other people in the same way, with expectations so high that their kids or spouse or friends can never meet them.
So how do we avoid falling into either of these two extremes?
Ask God for His mind and heart. Ask the Holy Spirit to pour the love of the Father into your heart, so you can see yourself through His eyes. The same God who said ‘Be perfect’, is the God who is ‘able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses’. The God who asks us to love Him with ‘all our hearts, minds, souls and strength’ is the God who is ‘slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love’.
He knows you. He knows your heart. He knows when you try, and when you don’t. He sees your efforts and your desire to love Him, and He sees your attraction to sin, and the times you ignore the grace He offers. He loves you the way you are, but He loves you too much to leave you that way. He is not constantly mad at you. Nor is He casual or unconcerned by your sin. He knows the weight of your sin—He bore it on the cross.
But He hasn’t given up on you, so don’t give up on yourself. Don’t wait to be perfect before turning to Him. You can’t save yourself. Take that outstretched hand. Let Him pick you up, and start afresh. Go for Confession. Say sorry. Make amends. Get an accountability partner. Try again. His mercy is more powerful than your sin.
This line from a book called ‘He and I’ by Gabrielle Bossis has helped me to see the kind of Father and Lover we have, and the expectations that He has for me-
“A little more each day—ever so gently, without taxing your soul.”
Let us give up both complacence and unnecessary guilt, so that like St. Catherine, we can become who we were meant to be and set our whole world on fire!Button