I’ve heard a lot in my life about “Catholic guilt.” When talking to former Catholics who’ve left the Church, and especially people who know nothing about the Church except for what they hear in the media, you hear a lot about how guilty the Church makes people feel, especially in matters of sex. And this, of course, is supposedly very unhealthy and damaging to the psyche.
Of course I always bought into this back in my pre-religion days. I would hear someone talking about how terrible it was to be made to feel guilty about their natural sexual desires. “Boy, ” I thought, “it must suck to be Catholic! I’m glad I’ve never fallen for that religious nonsense and had to deal with those silly guilt trips!”
…And then I would go get on my scale and start crying because I’d gained three pounds and therefore looked slightly less waifish than I had the week before.
In my atheist high school and college days I weighed around 120 pounds. Sounds pretty normal, except for the fact that I’m six feet tall. A “thin but healthy” weight for my height is around 145. When my weight “skyrocketed” to 135 one semester I was ashamed and embarrassed, often not going out on the weekends because I thought I looked terrible. Skipping the gym or overindulging in food was cause for countless wasted hours of mentally beating myself up for my lapse. I was frequently concerned about my husband (then my boyfriend) thinking that other women were more attractive than I. It bothered me deeply if I perceived that he thought some other girl was pretty.
All of that seems so absurd to me now, I hate to even think about all the time I wasted being consumed with guilt about my physical appearance. But I was dutifully following modern secular society’s teachings that we women are only worthy of love and respect if we’re “sexy” and “attractive” — and the bar to fit that description is high, as any flip through the channels on TV or the magazine aisle can confirm. I really thought that being fat would be the end of the world. A typical female in my generation, my physical appearance was inextricably intertwined with my self worth. To be thought of as ugly would be to practically not exist. But, in a testament to my ability to live in denial and avoid the obvious, I really believed that my worldview was all about liberation, not guilt.
These days my self image couldn’t be much different. Last week I was trying on swimsuits and as I looked at my post-baby figure my honest reaction was, “I look great!” My thighs are “huge” (by my old standards), my stomach has not bounced back into shape at all, my stretch marks are like something out of a dermatology textbook and I think the last adjective that could be used to describe me right now would be “toned”. Yet I honestly feel like I look just fine. Not that I intend to “let myself go, ” but to see that I look like a healthy woman who has had two children makes me feel so beautiful, stretch marks and all. A little extra weight here and there just seems like superfluous detail compared to the value that I bring to my marriage and my role as a mother.
The Church’s teachings on sex and marriage have been some of the most liberating ideas I’ve ever heard. To understand the sacred, deep purpose of marriage and the creation of children makes my previous MTV-inspired views of female sexuality seem not only incredibly trivial and shallow but an affront to human dignity.
To try to live in accordance with the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage may be challenging, but it certainly doesn’t make me feel guilty. In fact, it’s instilled in me a profound sense of dignity and freedom that I could have never imagined back in my “liberated” days.
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