Catholic guilt

August 2, 2006 | 5 comments

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.


  1. Tim

    Jen, what a clear head you have on your shoulders. Kudos to you.

  2. Amy Caroline

    I never truly got the whole Catholic guilt thing. I have never felt guilt in that way. Doing something wrong should not incite guilt but an honest sense of contrition.. of wanting to do better.

    btw, how can you think so clearly right now?? I feel like such a marshmallow head right now!!

    Bless you!!

  3. Theocoid

    Welcome to the faith, Jen.

    I still recall getting the lesson about mortal sin when I was around 6 or 7. If you’ve only known the church of the late 70s to 00s, the Catholic guilt thing is remote. In the late 60s and early 70s, it was still very alive.

    However, growing up on a military base (Fairchild AFB in Washington) meant that I only got part of the Catholic experience. We had to share a chapel, so there was all kinds of recusant technology to swap out the crucifix and possibly to hide the statuary. (I *think* there were usually statues.) I had no clue what a scapular was until my freshman yeat at Gonzaga U. I like to say that I had all of the guilt and none of the culture.

  4. Lobo

    Guilt gets a bad rap. It’s a normal emotion that triggers when we feel we have done some wrong if we believe it is wrong. Guilt is like a safety light – to get you to get back on track. When we hold on to our guilt or decide not to change, then guilt may persist. We all grow up with guilt that has nothing to do with any church – what your parents taught you, even when you want to live differently, some of what they said continues in your head and we can feel guilty.

    When you live according to a ‘rule’ discipline or system, getting away from that system is a two fold process – we may feel happy that we do what we want (eat chocolate, snacks) if we are on some strict diet, (drink alcohol, eat fatty foods, not exercise, lay around) if we are exercise plan.

    The plan helps us get to where we want to be – following sexual rules helps us to get to where we want to be – more on a spiritual level. You can still have sexual attraction, be sexy and still follow rules, just do it in certain ways and at certain times. I remember seeing two women from the same church (christian of some type) handing out literature at the airport. They were both dressed in similar clothing – cream blouse, black suit (jacket & skirt) black stockings, black shoes, some make-up. One was about 25 and the other was around 55. They were both equally covered but the younger looked sexier – dress a little shorter, jacket more tailored, different type of make-up, more up to date blouse.

    Rules can seem limiting unless you look to what the rule is trying to help you accomplish. Sexual attraction is natural, good and useful. As anything else, it can be used badly and for wrong. The discipline of rules dealing with sex helps us learn how to deal with this powerful natural energy we have. An athlete may have talent but must learn to hone their talent and structure it to make it more powerful when they use it in the right context – on the field of play.

    Sexuality can be honed and used for its purpose – create more children and form families, an expression of love between two people that represents or reflects the love of Jesus and the church, moments of participating in the love or grace of Jesus at the moment of sexual pleasure; realizing again during sex what the other person means to us and using the natural energy of sexual enjoyment to help bind people together.

    Sex can be selfish and pleasurable for pleasure’s sake but it depends on our intention of what we are doing with it that defines it.

    A woman who cooks and gives a dinner to her husband can do it for several reasons:
    she loves him
    she feels she ‘has to’
    She is angry and does it despite the anger but as spite
    It’s her job
    He’ll get mad if she does not do it
    He is there with the kids and she is just making sure everyone get something to eat

    It’s the same action – cooking, serving dinner – but intention shapes the deeper meaning of the action. He may not know the reason she is doing it this time, but her intention does affect her relationship with him, herself, and the meaning of her actions.

    We can define ourselves depending on the discipline we follow about love and love making and the intention we have when we are involved with it. It’s up to you.

  5. RobK

    I agree with Lobo. Guilt is a feeling when you have crossed your conscience – and done something you believe to be wrong. The trick is training the conscience correctly. 🙂 Glad to hear of your conversion – I will pray for you.

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