Guilty of Catholic Guilt?

It’s time for us to say ‘no’ to this crushing Catholic guilt

Barbara McCarthy

PUBLISHED07/01/2015 | 02:30

'We can all relate in some way or other to feeling a special guilt for not doing something we should be doing or the other way round'
‘We can all relate in some way or other to feeling a special guilt for not doing something we should be doing or the other way round’

Ireland in 2015 is a progressive, democratic place where we enjoy all sorts of freedoms which eluded generations before us. Yet despite the fact that many of us haven’t darkened the door of a Catholic Church in years, we are still blighted by Catholic guilt.

The affliction is described by Alec Baldwin’s character Jack Donaghy in the US TV show ’30 Rock’ as: “A crushing guilt that comes with being a Catholic. Whether things are good or bad or you’re simply just eating tacos in the park, there is always the crushing guilt.”

In our case, the scenario would more than likely involve a packet of crisps. Either way, we can all relate in some way or other to feeling a special guilt for not doing something we should be doing or the other way round.

Despite the fact that I’m not Catholic, didn’t go to a Catholic school, was christened German Lutheran and haven’t been to church in a very long time, I still suffer from what I perceive to be Catholic guilt. When I’m around people from other countries, I realise they don’t have the same thing. The Germans, Swiss and French are generally more likely to shrug their shoulders when you inform them of your inner unease. They don’t subscribe to it. If they think they did something wrong then they just get on with their lives rather than stew over some details which they can’t change.

In order to find out a little more about Catholic guilt, I called Fr Sean McDonagh. “I don’t know why you’re feeling Catholic guilt if you’re a Lutheran,” he joked. “Wasn’t sinning a part of the Lutheran doctrine?” he asked me. “Unfortunately, I don’t actually have a clue,” I said.

From my limited experiences, it is the most liberal of religions, which is the only bit I care about.

“It’s very Joycean,” he says. “You should read ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.’ It’s all about Catholic guilt. From my perception, Catholic guilt is more about sex than it is about actually feeling guilty about something you did or didn’t do, but it’s a bit dated now,” he said. “A huge cultural change has taken place around sexuality in Ireland and because the Catholic Church was always so distant, it no longer has a voice in that area.”

“I don’t know what it is,” Fr Brendan Hoban from Mayo said to me. “Even though I’ve been Catholic all my life, I don’t feel the concept of Catholic guilt. People feel bad when they feel they shouldn’t feel bad, so they call it Catholic guilt. That way they make themselves feel less bad. Anything that’s associated with Catholicism is dark, unhappy, and depressed as far as people are concerned. Most things that are wrong in life are attributed to the Catholic Church, people use it as a scapegoat. You’d never hear members of the media give any other religion such a hard time.”

With his musings in mind, I wonder what name to give the stress families inflict on each other. So often you’d hear stories of people home from abroad having to go to great lengths to meet relatives they hardly even know. A friend of mine was dragged out of her sick bed to drive for three hours with her children late in the evening rather than the next morning, because she was Catholic guilt-tripped into it, she said. On the continent you just say no, and that’s the end of it.

Life would be so much better if we all said no more often. That way, people wouldn’t be let down. I know people from foreign lands living in Ireland for the best part of 40 years and they still don’t understand why someone would say they’d do something, but it never gets done.

Saying yes to everything puts you in a world of pain and leaves others gravely disappointed and annoyed. Some say the reason we do it is because of a national inferiority complex brought on by years of persecution and imperialism, but I don’t think we can blame the Brits for everything.

We need to learn from the guilt. If there’s a repetitive pattern, then maybe it needs to be addressed rather than relived. Often when we look hard, there’s drink involved. Post-drinking fear is more prevalent in Ireland than in other countries.

To the naked eye, Irish people are so carefree and fun and applauded the world over for it, yet as soon as we stop having craic, there’s guilt – not for everyone, but for many. It’s such a paradox. “I can’t believe I did this or that the night before. I’m long-term scarlet for myself,” you’d hear. But it’s so futile, as it will happen again soon enough.

So I have surmised that the next time we inflict Catholic guilt onto ourselves, we should ponder the fact that unless of course we did something terrible – few care. It may come as a surprise, but even if you were to cartwheel into your office naked from the waist down, chances are it won’t be important in other people’s lives for any significant amount of time. People are far too self-involved and it’s egotistical to think they really care about what others do. Also, they have their own Catholic guilt to contend with, so why should they care about yours?