What Guilt?

Timothy Egan, writing a few days ago in the New York Times, praised the Holy Father for moving towards “the end for one particular kind of medieval millstone — Catholic guilt, especially in regard to sex” in “Amoris Laetitia” — the Joy of Love.  Egan claims that “[t]he old message was: If you break the rules, you’re condemned. Shame, shame, shame. The new message is: Welcome, for forgiveness is at the heart of this faith.”

My question, as someone born in the 1970’s, is where has this message of condemnation been?  I would like to poll weekly mass-going Catholics on how often they feel condemned from the pulpit. In my march across American parishes, I can attest that even the more conservative-leaning pastors are loathe to offer anything that smacks of judgment.

Egan quotes George Carlin as saying he was a Roman Catholic “until I reached the age of reason” when the response to his questions of faith were “well, it’s a mystery.” And here may be the heart of the matter: a lack of catechesis and education. When I was in college and struggling to find the correct path, the priest’s answers to questions of morality were so wishy-washy that any guilt I might have felt for my misdeeds was mostly lost. When I was teaching CCD as an adult from the diocesan approved lesson manuals, there was very little in the way of firm beliefs when it came to moral theology. I distinctly remember confessors at multiple parishes tell me I it was no longer necessary to confess various mortal sins. I find it hard to believe a church that no longer wants to hear of sin in the confessional has a message of “shame, shame, shame.”

While it is absolutely true that “forgiveness is at the heart of this faith,” as Egan puts it, if the message received by at least a portion of the faithful is: “If [sinful curiosity, bad companions, drinking, immodest dress and indecent books, plays and motion pictures] sounds now like the dynamics of a good dinner party, you can also see this pope joining the fun at the table,” then I believe the Holy Father has partly missed the mark.  Jesus certainly said to the adulteress “I will not condemn thee either,” but he followed it up with “Go, and do not sin again henceforward.” John 8:11 (Knox Version).

If the Church does not educate our children (and adults for that matter) on the nature of sin, the occasions of sin, the consequences of sin, and the need for repentance is it really leading them towards salvation?  Will there be some guilt associated with failing to live up to these standards? Absolutely, but a little guilt can go a long way towards guiding behavior. Do pastors need to continue to preach that in Jesus is found forgiveness? Absolutely, we are all sinners and in need of forgiveness.  But preaching either one without the other is to fail to properly form the conscience.  I am sure that in times past the Church has excessively emphasized sin to the exclusion of forgiveness, but that has not been the church I have grown of age in. To Mr. Egan I can only say: What guilt?


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