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Come on a Guilt Trip With Us


Too Much? Too Little? What's the right amount of guilt?

I've been poring through the Holy Father's encyclical Veritatis Splendor and came upon a line that stumps me. In criticizing the "Fundamental Option" theory, he says, "But from a consideration of the psychological sphere one cannot proceed to create a theological category . . . " (#70) Huh?

The pope most probably has in mind a contemporary error that we might label "psychologism" (which should not be confused with psychology itself, which when properly used is fully compatible with Christian faith). Psychologism is closely linked to what Philip Reif called the "therapeutic mentality" and what Robert Bellah has called "expressivist individualism." This error holds that as long as we try hard and are sincere, we're "okay." We ought not feel guilt about one or another act, as long as our intentions were sincere. This brand of psychologism suggests that the ultimate goal of personal health and wholeness is a good sense of "self-esteem." The thought is that too often guilt gets in the way of such esteem, and we would be better off shedding such feelings of guilt.

So according to that theory, are you saying I should feel guilty if I feel too much guilt?

Yes, and your point demonstrates that guilt cannot be done away with so easily. If a proponent of psychologism were to say "don't feel guilty," note that in the very word "don't," there lies an implicit suggestion to feel guilty if you don't pay heed to the suggestion. In this instance, the suggestion is to not feel guilty. But one could only arrive at such a point by feeling guilty about the feeling of guilt itself. Hence the command "don't feel guilty" defeats itself by its own first premise. Guilt is inevitable. And helpful.

Whoa! How can guilt be helpful?

Guilt can be a friend to the conscience. When understood and used properly, it reminds us that our moral life is amiss. Such guilt can be called real or objective guilt. It lets us know that our moral life is not in tune with the objective moral truth. The important task, then, is not to diminish guilt, toward the illusory goal of improving self-esteem, but to distinguish true guilt from neurotic guilt or false guilt.

How can I tell the difference? Don't get too technical on me I need practical help on this one.

Catholic Philosopher Donald DeMarco, with the help of psychologist Karl Stern, suggests four ways of distinguishing true and false guilt:

In neurotic guilt, the intensity of the feeling of guilt is disproportionate to the seriousness of the wrongdoing. Example: You can't sleep because the clerk gave you an extra dollar back and you didn't go back to the store to return it.

Neurotic guilt is insatiable, while true guilt can be expiated. Example: Even though you confessed sins committed in your checkered adolescent past, you still are overwhelmed with remorse about them to the point that your day is wrecked when they cross your mind. Accept Christ's redemptive work!

Neurotic guilt is highly emotional. True guilt can be confronted with calmness. Example: Same as above.

Neurotic guilt arises from repressed drives as much as realized acts, while real guilt is related only to realized acts. Example: You are well on your way to the virtue of purity, working with Christ to keep your mind "out of the gutter." But you still sense various impure impulses arising in you from time to time, and you feel guilty because they are still there. Don't expect them to go away. Just don't dwell on them.

Are you saying "self-esteem" psychology what you called "psychologism" sees all guilt as neurotic?

The distinction between neurotic and real guilt is a good context for examining the proper versus improper use of psychology within Christianity. In its improper use, psychology tends to see all guilt as neurotic guilt, and urges the individual to become "comfortable" with himself. So long as an individual examines his "values" and "owns them," he has psychological health. The notion of "value free" psychology was pioneered by Karl Rogers. By the end of his life, though, he recognized that there was no such things as "value free" psychology. In attempting to be value free, one simply substitutes one's set of "truths" for another. For example, substituting the real truths of the Catholic tradition for the imagined "truths" of secularity, with its "faith" that truth can only be approximated, if it can be known at all.

Does value-free psychology ever help a person to change? It seems the only change would be to stop feeling guilty about something.

Right never mind if you should feel guilty about certain behaviors, just try to become comfortable with yourself. It's too bad, because psychology can play a very helpful role. The inimitable C.S. Lewis commented on this: "When a man makes a moral choice, two things are involved. One is the act of choosing. The other is the various feelings, impulses and so on which his psychological outfit presents him with, and which are the raw material of his choice. Now this raw material may be of two kinds. Either it may be what we would call normal; it may consist of the sort of feelings that are common to all men. Or else it may consist of quite unnatural feelings due to things that have gone wrong in the subconscious. The fear of things that are really dangerous would be an example of the first kind; an irrational fear of cats or spiders would be an example of the second kind. The desire of a man for a woman would be of the first kind; the perverted desire of a man for a man would be of the second. Now what psychoanalysis undertakes to do is to remove the abnormal feelings, that is, to give the man better raw material for his acts of choice; morality is concerned with the acts of choice themselves" (Mere Christianity, from the chapter "Morality and Psychoanalysis," p. 84).

A person's psychological "raw material" is part of the circumstances within which he performs moral acts. And if he commits evil but his "raw material" contains a proclivity toward that evil, he may well be less blameworthy or not blameworthy at all.

I suppose psychologism doesn't distinguish between those two aspects?

Yes it doesn't like the idea of "morality" at all, and thinks that if you can just become comfy with your "raw material," you'll have the pearl of great price, self-esteem. Now self-esteem is not in itself bad. Rather, psychologism tends to omit fidelity to the moral norms of the Church as a prerequisite for genuine self-esteem, the self-esteem that is rooted in living in fidelity to the truth. Self-esteem is a by-product of living a virtuous life. You don't seek it, it just happens. The error of psychologism is to make self-esteem (instead of virtue) the prime goal of human life.

Can you give an example of how this has crept into revisionist theology?

Fr. Richard Gula's popular textbook falls into this error regularly. Here is an example from the realm of personal character and human relationships: "In the renewed moral theology, the act-centered question of the ethics of doing, 'What am I doing?' is no longer enough to cover the scope of morality. We must also ask from the ethics of being, 'What is my doing doing to me? What sort of person am I becoming?' . . . The renewed view of moral theology sees the moral life reflected more in the quality of our character and our relationships than in isolated actions we may do. Living morally is a matter of appropriating the values which promote positive moral character and life-giving human relationships. As such the moral life is a matter of an ongoing process of conversion so that who we are and what we do becomes more and more a response to divine love" (Reason Informed by Faith, p. 30).

While all of this is true, it needs to be integrated with the moral norms of the Church so that our "response to divine love" does not become a vague goal that we ourselves end up defining by our feelings and experiences.

Veritatis Splendor also says that if we deny our capacity to live the truth, we are implicitly stating that Christ's redemption has been emptied of its power.

That's about my favorite text in the encyclical #103. Christ has redeemed our natures. But we have a tendency, especially when relying on our own emotions, to act out of accord with our redeemed natures. The moral norms of the Church help us to prevent letting experience be our guide.

While being critical of "experience," it is of crucial importance to realize that Catholic doctrine still consistently affirms the dignity of the human person. By affirming our freedom to live and act according to the truth, we are raised to a level above animals, a level where we can control our passions rather than letting our passions control us. It is an astonishing nobility and dignity that results from an affirmation of man's freedom and responsibility.


Mark Lowery "Come on a Guilt Trip With Us." Envoy (Nov/97-Feb/98)

Reprinted courtesy of Envoy Magazine.


Mark Lowery is Associate professor in the Department of Theology, University of Dallas, Irving, TX 75062. He is also a husband and the father of six children.

Copyright 1998 Envoy



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved