I’ve only occasionally believed in God and I wouldn’t consider myself a religious person. Despite this, I’ve been baptized, had Communion, and been confirmed—meaning I’m a certified Catholic. A cousin of mine once called us “holiday Catholics,” while my mother prefers the term “culturally Catholic.” My cousin is right, though: I go to church twice a year, on Easter and Christmas, to make my grandmother happy. I didn’t attend a Catholic school and on my off days I forget the words to the Hail Mary.
It turns out that a fun part of our Catholic culture is a significant amount of guilt. No one in my immediate family is a practicing Catholic, and yet you won’t see a single one of us eating meat on Good Friday.
Catholic guilt is essentially an excess of healthy guilt. Being morally scrupulous isn’t inherently a bad thing, but the Catholics (including those loosely associated with the church, like myself) take it one step further. The Catholic brand of guilt stems from the church’s black-and-white view of morality. We whittle down the ideas of Heaven and Hell to good and bad. This gross oversimplification of human behavior doesn’t allow for shades of gray.
Even further, Catholic guilt means that when you’re not performing actions that are deemed “good” by the Church, you feel as though you’re a bad person. Unfortunately, the teachings of Catholicism are centuries old and don’t represent how anyone actually lives today. The problem also lies in not being able to feel neutral about your own choices. They’re either good or sinful, and so things as normal as resting yield feelings of guilt, because as illogical as it is, you feel as though your time technically could have been more well-spent.
Catholic guilt is an experience that connects me to my other vaguely Catholic friends and entertains those who cannot fathom our feelings of guilt. It’s been represented in theater, literature, and film. Orla Gartland even wrote a song about Catholic guilt.
During Christmastime, Catholic guilt intensifies. Family members label each other bad or good depending on the food they’ve eaten, how much they’ve exercised, and whether or not they went to Mass. It can be exhausting, even if you try to abstain from the conversation.
There are some universally applicable instances of Catholic guilt that anyone even remotely associated with the church will understand. This article went so far as to list 21 signs of suffering from Catholic guilt. From the generic pressure to get married in a church to feeling uncomfortable when someone yells “Jesus Christ” (despite doing it yourself), this writer hit some scarily specific points that made me question whether my vegetarianism was really for the environment or just a deep-rooted symptom of religious guilt.
To try and explain how Catholic guilt works on a day-to-day basis, here are some ways it manifests in my life.
- Feeling defensive of Catholics
Hear me out. The Catholic church as an institution is irreparably messed up—I make no excuses there—but I can’t stand when people conflate the church with its followers. I’ve met a ton of shitty Catholics, ones who use their faith to justify hate, but I’m not talking about them. What grinds my gears is non-Catholic people making sweeping judgments about 1.2 billion people. I know this feeling is probably a hangover from the age-old Protestant v. Catholic dispute, but it’s made its mark. Catholics, feel free to criticize the church all you like. But if your whole take on Catholicism means you taint victims and perpetrators with the same brush, kindly shut up.
- Anything remotely to do with sex
This one may be a combination of the patriarchy and the church, since they tend to work in tandem. I challenge you to find a Catholic who could masturbate without feeling excessive amounts of guilt afterward in their teenage years. Watching movies with sex scenes around my parents makes me deeply uncomfortable even now. I could go on, but I think you get the point. The church has made sex so taboo that a 21st-century, tertiary-educated, bisexual feminist is still suffering today.
- Aversion to criticism
Again, this feeling is not unique to Catholics—many of us with anxiety experience it to a debilitating extent. But there is something different about Catholics in my experience, and that is an inability to separate themselves from the judgments people make about them. It could be grades, or even a joke about a minor mistake, but everything becomes personal. Escaping judgment is impossible, and learning to respond without anger would benefit many Catholics.
- An inability to spend money on myself
I’ve been earning my own money since high school, but I still find it unreasonably difficult to buy things that I like. “Because I want it and can afford it” apparently isn’t a good enough reason to buy myself a new shirt, even though I’m wearing clothes I’ve had since I was 15. If I’m not going to be in dire straits without making a purchase, I simply won’t do it, it makes me feel selfish. Catholicism asks you to put the needs of others before your own, and while that may be a noble pursuit, when taken to extremes it’s only going to be detrimental to your mental health.
- Emotional repression
This is the big one. If I had to summarize Catholic guilt at its core, I would say it comes down to emotional repression. Families simply don’t talk about their feelings. Any display of emotion is treated as undesirable and weak. It makes forming close friendships and relationships with your family quite difficult. It took me until I was 16 to be properly comfortable with hugs. Communicating feelings to romantic partners can feel like a chore.
In reality, there’s a genuinely dark side to Catholic guilt. An inability to communicate feelings can lead to serious miscommunications and unresolved resentment. In my experience, Catholic guilt makes expressing yourself overwhelmingly difficult; it impacts all of your relationships, whether they’re platonic, romantic, sexual, or familial.
Catholic guilt is generationally entrenched, too. It’s a cycle of thinking that has to be purposefully broken. To rid yourself of Catholic guilt means speaking up against your family. It means making choices to look after your mental health, even when no one around you thinks it’s a priority. It’s about breaking the martyr mindset and actively believing that you can and should do things for yourself.
While you critically evaluate your thoughts, you may find yourself drifting from your family. It can be difficult to realize you have different priorities than those you love. Just remember that establishing healthier patterns is always the right thing to do. Catch yourself dividing behavior into binary categories of good and bad. Your devout or merely cultural connection to a faith should never be allowed to stifle your emotions.
Relationships with religion are always hard to navigate, particularly when your family is involved. If you need a sign to start the work, here it is: Catholic guilt serves no one, so for the love of God, let that shit go.
By Madeleine Burgess