A few weeks ago I was driving into work with the radio tuned to a local Christian music station. I’d been instantly captivated by the voice of a radio DJ . He was telling a story that demanded my attention, a horror story straight from my worst nightmares: a few weeks ago, he had put regular gas in his wife’s diesel car.
Back in high school, my first car was a diesel Mercedes and I regularly fueled up with the green-handled pump at the big truck stop down the street. Green meant DIESEL, and any other color meant “Do Not Put This Gas In Your Tank Because You Will Destroy Your Vehicle.” When I was away from home and needed gas, I’d scan the pumps at nearby gas stations looking for green handles. No green, no fuel for me. It was inconvenient, but hey – only $1.75 per gallon back in those days. Years later after I got married and relinquished the beloved Mercedes back to my gracious parents, I entered the mainstream world of gasoline-powered vehicle ownership. No more diesel…no more green. Black handle. Black black black black black. To this very day, I am absolutely terrified of absentmindedly grabbing the green handle and consequently destroying my vehicle from the inside out. I’ll pull up in my minivan, two children screaming in the backseat, and all I can say is “Quiet children! Mommy needs to concentrate on grabbing the black handle instead of the green!” Call me paranoid.
You can imagine then why this radio DJ’s story had my complete attention. I’m sure other listeners were laughing at his seemingly benign little tale, but I nodded my head in grave solidarity with the poor man. Seven thousand dollars in damage to his brand new Volkswagen. My diesel car wasn’t even worth seven thousand dollars! His story had a happy ending though. The Volkswagen dealer decided to cover the costs under the vehicle’s warranty despite the fact that ordinarily, new cars are not insured for this type of damage. The vehicle was fixed and the whole family was very relieved. The DJ went on to explain that he spent several days trying to “make up” for the damage to his wife’s car by performing kind favors for her and offering to ride his bike to work to demonstrate his remorse, but his wife chided him to stop – the damage was paid for, the consequences of the mistake were no more! He found this to be difficult to do. As is the case in most Christian radio monologues, the story was intended for both entertainment and as a metaphor for Christian life. He brought the entire narrative back to one main spiritual principle: we cannot earn our salvation. We are given grace but we don’t deserve it; we can never merit eternal life on our own and we can never pay back the grace we’ve been given. A good story, a good Christian application. Beautiful.
Then it happened. As the next song began a slow crescendo to the airwaves, the DJ said, “Maybe you come from…a religious background.” He continued by exhorting his listeners to free themselves from the bonds of works-righteousness and accept Christ’s grace by rejecting our guilt for sin. Technically these were good suggestions; Pelagianism is a heresy after all. But what what did he mean by “religious?” What religion was he referring to? I decided to ask him. When I got to work I left a polite comment on the radio station’s Facebook page asking the DJ to clarify what he meant by “religious.” To my surprise, he actually responded. His reply? “All of them.” Hmm, well this was suspect. I appreciated his politically-correct response, but let’s be honest: he probably wasn’t talking about Southern Baptists. He probably wasn’t talking about Pentecostals. He probably wasn’t talking about Reformed Charismatics. No, this DJ was very likely and very specifically addressing the one group of Christians which reportedly corners the market on guilt for sin: the Roman Catholic Church.
I acknowledge that I might be nit-picking. The guy was just trying to magnify God’s grace, I’m sure. I also acknowledge that I might be completely wrong about his intended message. My inference here is based on my fairly recent experience as an anti-Catholic myself, during which time I equated works-righteousness with Catholicism like a synonym. Had he not used the word “religious” with such obvious disdain, I wouldn’t have even imagined that he held some bias against the Catholic Church. But ever since that crazy “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” video went viral a few months ago, the “r” word sends up a red flag to me that the person might be using it interchangeably with the word “Catholic.” In all my days as both a Protestant and a Catholic, I’ve never heard the term used in reference to any other tradition. (Aside: For an incredibly articulate and beautifully produced Catholic response to the aforementioned viral video, go here. So much awesome!)
In a similar fashion, I’ve never heard the term “guilt” correlated with any Christian tradition except Catholicism. “Oh, you and your Catholic guilt! Lighten up!” The term itself is meant to identify an alleged feeling of excessive remorse for sins (or perceived sins) on the part of a Catholic. Many people consider “Catholic guilt” to be a symptom of having once borne the burden of an unbearable moral code. “Recovering Catholics” love the phrase (ask me how I know). Its generally not a term used by devout Catholics but rather by lapsed Catholics, non-Catholic Christians who misunderstand Church teaching, or non-Christians who think the Church is too strict. It is a term used for criticism or character assassination; it can be used as the punch line of a joke or even to discredit the Church as a whole. It is a loaded and cynical stereotype and as far as I’m aware, its attributed exclusively to Catholics.
I take issue with the term “Catholic guilt” because I do not find it to be characteristic of Catholic faith. Contrary to popular belief, I did not trade a life of liberty and forgiveness for one of perpetual shame and self-condemnation. I dare to make the claim that the total opposite has been true.
As anyone who has read about my journey to Catholicism will know, I made several stops on the road to the Church, theologically speaking. When God began beckoning me towards home, I most closely identified as a Reformed Protestant, heavily influenced by the teachings of John Calvin and the tenets of the Westminster Confession of Faith as well as the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. In those days I believed I was totally depraved, completely disinclined to follow God, corrupted in all ways, incapable of even responding to the call of God apart from a predestined assignment to His family. To quote the London Baptist Confession, I was “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil.” Any good deed I did was pleasing to God but tainted by my selfish motives and imperfect execution of the task. There was no possibility that I could ever please God because I wanted to and to suggest otherwise was to be an outright heretic. In those days I frequented Reformed blogs whose authors introduced themselves by saying things like, “Hi, I’m Mike! I’m a completely disgusting, repugnant piece of garbage who is worth less than nothing. Enjoy my posts!” (Sometimes these mini-bios would be disturbingly competitive…who could be the most totally depraved?) In short, I was a no-good landfill of a human soul long before my days as a Romanist. I had not only perfected Christian guilt, but also Christian despondency. No matter how wretched I truly was, there was nothing I could do about it either. Responsibility for my sins almost became a rather pointless pondering. This was suffocating, crushing guilt.
The Catholic Church teaches no such doctrine as total depravity (and thank goodness because I’m running out of synonyms for “bad”). We reject predestination and consequently reject the notion that we play no role in our eternal state. Catholics believe that we are made in the image of God and therefore cannot be totally depraved. We are fallen creatures and subject to sinful ways, but we are inherently good despite our inclination to sin. To quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church (emphasis mine):
By his reason, man recognizes the voice of God which urges him “to do what is good and avoid what is evil.” Everyone is obliged to follow this law, which makes itself heard in conscience and is fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor. Living a moral life bears witness to the dignity of the person.
“Man, enticed by the Evil One, abused his freedom at the very beginning of history.” He succumbed to temptation and did what was evil. He still desires the good, but his nature bears the wound of original sin. He is now inclined to evil and subject to error:
Man is divided in himself. As a result, the whole life of men, both individual and social, shows itself to be a struggle, and a dramatic one, between good and evil, between light and darkness. [CCC 1706, 1707]
Something about this banality of “Catholic guilt” isn’t lining up here.
So where did the stereotype come from? It would seem from my brief survey of familiar Protestant doctrines that Catholicism is hardly the poster child for guilt. I speculate that the stereotype stems not from our catechism but from our moral code. After all, when a lapsed Catholic is being chastised for his Catholic guilt, its often because he’s exhibiting behavior that is contrary to Church teaching. Regret missing church some Sunday morning? “Fight that Catholic guilt.” Struggle with the decision to limit your family size with the use of contraceptives? “It’s your Catholic guilt!” Hesitate to openly endorse gay marriage in front of your friends? “My goodness, let go of that hateful, outdated, irrelevant Catholic guilt!” To be fair, many Protestants share moral values with the Catholic Church; indeed, moral values are among our blessed agreements. However, the Catholic Church alone has been crowned with the guilt stereotype. Why? I speculate that its due to her centuries upon centuries of consistent and unwavering opposition to sin. Evidently, mainstream society really hates that. The Catholic Church has a hard-earned reputation of obstinateness and carries the stereotype to prove it. “Those strict Catholics…motivated by their own guilt, they are!” (Not really, but that’s the word on the street.)
Allow me to express that one of the many immense joys of coming home to the Catholic Church was the full restoration of something I’d almost thrown away: my own (perceived) worth to God. For years I truly believed that I was a no-good, “totally depraved” failure of creation. Before returning to the Church, I wouldn’t dare suggest that God might see any bit of His goodness in me aside from that goodness he’d predestined me to do apart from my own will. Imagine the degree of solace I felt after studying Catholic teaching on the nature of man for the first time. I am a sinner and I would be nothing without God. I am redeemed by His grace through His Son, Jesus. And because I am made in the image of God, I have value. I am not a worthless scrap of creation. I am not “snow-covered dung.” I have inherent worth to the God who created me to be in communion with Him.
By the way, Catholics especially don’t need to feel perpetual guilt. If you’re a “guilty Catholic” and recognize that this isn’t ideal, re-familiarize yourself with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Our Catholic faith is the one Christian tradition on earth in which you can literally hear the words of God’s forgiveness: God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. If there is anywhere within the body of Christ, Catholic or otherwise, where struggles of guilt should be least prevalent, it is here.
Perpetual shame and condemnation are not what should define Catholic Christians. Total depravity and utter wretchedness are not the default states of humankind. We are fallen, we are sinners, we desperately need a Savior because of it. And to the praise of our Creator, we still have inherent value as God’s created people. Oh blessed balance of doctrine, oh beautiful realization of sensible truth. I’ve been saying that a lot these days.