Oh, Catholic guilt. Whenever I hear that I almost feel embarrassed for the fact that those two words are so strongly tied together. The phrase is rooted in the idea that Catholics and non-Catholics feel excessive guilt as a result of the church’s emphasis on personal responsibility, sin, and need for sacramental confession. Martin Luther and even Saint Ignatius were racked with scruples when it came to sin and confession. But what good can we find in Catholic guilt—or even guilt in general?
Healthy guilt can lead to positive change for the world. Consider the stories we learn of in just one 24-hour news day. Civil war in Syria, the poor dying due to lack of health insurance, the starving in developing countries, the political dictators who cause death and suffering in the Middle East. All around the world other human beings who breathe and love like us are innocently being murdered or tortured while we sit privileged with WiFi and air conditioning. Sarah Attwood, an M.Div. graduate from Boston College, wrote about guilt and how over-stimulating media desensitises us to the realities happening now in the rest of the world. She begins with a reference to a scene in the movie Hotel Rwanda:
A haunting portrayal of American apathy is depicted in a scene in the movie Hotel Rwanda between Paul Rusesabagina, a humanitarian who hid and protected over a thousand refugees during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and Jack Daglish, who shot footage of the massacre. Paul tells Jack, “I am glad that you have shot this footage and that the world will see it. It is the only way we have a chance that people might intervene.” Jack responds, “Yeah and if no one intervenes, is it still a good thing to show?” Paul, quite disturbed, questions: “How can they not do anything? Don’t they care?” to which Jack gives voice to the ugly reality of a complacent world: “I think if people see this footage they’ll say, ‘Oh my God that’s horrible,’ and then go on eating their dinners.”
And the reason we don’t really respond is because of that desensitisation. But oughtn’t we feel guilt? And shouldn’t that guilt move us to action? Attwood talks about how guilt can be both motivating and paralysing. Certainly, Saint Ignatius’ scruples did little to move him to service because he kept having to go back to confession to confess the fact that he failed to confess something in his previous confession. But guilt, as Attwood says, “… is not a hopeless situation; it is an honest assessment of who we are.” With God there is grace and we must find the grace in the guilt. When we consider the genocide in Rwanda we ought to feel a guilt that reveals our “out-of-placeness” and pushes us toward a freedom that allows us to take action. The guilt often reveals our ‘no’.
When we turn our backs on another human being, feign innocence in the face of another’s suffering, that is how we say ‘no’ to God.
It’s worth reflecting on the role of guilt in our lives and how it places us before ourselves and before God. Is it paralysing us in a state of self-worthlessness? Or is it pushing us to take concrete action? Or do we just go on eating our dinners?
Imaginative prayer with the news
Guilt should always leave us restless, helping us acknowledge the “out-of-placeness” in our world. We are sinners, even by our inaction and stagnancy. Attwood makes a point to say that mailing a check to a charity or giving money to a homeless person can turn into a mechanism that simply tries to cover up our guilt by crossing something off a good deed to-do list. Instead, guilt should be person-based. We must remember the human beings being oppressed.
The narratives of oppression are in the news every day. Perhaps in an effort to sensitise ourselves more to the reality of these stories requires prayer. If we can imaginatively enter a gospel scene in the Ignatian tradition of prayer where we interact with Jesus and all the characters, can’t we do the same with news stories? Imagine the fears you might be feeling as you and your friends protest a dictatorial government. You may have been near an explosion that killed some of your family. Your government is responsible for those deaths. Imagine the tears, the disgust, the anger. You fear for your own life but know it’s almost impossible to escape beyond the borders; the army won’t let you. You’re less than human to them and not worth keeping alive.
But you’re not there. You’re here. Do you feel any guilt? What does it say?
Sometimes bible stories become romanticised stories that lead to good feelings when we pray with them. Perhaps we can use Ignatian prayer to enter the scene of a current event story and just experience the feelings as they come. And if you feel guilt, ask God what it might be saying to you.
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