I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard or read people blaming their personal failures or psychological stresses on “Catholic guilt” in the last 20+ years. It is as though the Church is the great rain cloud ever shadowing the grand Mardi Gras that so many expect life to be. All that stands in the way of a good old time is the Church and her teachings regarding sin. Whether subtle or not so subtle, we see this condemnation in the movies, in the general media, in politics and in some treatises from the theological far-Left. Not a few people leave the Church thinking to rid themselves of this vestige of “medieval thinking”. They almost invariably end up bitterly disappointed.
Sex and the Mythmakers
The most common complaints have revolved around sex. If only we could let go and do what is “natural,” we would have our bliss like Margaret Mead’s (mythic) “primitives” in Samoa, or Sigmud Freud’s (defrauded) neurotics. In their day (which seems so long ago now) the works of both Mead and Freud were considered “science”. Each contended that almost the whole notion of “western” guilt was the product of nurture, not nature, and that if only we could get back in touch with nature, sexually especially, we could finally be free of all that neurosis.
Too bad it didn’t pan out. Reality must intrude. We got what Mead and Freud and so many others wanted —and indeed far more than they could have ever hoped for—but along with it a host of unforeseen horrors which followed: at least 60 million dead of AIDS at this writing and climbing—to say nothing of the ravages of other sexually transmitted diseases—- to a more than 50 percent divorce rate in the West with all that this has meant for the psyches of the children from such families, to abortions uncountable, and, finally, to societies which have become ever more violent and unsafe from predators of all types (even affecting the schools, Boy Scouts and churches, etc). Increasing areas of the West today are in virtual lockdown for fear that our children and young people will be sexually preyed upon, drugged, kidnapped, tortured or murdered. No paradise is here, but more and more a jungle.
It used to be the common wisdom of humankind that to surrender oneself to one’s passions, unrestrained by morality and reason, was madness. It was to invite both personal and social disaster. The terrible facts have borne out the truth of such ancient wisdom, beyond all need for demonstration or footnotes. We see the truth with our own eyes every day, in our families, neighborhoods, nations, everywhere. And yet, amazingly, very many still do not believe. The Commandments are viewed as irrelevant to the human condition.
The fact is young people are hardly allowed to think. The media continues daily to heighten the desire for violence and sexual arousal, without regard for the consequences. Sex sells. The market rewards it. Free sex and a “free” market are considered the Enlightenment’s legacy. Anything else is considered retrograde, even cruel.
Government Promotion of Nihilism
The other side of these uncomfortable truths is that any government which condones this peddling of free indulgence of passions without regard for personal and societal consequences is a government which actually promotes it all, whatever its pretensions to civil righteousness. It doesn’t matter whether political parties blame each other; it doesn’t matter what the pretext—whether it is “free speech” or any other specious kind of reasoning, the rationalizations fall of their own weight in front of our eyes. The nation which condones it, promotes it. And human beings suffer on account of it.
The Human Person
Man (male and female) is that being who can say ‘no’ to his passions for the good of himself and others, unlike beasts. This is the distinguishing feature of the human being, together with the quest for spiritual meaning. One need hardly reference God or the Church at all to see the truth of these things. It is the Natural Law. “Nature” has produced a being with reason—a being who can foresee the consequences of his actions by measuring what would happen if everyone acted the way he does, for good or ill, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant recommended. A being who, weighing the need for measure, self-control, and the continuation of the species, can say “no” to anything which impedes or crushes such obvious goods, without being forced.
But when morality will not restrain the passions, all that is left is the paycheck or prison—positive and negative reinforcement, ala Pavlov’s dogs— safeguarding selective corporate or civil interests. Even arbitrary power must have some laws, lest human passions landslide into the frenzy of the mob which all principalities and powers fear. For the powers know that when Fido joins the hungry pack of dogs, our pet turns into something brutal, truly unrecognizable. Bloodlust unleashes the beast within, which we thought had been tamed.
Age of Paranoia
It is similar with a person. When the conscience is deadened and the only thing which keeps a neighbor from taking your daughter or son, stealing your wallet or your life is fear of civil punishment, everyone fears his neighbor may be a harnessed beast, but a potential beast nonetheless, in waiting.
When the media constructs a world saturated with lusts and violent passions, few can be at ease.
This is what has made our age an age of violence, paranoia, and opiates. Opiates aim to ease the tensions of the cognitive dissonance which is an inevitable part of a society which pits man against his own conscience, and which allows the State and its media to define the “good”. Opiates also make transgression easier, by suppressing conscience.
Prisons represent the necessary hypocrisy of the same State which promotes moral nihilism precisely by its condoning of moral nihilism. The State lures people into crime by promoting decadence and indulgence of the passions (destroying the foundations of family structure and traditional authority in the process), then it punishes those who follow the sensual logic of the State with consistency, i.e., those who see and show contempt for the State’s arbitrariness.
Blaming the Faith
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, blaming parents and especially their religious upbringing for much or all personal failure became a staple of Public Television and booksellers far and wide for the Baby Boomer generation. Many, many, innocent parents and traditional authorities were openly pilloried in group “therapy” or on Oprah or similar shows for having set limits, for spanking, or whatever; so much so that many parents saw the handwriting on the wall and simply gave up their roles and turned all parenting, guidance and punishments over to the increasingly Almighty State. Then they remade themselves into a new kind of spectacle: middle-aged teenagers. But when the State becomes the only lawful Parent, alone determining what is good or evil, it matters little then whether we are talking about North Korea’s ‘Dear Leader,’ or our own “enlightened” leaders. It is the will to power —and persecution looms.
Guilt, Christians know, has reference to the moral law, to how we were made in the image of the Creator (Gen1:26,27). When we turn our backs on guilt’s truth and transgress, we know it. We feel pained by our transgressions against God and our neighbor whether or not anyone sees. This pain is a redemptive pain if we hear its message and allow it to work its truths in us spiritually and existentially. For in the Christian faith there is no “right” to act in such a way as will physically or morally harm our neighbor whom the Creator says we are to love even as ourselves. In the Christian faith we have no right to renege on our moral obligations to wives, husbands, children, neighbors. To trash a spouse for another “flavor” is a spiritual crime.
No Escape from Truth
When we refuse to be guided by God’s commandments, God has no choice but to give us up to our own depravity and its consequences (Rom 1:26) and leave us to our own choices. But evil must fall of its own weight in time, as surely as night must follow day. If we choose to worship the Golden Calf of self-indulgence and turn our backs on the commandments then we are unprotected indeed along with everyone else, and love grows cold.
A society is doomed which in principle turns the notion of “freedom” into the “right” to dispose of others—whether through easy divorce laws, encouraging sexual promiscuity, theft, aggression against others, euthanasia, etc — is condemned to the consequences and constant fear.
Guilt is in truth a blessing, for it calls us to a higher consciousness, to a higher place spiritually than where we were in the act of transgression. Real guilt prods us to think of others, and not just ourselves. It makes us think of human obligations and not just our own alleged “rights”. The opposite of selfishisness is self-denial, where love is born. For every act of love in some way puts the ‘other’ above oneself.
The Good News of Jesus Christ in His Church is that a people who uphold conscience and the truths of real guilt are finally liberated to the order of the Kingdom of God, and so easily forgiven when they fall; forgiven by the God who loves, and who made us in His image. For God “is” love, the scripture says (1 Jn 4:16; Jn 3:16). And forgiveness is free for the asking. Denial and selfishness, however, are very, very expensive.
On the Matter of Sin
I don’t know the theologian who said it, but it is surely true:
“What is urgently needed today for the renewal of the Church and society in general is a positive theology of love rather than a negative theology of sin. Many people in the past believed that certain things were wrong because they were forbidden – but they should have been taught that they were forbidden because they are intrinsically wrong. The Commandments are not kill-joys but signposts to liberty and ultimate happiness. St Thomas Aquinas, probably the greatest philosopher / theologian, stresses that God only forbids certain things because they ultimately hurt us.”