The concept of “Catholic guilt” has become a cliche, a joke, a truism. But it’s real. For many of us who experienced Catholic childhood religious indoctrination, Catholic guilt is a pernicious and inescapable burden with serious lifelong repercussions. It clings to us, a dark spectre of our pasts, a cruel and vicious voice whispering to us, reminding us of the lessons of our childhood: that we are unworthy, that we cannot do anything right, that we do not deserve to be happy, that we are dirty tainted sinners who must constantly punish ourselves and atone for our sins, and that we are nothing. Nothing.
And this voice cannot be reasoned with. It resides in a part of our brains that is immune to rationality. It’s not difficult to apply our reason to the question of whether or not God exists. We simply look for evidence, and, when we see that there is none, we realize that the only reasonable choice is to abandon our faith and to become atheists or agnostics. But Catholic guilt isn’t like that. The irrationality of the messages that we were told as children is irrelevant. Evidence and reason are powerless against guilt and shame that is this pervasive, vicious, and persistent. For those of us who grew up with this indoctrination, faith in God is optional. Catholic guilt, though, is not.
From a psychological standpoint, Catholic guilt makes a great deal of sense. It’s no surprise that a child who is repeatedly reminded of their inadequacy, dirtiness, and worthlessness will most likely become an adult who struggles with feelings of guilt and shame, one who never feels clean, worthy, valuable, adequate, or forgiven. One who is never at peace.
Despite this, few people, psychologists or otherwise, take it seriously. Unlike other forms of childhood trauma, Catholic guilt and other consequences of childhood religious indoctrination are rarely given the consideration that they deserve. I imagine that there are two reasons for this: 1) Catholic guilt is an extremely common and widespread phenomenon, so common that it is easily ignored, and 2) admitting that childhood religious indoctrination has lifelong consequences is taboo. For example, when I try to discuss my personal struggles with Catholic guilt, I’m often accused of blaming religion for my problems. I’ve even had people laugh in my face. And that’s the problem with treating Catholic guilt as a cliche and a joke: it creates an atmosphere in which it’s easy to dismiss it and to laugh it off. For those of us who struggle with it, the fact that it isn’t taken seriously adds insult to injury.
I think that we need to take it seriously. Because it is serious. It’s real and it’s immune to reason. And year after year, children continue to experience the indoctrination that, in one way or another, will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Until we as a society admit that childhood religious indoctrination has serious consequences and begin to give those consequences the consideration that they deserve, those of us who struggle with such issues will never be able to heal, even in some small way. And, more importantly, until society stops treating serious issues like Catholic guilt as a cliched joke, childhood religious indoctrination will never be seen for what it is: emotional and psychological abuse. We cannot even begin to fight back against childhood religious indoctrination until we admit that it does real damage and has real consequences, consequences that millions of people struggle with on a daily basis.
I don’t really know how to make this happen, though. How do we reclaim Catholic guilt, how do we make it clear that it’s no joke? How do we convince others that the after-effects of childhood religious indoctrination must be taken seriously? How do we destigmatize issues like Catholic guilt? Perhaps discussing it, bringing attention to it, and writing about our experiences with it can help. But other than that, I don’t know how to change things. If you have any ideas, please do share them.