The term “Catholic guilt” is generally used to describe the feelings of remorse or conflict in people who are or were raised Catholic. Sometimes this guilt is associated with specific church teachings, since when people feel that they have violated their faith’s laws they tend to feel guilty about it. The phrase also has a broader meaning, though. Many Catholic teachings emphasize the inherent sinfulness of all people, which can lead to a certain degree of self-loathing even in the absence of some obvious transgression. Guilt in this sense is usually related to inherent imperfections and daily failings that cause a person to feel that he or she is isolated from God and unworthy of reconciliation. Some scholars have linked this sort of religious-based guilt to obsessive compulsive disorder, though the results are far from conclusive.
Broad Ideas About Sinfulness
Many churches and faith-based organizations teach that sin and transgressions have separated people from the love of God or other deity, but the Catholic Church has a reputation for emphasizing this separation perhaps more vigorously than others. This is often particularly true in Catholic schools where young children are taught that they are unworthy of God’s love and are able to receive that love only through divine grace. People who grow up in these sorts of environments and with these sorts of teachings often develop into adults who feel guilty almost for existing. Many of these people remain deeply religious, but a sense of shame and sinfulness is often a big part of how they see themselves and is often the lens through which they approach their faith.
Relationship to Specific Church Teachings
Catholic guilt can also occur when a person who was raised in the faith engages in some type of behavior that the Church has declared to be wrong or sinful. Issues and practices associated with sexuality are some of the most common, and may be the cause of guilt for either a practicing Catholic or a lapsed one. Examples of prohibited practices include abortion, premarital sex, extramarital sex, masturbation, homosexuality, and the use of any type of birth control. Other sources of guilt may include divorce, not going to church, and interfaith marriage.
People who were raised in the Catholic faith are typically given very clear messages about which types of behavior are acceptable and which are not. This is not to say that people raised in a different faith do not feel guilty about the kinds of choices they make about how they will behave. Still, somehow the phrase Catholic guilt has made its way into popular vernacular. "Jewish guilt" is another common phrase.
To attach the term "Catholic" to feeling guilty about one's choices could be considered a stereotype, and unfair to people of the Catholic faith. The truth is, such guilt can affect people of various groups, Catholic or otherwise. When people do something that they feel is wrong, they will feel remorse after the fact. These feelings are generally normal, given the circumstances. People who lack the ability to feel remorse after doing something they have been taught is wrong may have some type of psychological problem that is more serious than guilt.
Potential Intersection With OCD
Some scholars have suggested that there may be a link between obsessive-compulsive behavior and guilt rooted in a religious faith like Catholicism. A number of studies have looked at the guilt felt by Catholic parishioners and leaders, often asking participants to make note of times when they experienced worry or recurring negative mental images. In most cases, the people who reported having a stronger faith were more bothered by these kinds of symptoms. This connection has led some to conclude that the intensive teachings and standards set by the Church may be related to incidences of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is a formally recognized psychological condition, though this conclusion is not widely held.
It is unlikely that Catholic guilt is really obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in disguise, at least not for most people. In some cases people who at risk of developing OCD may also be people who are naturally attracted to a life spent in service to others through religion. Those with a strong religious faith are also more likely to experience guilt, whether Catholic or otherwise, if they do something they have been taught is sinful.
Genetics also plays a role in whether a person develops OCD. It makes sense that when a person with the predisposition for OCD is raised in a strict manner, where the rules about what is right and what is wrong are very clearly emphasized, they would be more likely to experience guilt if they made choices that did not reflect what was considered acceptable according to their religious faith.