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Guilt is often portrayed as a Catholic thing, a millstone around the necks of otherwise decent folks, a ball and chain clapped on to the ankles by sinister clerics bent on absolute control of people’s lives. Or do non-Catholics also experience guilt?

Far from a psychological hindrance imposed by overbearing parents and clerics, I see guilt as an alarm bell rung by conscience itself that tells us when we’ve violated the natural law and put ourselves out of sync with the divine order of things. I see it as the spiritual equivalent of physical pain: it tells me when something is wrong. If I stub my toe, I’m alerted to the fact by a throbbing ache or a sharp pain. The unpleasant feeling lets me know my attention is needed in a particular part of my body. Likewise, guilt tells me that my focus is needed in a particular area of my spiritual life - my faith may be lagging, my hope may be sagging, or my charity may be flagging. I may have spoken a harsh word or committed an imprudent act, and that sinking feeling is the sensation of a wound I've inflicted on my spiritual being.  And that’s something I should like to know about!

Of course, guilt is not an infallible tool. The scrupulous person is far too sensitive to guilt. This gives rise to the caricature people are referring to when they talk about “Catholic guilt” in the way a lapsed Catholic comedian might. A favorite target is the 'no meat on Fridays rule', inviting quips along the lines “I don’t pray or keep any of the commandments anymore, but I’m still terrified to have a hot dog at the end of the week.”

But scrupulous people are the exception, not the rule. Perhaps we could say they are like spiritual hypochondriacs, constantly concerned about every tiny ache and pain, certain that at the very best it’s the sign of a debilitating and excruciating disease that’s looming. Scrupulous people do not give us a good picture of guilt any more than hypochondriacs give us a good picture of medicine.

On the other extreme, there are people whose consciences have become so desensitized and deadened to guilt that they take no notice of the spiritual or even the legal consequences of their actions.

These aberrations have given guilt a bad name.  I think one always needs to embrace one's guilt as a gift and try to form one's  conscience in a positive way.


Yes, non-Catholics experience guilt! Protestant churches are big on guilt, and you can't go to confession and be given a punishment to absolve the guilt. In the Lutheran church I went to as a child, you're guilty forever.
where does the individual acquire those standards which lead to twinges of quilt?

hopefully, when the individual is an adult they form their own standards not those imposed by an authoritarian voice sometime in their childhood
Oh yes, we do!

See my recent post about guilt.
Guilt is a very Catholic thing, but my Jewish mother had guilt totally nailed, and the one person I knew who slathered on the guilt better than anyone else was a small, Chinese grandmother.

- Erulisse (one L)