Conditioned Guilt

Published in The Catholic herald on 6th October 2013 | Written by Polly Fielding


With World Mental Health Day imminent (October 10th), I would like to highlight the potentially damaging psychological effects of chance remarks made by the people in our lives whom we most trust and respect.
Conditioned Guilt

As a child growing up in the sixties, the comforting routine of Sunday Mass and Benediction and the clear-cut rules of Catholicism provided a sharp and steadying contrast to the personal abuse to which I was subjected in my home life.

Unable to trust family members, I placed unwavering confidence in the priests and nuns at my church and school. They guided me strictly towards a God who would always love me.

At times though, because of the messages about sin and unworthiness, I worried that Divine Love was conditional: it depended on my being the best person I could, in the service of others. If I strayed too far from the moral path and did not repent before I died, I'd end up in Hell for eternity.

After the sudden death of our ten-year-old classmate, our teacher, a nun, began the day by warning us, "Evelyn was a good girl and went straight to Heaven - but what if it had been one of you?"

During the playtimes of that day we huddled in groups we huddled in groups, desperately trying to remember anything nasty or unkind we may have said or done to Evelyn in the weeks preceding her death - or whether, in fact, we might even have caused the "headache" we were told had killed her. And for a long time afterwards we examined our consciences individually and collectively as we had been directed to do, in order to avoid sins that might lead us to eternal hellfire and damnation.

Years later, as a teacher, married with children of my own, I felt sure that the passage of time must have led to a widespread, far more enlightened viewpoint in Catholic education. But ten years ago I listened, with mounting dismay and anger as a priest addressed children in a Primary School Assembly: "I want you all to remember that each time you commit a sin, you are banging the nails further into Christ's hands and feet on the cross."

Perhaps it's not surprising then, that my five, now adult, children no longer follow the Catholic religion, though they all have the utmost respect for others and themselves.

I am not writing merely of my own personal or family experiences. Many lapsed Catholics I've spoken to have expressed a long-term loss of faith and confidence in the religion of their childhood as the result of a single harsh comment made to them by a priest, often at a time in their lives when they were at their most vulnerable. Recently a woman confided in me that she had never set foot in a Catholic church since a priest visited her home following the death of her youngest child. He looked her in the eyes and declared, "You must have done something wrong. This is God's punishment."

I had a frightening experience in Confession five years ago, when a priest refused to give me absolution because I told him that I could not honestly commit to always attend Sunday Mass in the future. He finally relented but not before I had begged him tearfully, saying that surely God would understand.

My faith was renewed in part during a visit to a small coastal town in France, as I described in my book, 'Crossing The Borderline':

Declaring my sins in another language feels easier.

On impulse I've wandered into a church, found a priest willing to hear my confession. We sit facing each other across a table.

I reel off a list of offences against a God I'm not even sure I believe in. The priest gives me absolution, asks me about myself, my life. I refer briefly to my unhappy childhood, my rigid, often harsh religious upbringing, my present emotional problems. He listens sympathetically. Daringly I say I've only occasionally attended Mass in recent years.

'Which means I'm doomed to Hell when I die, aren't I?' I challenge him.

'God loves you. He is not there to punish you.' His tone is kindly.

'So that wasn't a mortal sin?'

The priest smiles, shakes his head.

I stare at him, amazed. I'd expected a sermon on the evil of my ways.

'You're the first priest not to condemn my actions. But I think I've lost my faith. I don't know if there is a God, or where to find Him.'

'He's inside you,' the priest answers with conviction.

I remind him that he's not given me the usual penance for my sins.

'When you are sitting beside the sea today, just say thank you to God,' he says gently.

What, no Our Fathers, no Hail Marys, no act of retribution of my offences?

I thank him profusely. Already I'm feeling better.

I walk out into the bright sunshine, feeling an inner warmth, an unaccustomed sense of wellbeing.

On that occasion I really felt God's forgiveness. But sometimes, I think, the words used by a priest compound the sense of guilt and get in the way of any sense we may have that God has forgiven us.

We invest a lot of power in the words of authoritative figures - doctors, lawyers, the clergy... and whilst there are, of course, many non-judgmental priests who convey God's love for each one of us, it may take only one to dent or destroy someone's faith, perhaps forever. They are of course, only human; but as the communicators on earth of God's message, they need to be aware of the potential impact of their words and choose them with special care.

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