In the confessional every priest deals with folks who are struggling with guilt and shame, and it has seemed to me for some time that most folks do not have the tools to deal with guilt and shame. However, the church teaches how to approach guilt and shame in a positive and objective manner. This is important because one of the sticks people use to beat the Catholic Church is that we not only load people up with guilt but we use the guilt as a way to manipulate them spiritually and psychologically–and maybe financially too.

As to that charge, I guess it has been true from time to time, but in my experience the present Catholic pastoral practice is exactly the opposite. More sugar than vinegar–more the carrot than the stick. In other words, priests are so eager to bend over backward to emphasize God’s mercy and forgiveness (which is a good thing BTW) that there is little room left for guilt and shame. Furthermore, coming from a strict Evangelical background I can attest that Catholics do not have a monopoly on making people feel guilty and ashamed.

But what ARE we to do with guilt and shame? First, acknowledge that these are personal emotions. They are subjective and may have little to do with the sin itself. Why do I feel guilt? Because I believe I have done wrong and fallen short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) But have I really, or do I feel guilty because of some expectation my parents, my priest, my peers or society has put upon me? It could be that these expectations are correct and I am right to feel guilty, but maybe they are social conventions or no more than high familial expectations. You don’t have to feel guilty, for example, because you burnt the cookies!

Some people feel guilt and shame over things that have happened to them rather than things they’ve done. It’s classic to hear children blame themselves for their parents’ divorce, for example. Likewise people who are abused or traumatized will often blame themselves. This kind of guilt may require counseling to get through.

Then, I am sorry to say, there are those for whom guilt and shame are not much more than an exercise in self-dramatization. Not feeling terribly important, they puff up their feelings of guilt and shame to make themselves feel more significant. They dramatize their “sin” and feel terrible about themselves when, in fact, they have not done much of anything–either wicked or good. We will leave this type of soul to their counsellor because if, in the confessional the priest suggests that they haven’t really done anything sinful they will actually become indignant because their little game of self dramatization has been undermined.

And what is shame? Shame is usually rooted in our self perception or the fear of getting caught. I did something dirty and mean so I am ashamed. Why? Because I think better of myself (and that’s ok) and what I’ve done makes me feel bad about myself. However, while shame may be an indicator of some wrongdoing, it may not be a fair or just indicator of how serious that sin is. So, for example, we usually feel most ashamed of the sins of the flesh, but in the big picture the sins of the flesh may be relatively minor compared to other more serious sins.

As a result, both guilt and shame are emotions rooted in the perceptions and expectations of others and ourselves (about ourselves).

This is why the church leaders should not emphasize guilt and shame but focus instead on an objective examination of conscience according to the Ten Commandments and the precepts of the church. An objective analysis of our sin should include an analysis of our culpability.

Culpability is different from guilt. Guilt is the bad feeling we have about our sin. Culpability is the actual, objective (as much as possible) degree of our guilt. Our culpability is determined by circumstances, intention and possible outcome. These three elements do NOT determine whether something is a sin or not. That is an objective judgement based on natural law and God’s law as revealed to the Church and communicated to us through Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium. Culpability is the degree of our guilt for that sinful action, and this is conditional on circumstances, intention and possible outcome.

The example of this that I often use is: Two men are going down the highway at ninety miles an hour. The first man is in a two seater sports car with a fifteen year old girl in the passenger seat and an open bottle of whiskey between them. The second man is in the family minivan rushing to the emergency room with his ten year old daughter who has had a terrible accident. Both of them objectively broke the law. The first man’s culpability is off the charts. The second man’s culpability is non existent.

So when making an examination of conscience we should be able to put on one side our feelings of guilt and assess our culpability and the objective assessment of our actions and make our confession not only clearly seeing our faults but also clearly seeing God’s mercy–understanding that to know all is to forgive all–and because God knows everything he can forgive everything.

Instead of guilt and shame we should think in terms of perfect or imperfect contrition. Imperfect contrition is linked with fear of getting caught, fear of being found out and fear of what other people might think. Imperfect contrition is also linked with shame–embarrassment and this is linked with our self image. Perfect contrition, on the other hand, is sorrow for the sin we have committed because it offends God and alienates us from him and also because it wounds God’s image in us and is an obstacle to our ultimate destiny–which is to be a saint.