Catholic guilt: A reflection on the familiarity of shame

Catholic guilt: A reflection on the familiarity of shame August 17, 2020

By Barbara Alvarez
Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern
Freedom From Religion Foundation

This essay was written on Aug. 15, 2018, after the Pennsylvania grand jury issued its landmark report of Catholic Church crimes against children and the institutional cover-up. It is being republished for the two-year anniversary of publication of that report.

I was 8 years old when I announced that I wanted to be the first female priest. I was attracted to how ceremonial it all was: the processional, the incense, the power of speech. I wanted to be part of it. I only saw men in long robes leading church services and wondered why a woman couldn’t do that?

So, I started practicing for priesthood by playing hymnals on the family piano and force-feeding my parents and sister communion in the form of Ritz crackers.

Then one day in Catholic school, I was emphatically told that women could never be priests because Jesus was a man and men were the only ones who could stand in for God. But, no worries, I could become a nun.

The Catholic school I went to no longer had nuns by the time that I got there, save for one Sister. Plus, nuns had to take a vow of poverty and obedience, while the priests could drive BMWs and vacation in New Zealand. Thanks, but no thanks.

(I like to believe that my feminism was born in this moment.)

So I succumbed to my role as a typical Catholic parishioner: going to church every Sunday so I wouldn’t burn in hell, praying the rosary on Thursday mornings for the poor souls who were stuck in Purgatory and needed to get to heaven, and wearing a scapular under my shirt so that if I died while wearing it, I would avoid hell and go straight to heaven, much like a Get Out of Jail Free card.

One day during confession, I was so nervous in front of a particularly intimidating priest that I forgot the Act of Contrition. In a booming voice, he scolded me and told me that he would come find me the following week and make me recite it in front of my class (so much for the supposed anonymity of going to confession). I left the confessional full of shame as hot tears streamed down my cheeks. For a week, I recited the Act of Contrition every night before bed so that I would be fully prepared for my test. He never followed up.

(I like to believe that my anxiety was born in these moments.)

Even after I left the Catholic Church, I still felt the palpable pangs of Catholic guilt. Every few years I’d even go to confession, not because I believed that I had sins that would send me to hell (or that, even if I did, this robed man had the power to absolve me of them) but simply because of the strange familiarity that it ingrained in me. Old habits die hard.

While all of these stories may seem harmless or like typical Catholic school stories that we can now laugh about, children in Catholic schools and churches across the world have suffered real emotional, mental and physical pain. At my own school, there was one such case. (I should clarify: one case that was actually investigated. Perhaps there were others that went unreported or otherwise ignored.) Like so many other people, I wanted to think that these things happened because of sick individuals and nothing more. Maybe it’s easier to think that way.

But this morning as I tried to read as much as I could stomach of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, it was abundantly clear: This is a systemic violation of tens of thousands of children around the world.

The cover-up, the lack of reporting, the looking the other way, the transferring of priests — all of it signaling a system that aids and abets predators. As of this writing, the Vatican has yet to respond. [Two days later, the Vatican lamely called the abuses “reprehensible” and said that there needed to be accountability for abusers and their protectors.]

I think of all the times we were told that skipping church on Sundays or Holy Days of Obligation was a one-way ticket to hell. I think of the children being told those same things, fearing eternal damnation, while simultaneously being subjected to unspeakable acts that will never be absolved from their minds or hearts, and I wonder . . . What can one even call that?

Hypocrisy is a kind summation. Evil is more appropriate.

Postscript: This essay marked my official departure from the Catholic Church. At the time of this writing, I had considered myself culturally Catholic. This meant that while I no longer believed in Catholic teachings — and was losing faith in a higher power — I still went to the occasional mass or confession. I reasoned that I could divorce myself from the bigotry, homophobia and sexism if I just participated out of familiarity, not servitude. However, the Philadelphia grand jury report was the final straw; I could no longer turn a blind eye to the backward institution of the Catholic Church, upbringing and familial expectations be damned. I knew that participating in the Catholic Church in any way, shape or form would be hypocritical. How could I claim to care about human dignity if I was still tied to an organization that completely disregarded it?

After this writing, I officially left the Catholic Church and turned to secularism. As a librarian, I looked up books about secularism in the library system and promptly found Annie Laurie Gaylor’s book, Woe to the Women, and Dan Barker’s book, Losing Faith in Faith. This was my introduction to the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Since then, I have fully embraced secularism and am committed to fighting for the separation of state and church. And while I wish I could say that I no longer have any Catholic guilt, there are still infrequent pangs. But I realize that there is no validity to that guilt; it simply exists because a childhood raised on fear, anxiety and superstition isn’t something that is easily resolved.

I do know that my secular values stand for reason, science, human rights, equality and compassion. And I have absolutely no guilt about that.


Barbara Alvarez is from Madison, Wis., and attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison, working on a Ph.D. in library and information sciences with a minor in gender and women’s studies. Alvarez was a major winner in last year’s FFRF essay competition for graduate students, writing about the bible’s role in the abortion battle. She is FFRF’s first Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern, a program set up to memorialize FFRF’s principal founder, who was an early abortion rights activist and author of the book Abortion is a Blessing.

"some people can find a secret message between these to quotes ' 'they can find ..."

The similarities between QAnon and evangelism
"Indeed. Which is what makes it so ironic that conspiracy theories are very effective tools ..."

The similarities between QAnon and evangelism
"> ... there are hidden meanings in his messages.And there it is. "Secret knowledge" is ..."

The similarities between QAnon and evangelism

Browse Our Archives