Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, have frequently been blamed for generating unnecessary, unhealthy, and morbid guilt in the hearts of its members thereby depriving them of simple joy in the good things of life. Peter’s encounter with Jesus (described in this morning’s gospel) would seem to lend support to this not uncommon perception of Christianity. For, depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man, certainly sounds like guilt and unhealthy guilt at that. For what had Peter done to be guilty about? Despite having worked hard all night and caught nothing, Peter humbly obeys Jesus’ instruction to put out into deep water and lower the nets, yet again! According to the gospel it was the sight of the catch of fish that generated this sense of guilt and unworthiness. But why?
I suspect that the guilt came from realizing what he had been thinking even as he obeyed Jesus’ instruction about lowering the nets again. Perhaps the outward obedience was not matched by an inner docility and, instead, lowering the nets was done with inner resentment and resistance. After all, what did a carpenter, turned Rabbi, know about fishing! And so, seeing all the fish, Peter is momentarily overwhelmed by guilt and regret for his negative thoughts and lack of true inner docility to the Master’s instruction. However, what is significant is that Peter doesn’t see this as deserving of some external punishment, rather, he feels himself unworthy of associating with Jesus and being his disciple. And this, perhaps, illustrates one of the defining features of authentic and productive guilt: namely, that it is not self-focused, but other-focused.
This is to recall that we can experience guilt and shame through wounded pride when all we are really concerned about is how we have failed ourselves and not lived up to our personal ideals. To the degree that such guilt incorporates others, it is only to resent those who are deemed superior to us or look down on those thought to be morally weaker than ourselves. A similarly unhealthy guilt, that is likewise self-focused, involves guilt over having broken a law or disobeyed a commandment. Here the concern is primarily the prospect of punishment for our transgression, with little or no concern for its impact on others and our relationship with them. In contrast, it is when guilt is bound up with concern for others and how our actions have injured them that it can be termed healthy and conducive to transformation and growth.
This is especially true in our relationship to God. Saint Bernard’s three stages of love—that of the slave, the hireling, and the son/daughter—also describe three corresponding stages of guilt. The self-focused guilt of the slave who dreads punishment for wrongdoing, the guilt of the hireling whose primary concern is what he might lose through his sinful behavior, and that of the son or daughter whose overriding anxiety is loss of God’s love and consequent separation from him. This seems to have been what Peter feared and his insistence that Jesus depart from him because of his sinfulness, was the opposite of what he truly desired. Jesus recognized this and instead of departing used this awkward and painful interaction as the moment of Peter’s call to discipleship and mission.
And so we see that unhealthy and self-focused guilt simply imprisons us in ourselves leaving us isolated and unhappy. In contrast, by focusing our attention on the impact our behavior has had on our relationships to God and others, healthy and authentic guilt maintains us in relationship to others and opens us to receive forgiveness, healing, and inner freedom. Somewhat paradoxically, then, authentic guilt’s capacity to open us to God and others makes it a powerful means to deepening intimacy with God and enhancing our life-giving relationships with others. And if this is true, then the claim that Christianity instills guilt is perhaps an unintended compliment!