29 October 2020, The Tablet

The benefits of getting older and 'taking the long view'

The benefits of getting older and 'taking the long view'

We should not go through life feeling guilty for something we have not done.
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

One of the best things about getting older is being able to take a longer view. It is fascinating to look back over a period of time and see how things have changed. Dentistry is a good example, within living memory. Dentistry (like ophthalmology) never completely made it into the NHS, so it has always been expensive and lots of people couldn’t afford it, but even those who could afford it were not offered very good options when I was growing up. Orthodontics had only recently been invented and were limited to those whose teeth stuck out more or less at 90 degrees. Those of us with overcrowded mouths had several teeth out to “make room” and then the remaining teeth were just left to settle, leaving irritating little gaps. Holes in teeth were filled with some grey metal amalgam. No-one liked going to the dentist; it was even dangerous, as several were their own anaesthetist, and would administer a general anaesthetic to a child with gay abandon. Like being a car passenger in the days before seatbelts and crumple zones, you look back at it and wonder how we all survived (and some people didn’t).

Nowadays, dentistry is a changed field. Dentists see themselves as helping you with your dental health, not just brutal correction of disasters. They are still expensive and many people can’t afford them, but at least when we took our children to the dentist, they were unafraid and they all have much straighter teeth than we do, even though only a couple went through orthodontics. Above all the attitude has changed: going to the dentist is not such a big deal. Unlike my grandmother, who had all her teeth out as a present for her twenty-first birthday, most people now expect to keep their teeth all their lives.

Another element of our lives which has similarly changed for the better is the decline of Catholic guilt. I think when I was at school it was already past its prime, certainly in England. The expression was shorthand for mocking those who were uncomfortable if they broke the rules in some way, or missed Mass – or to describe a basic worldview – skewed by the awareness of being at fault. It was meant to make sure that if you did something wrong, at least there was no chance that you would ever enjoy it. It was very close to the idea of shame. I’m not sure why it was classed as “Catholic” guilt, when it seems to have been just as common an idea among the Puritans and Calvinists, and is hardly unknown among Presbyterians or Anglicans, but maybe it”s regarded as our fault because we were responsible for the early theology. It must go back, presumably, to the notion of Original Sin: we’re all born with this mark of Cain upon our brow and we should spend the rest of our lives feeling guilty for something, or we’re letting the side down. 

I’m happy to say that apparently theology seems to be moving on a bit here. I became unconvinced that we had understood this correctly when I had my babies, beautiful and innocent as the day even before they were christened, and also when we suffered a couple of miscarriages, where all the Church was offering was Limbo. Here too we seem to be moving out of darkness into the light, thank God. I find it easier to understand Original Sin by thinking of Adam in the Garden of Eden and wondering whether I would have done any better at keeping the rules. I don’t think anyone honest can assume that they would not have fallen, human curiosity and perversity being what they are, but I find this easier to handle than the concept that we are all simply evil in our inclinations, and should go through life feeling bad about it.

Bringing children up, civilising them, teaching them the way they should go is a long and challenging task, and in the end the parents probably feel more guilty about what they got wrong than the children do. I hope so, because I think saddling other people with what you might call second-hand guilt is not usually positive. When children are very little, you try to get them to do the right thing by example; as they get bigger, you can start explaining. If you are just trying to inculcate feelings of guilt or unworthiness,  these are not good lessons for life.

When I was teaching First Communion preparation, we obviously started with First Confession or Reconciliation (the modern name is to indicate the emphasis on forgiveness), because that happens first. It’s important to be very careful with this, as you are trying to explain the concept of sin to children who are usually only just old enough to grasp it, and anyway the whole point of the sacrament is not so much our feeling guilty, which we can do on our own, but rather God”s forgiveness. One interesting exercise I developed was to offer the children in the group various events or sets of circumstances and then ask them which ones were sins. It can be difficult to judge, as most adults learn over time, and the only person who always gets it right is God;  but you can look (for example) at the difference between an accident (dropping a plate, not a sin) and smashing a plate on the floor in a fit of temper (a sin). One problem I hadn’t anticipated was how many older catechists find the whole idea of stressing love and forgiveness rather than sin problematic, given the way their own preparation for the sacrament was angled.

What you are trying to do is to develop people’s consciences, not to make them miserable, but to give them a better tool of judgment. It is difficult to get the balance right, but using guilt as motivation is surely a sign of manipulation rather than fair treatment. The problem with Catholic guilt is that it is based on either The Church or God (or in bad cases, Mary Our Mother) going into a sulk over something that you have done. (One of my teachers at school told us when we were fourteen: “Whenever a girl whistles, the Virgin Mary sheds a tear.” Never have I so regretted being unable to whistle.) This is not a well-balanced or mature attitude.

Nowadays we hear more about “guilt-tripping” somebody, the secular version of Catholic guilt. And it’s unequivocally regarded as a bad thing to do to someone else, not just manipulative but cheating in some way, trying to harness (or instil) a feeling which should not be there. This is perhaps going too far, because there are things which we do which we should indeed be ashamed of or feel guilty about. But just feeling guilty is not the answer, as it doesn’t get anyone anywhere; if you do something you sincerely regret, the only way to feel better is to try and put it right. Reconciliation is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

So why did people spend so much time trying to inculcate guilt?  Partly because it is manipulative, and gives a feeling of power. And it’s much easier to regard being manipulative as a good thing if you are doing it on behalf of someone else (who may not even know about it); and it is one of the roots of clericalism. Many children and adults were told to do something “because the Church/Father says so”, and ended up resenting the Church or the priest in consequence, when it may have been the speaker”s idea entirely (all that nonsense about no whistling, long sleeves, or not touching the Sacrament). If some particular topic really matters to you, it”s worth hunting down whether the Bible or (even better) Jesus ever actually says something about it; this can be quite liberating. There are plenty of obscure and outdated prohibitions in the Bible, but whistling is not one of them.

My mother felt very guilty about occasionally missing Sunday Mass once she was in her nineties and no longer driving, but then she met a confessor who told her not to worry, because it wasn’t in canon law anyway. She stopped feeling guilty and felt that she had been taken advantage of by the authorities. All the people in Amazonia who can’t find a reachable Mass are of course similarly not guilty of any sin. While we were forbidden to go to Mass because of Covid restrictions, we were told that the bishops had “lifted the obligation” of Sunday Mass, but it is sad to hear the tone in which the reimposition of the Sunday obligation is being couched, in some jurisdictions. People should be coming back to Mass when it’s safe because they want to, because they value it, because they enjoy it, because they want to praise God with their community.  I rejoiced when I heard them say, “Let us go to God”s house”  (Ps 121/122). There is certainly value in obedience, but while everyone has to assess their own risk and parishes can only do so much, bullying and threatening is not the answer. After all, some people did catch the virus through a church service; the risk is not a figment of people”s imagination.

I would like to see a little less emphasis on obligation and guilt and a bit more on making the experience so helpful that people are keen to come. I’d like to see the same attitude to Reconciliation: maybe people don’t come very often because the service as currently carried out does not feel helpful or positive. This is another way in which the Church could be more like a field hospital and less like a repeat prescription service. We have to meet people where they are;  if they don’t come in, we should be asking why, not reminding them that they are obliged to do so on pain of sin.   I can’t think of any Gospel encounter where Jesus uses that sort of manipulation. His touch is far lighter. “Go and sin no more,” he says to the woman taken in adultery; but perhaps more relevantly here,  he also says: “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” (Mk 2:27)   God’s rules about Sundays are to help us, not to be a burden. We should be feeling that Mass attendance sparks joy.


Kate Keefe composes musical settings for the Mass and writes about the psalms. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn

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