The Goodness of Guilt


The notion that we can commit sins and become guilty of moral wrongdoing does not sit well with citizens of the post-enlightenment. It clashes with their self-esteem; it is unscientific, unmodern and unfashionable. Yet throughout history the prevailing consensus has been that guilt is a natural human response to one’s deliberate and voluntary complicity in moral wrongdoing.

In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II tells us that those who subscribe to "post-enlightenment thought" refuse to accept the reality of sin. Even during a visit to his native Poland, where he gave homilies on the Decalogue and the commandment to love, "all the Polish followers of the 'enlightened agenda' were upset."

The notion that we can commit sins and become guilty of moral wrongdoing does not sit well with citizens of the post-enlightenment. It clashes with their self-esteem and is, given the immense amount of knowledge they have amassed — especially in psychology, sociology and biology — unscientific, unmodern and unfashionable.

Throughout history, in both literate and nonliterate societies, the prevailing consensus has been that guilt is a natural human response to one's deliberate and voluntary complicity in moral wrongdoing, and that man persists in suffering both in body and in soul when his guilt remains unconfessed and unatoned.

The post-Enlightenment period has denied the very existence of moral guilt (though it does recognize "guilt feelings"). Pulitzer Prize-winning Catholic poet Phyliss McGinley, in her introduction to C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, writes: "Of all losses man has sustained in the past hundred years, no deprivation has been so terrible as the abandonment of private guilt." It was more dreadful than losing his creator, McGinley maintains, because, in substituting shame for sin, society amputated half of the human psyche, thereby making man ineligible for either wholeness or forgiveness.

Thus weakened and deprived of hope, "guiltless" man suffers more acutely the very death he seeks to evade. O. Hobart Mowrer, author of The Crisis in Psychiatry and Religion, concurs. "To have the excuse of being 'sick' rather than sinful," he reasons, "is to court the danger of also becoming lost. ... In becoming amoral, ethically neutral, and 'free,' we have cut the very roots of our being; lost our deepest sense of self-hood and identity; and with neurotics themselves, find ourselves asking: 'Who am I?"


There are two lines of influence in the modern world, though diametrically opposed to one another, which have contributed significantly to the current denial of guilt. One flows from Sigmund Freud, who held that the human will was too weak to sin and experience real guilt. The other stems from Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that the will is so powerful that it can rise above the conventional notions of good and evil and therefore above sin and guilt. In sum, man is guiltless either because his will is too weak or because his will is too strong.

The scientific-analytic approach to man that is found in strict Freudian analysis has historical roots in the radical dualism of Descartes. The Cartesian partition that separated man's soul from his body inaugurated a tradition in which scientists studied him as a mere body, while theologians and philosophers were left to regard him as a disembodied spirit. Since all human ills, psychic or somatic, are expressed on the physical level and scientists have no direct access to the movements of the soul, the belief naturally arose among many scientists that man is a mere mechanism, though one of extraordinary complexity. Freud, in keeping with the requirements of his scientific model, compared man with a system of "hydraulics" and likened the libido to an "electromagnetic" charge.

Concurrently, theology and philosophy, left with the "ghost' 'in the machine, began to appear more and more like disciplines without valid subject matter. Thus, Descartes' radical dualism that split mind from body led inevitably to an acute crisis between science on the one hand, and philosophy and religion on the other.

According to the classical Freudian position, the great mistake of the Victorians was to stress "will power" at the price of repressing the sexual impulse, Freud considered this a most improvident arrangement inasmuch as it could lead to neurotic affects such as depression, anxiety and panic — something he referred to as the "return of the repressed." His revolutionary solution was to turn the tables and free the sexual impulse by discounting the value of the will.

As a result, Freud assigned the will a new function, that of inhibiting or repressing. Thus weakened and reduced to a negative role, the will could no longer be regarded as a factor positive enough to produce guilt. "Guilt feelings" (rather than real, objective guilt) were now understood as the result of repressing sexual feelings in the face of social constrictions and external authority,

The will, then, to use philosopher Paul Ricoeur's image, was crushed in the dialectic of the sexual impulse (libido) and outside authority (superego).

The Freudian concept of guilt, then, portrays guilt as a factor of neurosis and as something false, unrealistic, and crippling — the result of too strict a socialization of the individual. In this view guilt is never the fault of the individual but rather of the society or the authority that produces "guilt feelings" in the individual. In other words, guilt feelings do not arise from guilt; an individual does not feel guilt because of anything he did, but because of a desire to do what he did not do that was repressed.


With the Death-of-God movement man suddenly inherited the over-burdensome task of being like God but without benefit of His grace. Nietzsche's notion of the superman with his "will to power" called for a new morality that would overcome the inhibiting effects of guilt by throwing them off through sheer willpower.

"Life consists of self-overcoming," he writes. "I estimate the power of a will according to how much resistance, pain and torture it endures and knows how to transform into its own advantage."

Man is guiltless, then, not because he is will-less, but because the power of the will is limitless. Princeton University philosopher Walter Kaufmann carries the Nietzschean notion of the heroic will into the present-day discussion of guilt. At the Close of his book Without Guilt and Justice, he rewrites the temptation scene in Genesis, making the serpent wisdom's mouthpiece: "Once upon a time God decided, but now that he is dead it is up to you to decide. It is up to you to leave behind guilt and fear. You can be autonomous."

For Kaufmann, guilt is as unreal as it is for the Freudians. However, he enlists the power of the will to discharge guilt, whereas the Freudians see the negativity of the will as its cause. Like Nietzsche, Kaufmann emphasizes assertiveness and self-realization. Guilt is the effect of being submissive to another and is, therefore, an obstacle in the attainment of creative autonomy. Kaufmann advocates alienation and discipline so that the self can be free to create. The Freudians advocate just the opposite so that man can function as an unimpeded mechanism.

In both cases, when guilt is evaded, some other crucial factor is evaded in the process. When the "will to power,' advocates evade guilt, they evade man's responsibilities to his neighbors (and to God): When the Freudians do, they evade man's capacity to function as a self. In either case there is a failure to achieve a balance between body and soul, self and other, creativity and morality.

The Freudian theory of guilt as sickness may very well be a direct outgrowth of the Nietzschean position that guilt is a weakness. Nietzsche saw no value in guilt because God — and, with him objective moral standards — was dead. Freud, as a psychoanalyst could not abolish guilt so easily, but he reduced its presence in the individual to a neurosis by denying the human will its positive character. Thus, God was dead and man was broken. However, something akin to what Freud himself recognized as the "return of the repressed" was to have its day of triumph. The guilt which was thought abolished returned with greater vengeance: The Freudians began to feel guilty that they had never lived; the Nietzscheans, because they had never loved.

Pope John Paul II has proposed a better way. In his Agenda for the Third Millennium, the Holy Father speaks of sin and guilt, and adjures us to expiate our guilt through confession. His statement, though addressed specifically to young people, extends to everyone. It is simple, direct and attractive, and needs no commentary:

"To all young people in the Church I address a special invitation to receive Christ's forgiveness and strength in the Sacrament of Penance. It is a sign of strength to be able to say: 'I have made a mistake; I have sinned, Father; I have offended you; my God; I'm sorry; I ask your forgiveness; I will try again since I trust in your strength and believe in your forgiveness. And I know that the power of your son's paschal mystery — the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ — is greater than my weaknesses and all the sins in the world. I will come and confess my sins, and I shall be healed and shall live in your love!'"


Donald DeMarco "The Goodness of Guilt." National Catholic Register. (January 21-27, 2001).

Reprinted by permission of the National Catholic Register.

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Donald DeMarco is Professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. He has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2001 National Catholic Register

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