Sin, Guilt and Damnation

Photo: bocsupportnetwork.com

Photo: bocsupportnetwork.com

Yes, I am writing this on Good Friday.

I was raised in a strict Roman Catholic family. For me, Good Friday will never be just another Friday or just a day off work. It symbolizes the entire weight of my religious upbringing.

Our style of Catholicism had its pros and cons.

On the plus side, both sides of my family were Catholic, and it was something I shared with all of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and 18 cousins, whom we saw often. More than half of my neighbours and classmates were Catholic, so I always had friends at church and in my catechism classes. I liked the rituals, the stories and the hymns. My parents’ group of friends attended the same church, and all of our families went camping together each summer. It was our culture – and since we didn’t identify with any nationality, it was our only culture. From Sunday School and from Bible stories at home, as well as nightly guided prayer, we knew a personal God and a friendly Jesus.

On the minus side, there were iron-clad rules about attending Mass: we never, ever missed a week, not even on vacation. We went twice a week during Lent. Prayers had to be said solemnly and in a certain order. We had to go to confession at least twice a year, and we were usually terrified. We often heard adults talking about church politics – whether this or that priest was holy or on a power-trip. As in all church communities, we saw people act one way at church and another out in the real world. When I was very young, all of this just seemed natural, but later, like all teens, I had a keen eye for hypocrisy.

It wasn’t until I asserted my independence that the system fell apart for me. The things I needed to do as a teen to gather information, make my own decisions, and live with the results were seriously impaired by my parents’ religious views. Despite having always followed The Rules, now I couldn’t think for myself without being told I was committing sins, and being made to feel shame. Things like flirting, staying out a little too late, or not reporting my whereabouts promptly enough, weren’t just testing my boundaries, or mild disappointments to my parents, but sins against God. Yet in my overwrought adolescent fashion, I was convinced that if I followed their rules to the letter, I would end up just like them, and no self-respecting teenager thinks that is acceptable!

My brother and sister and I are so close in age that my parents raised three teenagers at the same time. Their faith must have given them a lot of comfort, and a sense of structure for family life.

Today I’m looking back on the way I was taught about sin, guilt and shame, and how I think of them now.

My earliest memories of “sins” were things like sneaking a cookie from the cookie jar and saying I didn’t (despite the cookie crumbs on my face, I’m sure!) They centred around fears of being caught and punished. It wasn’t long before transgressions caused shame instead: even if mommy wasn’t mad at me, she would get that look on her face like she was very disappointed in me, and not say anything. That was worse! Which begins a cycle of guilt: “I shouldn’t have whined and pleaded for that game. I know they can’t afford it. Now I’ve made them feel bad.”  As a teen, I harshly judged myself if I taunted someone or told a secret or took undue advantage of good will. But at least I had figured out that sinning meant hurting others.

My parents told me that to sin was to turn away from God. So now I felt that if I did something wrong, I was disappointing God, too. Gradually, reason sparked, and I developed a more intellectual understanding. Yes, I could drive too fast or not pay my taxes. But society would fall apart if everyone else acted just like me!

Between the ages of 16 and 24, my brother and sister and I put our parents through the wringer with all our offences: Smoking! Drunk driving! Sex! Teen pregnancy! Living in sin! (I won’t say who did what!) And they did not handle it well – and we had turned our backs on God for sure.

After leaving home, I moved far, far away and took, oh, about 10 years to process it all. I became a college existentialist, did an about-face and was ultra-religious for a time, and finally reached my own day of reckoning when I realized I was not going to raise my child Catholic.

So what do I think now?

They were right. Not 100% right. Not with their methods of anger and shaming, but something at the core was true. I don’t use the word “sin,” but when I’ve done wrong, it is because I am not in Right Relationship any more, with others or with the world. Ultimately, I do believe in sin. If I were to drink Pepsi from a Styrofoam cup and then drop it on the ground, I would feel profoundly that I had sinned – in this case, against nature (and against the cells of my own body, LOL!) If I made a mistake at work and didn’t own up to it, and one of my co-workers took the heat for it, I would feel guilty, and appropriately so. I’m glad attention was paid to my moral development. Too much so, maybe, as I had to work hard to undo some of it!

The difference is in the types of “thoughts, words and deeds” that I think are sinful or shameful. In my world, it is not a sin to have kids and bring them up with or without someone else – in any order. It isn’t a sin to be gay or trans. It isn’t a sin to go out for brunch on Sunday morning instead of church. I worry more about sins of omission – did I stand up for what was right?

And you know what? My parents have evolved with the times, and so has their church. Every Catholic I know has a personal philosophy of “Take what you need (i.e. of church dogma) and leave the rest.” Everyone in their generation has gone through the same things with their kids, and of course, they are not judgmental about their dear grandchildren!

It’s funny that now, I have an extra bond with my parents, because I am the only one of their kids who goes to church (albeit a Unitarian one) and we often discuss church life. But would I ever invite them out to brunch at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning? AS IF!

PS – Luckily, we were never taught we would be damned, and in fact, the church of my childhood barely believed in hell. Whew!

32 comments

  1. Fiona

    My upbringing mirrored so much of this, Dar but with one critical difference. My parents had a ‘mixed’ marriage (not very common in those days.) Mum was Catholic and Dad was agnostic. I remember having night terrors about “the Devil” as a 7 year old. Dad finally pulled me aside and said, “Don’t tell Mum, but that stuff is all made up.” Instant cure! It was very liberating from that point on to know that I essentially had the freedom to choose my beliefs. It made me think about it constantly. I even visited and stayed in a convent as a young adult questioning everything.

    I’ve stayed within the church by choice and belief, but with a very open/liberal outlook. I’m a ‘bad’ Catholic in that sense. I love the community side; the sense of a deeply shared culture, history and tradition. I love the social justice side and the moral compass of church doctrines. The sexism is hard to stomach and the prejudice against gay and trans people and the abuse scandals that have plagued the church in our state. I just believe that eventually (perhaps sooner rather than later) these things will evolve.

    A very interesting Easter post!

    • Fiona, what a story! And good for your dad to realize you needed his perspective at that time. I think the church is lucky to have progressive folks who stick around, and that will never make you a bad Catholic!

  2. Enjoyed your post. Just came home from a wedding… My neighbors who are gay and have been together 27 years! I was so proud our minister officiated. It was his first non heterosexual marriage. It was amazing to be there and to also feel the Holy Presence among us. 💗. In our state gay marriage has become legal in the past year or two.

  3. Oh wow, Religion! what a subject to bring up. I too was raised Catholic but mine was a mixed message. My grandparents each had their own views. My grandmother was more worried about living up to the rules and worried if she didn’t see someone at mass so would go to another later in the day. My grandfather had a more personal relationship with his views and rarely discussed them until later in life when he began to disagree with some of the changes he saw taking place.

    My mother was another story. She had always been rebellious and by the time i was nine had been married and divorced three times so she had been excommunicated and had very little good to say.

    I took another path. I attended Catholic school through 8th grade, but by age of six had a pull to Native American beliefs and after meeting with a group of Navajo women at age nine and learning more about their beliefs I couldn’t believe any longer in hell and suffering that I was being taught. I rebelled and left the church at age 17 when I was kicked out by the Priest for using birth control for a medical condition. I then had two children without benefit of marriage (too scared after seeing my mother’s four divorces by this time).

    I raised my children without any specific religious upbringing but allowed them to question and find their own way including taking them to various denominations services to find what worked for them, neither found any that fit and both boys decided they found more in common with Buddhism.

    One residual effect of growing up the way I did with the hell and damnation messages is that while I love horror books and movies things like the Exorcist and the Omen movies are just too much for me to handle. 🙂

    Happy Easter, Dar.

    • EcoCatLady

      Lois… I just have to mention that CatMan and I watched the Omen last week, and to be honest, I had a really hard time taking it seriously. I guess being raised as an atheist will do that to you. At the end I was like “NOOO, they’re not really gonna let Gregory Peck stick a knife through the kid’s heart are they?” Of course, they found a way around it… and then I had to joke that the kid (who at that point had been adopted by the president of the US) must have been good ol’ George W. Bush! 🙂 Oh my…

      • Cat, my kids give me a hard time about my inability to watch the Omen too. On the flip side I can’t watch movies such as Helter Skelter about Charlie Manson because I’ve already seen enough bad in the world I can’t sleep after reliving the horror that is Charlie and know there are other people in the world, maybe down my street?, that could be like him.

    • Happy Easter! Thanks for sharing your story. We all have such different paths!

  4. Kris

    Can you imagine growing up with the “fear” that you are going to hell for being different? I’m sure you can. That’s how I lived for about 25 years of my life. The freedom of letting go of that belief is incredible.

  5. I was raised a southern Baptist, so we had our own crosses to bear. Between the Doxology and all six versus of “Just as I am” as the minister called on people to come down and be saved. I did gain many good lessons from countless Sunday School classes and the worst invention known to mankind, Vacation Bible School during the summer. On the flip side, when you go to church a lot, you find some hypocrisies that sort of come out of the seams, which leave you with a some skepticism about walking the talk.

    My wife and best boyhood friend are Catholic, so I have attended a number of Catholic services. The rituals are comforting. I recall taking my Alzheimer laded mother in law to a service and the rituals were well remembered by her and gave her comfort late in life. So, I think the services do shape you. Thanks for sharing our upbringing. Happy Easter Egg, BTG

    • VBS! I was spared that. Someday I suppose I will go back to Mass when I have to take my parents; meanwhile I will encourage them to keep driving for as many years as possible, LOL!

  6. No sin here. But I do feel guilt. I think guilt is a normal feeling that warns you you’ve hurt someone or something. So feeling guilty over taking the biscuits as a child is good. You know you’ve disobeyed your parents and affected the trust. People who feel no guilt can be very dangerous.

    As to damnation. I read a good interpretation of hell. Hell is the absence of God. So hell is eternity without him. As I don’t believe in him, hell won’t matter for me. No belief = no hell.

    I raised my kids as atheists. One came first in Christian Studies though, as we are always inquiring and interested. Just not interested long enough to sit through a sermon. Actually I think it’s the fact we have to just listen and can’t ask questions and argue that we hate. Let me challenge the reading, the prayers of the “faithful”. But then as a non-believer I have no right to challenge and ultimately upset believers. Well, not in their place of worship.

    My kids feel guilt too, though. As a middle class mum, I’m a master of inflicting guilt. It’s our thang. But our philosophy is live; have fun; work and learn; make the most of your talents; be nice to others. Life is it. So don’t waste it. No hell or happy ever after. Hell or happy NOW. You chose.

    • Technically, in the Catholic church, purgatory is the absence of God, and hell is eternal punishment. So that distinction was made. In the Unitarian church we are free to challenge everything, except living ethically, so that works for me.

      • After your earlier post on the Unitarian Church I looked it up. I’m not sure I get a church that allows its followers to not believe in the supernatural aspects of religion. But I did find the Unitarian creed attractive. The reading I referred to on hell being the absence of God was a recent Catholic theology. (I worked in Catholic private schools for many years!) Here’s one from our Catholic uni (we have very few private unis. The Catholics started the first one.). http://www.catholica.com.au/gc1/dg/032_dg_print.php

      • I am sure my interpretation of hell is from my childhood and not the current teaching. I liked the article. I had to look up “purgatory” as well to clarify things. Thanks!

  7. Adding: my boys were baptised as Catholics. To make my husband’s family happy. Unfortunately it upset my mother who returned to her Protestant roots and was attending church and bible study again by that time. (She’d never done it while I was a child or lived “at home”.) My husband’s an atheist but calls himself a Catholic. He likes the Irish, social and political associations.

    • My one was baptized Catholic too. As we have never applied to the Pope for excommunication, they are still on the parish register as RC 🙂

      • Well, my husband and boys would be on a parish registry somewhere. But does that matter? I know my stepfather got taken off the excommunicated as a Catholic in Germany or he’d have to pay church tax (taken at the time by the govt). In Australia it doesn’t matter. Call yourself what you want. Tick any box you want.

      • I was just joking about that, L! In one place where I lived, there was a similar issue to your stepfather’s – everyone had to pay tax to either the Catholic school board or the public one. All Catholics were expected/required to pay to the Catholic Board. There was no legal penalty, of course, but it was more a matter of social pressure and guilt.

  8. My parents didn’t really go to church so my curiosity to learn about God started quite young. I remember as a five year old at school thinking when I get into the Junior class someone will tell me who this God person is and where I can find him…but no God was still a mystery. So then I thought when I get to Secondary school someone will tell me who God is – I took Religious studies all the way to A level and still no one really told me who God was, though I really enjoyed the studies.
    It wasn’t until after I had my two girls christened and took them to Sunday school when they were about 2 and 3 years old that I attended church and finally came to know a personal God, but I still felt something was missing and that a lot of the people attending did not really practice their beliefs. I now go to the Quakers – they have a completely different view of the world and tend to live their beliefs. I find they are genuinely non-judgemental and look for that of God in everyone, rather than looking at someones sins.
    When Quakers gather together they sit in silence as there is no plan for how the meeting will proceed and no one leads the meeting as there is no heirarchical path to God. Usually a short peice from the book of Quaker Faith and Practice – Advice and Queries will be read out to lead you into thought such as, ‘Do you cherish your friendships’ and when someone is moved to speak they will stand up and say whatever is on their mind. This may then lead someone else into contributing on the same lines or the meeting might progress in a totally different direction.
    I wouldn’t be without my faith but I wouldn’t want to be bound to all the rules and dogma either. I find the Quakers have a good balance. Having said all that I find there is nothing more emotional than attending mass on Christmas Eve in our local church. I do like all that pomp and circumstance that you experience in a Cathedral service – but my personal God is found in my quiet times.

    • Hi Viv, I very much admire the Quakers. They are known for walking the walk! It’s interesting that you came to them on your own. I think most “unchurched” young people don’t look for spirituality in churches any more.

  9. Personally this says it all for me: “Take what you need (i.e. of church dogma) and leave the rest.”

  10. I was raised Jewish, but also rejected the hypocrisy of the synagogue. I still consider myself a cultural and culinary Jew, and believe in some of the teachings, but every time I go to a synagogue (including the LGBT one in which the rabbi is a personal friend) I bristle at the “obey the higher power” part. I think I’m not cut out for organized religion.

  11. I was not raised in a religious family so I don’t have a lot of the religious background but my parents did teach me to think about how my actions impacted others to encourage good choices. I’m such a people pleaser that I heaped most of the guilt on myself though. As I got older, I confirmed religion wasn’t for me. Many parts of it make me bristle. I’m glad you’ve found a comfortable church community!

    Mr. G and I watched a marathon of Brain Games over the weekend and this episode was included. I thought you might be interested since morality goes right along with sin and guilt!

  12. Oh goodness. I pasted the URL to that youtube video and I think it embedded itself. Sorry!

  13. I don’t normally address matters of religion (or politics), especially in this format, but your post really resonated with me.

    My mother left the Catholic church at 17. Stood up and walked out in the middle of a homily because the priest had said girls in mini-skirts were going to hell. Or some such drivel. She didn’t set foot in a Catholic church again until her mother died, and that was only to attend the funeral mass.

    But Catholic Guilt – and the ability to induce guilty feelings in others, with that dreaded silent “You’re about to disappoint me” stare, was not so easily shaken. And her choice(s) of spouse(s)… Well, they have each shown streaks of evangelical extremism, of the repentant Bible-thumping variety.

    I spent a lot of time in church when I was little. And I figured out really quickly that churches are filled with people, and that people are broken. And broken people, like all people, are hypocritical people, regardless of whether or not they attend religious services.

    Somehow, regardless, I have managed to maintain a pragmatic sort of faith throughout my life. I figure Jesus doesn’t much care if I intentionally avoid hanging out with hypocrites on Sunday mornings. So I don’t.

    My parents, at their age, are going through some sort of holy reckoning, however. They are both attending church again (after literally DECADES of absence) and my dad, especially, is obnoxious in his atonement-speak. His newfound/re-found zeal makes for a strain. But I suppose, for some, that is part and parcel to facing one’s own mortality. I just wish my mother would pull out her Catholic Guilt stare and use it on her husband once in a while. Oy. o_O

    And even as I say that, I realize that I have a similar look, and I have used it on MY husband for years. It’s interesting to see how many pieces of our personality are learned – and to realize exactly where that ‘learning’ originated.

    Un-learning is a whole nother matter entirely. But I try. 🙂

    Thank you for such an insightful post. I enjoyed reading.

    • Thanks for visiting! I am seeing that our parents’ religious practices are very influential even if we don’t carry them on in our adult lives – like you say, the guilt and disappointment thing is very easy to continue, even when you’re not aware of it, or actively resisting. I have talked to a lot of religious folks who feel that being a “broken person” among other “broken people” gives them a feeling of being at one with humanity. I don’t think any of us are going to become divine on this Earth, so that’s the reality – we’ll find each other inside or outside churches!

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