July 9, 2009

Problems in the Assesment of Guilt

One thing I have learned in the ministry is that we are not good at assessing our own moral guilt and responsibility. Over and over in the parlor or the confessional, I realize that people have a hard time judging their own moral culpability well.

Many judge themselves to more guilty than they really are. For some this is grandiosity. They try to take responsibility for all kinds of difficulties and sins in which they are not a moral agent. Many times this is the root problem of those who come to confession to confess other people's sins. In their perverse desire for self-victimization, they want to take the blame for others. Thus the actual moral agent is absolved from responsibility, and our grandiose subject is freed from the discomfort of being angry with the one for whom she is trying to take moral responsibility. My suspicion is that this is the real root of the problem in many cases; to accuse the self is easier than being angry with another, so why not just pretend the guilt is our own?

Others judge themselves more guilty than they are because they are scrupulous. In the end, scrupulosity, too, is a form of inverted self-importance that makes one's own internal experience the subject of the spiritual life instead of God. So what if you are so full of sin and everything you do is tainted by impure motives? Did not the Lord promise to harvest the wheat along with the weeds and preserve the wheat unto eternal life? Isn't the goodness of God to the whole of creation so much more important than your sins, no matter how terrible? Sometimes scrupulous people don't believe in forgiveness and so have no use for God. Without an experience of God's love, there is nothing left to reflect on in the "spiritual" life but one's own goodness or badness. Sometimes they are guilty of angelism and deeply resent having to deal with temptations. At the root of all their useless guilt is the proud and entitled attitude that believes that if God calls us to be saints he ought to make us so without us having to suffer any temptations. Resenting temptations is very dangerous. We should be grateful for them.

On the other hand, many times people seem to think themselves less guilty than they really are. Perhaps they have decided that this or that habitual sin isn't mortal because its occasions are supposedly unavoidable or because they habitually lack "full consent of the will." Having decided that they are not in a state of mortal sin, they stop worrying about it so much, and fall into the state of presumption. But just because a serious sin might not be mortal in some particular case, it does not mean that the matter of the sin isn't grave. It might not be the spiritual danger of mortal sin, but it's still the serious responsibility of a grave disorder in one's life.

Others, in a curious opposite of the grandiose person, blame their sins on everyone and everything else, absolving themselves of their own guilt. Thus they are freed from any obligation to correct themselves. Sexual impurity is blamed on the television or the internet. Gossip, calumny, and detraction are blamed on the "culture" of the workplace or the neighborhood. Religious blame the mess of their prayer life on the alleged sorry state of the community in which they live. Sure, all these things fight against virtue, but we're supposed to fight back!

All of this has convinced me that examination of conscience is very important and needs to be retrieved as a practice. We can't be shallow about it; to examine our conscience is not just to notice what we feel bad about. It has to be a rigorous examination of our moral condition, of what is and what is not our fault.

6 comments:

Jeanne said...

Thanks as always for a post that makes me think. A few questions for you...

1. What is angelism?

2. Can you recommend an online place or another source to help people do an examination of conscience?

Thanks!

Julia said...

Good post. I've also noticed that feelings of "guilt" are often a terrible measure of sin. A woman may feel terribly guilty for missing Mass when you were sick but not at all guilty for telling her social group all about someone's marital problems.

I think we can easily fall into small degrees of scrupulosity and small degrees of rationalization with our sins without really noticing it. It's very important to examine ourselves carefully and consistently.

KAM said...

Now I'm even more confused! Thanks, Father!

Brother said...

Good post, but I am of the Stanley Marrow school of thought which states, "Go with the Love of God and stop asking questions...and if you ask a moral theologian a question you get what you deserve!"

Roman 8:1 - just read it.

Brother Charles said...

Indeed. The only condemnations are the ones we insist upon for ourselves and dare to put on each other!

Rachel Gray said...

"They try to take responsibility for all kinds of difficulties and sins in which they are not a moral agent.... My suspicion is that this is the real root of the problem in many cases; to accuse the self is easier than being angry with another, so why not just pretend the guilt is our own?"

In other cases, perhaps the person just craves attention and reassurance from a priest, and the long list of non-sins gets her that.