The Ancient Game of Guilt Abatement
CRUSHING COMFORTING CANARDS
In recent years Catholic churchgoers, along with the priests who minister to them, have bought into “feel-good” notions that act like a sedative on the conscience. I will examine a fair number of them. But before doing so, a word or two about the historical context. Guilt-suppression is as old as man. It began with the blame game played by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and it has been replayed many times over in classical literature. Among dramatic figures, few are more villainous than Hedda Gabler in Henrik Ibsen’s eponymous play, who is scripted to say, “Something comes over me. I just have to give way to meanness.” In Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, a malevolent hunchback blames “nature” and a debauched court, rather than his own folly, for the misfortune that befalls him. In the movie African Queen, Charlie Allnut, a tough ship mechanic (played by Humphrey Bogart), gets drunk and terrorizes a lady named Rose (Katherine Hepburn). When he comes to, he blames his overindulgence on human nature. To which Rose replies, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”
Religious leaders have come up with their own formulas to lessen the pain of guilt, all of them at odds with Scripture. Martin Luther’s contention that salvation is gained by faith alone conflicts with the teaching of Jesus (cf. Mt. 19:17), along with that of St. Peter, St. James, St. John, and St. Paul. John Calvin’s theory of predestination clashes with the biblical assurance that God “wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). The evangelical dogma “once saved, always saved” is belied by Paul: “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).
More recently, folks have shifted the blame for sin onto the shoulders of society or DNA, and this, too, runs afoul of Scripture: “Say not ‘it was God’s doing that I fell away’…. If you choose, you can keep the commandments” (Sir. 15:11, 15).
Catholic homilists cannot be faulted for playing the blame game, but the aim of the game many of them have been playing remains the same. They seek to please and placate. First on their list of comforting canards is the idea that we need not fear God, that He will love us no matter what we do. Such assurance would be unobjectionable were it not for its lack of balance. Yes, the Lord loves saints and sinners alike. Indisputable, too, is the fact that He is on our side in the battle against evil, ready to give us all the help we need to gain Heaven. But there is a caveat. God is demanding. He can be angry at times, and when His wrath rises, He will punish. In the imagery of American poet Julia Ward Howe, He tramples out “the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”
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Christ knew that we can be chaste if we will, and He did not shrink from demanding chastity by divine authority.
Ed. Note: In our July-August 1987 issue our Contributing Editor Robert N. Bellah reviewed Allan…