Catherine Parish: Guilt not exclusively Catholic

06 May 2009

By The Record

Popular perception is not true to hope Catholics have in the resurrected Christ.


Catherine Parish


By Catherine Parish

The ‘Catholic guilt’ thing is highly popular grist for the mills of comedians, novelists and biographers. 
Now, it is always interesting to seek correlations between our faith and the activities of those who don’t necessarily share it. 
To me the ‘guilt’ thing seems to be a pretty much universal, not just a Catholic or Christian thing but a human thing. 
Ancient pagans and modern non-believers both seem to manifest a belief in the same essential guilt and fallenness of humanity that Christians believe in. 
The notion that we are at odds with the created world through some fault of our own, and that we do not really belong on the earth, seems to echo in every person’s being, whether they adhere to any religion or none. 
And in purely human terms, it is a fair observation.  Civilisations have become great and fallen because of natural disasters or environmental changes. 
Drought, flood, earthquake, fire have always been feared just as much as foreign invasion, and for good reason, because these natural occurrences are still uncontrollable forces in large degree. 
Any illusion of living harmoniously with unspoiled nature is still precarious at best and disastrous at worst, as any victim of bushfire or drought could tell you.
The ancients saw human beings as interlopers on the territory of the nature gods. They felt compelled to offer constant blood propitiation (frequently human sacrifice) to the various deities that were thought to control the natural world, for the great offence of taking things from the earth. 
It was absolutely essential for survival that they kept in good with nature’s gods, lest the vengeful hand loose terrible punishment upon them. 
The Greek and Roman myths and sacrificial practices reflected this belief too, though perhaps in more refined form. 
In a modern version of the same conviction that it is all our fault, we periodically suffer from paralysing generalised fear of some sort or another.  The nuclear winter, silent spring, global warming, climate change, finite energy resources, environmental damage, you name it. 
This conviction that our presence on the earth is inherently invasive, along with a collective guilt at consuming the resources of the earth is what motivates many environmental activists.  As with the environment, so with the climate change issue:  someone notices something changing in the natural world, and that inevitably spells not safety but danger with a capital D.  
And we human beings automatically assume our own guilt, even while the jury is still out on other possible causes.  In our modern world, the answer is still to punish ourselves, only now we do it not with human sacrifice but with public harassment and recrimination, carbon taxes or penalties for using the sprinklers at the wrong time. 
My belief is that all these fears for our earthly survival spring from our shared human heritage of original sin. These material fears are manifestations of our inner knowledge of our shared guilt for the Fall.  It is, actually, all our fault that we both threaten and are threatened by forces beyond our control.
Now what has all this to do with our religious beliefs?  Quite simply, our religion tells us why we are assailed with guilt, and what to do about it.  As Catholic Christians we believe that though things might externally look the same, we are standing in a very different place after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  There was no way we could do anything about our fallen nature before Christ came except live in fear and despair. 
Now, though, by his willing victimhood, He has set us at rights once again with God; He has paid the price and redeemed us. 
As part of that redemption, He has given us a way of living that should both improve earthly life for humanity – minimising our destructiveness, both to ourselves, to each other and to the earth we live on – while also putting us on a road toward Heaven.
He has not removed the vicissitudes of our earthly lives, those manifestations of our fallenness and enmity with nature; He has shown us how to use them as part of that redemption. 
From being hapless, craven, hopeless victims of our own nature and of the world around us, He has given us the chance to be active participants in our salvation.  Our apparent enmity with the world has been turned into a priceless advantage on our road to our real home, Heaven.  He has given us hope. 
As He says in John 16:33 “In this world you will have tribulation, but take heart; I have overcome the world”.   Maybe there is more literal truth in that than we realise.