Dealing With Guilt

(Homily for Ash Wednesday)

As today’s readings make clear, the first step of Lent is to face personal guilt. The prophet Joel tells us to weep, fast and mourn. (2:12) The psalmist makes this plea to God:

Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
and of my sin cleanse me. (51:4)

In encouraging the three penitential practices (almsgiving, prayer, fasting), Jesus says to focus not on what others think. Ultimately only God’s opinion counts. Against him alone have we sinned. (Ps. 51:6) Although we long for others to understand and accept us, we sense that, even if they did, it would not be enough.

The Bible presumes we come to God with a burden of guilt, like a condemned man walking to the gallows. To some that biblical language seems overblown. What have I done so wrong? Besides, isn’t guilt a negative emotion from which we need to free ourselves to have a happy, productive life?

Yes and no. Before saying a word about false guilt, let me mention two men who freed themselves from guilt – but with hideous results. By the end of his life Adolph Hitler had spent years shifting the blame. In his final testament he asserted: "Those who carry the real guilt for the murderous struggle" were not the German people or himself, but "international Jewry." Likewise, when Timothy McVeigh looked through a video camera at the parents, spouses, and children of the 168 people he had murdered, he showed no sign of remorse.

Freedom from guilt is not always what’s best for a person. Nor does presence of remorse necessarily cripple. It can spur one to action. Lest I be accused of promoting “Catholic guilt,” I will give a secular example. Princeton professor Peter Singer donates one-fifth of his considerable income to organizations feeding the hungry. He readily admits he could give more, that some children are dying every day because he does not do so. While you could hardly blame the Catholic Church for Singer's guilty conscience - he was reared a non-practicing Jew and he believes human existence is accidental and meaningless - still he feels a certain compunction (guilt) which motivates him to give at a level greater than most Christians. That kind of guilt - if humility keeps it within a certain perspective - does not harm a person. On the contrary, it does great good.

However, Dr. Singer also experiences a kind of guilt which one must question. He follows the Benthamite philosophy that each conscious individual counts as one – and therefore our duties are the same to strangers as to family members.* However, when his mother was dying with Alzheimer’s, he devoted thousands of dollars to her care. Later he became defensive about lavishing such resources on a single person – because it went against his ethics. In other words, his philosophy made him remorseful about going the extra mile for his mother. What an impoverished worldview which produces that kind of guilt! St. Paul calls this “worldly sadness which produces death.” (1 Cor 7:10) The Catholic Church has always striven to distinguish between true guilt which leads to repentance and salvation and the “false guilt” which leads to misery and despair.

Singer’s philosophy, far from eradicating remorse, is a formula for unappeasable guilt. Jesus, on the other hand, while he insists on accountability for ones decisions, offers genuine hope. For our sake he became sin “so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor 5:21) In effect, he stands with us on the gallows - and with him at our side we have nothing to fear.** Today he offers us the dignity of participating in our own expiation by fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Brothers and sisters, welcome to Lent.


*The New Yorker declared Peter Singer the world’s “most influential philosopher.” Taking up Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian principle that the greatest good is found in reducing pain and increasing pleasure of each individual, he pushes it to the logical conclusions. He uses that principle, of course, to supports the unlimited abortion license of Roe v. Wade. However, he goes further. He shows how the logic of the Supreme Court decision necessarily extends to infanticide, euthanasia, eugenics and other measures. In addition, since many animals are also capable of pleasure and pain, he insists that if a person does not recognize “animal rights” he has fallen into “speciesism.” For those who do espouse animal equality, the possibilities for guilt expand enormously. Like Singer they must not only avoid meat, fish, eggs, milk and other animal products, but they must also ask themselves how they can stand by and do nothing when animals are inflicting so much pain on each other. To jail muggers, while allowing tigers to freely attack their prey, would be a blatant example of speciesism.

For more about Dr. Singer, see A Curious Encounter with a Philosopher from Nowhere by Richard John Neuhaus

**This is the reason for the great interest in the movie The Passion of the Christ. The central question for any of us is: What meaning does my suffering have and how does it relate to the passion of Jesus?

Versión Castellana

From Archives (Ash Wednesday Homilies):

First Things
New Mind and Heart
Go to Your Inner Room
Return to Me
The Purpose of Lent
Two Cheers for Catholic Guilt
Don't Waste This Crisis
When You Give Alms
Back to the Basics
Dealing With Guilt
Exercise of Holy Desire

Homilies for First Sunday of Lent ("Temptation Sunday"):

2016: First Things: Prayer
2015: New Mind and Heart Week 1
2014: Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 1
2013: Do Not Talk to the Devil
2012: The Convenant with Noah Today
2011: The Purpose of Temptation
2010: Who Is Like God?
2009: Knee Mail
2008: The Devil is a Logician
2007: More Powerful than Satan
2006: Sir, Go on the Other Side
2005: The Temptation of Sloth
2004: Temptation of Spirituality
2003: Lent with C.S. Lewis
2002: First Signs of Spring
2001: How Satan Operates
2000: The Rabbit's Foot
1999: Original Sin & Temptation
1998: Hidden Sin of Gluttony
1997: Jesus' Temptation & Ours

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Pictures of Brigittine Monastery & Monks

Question for Fr. Malloy about Queer Film Fest

my bulletin column

SMV Bulletin (be patient - sometimes we have problems uploading)

Parish Picture Album

Separated at birth?

40 Days for Life (Everett, WA)

From Fr. Frank Pavone:

The recent revelations about Planned Parenthood’s willingness to cover up sexual exploitation build on revelations uncovered many years ago. Life Dynamics called hundreds of Planned Parenthood facilities nationwide. The caller, posing as a minor made pregnant by statutory rape, was consistently taught how to lie so that the abortion clinic would not have to report the incident.

As I always say, you can’t practice vice virtuously. Planned Parenthood carries out, justifies, defends, and even celebrates the horrifying dismemberment of children in the womb. After doing that, they are hardly going to have much of a conscience left in regard to any other kind of right and wrong. If one devalues the child in the womb, one will devalue the child outside the womb.

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