How Catholic Guilt Shaped My Life

an image of a girl in a first communion ceremony

I was inducted into the Catholic faith pretty much straight out of the womb, starting off at this Catholic primary school in Mexico when I was just six years old. I was pure Play-Doh back then, ready to be shaped and molded. There I was, learning the Holy Bible like it was basic arithmetic or the ABCs.

Now, as a kid, you don't exactly have a whole laundry list of "sins" under your belt. Yet, we were herded to the confessional every week and prompted to confess our sins. Often, I'd be at a loss for what to say, and the priest would suggest things like: "Did you raise your voice at your parents? Did you disobey them? Did you think of something mean? That's a sin, too." So, there I was, scavenging through my memories for something, anything, to feel guilty about, confess, and beg forgiveness from God at the ripe age of six.

As I grew, I jumped through all the Catholic hoops. First communion, confirmation, even theology courses. The path to becoming an exemplary Catholic is indeed a long one. In time, I took on the role of a youth pastor, passing on the teachings ingrained in me since childhood to a younger generation of girls: respect and honor your parents unconditionally, remain a virgin until marriage, treat your body like a temple, and as a woman, be submissive and compliant to your man…

As I moved on to college and gained more independence from my parents and the environment I grew up in, I started to experiment with new experiences. Nothing outrageous, just typical teenage activities: flirting with boys, drinking, partying, and sometimes sneaking out on adventures my parents would never have approved of. It's ironic, really – the girls with the most conservative parents turn out to be the sneakiest of the lot. I should know.

But, looking back now, that time in my life feels more sad and uncomfortable than fun and exciting. I wanted to be a normal teen, but the guilt was always there, and boy, was it heavy. Every time I stepped out of line, I was sure God would punish me, perhaps by taking my parents away or making me fall ill. The looming "fear of God" that Catholics preach about became a literal terror for me.

When I first became sexually active, the accompanying guilt was overwhelming. No longer a virgin and unmarried, I felt like I'd let God down, disappointed my parents, and failed myself. Surely no man would want me anymore. I vividly remember crying about it constantly.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I found myself growing apart from the church. No big dramatic reason, just a general feeling of guilt and shame every time I was at church or with my youth group. Eventually, the guilt got so bad I just stopped going – I couldn't bear to be a hypocrite.

So, I distanced myself from it. And the more I walked away, the more I began to see the bigger picture. And it was ugly.

I realized I'd been taught since I was a kid to be perfect in every way – honor my parents, never swear or steal, keep my thoughts pure, avoid 'fake gods' like yoga or horoscopes, follow the rules blindly, never question your faith, always be obedient and submissive, and never try to grow or learn outside of God's teachings.

Love until it hurts. Real love is always painful and hurts: then it is real and pure.
— Mother Teresa

I was led to believe that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. I was taught that love must hurt. That suffering leads to the purification of the soul. Between popular media bombarding young girls with depictions of unhealthy relationships and a very misguided interpretation of Catholic principles, I fell into very harmful relationships. I had been conditioned to accept this as the norm. After all, the señoras talked about staying with their cheating, abusive husbands. Because love endures all things, right?

Only in the past few years have I learned that there's a name for all these experiences I've been going through. And say what you want about that – some people think we're just making up names for things – but naming it validates your experience and makes it easier for others to share theirs; it helps us define and express this amorphous monster of a thing we've been dealing with for all these years.

The term "Catholic guilt" is widely recognized today to describe a particular feeling of remorse that arises from violating the moral standards ingrained through Catholic upbringing.

For Latina women, the manifestation of Catholic guilt is not merely a theological concept but a sociocultural phenomenon that extends beyond the church's walls and permeates daily life. It intertwines gender expectations, family relationships, community dynamics, and individual self-worth.

The cultural ideal of "marianismo" suggests that women must embody purity, virtue, submissiveness, and self-sacrifice, akin to the Virgin Mary. This ideal puts considerable pressure on Latina women to uphold these standards of morality and virtue. Deviating from these norms can evoke feelings of guilt rooted in both cultural and religious contexts—emotions that I haven't been able to shake off, even though I abandoned Catholicism more than 10 years ago.

Many Latina women often bear the burden of preserving the family's honor and moral standing. This responsibility can engender Catholic guilt associated with behaviors or thoughts that deviate from the church's teachings, such as premarital sex, divorce, abortion, or even questioning the religious doctrine itself. You must not waver in your faith.

I cannot stress enough how heavily the weight of Catholic guilt can influence a woman's self-perception. It can induce feelings of inadequacy due to the impossible task of upholding an idealized and frankly unattainable standard of morality and purity. Guilt can also play a role in a woman's struggle with her personal identity, particularly if she identifies as LGBTQ+, a status still stigmatized in both the Catholic Church and many Latine communities, sometimes leading to internalized homophobia.

This ever-present feeling of guilt can be detrimental to mental health, resulting in issues like anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. The fact is, many of us are introduced to the Catholic faith almost as soon as we are born, baptized, and sent to Sunday school. So these teachings and feelings of guilt become deeply rooted in our sense of being.

As we acknowledge these experiences, we empower ourselves and others to open up about their struggles and seek healing. It’s vital for mental health professionals to recognize and understand the nuances of Catholic guilt in Latina women, offering culturally competent care and support, yet not many do.

By recognizing and naming my experience, I've found it easier to share my story with other women who face similar struggles. My hope is that, through open conversations and mutual understanding, we can begin to break free from guilt, embrace our individuality, and respect our autonomy in making informed choices. Only then can we find the freedom to heal and redefine our relationships with faith, culture, and ourselves.

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