In Defense Of Guilt And Shame

guiltWhile reading last week’s church bulletin, I came across an announcement for a mini-retreat titled “Letting Go of Shame and Guilt” scheduled to be held at a nearby Franciscan Center. As I read on, I learned that the program concerned “12-Step Spirituality.”

Twelve-step spirituality derives from the Alcoholics Anonymous program that began in the 1930s and continues today. The 12 steps include admitting one’s addiction, turning to God, admitting one’s offenses against others, making amends, and praying for continued guidance.

What the 12 steps do not include is any reference to overcoming shame and guilt. So where did that come from and why is it at the center of the Catholic-sponsored retreat?

The full answer is included in the tragic story I tell in Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America’s Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, published June 4, 2013. The book traces most of today’s social problems to a number of profoundly misguided views of human nature that have shaped modern thinking. It also exposes the errors of those views and offers ways to combat them.

The notion that guilt and shame are unhealthy was promoted by Humanistic Psychology, in particular by Carl Rogers and the movement’s myriad popularizers. They told us to love and esteem ourselves, cast off our inhibitions, and get in touch with our feelings. Rogers wrote: “I like the behavioral impulses—appropriate, crazy, achievement-oriented, sexual, murderous. I want to accept all of these feelings, ideas, and impulses as an enriching part of me . . . The criteria for making value judgments come more and more to lie in the person, not in a book, a teacher, or a set of dogmas.”

As Rogers saw it, people create their own truth and morality. In such a situation, there is no room for guilt or shame because everything is subjective and nothing is objectively wrong. It follows that there is no need to feel bad or to apologize and make amends.

Viktor Frankl, the eminent psychiatrist and philosopher, claimed that Rogers’ view makes the serious mistakes of taking away our human dignity and ignoring the reality and force of conscience. He explained that it is conscience that inspires feelings of guilt, which remind us that we are not doing what we ought to do, or being what we ought to be, and motivate us to improve. American psychiatrists Karl Menninger, author of Whatever Became of Sin?” and Willard Gaylin agreed. Gaylin argued that “all the pop psychologists are misleading people about guilt and conscience. Guilt is a noble emotion; the person without it is a monster.”

These individuals were certainly not denying the existence of false guilt (that is, feelings of guilt unsupported by reality) or destructive guilt that impedes rather than spurs personal growth. Nor were they suggesting that people never experience feelings of undeserved shame. (They recognized such reactions as genuine psychological problems.) Instead, they were objecting to Humanistic Psychology’s extravagant claim that guilt and shame are always harmful.

Since the 1500s the word guilt has meant the state of having committed an offense. The word shame, which was derived from the Teutonic word for “disgrace” or “infamy,” has for centuries meant both the fact of having behaved dishonorably and the awareness of such behavior. The word shameless traditionally signified disgrace, whereas Humanistic Psychology views it as a congratulatory term.

The common understanding derived from the traditional meanings of the words guilt and shame is simply this:

People who do wrong are, by that very fact, guilty of wrongdoing, and the appropriate response to being guilty is to feel ashamed. 

Incidentally, that understanding is not peculiar to Western culture. It was equally common in ancient Chinese culture. Three hundred years before the time of Christ, the philosopher Mencius taught that “the feeling of shame and self-reproach [is] the beginning of righteousness.”

The concepts of shame and guilt are fundamental to both ethics and law. Whether an act is wrong—that is, shameworthy—is the province of ethics. Whether someone accused of a shameworthy act is actually guilty is the province of law. To banish those concepts from a culture is to weaken both ethics and law and to threaten the common good.

Given the Catholic Church’s 2000-year emphasis on the reality of sin and the need for sorrow and repentance, a Catholic organization should be the last place one would expect to find a program titled “Letting Go of Shame and Guilt.” If the Franciscan planners of the event were to reflect on this incongruity, they might feel—what is the right word here—ah yes, ashamed.

Copyright © Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved