Catholic teens don’t harbour more guilt than others
A new study lays to rest the enduring myth of faith’s burden on young believers, MISTY HARRIS reports.
One of the most pervasive stereotypes of Roman Catholicism is being debunked in a new study that reveals “Catholic guilt,” at least among the faith’s teenage followers, doesn’t hold water.
The research, which draws from 3,290 people aged 13 to 17, finds Catholic youth are no more prone to guilt than other teens, that more observant Catholics are no likelier to feel guilty than less observant ones, and that guilt-causing behaviours such as looking at pornography or having oral sex doesn’t affect contemporary Catholics any more than fellow teens.
“It’s no longer the case, if it ever was the case, that Catholicism is turning out guilt-ridden young people who are wallowing in their sin and feeling bad about them- selves,” says study co-author Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame. “Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your perspective.”
Although the study, which is being published this month in the
Review of Religious Research, is based on a U.S. sample, a top Canadian expert in this area says the findings are consistent with what he’s seeing in his own national data on teenagers and religion.
“In Canada, more than 50 per cent of Catholic teens — including 75 per cent of Catholic young people in Quebec — say they base their moral views on personal factors, led by how they feel at the time; only about five per cent say they base their sense of right and wrong on their religion,” says University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby, who is completing a new national survey of 4,000 teens and will be releasing his findings in the upcoming book The Emerging Millennials.
Mr. Bibby describes the phenomenon of picking and choosing religious values as “morality à la carte.”
Notre Dame’s Mr. Smith saw evidence of this in his one-onone interviews with teens, many of whom had an attitude of “not taking it all too seriously.”
“A lot of Catholic teens we interviewed said, ‘Yeah, I know the church teaches that you shouldn’t have sex before marriage, but I’m going to do what I want,’ ” says Mr. Smith, who conducted the study with University of North CarolinaChapel Hill sociologist Stephen Vaisey.
But on the whole, he says the study findings are encouraging in that they show Catholic youth aren’t harbouring unhealthy levels of shame.
“Among all teenagers, there’s a certain level of guilt,” reports Mr. Smith. “But Catholic teen- agers don’t have any more of it than anyone else.”
The only incidence in which Catholic teens significantly diverged from followers of other religions was in being more likely to view their faith as both a cause and source of relief of their guilt.
Julie Godin, a 14-year-old from Blue Ridge, Alta., experienced the latter effect firsthand when she recently held hands with a boy she liked.
“I felt really guilty because not only was it something my parents didn’t want me to do, it was something the church didn’t want me to do,” said Julie, a devoted Catholic who attends mass every Sunday, recites a decade of the rosary every night, is a member of her parish youth group and does a Gospel reflection every morning.
But Julie doesn’t think she is any more burdened by guilt than other young people and credits the church with helping her keep any negative feelings in check.
“Going to confession definitely helps because your sins get washed away,” she explains.
Noted Canadian religious scholar David J. Goa says this healing act of Catholic reconciliation is made possible by the presence of guilt, which too often gets a bad rap.
“Guilt is really another word for the promptings of your own conscience,” says Mr. Goa, director of the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life at the University of Alberta-Augustana.
“The problem isn’t sin. The problem is awaking to it quick enough to repair it and then being free to do things differently instead of repeating the pattern.”
If the traction of guilt has weakened with today’s young Catholics — and because there’s no previous parallel data for comparison, they can’t be sure it has — Mr. Goa says it’s likely linked to “a shift in the ethos of the church” in which God’s love and forgiveness is now being emphasized over His wrath and judgment.
Notre Dame’s Mr. Smith also makes this hypothesis, noting that Catholic guilt could in fact be “part of an older generation.”