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The Lonely Legacy of Catholic Guilt: A Woman’s Soul Imprisoned

By Susan Ni Rahilly

ISBN 0953566714 Digital eBook 222 pages

December  9th 2010

An accessible, reader friendly book for women, examining the causes and effects of guilt within Catholicism. For many, the effects of Catholic conditioning equal pain and damage. The Catholic legacy passes down feelings of guilt and fear, this is inevitable as it is a fear based religion built on notions of original sin/hell/damnation.

Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother

A basic rule of Catholicism is to honour your parents. A perfectly sound tenet if a child occupies a safe family unit. However, this doctrine becomes unsafe when it is used as a cover to hide dysfunction behind closed doors. The rule of silence is common for people who have been abused.

Carol Ann’s story is told: She was sent to an abusive family situation in an Irish Catholic foster home. The authorities decided this was the best placement for her spiritual well being. Her foster mother systematically sexually abused her, able to hide behind the cloak of Catholic respectability. Carol Ann kept her guilty secret all her childhood because she was taught to honour and respect her parents. This idea of honour and respect is in direct conflict with feelings of hatred and resentment. Children learn to blame themselves, feel bad, shameful and guilty.

Saints and Sinners

Catholic children are encouraged to believe in concepts and icons non-existent in any physical sense. God, Saints, Martyrs, grace, redemption – these are all things outside of a child’s control. Any feelings of well being/safety through prayer and having faith are unreal. A child feels weak, vulnerable, ineffectual as their prayers are not answered. They have to battle with the concept of original sin, a fight against sin that lasts a life-time. They are taught to aspire to the ‘goodness’ of Saints, leading to the inevitable let down of never being good enough.

Nina tells her story: “It was all around me. If I wasn’t actually being told that I was a sinner in mass by the priest, it was in everything I learned; from the way my mother was with me, the atmosphere at home, at school, at the Polish social club, church, the messages in the catechism, the commandments, the bible, the epistles. It went on and on and on. It was constant. ‘You are bad, there is no hope’.

Ask and You Shall Receive

Catholics are taught to pray for their daily needs. As this inevitably doesn’t work, a feeling not being good enough is engendered. How does a child cope with a real life crisis through prayer?

Susan gives her own experience: Angela died at 14. As a group of young teenagers, Susan and her friends had no resources whatsoever to deal with such a tragedy. They couldn’t cope with the knowledge that Angela died alone and frightened during an awful thunderstorm. They had no power to make sense of this meaningless death. The power of prayer was useless, faith was useless, and being told to trust in God’s will was meaningless and used by the adults to suppress an outpouring of grief. They were taught to block their emotions.

Guilty Secrets

Catholicism is oppressive. It can overwhelm women and imprison them. Catholicism teaches that you are guilty for simply being (born with the stain of original sin on the soul) guilty for simply thinking (thoughts and feelings are as bad as deeds) guilty for doing (what we do is never good enough). This is not a healthy way to perceive your self.

Susan was made to feel guilty by the nuns at school: She was suspended from school at the age of 14 – her crime? To paint a picture of Jesus with black skin. She was accused of calling into question the beliefs of the Catholic church in class – not good enough, not holy enough, a sinner for simply questioning the commonly held view that Jesus has blond hair and blue eyes!

Jackie’s story: “My auntie’s in her 60’s and she thinks God has a white beard and he (God is a him) wears a blue dress and lives above the clouds.”

There is an obvious conflict of blind faith Vs reality.

Do Unto Others

Catholics are taught to ‘do unto others as you would like them to do unto you’. There is a clear message of cause and effect here; our actions have consequences. The direct effect of Catholics being told repeatedly that they are sinners from birth is that they, as a result, harbour feelings of not being good enough, they don’t deserve rewards. This does nothing to build confidence and does not empower.


If you feel bad, inadequate, lack confidence and self-esteem how on earth can your relationships be successful? As children, we use role models to help us find ways of coping with life situations. Catholic children often have nuns as their educational role models.

Susan’s experience: Nuns were Susan’s role models for ways of expressing herself as a woman. But nuns couldn’t possibly teach her about love and intimate relationships because they had never experienced them. They didn’t know how to engender a healthy sense of identity in a pubescent young teenager.

As young women, Catholics learn many important life lessons from these women. Eileen learned about anger and hatred: Sister Deliles made her feel guilty and shameful. Her terrible sin was that she was a handful as a teenager – she had boyfriends. “I have to say I wasn’t an innocent girl. I was a normal young teenager in puberty. Sister Deliles gave me a hard time because I had a boyfriend. ‘The Devil is in your soul,’ she told me.”

A nun’s view of the world cannot include any concept of sexual identity and encouraging a healthy attitude towards your own sense of physical development as a young woman. Grainne and Carol: We were told by the nuns to go to sleep at night with our arms crossed on our chests so we couldn’t touch ourselves on our breasts. We were given the message that by simply being women we were guilty of doing something wrong – guilty of having a woman’s body.

Women are held in low esteem by the Catholic church – so low that untold damage has been done to women in destructive relationships that their religion tells them they have to accept.

Caira’s experience: Caira’s mum is from a large Irish Catholic family background and has 8 of her own children. She suffers badly in an abusive marriage. Caira said, “I once heard my auntie say to my mother, ‘you know, you’ve made your bed now you must lie on it.’ The Catholic expectation is that you are in a marriage for better or worse, regardless of the danger of that situation. Caira thinks her mother’s heart has been hardened by her experiences. She was never able to talk of her love for Caira or bear to hear Caira say she loved her mum. “She’s had such a hard time of life that she doesn’t allow herself to be loved any more.”

And God Made Woman

An open, explicit, plain language discussion of how guilt affects sexual relationships. This chapter is written in a necessarily direct manner in order to give women the vocabulary they need to examine their own sexuality. Catholic teaching attaches shame and guilt towards feelings of a sexual nature. These negative aspects are confronted head on to dispel the discomfort and difficulty Catholic women feel in exploring their sexuality and in discussing sexual matters. For too many women bodily pleasures are equated with feelings of guilt.

A sensitivity warning accompanies this chapter. Women can be severely limited by their education and conditioning. If something proves too embarrassing to deal with the chapter is designed for the reader to skip sections which prove difficult.

An extract from the section on Contraception: This is the story of the Bishops and the vasectomy clinic: in the spring of 1997, some Catholic Bishops tried to close a vasectomy clinic in Ireland. From the newspaper accounts it sounded as though they had succeeded. Until a man came forward and said, “Well actually, they didn’t because I got through the picket line and kept my appointment. I was on the operating table having the snip when all the commotion about the closure was going on!”

In an interview on the radio a man said, “the Bishops can tell me I’m transgressing the law of God by having a vasectomy. Fair enough, that’s their job. But when my wife and I have come to a decision about our family and its future after long and careful thought, they do not have the right to tell me I will go to hell!”

Father Tom Connolly, director of the Scottish Catholic media office was quoted in the Yorkshire Post as saying, “You are not meant to use condoms at all, at all, at all, even if in marriage one partner has HIV, the use of condoms is still wrong.”

Women’s Intuition

Catholics are taught to look not to themselves but to God for inspiration in their lives. They put all their faith in God. This state is disempowering and a woman’s natural ability of decision making can be damaged as a result. To feel empowered a woman has to trust her decision making skills, ‘feel’ that she is right. Sometimes a woman feels intuitively whether a situation is right for herself or not, but she has to feel confident in order to reach this inner knowledge. Worry, doubt, low self-esteem and confusion get in the way of women trusting their own abilities. Unfortunately the guilt suffered by many Catholic women increases feelings of low self-esteem and powerlessness and, as a result, they feel they have no power.


There is hope in every situation. With every ‘wrong’ there is the potential for ‘right’. In the wrongs which have been done to Catholic women, they can search to find what they need to put it right. In dealing with the legacy of damage, low self-esteem, twisted teaching, many women have had the courage to challenge, question and search for answers. Catholic women are taught to fear. There is hope in the fact that by understanding how the Catholic way keeps people weak and dependent from childhood, we understand how to encourage today’s children to be free, independent and strong. Women get payback in the form of hope for their own lives and their own futures, compensation in finding out about themselves and having the power to change their lives. Payback comes in power. Strong, powerful women will not pass on to the children a world driven by fear.

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