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After Catholic guilt

Writing by Erin Cullinan, artwork by Alana Kenneth.

The remorse after imagining a stranger naked. The pit in your stomach after telling a secret that wasn’t yours to share. The shame in touching yourself. 

God stands in the watchtower of my mind, keeping a 24 hour shift. From his perch, he can observe every action. Silently, he takes notes. He monitors my every word, ready to weaponise every nicety, every snark; the day we stand at the pearly gates, pleading for mercy. 

This is the loving God I grew up fearing. I felt his lurking presence in every aspect of my life, and have found that even as I grow into my agnosticism, I cannot shake his judgment. Impending, sinful doom raises the stakes of the simplest of actions.

How is someone raised Catholic meant to escape this cycle of shame and repentance, forgiveness and shame? We are told stories of humanity being doomed to sin starting with the original man and woman. If Adam and Eve couldn’t escape temptation, how can I? Adam and Eve weren’t surrounded by iPhones and drum & bass music and guys with eyebrow piercings. 

I used to lay in bed at night, praying through gritted teeth. I would hide under the covers with my hands clamped together so tightly they would go numb. My dolls would watch in horror from the corner of my room as I pleaded to God (if he was out there listening) to let me see another day. 

“Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my Soul to keep;

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my Soul to take.”

I would apologize for not believing he was real. I could sacrifice my sense of individuality for God’s love. I promised that if he could just send me a sign that he was listening that I would dedicate my life to worshiping him. The silent static that followed my “amen” would sting my ears as I laid staring at the ceiling. 

Children raised in religious communities cannot escape the existential undertones associated with belief. If being sent to your room without dinner sounds bad, then imagine the horror of burning in hell for all of eternity. Even at a young age as I wrestled my own positionality as a skeptical Catholic, I faced my own Pascal’s Wager: believe in God and experience limitless pleasure, or risk limitless misery. I feared that even though I questioned what was being taught to me in Sunday school, dissenting would only result in my damnation. Instead, I sat quietly in the back of the classroom with my lips sealed and heart pounding. Back then, my stomach was always upset. 

Imagine sin as a universal debt that must be repaid to God. Now imagine an eight year old whose only source of income is the occasional lemonade stand. Recipe for disaster. But just when all hope seems lost for absolution, enter confession. 

The Catholic solution to sin is confession. Enter this damp, wooden box and kneel. A bald man who smells of the blood of Christ will speak to you through a hole in the wall. He will ask how long it has been since your last confession. You will lie (what’s one more sin on your long list anyways) and answer a few weeks. He will ask what you have come to confess. Tell him you didn’t do the dishes, that you swore at your mother, how you cheated on an exam in school. Conveniently omit the blasphemous thoughts, say a few Hail Mary’s, and you’re on your way. At confession, you will constructivise your own guilt and turn it into something productive. Shame is now a motivator: a proverbial fire under your literal ass as you run from the devil’s grasp into God’s arms. 

“Hail, Mary, full of grace,

the Lord is with thee.

Blessed art thou amongst women

and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God,

pray for us sinners,

now and at the hour of our death.”

As an adult, I’ve rejected the church’s influence in my life. Passionate defenses of atheism during conversations at the pub have become my go-to. My rosary is no longer used to count prayers; it’s become a statement of dissent. Yet, I cannot shake the feeling that God is still judging. How on my deathbed, I’ll revert back to my obsession with purity, listing every sinful thought I’ve ever had and wish I had allowed God to save me. Will my rejection of God as a rejection of shame leave me damned?   

Shame is used as a weapon to control us. Growth is a fantasy when God has you shackled to his will. The harder you struggle against his methods of domination, the more damned you become. As the executors of God’s word, the Catholic church traps children within their narrative of sin and savior, traumatizing generations upon generations of “good Catholics”. Escaping this cycle is to risk everything.

There is liberation in sinning. It is a choice to reject God. I do not need his mercy to save me from myself. 

“And lead us not into temptation, 

But deliver us from evil

For thine is the kingdom, the power

And the glory. For ever and ever


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