Nothing quite irritates the spleen like that phrase “recovering Catholic”. It used to be that folks who drifted away from the Church were lapsed – not a phrase you hear much in, say, the Cof E, where it is assumed that one is not practising unless otherwise stated. Now everyone’s “recovering”, as if Catholicism were a close relative of alcoholism.

What exactly are they recovering from? Why, the guilt, of course – the infamous Catholic guilt. When they were only young, Father McSomething would stoop up to the pulpit and explain how their girlish little sins would land them an eternity stewing in Lucifer’s pot roast, which is mostly potatoes and the meat is white with fat.

I met many recovering Catholics in the Anglican churches of my youth. They are a natural home for people who like the trappings of Rome but prefer Canterbury’s moral relativism: “Only God can judge you, but He’d rather not. Here: throw some more incense in the thurible.”

I don’t pine for the full Angela’s Ashes treatment, but I wish I had had some Catholic guilt growing up. The only thing worse than an overbearing parent is a negligent one. As a mainline Protestant in Catholic schools, I was made to sit through all the First Confession classes, the teachers listing the sins one must tell the priest or else Catholic Jesus would be extremely cross. (Don’t swear, don’t touch yourself, don’t put your elbows on the table, etc.) It made me feel inadequate. Didn’t Protestant Jesus care whether I was a good person?

I found myself dwelling on one chapter from early childhood: that blissful period when you’re old enough to tell right from wrong, but on a purely theoretical level. I found a $20 bill on my counter top and aimlessly shoved it in my pocket. Then, an hour later, Dad called me into the kitchen. “Michael, have you seen the 20 I left here?” I shook my head no; but, seeing how distressed he was, I took it from my pocket and said: “You can have mine, though.” The look of unfathomable disappointment he gave me was worse than any slap on the rear.

The Church teaches that there are two reasons to avoid sin. One is fear of hell, which is sufficient; the other is love of God, which is perfect. The former is what everyone means by “Catholic guilt”, and should really be called Catholic fear. The latter, the love of God, is Catholic guilt – and it’s a wonderful thing.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection