Friday, June 21, 2013

A Lesson in Catholic Guilt, or on Fathers and Father's Day

UPDATE: A version of this post also appeared on the Huffington Post website on June 17, 2013.


Father's Day is yet another of those myriad of holidays that we celebrate as if somehow contributions only matter when we publicly acknowledge them on a single special day out of the year. As if those contributions only matter for one day, or only happen for one day. Of course, why should we let a perfectly good reason for a Hallmark card go to waste? As they say, if you "manufacture it", they will buy it....

It's just as I noted in a previous article, "Mother's Day: A Manufactured Holiday":
The recent reality is that Mother's Day seems to have become nothing more than a commercialized, manufactured guilt fest -- as well as a peer pressured, competitive guilt fest. It's all about how much you can spend to show how much you care -- as if money is the only measure of emotions; it's also all about how much you can talk up your mother as the best of all mothers in comparison to what someone else -- posts on Facebook.
So it is with Father's Day -- and I'll be the first to admit that yes, I did in fact ensure to change my Facebook profile picture on Father's Day to a photo of my father and me. As I am not going to be the one who loses that public guilt fest!

Still, the history of Father's Day is fascinating: as it can seem surprising that it took decades to achieve formal recognition for a holiday that honors fathers, and their influence on society. In fact, the woman most commonly credited with being the driving force behind this holiday started her long crusade in 1910 in Spokane, Washington, and it wasn't until 1972 that it finally became a permanent national holiday when President Richard Nixon signed it into law.

Apparently, Congress was worried it might be commercialized..... [snicker, snort] Apparently, Congress is actually sometimes correct.....

I had intended to mostly ignore Father's Day, and not buy into the commercial frenzy that surrounds it, but my instinctive inability to resist the Facebook guilt fest for most public acknowledgement of one's father made me think about my own father and what I did actually owe him.

As, ironically, it was that very inability to resist the Facebook competition that pointed to one of the greatest things my father gave me / taught me: Catholic guilt. And yes, I don't mean just Catholicism the religion, I mean the very key tenet of the religion, guilt. The self imposed, all consuming, most powerful emotion there is. The one thing that truly separates any one raised Catholic from all others (with an acknowledgement that Jewish guilt is closely related -- but not exactly the same thing).

The truth is, Catholic guilt is very different from all other kinds of guilt. Merriam Webster's online dictionary defines guilt:
1: the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty; broadly : guilty conduct 2 a : the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously b : feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy : self-reproach 3: a feeling of culpability for offenses
Yet none of that perfectly encapsulates what Catholic guilt is. Heck, if you search, even Wikipedia has a separate entry for "Catholic guilt"! (According to the site, "Catholic guilt is a term used to identify the supposed excess guilt felt by Catholics and lapsed Catholics.")

Thanks to the fact that my father, Michael Novak, is a Catholic theologian by profession, one can say I could qualify as an expert on Catholic guilt. Certainly I was brought up by an expert on the subject! So I can attest, with confidence, that Catholic guilt is indeed far different than normal guilt.

Notice that the Merriam Webster definition uses terms such as "breach of conduct", "especially violating law", "involving a penalty", "committed an offense", etc. All of those are strong, even biased, words that imply serious misconduct on the "guilty" side. Even the secondary definitions refer to "imagined offenses" and "culpability".

As I learned upon my father's knee, it is not about the offense, nor the law, nor the penalty -- it is about what is "appropriate" or not. In fact, it did not matter if something was legal or illegal, wrong or right, it was a simple equation of appropriate or not, period. This may seem at first very confusing, and certainly a difficult standard to apply or even live by, but it's actually quite straightforward.

My father once gave me the example of painting a chair: the underneath of the chair will never, or at least rarely, be seen. The additional effort to paint that section, and to take the same care there as with what is easily visible, adds up to a lot of extra work and time, especially considering it will never, or rarely, be seen by anyone. So it is easy to justify skipping it, or at least covering it quickly, without any special attention or care. Yet in reality, one still must paint that section -- and must with the same amount of exacting detail and care as the rest of the chair -- because God will see it, even if no one else does.

This is why it is not about what is legal or illegal, what is right or wrong, or even necessarily moral or immoral, as the issue of the chair and its underside being painted or not is none of those things. What the issue of the chair is, is about what is appropriate or not. What we should do, not just what is the legal or moral thing to do.

Understanding this is key to being Catholic; is key to understanding Catholic guilt. Frankly, for me, is key to being a better person. I may not always live up to my standards, but I do my best to aim for them all the time -- and have one helluva dose of guilt always lingering over me to enforce those efforts! Thanks to all of that, I know I can say I am always striving to be better. Maybe not actually achieving it, but trying. To take a few liberties, the important thing is not whether you fall off the path, it's whether you keep on the right path.

My father's lessons on always keeping in mind what is "appropriate" as a much higher standard than simply what is illegal or immoral has made all the difference in my life. Folks may joke that being raised Catholic comes with a high therapy price tag thanks to the guilt, but that's merely misunderstanding the powerful tool they were given. It is not about "excess" guilt or emotional trauma, it's about having been taught how to always strive to be a better person. How to find the narrow path to not just heaven, but also to a better life.

From Matthew 7:13-14,
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
So, to me, Father's Day isn't just a manufactured holiday that requires a Hallmark card and a Facebook profile picture of my dad -- it's a day to be reminded of the critically important things fathers give us. The lessons and tools that my father -- that all fathers bestow upon their children -- provided that will help me, help all of us, to be better people. The lessons and tools we cannot live without, and can never repay.

And that's not commercialization.... That's, well, Catholic guilt.

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