Questions Answered

  • Is Guilt Always Wrong?
  • Repetition of Apostolic Blessing with Plenary Indulgence?

Is Guilt Always Wrong?
Question: I have heard that there are some religion programs for children which give the children the impression that guilt is always evil and never to be felt?  Is this true?

Answer: Catholics often joke about what they call “Catholic guilt.” For some reason, Catholics seem to be more acutely ashamed of their conduct, and more rigorous in finding conduct of which to be ashamed, than other religion.  This is perhaps justly assigned to well-meaning educators who prepared children for confession of sins, but by the manner in which they presented sin, or by actual teaching, introduced them to ideas and concepts which were too sophisticated for them.  Some would like to address this issue by attacking the whole notion of guilt as “not feeling good about yourself.”  Presumably, for some, this has led to scrupulosity and psychological guilt.

On the other hand, it is important to note that the general description traditionally given of a psychopathic personality is one who feels no guilt, and so no remorse, for the evil that one does to another.  Pathological liars simply have no idea that others have a right to the truth, and so experience no guilt when they tell all kinds of lies, some causing serious harm to others.

There is, therefore, an authentic and inauthentic experience of guilt.  What would be the difference?

Guilt is actually the passionate response to a perception of a lack of order in the human soul.  It would be one of the natural implementations of sorrow at a present evil, combined with fear of a possible evil.  This disorder is caused by the fact that a person has willed something which is contrary to reason.  Reason, based on objective human nature, should be the basis for human actions.  When a person acts contrary to reason, a sin, this action introduces a lack of order into the soul.  Healthy persons, who are aware that they are responsible for willing something which is not human, react with reasonable guilt.  This guilt is the proper emotional response to this disorder, much as pain is the proper physical response to the cutting of the body.  Persons who do not feel guilt or shame would not be reasonable or human in their reaction.

The feeling of guilt is not an end in itself.  Like the awareness of pain, it should lead the person to seek healing.  In this case, guilt should lead to repentance, and, if necessary, to confession.

Since guilt is based on a perceived disorder caused by willed actions, people who cannot responsibly will to do something (e.g., children before they reach the age of reason) cannot feel guilt.  Also, if persons feel guilt over some action which is not really contrary to reason, then they would be considered scrupulous.  Just as a lack of development of guilt can lead to a pathological personality, so a precocious experience of guilt inculcated in a child too soon, or bad morals education which presents things as sins which are not really sins, can lead to a character dominated by fear and sorrow instead of love.  If this is exacerbated by great immaturity, persons can develop a neurotic personality, where they feel guilt about everything.  They may even extend guilt.  From a particular idea (for example, that sexual pleasures may lead to sin), they may arrive at the conclusion that all sexual pleasures—even those in marriage—are sinful.  This can become even more neurotic, because the person can conclude that all pleasure is sinful, and can feel a morbid or irrational guilt from feeling anything pleasant.

So, it is part of the art of education for an educator to wisely inculcate an experience of guilt without making it too strong too soon, or too weak too late.  To suggest that all guilt for children who have reached the age of reason is wrong, is contrary to common sense and to Catholic teaching.  On the other hand, to threaten young children with hellfire before they can deeply reason, would not only be contrary to a healthy emotional development, but also to the teaching of Christ, which emphasized love, rather than fear.

Repetition of Apostolic Blessing with Plenary Indulgence
Question:  Can a priest still give the apostolic blessing with the plenary indulgence to someone who is dying?  If the person recovers and then is in danger of death again, can it be repeated?

Answer: The rite for the administration of the apostolic blessing with plenary indulgence clearly states: “A priest who administers the sacraments to someone in danger of death should not fail to impart the apostolic blessing to which a plenary indulgence is attached.” (n. 1) The mind of the Church is obviously that this custom is still in effect, and is also a very important one.

To understand indulgences, one must remember what they signify.  Any indulgence is an application of the infinite treasury of Christ’s merit to the temporal punishment due to sin.  (Temporal punishment must not be confused with the loss of heaven, which is an eternal punishment.)  Any penitent who confesses his sins, properly disposed, and receives absolution, is not liable to eternal punishment.  Temporal punishment, on the other hand, is not thereby resolved.  An analogy would be if someone had a dear friend who owned a prize possession.  In a fit of anger, he destroyed the prize possession to insult his friend.  He is then filled with instant remorse, and begs forgiveness of his friend, who is a particularly forgiving person.   His friend forgives him.  But there are still two unresolved things.  The possession is destroyed, and the disorder in the perpetrator, which led him to do such an unloving act, is also unaddressed.  For the order of justice to be satisfied, the person must replace the destroyed article, if he can, and address his inner disorder, which led him to do such a deed.  In the case of sin, our friend is God, and the forgiveness one receives in the sacrament of penance truly reconciles us to him.  But suffering, either physical or spiritual, must also resolve the disorders we have caused in the world, and in ourselves.  If unresolved actively by suffering on earth, then passively such a thing must be resolved in Purgatory, in which a person is clearly aware of the infinite love of God, and how that love was not perfectly accepted during the person’s lifetime.

Indulgences, either partial or plenary, address this latter difficulty.  The Church, by the power of the keys, can invest certain acts with the ability to apply the infinite treasury of the merit of the Passion to the purification of a soul, so that Purgatory can be foregone.  Such is the case with the plenary indulgence at the time of death.  Of course, indulgences are not magic, nor do they work automatically.  There must be some moral preparation on the part of the recipient.  Usually, there are three conditions: Mass and Holy Communion within a few days of receiving the indulgence, which, of course, presumes one is in the state of grace; some prayers offered for the intentions of the Pope; and no attachment to sin.

In the case of the dying person, these conditions are forgone (and there is only one condition to be met, as stated below).  This presumes that the person cannot perform the acts which are normally conditional for its reception.  The rite itself states that, even if a priest is not present, “Holy Mother Church benevolently grants to the Christian faithful, who are duly disposed, a plenary indulgence to be acquired at the point of death, provided they are in the habit of reciting some prayers during their lifetime; in such a case, the Church supplies for the three conditions ordinarily required for a plenary indulgence.”  So this would be canonically a case of eccelsia supplet (the Church supplies).  In the case where a priest cannot be present, the Church commends the use of a crucifix.

As to the question of imparting the blessing more than once, the application of the blessing at the time of death is key in the opinion of the majority of authors.  They maintain that it can only be given once during the same illness, even if there are ups and downs, or mortal sins, during this illness, as it takes effect at the time of death.  If, however, the recipient were to recover, and then suffer a different kind of illness, then it could be given again.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, "Questions Answered".

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  1. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Is the Apostolic Blessing with a Plenary Indulgence referred to here the same as the Sacrament called ‘The Last Rites’ ? If not, what is it physically and how does it differ?