Questions Answered – May 2023

Guilt in the Spiritual Life

Question: Can you explain guilt to me? Is it good or bad for the soul?

Answer: To understand the place of guilt, it is necessary to recall that every moral act involves three powers of the soul: the intellect, the will, and the passions. Though moral freedom specifically is found in the will, the responsibility which this entails includes the participation of the intellect directing the will with the truth. In addition, the interior soul is so constituted that a movement in one area causes repercussions in another. Movements of thought or love can be enhanced or interrupted by the passions. Before the Original Sin, all the parts cooperated and there was integrity in the soul, so in the passions one really enjoyed good. This is expressed in the text: “They were naked and not ashamed.” The intellect and will are not to destroy the passions but to humanize them. This was a gift which depended on grace. Since there was no disorder in the soul, there was no deception or reflection of a lack or order in the passions. Ergo, there was no guilt.

When the sin is committed, man loses grace which causes a moral disorder in the rest of his character. An important consequence is that a part of the punishment for sin is the reaction within the soul in the passions to perceived moral disorder. Sin is not like virtue. One must have all the virtues to have one, as virtue causes interior integration. This integration, when perceived, produces a peace of character. The opposite is true of sin and vice. It is impossible for a person to have all the sins and vices because sin causes a disorder. Two vices of excess and defect are contrary to every virtue. They are also contrary to each other, so one cannot possess them all at the same time. Sin creates disorder in the character.

When someone acts contrary to reason, the person himself, if he is healthy, experiences an emotional uneasiness at the disorder he himself produced and perhaps even sadness coupled with hatred, fear, and perhaps anger. He feels incomplete. His desires have not been formed as they naturally should be according to reason. This feeling causes emotional guilt which corresponds to the intellectual perception of guilt.

Hence, it is more than an intellectual awareness of the wrong that has been done; it is an actual feeling of incompleteness. This is the way in which well-balanced, mature individuals spontaneously react and it forms the basis of the feeling of guilt which results from performing act that are morally wrong. It is an experience of the psychological incompleteness of the human act.1

Guilt then can be healthy. The difference between neurotic and healthy guilt is the difference between the mature and immature perception of a disordered act. Also, there is a distinction between the intellectual perception of the guilt and the emotional reaction to this disorder. “Both are normally present in the well-balanced person, but it is possible for an individual to have only the intellectual awareness of guilt without any sensory feeling, or to have a feeling of guilt which is not substantiated by any rational judgment.”2

Mature people feel guilt when they should. The abnormal experience of guilt involves either feeling guilty when one has not done anything wrong or, what is more pathological and more characteristic of contemporary Western life, not feeling guilty when one has done something wrong. The idea that all guilt is pathological is very mistaken and the result of a Freudian psychology which does not appreciate the place of the intellect in emotional formation.

Indeed, the experience of guilt can be a powerful motive for repentance. It can also be the emotional punishment for a sin committed. Sin involves the deed, the guilt and seeking to repair the temporal order interrupted. In confession the penitent resolves both the deed and the guilt, and is reconciled with God.  He or she need never doubt that his or her sin is forgiven.  Yet there is still involved the inner disorder and the disruption of the exterior order God has placed in the universe.  This is called satisfaction.

For example, if one stole something, one must pay the equivalent. It is called temporal punishment, not eternal punishment. Some temporal punishment is easy to do. Others are not. The lack of satisfaction of this is what one atones for in Purgatory if one has not done it on earth. One example of the possibility of the experience of guilt serving as satisfaction for the temporal punishment of a sin may be found in women who have had an abortion. These women often confess this sin over and over again, motivated by the experience of guilt. While the confessor must carefully explain that the continuous confession of the sin is unnecessary and wrong if she feels her sin was not forgiven, he may also assure her that the suffering from the guilt she feels is a part of her own satisfaction for the temporal punishment due to sin, and should be a motive to pray for her child and an end to abortion.

So a perception of guilt which conforms to reality is good and virtuous. One which is not sees sin where there is none, or does not see sin when it has been committed.

The Authority of a Synod

Question: What is the magisterial weight of a worldwide synod?

Answer: The Catholic Church is preparing for a worldwide synod. Many groups have been deputed to do research of opinions and practice. Some even go so far as to call the nature of contraception into question. Can a synod change doctrine, or just what is its magisterial weight compared to the individual bishop and the Pope? This touches on the universality and catholicity of the Catholic Church, especially as it relates to authority. Many say there has been a change in the way that the Church sees her authority as a result of Vatican II.

Many believe that Vatican II denied papal infallibility as taught in Vatican I, and established a kind of federation of individual churches around the local bishops, much like the World Council of Churches. The Synod would be an expression of this. In fact, the Church has never thought of herself in this way. The universal Church cannot be conceived as the sum of particular Churches, or as a federation of particular Churches.

[The Lord] put Peter at the head of the other apostles, and in him he set up a lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and communion. Vatican II now proposes to publicly proclaim and enunciate clearly the doctrine concerning the bishops, successors of the apostles, who together with Peter’s successor, the Vicar of Christ and the visible head of the whole Church, direct the house of the living God. In what way would the College of Bishops be expressed in a Synod? To understand this, one must realize that the key concept of Vatican II for all these expressions of authority is “communion.

The nature of the Episcopal College is one expression of the communion, which the Church enjoys as a society with the Trinity. At the heart of the Church’s self-understanding is the notion of communion: primarily, a sharing through grace in the life of the Father given us through Christ and in the Holy Spirit. [T]he ecclesiology of communion is the central and fundamental idea of the Council’s documents. The foundation of the social character of the Church is not just the union of wills acting in common under the direction of a human intellect, as is the case with societies based on human, or even natural, law. The social character of the Church is based on a supernatural addition of grace to the soul of the Christian, given in Baptism. This supernatural addition is the habitual gift of sanctifying grace, which is a true change in the person, and the character of conformity to Christ. The reception of grace involves a true change in the soul.

One effect of this is that the faithful should be consulted about their understanding of the nature of revelation. The episcopal conference and the synod are canonically erected attempts to do this. Their function is not to define doctrine but implement it. These conferences are not viewed in the post-Vatican II Church as a merely incidental part of Church life.

What is the Synod and what it is for? The Code of Canon Law gives insight:

“The synod of bishops is a group of bishops who have been chosen from different regions of the world and meet together at fixed times to foster closer unity between the Roman Pontiff and bishops, to assist the Roman Pontiff with their counsel in the preservation and growth of faith and morals and in the observance and strengthening of ecclesiastical discipline, and to consider questions pertaining to the activity of the Church in the world.

“It is for the synod of bishops to discuss the questions for consideration and express its wishes but not to resolve them or issue decrees about them unless in certain cases the Roman Pontiff has endowed it with deliberative power, in which case he ratifies the decisions of the synod.” (Can. 342–343)

Though episcopal conferences, synods, are a necessary parts of the governing of the Church, their primary responsibility is pastoral. In themselves, they are not instituted by Christ, as are the papacy and the episcopal college. Though a practical exercise of the collegial spirit, they do not enjoy a jurisdiction to teach doctrine that is equivalent in any sense to the Pope’s or to the college as a whole. So the territorially based exercise of the episcopal ministry never takes on the collegial nature proper to the actions of the order of bishops as such, which alone holds the supreme power over the whole Church.

The episcopal conference of a region is a marvelous way of emphasizing the responsibility and care that each bishop has for the whole Church, but in itself it has no munus docendi (office of teaching), no munus regendi (power of ruling) and no munus sanctificandi (power of sanctifying).

If the episcopal conference does exercise jurisdiction in some matter, this is due not to the conference itself, but to the power delegated by the Holy See, which represents the college of bishops. The Pope is the head of the college, so he can delegate this power to some local body. The diocesan bishop and the papacy have this power by divine institution as an extension of Christ’s power. The college of bishops has this power by divine institution also, as Christ founded the college when he established Peter and the college of the Apostles. The episcopal conference has no such authority in itself because it is not of divine institution. Only human delegation invests these bodies with jurisdiction.

The important point to emphasize here is that the bishops have an authority in their own right in their dioceses. They also have their own authority in a college, which must always include the authority of the Bishop of Rome as the head of the college. Synods and national or regional conferences do not enjoy that authority and therefore cannot bind individual bishops, much less the faithful, because, as legislative bodies, they do not have the strength of jurisdiction from Christ. Their jurisdiction must depend on the other bodies giving it to them. The Magisterial weight would depend on the delegation given it by the Roman pontiff.

  1. Anna Terruwe and Conrad Baars, Psychic Wholeness and Healing (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 26.
  2. Terruwe and Baars, Psychic, note 26, 32.
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.”

Please send your questions to:
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
375 NE Clackamas St.
Portland, OR 97232
Or please see the Ask a Question page to send it online.