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Guilt, Theology of


From the standpoint of theology guilt is a willing and knowing violation of a person's relation to God. Such guilt may generate guilt feelings which may be an appropriate response to the perceived violation. To be guilty in a theological sense is to find oneself feeling personally responsible before God and others for the evil that was intended or has been done out of one's freedom. Conditions for real, theological guilt include knowledge and freedom. To the extent that knowledge is lacking or freedom is in some way impaired, guilt is lessened.

Inward and Social Aspects. Theological guilt can be further seen as having both an inward element and a social element. The inward element has to do with the awareness an individual has of personal wrongdoing. The individual may find authentic moral awareness obscured by guilt feelings that have their psychic origin in various types of environmental and social conditioning. Psychological analysis can be helpful in sorting out authentic from inauthentic guilt. The social element of guilt pertains to the consequences that result from someone having posited the evil act. Here it is common to speak of juridical guilt, which implies there is a penalty to be paid or compensation to be made. Juridical guilt may remain after the wrongdoer has dealt with the inward element through a process of repentance. Some of the consequences of guilt include the loss of grace and a wrong frame or mind.

Deed and State. Theological guilt, like sin itself, may be categorized as either a deed or a state. As a deed it is equivalent to what has traditionally been called actual sin. As a state it is equivalent to habitual sin. It is important to avoid conceiving guilt viewed theologically as merely an offence against legal custom or as a wrong action with various unwanted effects. Most radically guilt means a total and definitive decision of the human person against God. It is what makes sin sin. In the concrete this guilt must be weighed according to the degree to which it fully involves the person in his or her freedom. In a radical "no" to God who addresses humanity in an ongoing dialogue the person denies the very supporting ground of his or her activity and existence. Guilt is a falsification of the reality of the human person.

Origin of Personal Guilt. Determining or pinpointing the origin of personal guilt in one's life is not as easy as it might seem. Upon reflection people find themselves confronting a cloudy picture in which current acts are always set against a series of decisions already made. In other words, it is impossible to recall a state of complete moral indifference or to trace one's guilt to any one particular act with absolute certainty.

Furthermore, the arena in which human persons live and act is itself an influence on them which is difficult to sort out. It is in fact a realm of interpenetration to which individuals contribute by their actions and in which they receive in turn the impress of other persons' activity both virtuous and sinful. In analyzing his or her own guilt, the individual is once again in an ambiguous situation. It is difficult to assess the influence various forces have had on one's decision making and the extent to which they may qualify the decision made. Such considerations have made modern Christians aware of how human freedom is limited. Yet over the course of a life freedom orients and shapes who a person will be. Guilt as the ultimate refusal of self to God indicates what the human person can choose to become in virtue of human freedom.

A somewhat different view of the human person and guilt is found within Protestant theology, especially in that branch influenced by existentialism. Paul Tillich found in existentialism an analysis of the human predicament that invited correlation with the classical Christian interpretation of human existence. Human existence for Tillich involves a movement away from humanity's own essential being and from God, the ground of being. Tillich expresses this by speaking of human persons in their existence as being estranged from the ground of being, from other beings, and finally from themselves.

Human persons find themselves in present finitude as beings united with nonbeing; they find themselves separated from that which they ought to be and to which they are strangely related. Here is the duality of essential and existential being as it is concretized in the human person. According to Tillich, human persons as they judge and look over what they have done are struck by a profound ambiguity between good and evil. Just as they experience contradiction within themselves, their own existential being separated from essential being, being limited by nonbeing, so they discover in what they do that a mixture of being and nonbeing emerges and expresses itself in the ambiguity between good and evil. Human persons thus render a negative judgment on themselves and experience this judgment and the ambiguity that occasioned it as guilt. Guilt, for Tillich, is the person's awareness of the ambiguity that characterizes what is done and leads him or her to render a negative judgment on the self. In Tillich's view, what the human person must do in spite of the anxiety of guilt and condemnation is to courageously affirm the self. It is God's acceptance of the person that alone gives courage to take within the self the threat of nonbeing which is at the root of the anxiety of guilt and condemnation. For Tillich all human acts are simply expressions of estrangement; all bring about guilt. It is never possible for humans to perform good and salutary acts for all existence is itself guilty. In contrast, the Catholic position stresses cooperation with grace through good works in the overcoming of guilt and a fuller conversion to God.

In the Catholic perspective the guilty person knows that he or she can repent, be forgiven, repair damage, and continue to grow through good works. In line with the Protestant emphases the guilty likewise should know that they cannot earn God's love but must simply respond to and accept God's gift of forgiveness.

Bibliography: k. rahner, "GuiltResponsibility Punishment within the View of Catholic Theology," Theological Investigations 6, trans. k. h. kruger and b. kruger (Baltimore 1969) 197217. p. schoonenberg, Man and Sin: A Theological View, trans. j. donceel (London 1965). p. tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven 1952). j. d. whitehead and e. e. whitehead, Shadows of the Heart: A Spirituality of the Negative Emotions (New York 1994).

[r. studzinski]

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