Deep in the gloomy last days of winter, Ash Wednesday once again descends upon us. Dutiful Catholics worldwide, soaked with enough sugar and spirits from Mardi Gras to last forty days and forty nights, will drag themselves to church to have their hungover heads smudged with ashes and be reminded that “You are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

Ah, Lent. As a Catholic myself, this time of year always fills me with mixed emotions, sort of like going to the gym: I know it’s good for me, I know I’ll feel better afterward, but...

Deep in the gloomy last days of winter, Ash Wednesday once again descends upon us. Dutiful Catholics worldwide, soaked with enough sugar and spirits from Mardi Gras to last forty days and forty nights, will drag themselves to church to have their hungover heads smudged with ashes and be reminded that “You are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

Ah, Lent. As a Catholic myself, this time of year always fills me with mixed emotions, sort of like going to the gym: I know it’s good for me, I know I’ll feel better afterward, but the Good Lord knows I’m no saint…let’s get on with it already!

Lent is a season that bewilders a lot of non-Catholics. Fasting? Abstaining from meat? Almsgiving? It’s 2022, guys. But the one charge that I hear leveled against Catholicism more than all the others combined (Alec Baldwin’s Irish-Catholic character joked about it on the hit show 30 Rock) is that this all stems from the infamous ::queue ominous Gregorian chant:: “Catholic guilt.”

Here I feel compelled to paraphrase my recently departed writing hero and fellow Catholic, P.J. O’Rourke, and implore that we all give guilt a chance!

First, let us review: how did guilt get a bad rep and why is guilt needed now, more than ever?

“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” was a mainstay of early and medieval Christianity. Penance, self-discipline, and a healthy distrust of humanity’s fallen nature were universally accepted principles — even when not universally practiced. Sin was both feared and abhorred, with guilt the natural, correct, and accepted emotional state resulting from failing to live a holy life.

The first crack at the guilt mentality came with Martin Luther’s notion of sola fides, salvation by faith alone. If salvation is won by faith in Christ, and not by specific actions, why feel bad when your actions stray from accepted Christian norms?

But the modern attitude toward sin and guilt is predominantly based on the work of Freud, who decided we’re simply beasts motivated by appetitive impulses — mainly sex and aggression — and it’s the repression of these urges that leads to mental distress. So is guilt the sign of a healthy, well-ordered conscience telling you that you’ve not been a good boy and ought to change, or is it the malignant yoke of society squashing your true self and ruining your happiness? Well, let’s “follow the science.” As guilt’s gone down, depression has skyrocketed (rates are at all all-time high).

The Me Generation, raised on self-esteem, constant praise, and placation, was brought up to believe that making anyone feel guilty about virtually anything was akin to a sin. As this age group reaches maturity (a relative term) and takes charge of things, we are witnessing the rise of a nihilist world full of selfish beings doing whatever makes them happy at all costs — even to their own detriment. We are in the midst of a crime wave, an epidemic of suicides, and a tsunami of disenchanted alienation. Freedom from morality has not led to utopia. Libertinism has failed.

As we become daily witnesses to crimes that would make our ancestors shudder in their hair shirts, might we not consider embracing Lent and encourage just a wee bit of remorse for wrongdoing? (And no, we’re not talking about “canceling” people who fail to drive an electric car or drink cow’s milk instead of soy.) The guilt that, for centuries, compelled people to conform to the most basic societal standards — remaining faithful to one’s spouse, maintaining a healthy weight, not grabbing handfuls of merchandise off the racks at Macy’s — has been tossed out the window along with most manners, morals, decorum, and virtue.

A proper dose of guilt could be good for you. An American Psychological Association study on constructive and destructive responses to anger found that among a group of children, “guilt proneness was associated with constructive means of handling anger, including constructive intentions, corrective action and non-hostile discussion with the target of the anger, cognitive reappraisals of the target’s role, and positive long-term consequences.”

Here’s the thing: guilt, like suffering, may be unpleasant, but it is in fire that the sword is tempered and the steel gains its strength. In other words, no pain, no gain. Just like everything else that comes from God, guilt is a gift. Or it can be if we use it appropriately. A warped sense of guilt becomes a vice known as scrupulosity that infects a person with a false, obsessive belief that he or she has sinned. St. Ignatius warns against scrupulosity, telling us these disturbances to our inner peace are of no profit to the soul, and are instead temptations intended to distract us from the path to perfection. But let’s be honest, scrupulosity is hardly a popular ploy with Uncle Screwtape these days.

There’s a lot of grace rooted in guilt, and much societal damage that results from rejecting it outright. Guilt — feeling remorse for wrongdoing — is uncomfortable. People in general, but especially the young and the modern, don’t like to be told they’re wrong or made to feel they’re behaving inappropriately. But maybe that’s part of growing up?

Lent is boot camp for the soul. Practicing self-restraint, self-denial, and self-judgment are antidotes to the pervasive, hedonistic problems of the post-post (post-post-post) modern age. Would skipping a candy bar here and there, saying an extra prayer, taking a break from the 24/7 news cycle, and spending some time in quiet introspection be so bad for the modern American?

Fulton Sheen said, “Lenten practices of giving up pleasures are good reminders that the purpose of life is not pleasure.” So go stock up on some kippered herring, press pause on your Amazon Prime account, and let’s get our guilt on!