New study examines Catholic guilt among U.S teens

Author: Arts and Letters


“I’m an Irish Catholic and I have a long iceberg of guilt,” Irish writer Edna O’Brien once said.

The existence of a Catholic sense of guilt, the tendency to feel bad for a variety of sins committed or contemplated, is firmly entrenched in popular culture. Surprisingly, however, the extent of guilt among Catholics never has been systematically tested and analyzed.

A new study by Christian Smith, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, empirically investigates the extent of guilt among one segment of the Catholic population: U.S. teens.

The study uses data assembled from the National Study of Youth and Religion that is being conducted by the Notre Dame center and the University of North Carolina. U.S. adolescents ages 13 to 17 were tested on 15 distinct hypotheses.

“There is no evidence that Catholics feel more guilty than other teens, that more observant Catholics feel more guilty than less observant ones, nor that guilt-inducing behaviors affect Catholics more strongly than other teens,” Smith said.

Smith cautions that the study findings apply only to U.S. Catholics between the ages of 13 and 17 living in the 21st century.

“These findings say nothing about possible Catholic guilt among older Catholics, Catholics living in other countries, or those who have lived or will live in other historical eras,” he said.

Smith notes that the study results have a number of possible implications.

“It could be that Catholic guilt has never been particularly widespread among American Catholics generally or American Catholic youth specifically — that the idea of Catholic guilt is more of an unfounded stereotype than actual fact — and that our findings merely observe what has always been true,” he said.

The findings also could reflect changes in the Catholic Church itself, from the pre-Vatican II 1950s, when Catholic spirituality often emphasized obedience, sin, confession and penance, to current Catholicism’s enhanced emphasis on the forgiveness of God’s love.

The results also may reflect a process of cultural assimilation, as Catholics, including teens, have moved more firmly into the American mainstream.

Smith also is aware that the results may be comforting to some Catholics and distressing to others.

“Some will feel that the results are great and that the Church is taking a different spiritual approach,” he said. “Others will be concerned that U.S. Catholic teens are not experiencing guilt.”

The study, which was coauthored by Stephen Vaisey of the University of North Carolina, appears in the June 8 edition of the journal Review of Religious Research.

*Contact: * Christian Smith, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, 574-631-9238,

Originally published by William G. Gilroy at on June 10, 2008.