Jews, Catholics Compare Guilt Trips

About 20 students gathered last night at Harvard's Catholic Student Center to reflect on Jewish and Catholic conceptions of guilt.

"Every time I say something about Catholic guilt, everybody laughs," said Jacqueline Landry, a Roman Catholic chaplain and member of Harvard's United Ministry, who opened the discussion. "Everybody, I think, has some baseline appreciation of what I mean."

Landry spoke for approximately 15 minutes about the cultural and theological roots of guilt in the Catholic tradition and its evolution over time. Dr. Bernie Steinberg, the director of Harvard's Hillel, followed Landry, with remarks about the role and nature of Jewish guilt.

"Most people associate guilt with Catholic teachings on sexuality," Landry said lightheartedly. "But most of our conceptions of guilt are morally implied--a feeling in your gut, a sense of breaking laws or rules. And in large part how we look at guilt is determined by what generation we're in."

"What a gift it is to have a barometer for our feelings in a world that sometimes can be so terse," Landry said.

Steinberg broached the subject of guilt by distinguishing among what he called the "three categories" of guilt--the "metaphysical," the "neurotic" and the "moral."

"Guilt has very much to do with the power we have to make choices and the possibility of making good choices and bad choices," said Steinberg. "To be human is to struggle between two impulses, good and evil."

"I guess if I had to summarize Jewish guilt in one sentence I'd say it is the tension between the feeling that we indeed have some self-worth--because we can bring redemption to ourselves and others--and that we can never do enough."

Following the presentations by Landry and Steinberg, the students in attendance, a mix of Catholics and Jews, asked questions about feelings of guilt and offered some personal reflections on the subject.

"There is a high sense of right and wrong in the Catholic community. There is an accountability to the sins of omission--a sense of guilt and failing for not living up to something," Landry said. "It's very touchy.