Man sitting in pew in church.

Is Catholic Guilt Real? Exploring Religious Trauma

Many of us are born into a particular faith, or were introduced to it by someone important to us like a parent or spouse. Even if we don’t actively practice the rituals of our upbringing, we may feel protective of a belief system that informs our sense of self, or connects us to people we love. Our faith/ambivalence/disbelief in a higher power influences our worldview and our sense of self - what happens when your connection with your faith community intersects with a traumatic situation or experience? 

The words “Religious Trauma” will likely summon thoughts of cults, extreme fundamentalist sects, and escapees being rehabilitated through deprogramming. Most of us don’t identify with this experience, but examining the concept of how profoundly our faith impacts our thinking can identify thought patterns that no longer serve us. 

How Does Religion Affect My Mental Health? 

A Pew Research study published in 2023 indicated that 70% of Americans consider themselves “spiritual in some way,” but fewer and fewer identify with a particular religious community. There are many theories as to why this is including a growing lack of trust in religious institutions, changing social norms, and more exposure to diverse faith experiences than ever before in history. Faith uncoupled from religion can have many of the same therapeutic benefits of healthy religious communities. 

  • Spiritual rest: we know that we need physical, mental, and even emotional rest, but rarely discuss spiritual rest. Spiritual rest is the experience that a higher power is in charge of your life - that you can lay your problems down because ultimately it’s not up to you what happens. Not everyone likes this, but the acceptance of a higher power on its own has helped thousands of people through twelve-step programs like AA. Spiritual rest allows us to tolerate stress, find purpose, and come to a sense of peace. 
  • Community: whether you believe in God or not, you likely still practice some of your faith traditions with your family during special times of year, or join neighbors at your local place of worship to celebrate holidays. These practices and gatherings draw us closer to family and strangers alike, and ideally they provide places where we can find trustworthy people to depend on in hard times. 
  • Purpose: Many faith traditions share the same advice: be generous, kind, and empathetic with friends, family and strangers, and strive to solve conflict with mercy and love. In addition to building the community referenced above, these common tenets provide adherents with a sense of purpose and identity. In the face of our world’s conflicted state, the framework of your faith’s philosophy can give a sense that everything has a reason, and that as long as you let your faith guide you, you’re doing the right thing. 

Those who consider themselves spiritual or follow a religious practice often reap benefits that generally outweigh any issues that may arise…until they don’t.

Religious Trauma Syndrome & Related Mental Health Issues

The idea that religion may induce trauma can be divisive, especially in the United States. Our founding documents identify “freedom of religion” as a crucial right, and we continue to debate the place of religion in public life. It is traditionally considered good manners not to bring up the subject at all, and this protected status for religious beliefs and practices makes some unwilling to engage in therapy that seeks to reduce a faith experience’s effect on someone. 

Nevertheless, there are a number of mental health professionals who specialize in treating those recovering from “undue influence” imposed by a faith community or leader. One of these, Steven Hassan, points out that “…there is a wide spectrum of healthy and unhealthy influence [from faith communities and leaders]. Individual experiences vary within the same organization based on how the individual conforms to the norms of the group.” If you voluntarily take part in a faith community and their guidance for living aligns with your values and sense of self, you’re likely benefitting from your involvement. If their guidance does not align with your values and sense of self, if their influence seems coercive, and if their treatment of any deviation from their rules is punitive, psychological damage to the individual adherent can result. 

Hassan was formerly a member of the Unification Church, a “new religious movement” derived from Christianity that has been in the news in relation to the assassination of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (cults right?). He “deprogrammed” in the mid 70s and has since worked to help individuals “to have the freedom to think clearly and to freely consider how they want to live their lives.” At its most toxic, a faith organization will seek total surrender of an individual’s will to the point that they will participate in their own self destruction. In the case of the Unification Church, leaders either influenced or coerced members into making large donations that left entire families in financial ruin. 

This kind of religious trauma is unequivocal and most will accept it as a toxic situation the individual is right to escape from. More subtly presenting forms of religious trauma are more difficult for our culture to accept as genuine. However, there is evidence and scholarship in this area indicating that even religious upbringings considered mainstream can contain traumatic elements. Psychologist Marlene Winell coined the term "religious trauma syndrome" in 2011. The syndrome may exhibit any mixture and severity of the following: 

  • Difficulty making decisions independently 
  • Confusion and insecurity about identity and sense of self 
  • Emotional, intellectual, social, and/or sexual immaturity 
  • General anxiety and depression 
  • Sleep, eating, and/or substance abuse disorders 

Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) generally stems from religious environments that characterize the “secular” world as a categorically evil and unsafe place, and elevate adherence to doctrine over personal health and safety. The environment can be a church, temple, mosque, unincorporated faith community, or even a single family. Teachings around original sin and hell

may emphasize the need for individuals in the community to give up their privacy and open themselves to judgment and punishment in order to be “good,” “pure,” or “clean.” 

Clinicians compare RTS to Complex PTSD (CPTSD). PTSD arises from a single or contained experience, while CPTSD develops from prolonged and repeated trauma in a situation the survivor can’t escape. Because the trust we place in our faith leaders can be so personal and complete, ongoing trauma, and later recognition of that trauma, can be a shattering experience. RTS is the result of a betrayal of trust that may include the survivor’s family, friends, and neighbors. During this difficult time networks of support can suddenly disappear, exacerbating associated issues. In addition, the survivor may be experiencing a painful loss of faith, which in itself can be traumatic. 

Those from the queer community have a high risk of RTS, particularly if they have been pressured or coerced into changing their orientation or gender identity as part of their faith experience. When a religious practice targets an innate set of traits and behaviors as inherently sinful, it can often create an abusive internal monologue in which the person polices their own thoughts and behavior constantly and self-criticizes or punishes when they’re unable to force conformity to the group. 

When an individual realizes that they are in a toxic religious environment and tries to leave, their concerns will likely be minimized or dismissed by those closest to them, as well as by society at large. The endurance of religious institutions despite repeated abuses and waning public interest speaks to the way our country in particular prioritizes the perceived “utility” of religion as a form of social control and organization over the experiences of those who have survived traumatic religious experiences. You can imagine how this compounds the distress anyone leaving a bad situation might feel, despite their newfound freedom. 

Catholic Guilt: A Case Study 

“Catholic guilt” is widely memed as a pervasive source of self doubt and anxiety, a reason that those raised Catholic might be neurotically self-deprecating or prone to confessing big secrets. The idea is that because Catholics verbally confess their private sins to a priest, for the rest of their lives they will have the compulsion to confess whether they’ve done something or not. 

A 2006 study from University of Missouri Columbia found no evidence that Catholic subjects were more guilt-prone than their Protestant or atheist peers. However, many Catholics self-report over-apologizing for real and imagined transgressions, or feeling haunted by the horror of their own sinful nature. Our culture treats this as a joke and most Catholics have a good sense of humor about it, but as Hassan has found, “individual experiences vary within the same organization.” Something you and your Catholic school friends laugh about today could be genuinely traumatic for someone else you went to school with. 

The National Catholic Reporter offers resources for those who have experienced “harm instead of healing” during the Confession process. For those not familiar, Confession involves a member of the church joining a faith leader in a private space and recounting their

transgressions against the church’s tenets with the aim of being counseled to avoid future wrong doing and being forgiven by God. In the same way that a number of congregants were sexually abused by Catholic priests as first revealed by the Boston Globe in 2002, other congregants have been verbally, emotionally, and spiritually abused by priests taking their Confession. 

Confession can definitely feel uncomfortable, invasive and shaming even when everything is normal. You’re alone in a room or a booth with a priest you may or may not know, and you’re supposed to tell them everything you’re too ashamed to admit to anyone else - lying, cheating, stealing, even “impure” thoughts. For some this can be a therapeutic experience. There are many priests with long experience in counseling - several of our own therapists use a faith-based practice to work with their patients - who will offer comfort, reassurance, and helpful advice to overcome spiritual turmoil. However, priests are human beings as varied in their character as any of us, and not all of them are qualified for, or called to, the empathy and compassion Confession requires. 

Our society promotes tolerance on the basis of religious beliefs as a core tenet, and tolerance can often take the form of looking the other way even if we don’t agree with what’s going on. This can create a closed system where everything from harmful incompetence to predatory behavior can exert undue and even malevolent influence over vulnerable people. The leaders of any faith community are considered moral authorities among adherents. Even when the leaders’ actions don’t match their beliefs, someone raised within the faith community may find it difficult to reconcile their trust in the institution this person represents with their personal experience with them. The very nature of a hierarchical organized religion that asks participants to accept things on faith and to trust leaders despite personal misgivings leads to situations where someone can leverage that trust to isolate and gaslight someone who believes in them. 

In this example, if a priest uses their time with someone in Confession to ask invasive questions (personal details not relevant to the subject under discussion) or to use belittling or offensive language to criticize their parishioner, the person in the booth may accept this unacceptable behavior as normal. They may even blame themselves for provoking this reaction from the priest, and avoid sharing the experience with anyone. Even if they do, a religious parent or spouse is more likely to side with the representative of the religion they adhere to rather than the naturally “sinful” (read “human”) person reporting a real experience. Inappropriate responses in Confession may become internalized in the form of shame and moral anxiety. The point of Confession is to provide relief from the pain of doing wrong and a path to doing right, not to punish - the perversion of this important ritual turns “spiritual rest” into “spiritual brainwashing” because it benefits no one but the abuser. 


Even this fairly common occurrence is an extreme example of something that can be much more subtle. Religious expectations and influence can come from those closest to you and be so ingrained in your upbringing and worldview that it never occurs to you to question it. Accepting self-criticism and punishment as a normal internal monologue is distorted. We’re not made to live in fear of our own thoughts and actions; we’re meant to listen to and learn from one another, and to build our own worldview influenced by people we love and trust. If you feel that your religious experiences have caused you lasting pain, anxiety, depression, or other personal difficulties, a therapist - even a faith-based therapist - can help. When you are ready to connect with your spirituality again, there are many open and loving communities who gather to celebrate and practice the traditions of their faith, or who simply enjoy discussing spirituality and philosophy to live a better life.