Elliott Argue, Campus Editor Emeritus
I want to tell the story of a woman who finds herself disconsolate at the age of 30, just 10 short years after her triumph. Having indulged in her every desire, she seems to have it all but can no longer keep her mind from considering her secret and chronic unhappiness. She blames Catholic Guilt. Sound miserable?
Yet, here I would like to present a defense of Catholic Guilt.
For lovers of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Lady Julia Flyte is a devastating and unforgettable character: a flashy, Catholic British aristocrat who is introduced to the reader directly following her “coming-out” into London society. Waugh writes that Julia was:
“untroubled by love, taken aback by the power of her own beauty, hesitating on the cool edge of life; one who had suddenly found herself armed, unawares; the heroine of a fairy story turning over in her hands the magic ring; she had only to stroke it with her fingertips and whisper the charmed word, for the earth to open at her feet and belch forth her titanic servant, the fawning monster who would bring her whatever she asked, but bring it perhaps, in unwelcome shape.”
Beautiful, wealthy, charming and smart, Julia finds herself in a position of incredible power.
While few women graduating from the University of Notre Dame find themselves splashed across the cover of People Magazine, today’s Notre Dame ladies often see shadows of Julia Flyte in themselves. Whether they are freshmen who will soon experience the romance of the first snow that blankets campus, or seniors living off campus without RAs and parietals, dining hall swiped meals and dorm Masses, I do believe that many Lady Irish find themselves turning over the magic rings of magnificent futures between their fingertips.
Let us call my modern-day Notre Dame Julia, Julie. She is smart, charming, fashionable, well-connected and beautiful with a shelf of blank diaries waiting to be filled, “hesitating on the cool edge of life.” She is in a position of great power. Like Julia, she grew up going to Mass on Sunday, praying grace before dinner with the family, and is the product of at least 17 years of Catholic education. Waugh’s description of Julia echoes true for Julie who “knew, or thought she knew, what she wanted.” Julie dreams about passionate love, a Pinterest wedding, beautiful children and a brilliant career.
Like Julia’s “coming out” into London society, Julie’s Frosh-O weekend marked her entrance into society. She spends four years living in the dorms and an off-campus apartment with her “incredible friends,” who spend their years stepping away from their good Catholic school girl mold. As the years of friendship increase, so does drinking, hook ups and casual cheating. Mass is occasionally forgotten, and it now seems silly to go to confession. Yet, Julie is held up as the moral beacon among her friends, and since she is way better than her friends, she shuts down pangs of guilt that occasionally creep into her heart. They are, to the average American college student, living “the dream.”
Everyone expects great things from Julie, and she signs a contract to work for a big firm in Chicago. Waugh tells us that despite this desire for a certain life Julia finds that, “wherever she turned, it seemed her religion stood as a barrier between her and her natural goal.” Waugh quips that for Julia, living in an Anglican country, “the thing was a dead loss. If she apostatized now, having been brought up in the Church, she would go to hell, while the Protestant girls of her acquaintance, schooled in happy ignorance could marry eldest sons, live at peace with their world, and get to heaven before her.” Of course, Julie doesn’t care whether or not her beau is a first born son and her Catholic upbringing certainly isn’t keeping her from marrying whomever she chooses, but she, like Julia, thinks she knows what she wants and finds that religion seems to stand in the way of that goal.
Julie’s social circles look much like Julia’s: “There were of course the Catholics themselves, but these came seldom into the little world Julia had made for herself; those who did were her mother’s kinsmen, who to her, seemed grim and eccentric.” Our modern Julie goes to a Catholic young adults group once, rolls her eyes, chuckles to herself about every person in the room, and does not mark the date for the next gathering in her iPhone. Her Catholic-formed conscience still tells her she shouldn’t spend her weekend nights drinking until she blacks out, that she can’t sleep with that guy she is currently dating, that she shouldn’t miss Mass on Sundays and despite the pressure to get free Obamacare contraception, she shouldn’t.
But she begins to tear apart the reasons she has been told that she should follow these rules, repeating a litany of excuses. Not wanting to know why this list of do nots is there, she increasingly becomes frustrated with her own conscience.
“I hateCatholic guilt,” she tells her friends. And like Julia, she feels at a loss; her friends have the benefit of being “schooled in happy ignorance.” And so, an internal conversation begins. “I missed Mass, it’s not a big deal. Jesus loves me no matter what!” “I like getting drunk; that’s what Irish Catholics do!” “I’m tired of going to my Catholic OBGYN. I need a doctor, not someone who reminds me of Church!”
She begins to sleep with her boyfriend because “it’s the least of the mortal sins anyway,” and “I commit many others.” The passion she experiences with this grown man for the first time is wonderful and terrifying, and one day after a particularly strong pang of conscience while attending Mass, she vows to stop but this lasts only a short time. In Julia’s case, when her Jesuit confessor refuses to yield to her rationalization that this wouldn’t be a sin in her case, she refuses to go to confession, and “from that moment on she shut her mind against her religion.”
Julia stroked her magic ring, whispered the charmed word, and she received what she wanted, though perhaps in an unwanted shape. 10 years later she has everything, except that she has nothing. She discovers her husband to be unfaithful; and her first child is born dead. Like thousands of nominal Catholics today, Julia had intended to baptize her baby. “Just at that time, when I was waiting for the birth, I thought, ‘That’s one thing I can give her. It doesn’t seem to have done me much good, but my child shall have it,’” she tells herself.
Julia is confronted with her sin by the simple words of her brother, “living in sin,” and like a volcano that had been bubbling to the surface, Julia has a full-blown meltdown with her non-Catholic lover. Attempting to console her, he tells her, “’Of course it’s a thing psychologists could explain; a preconditioning from childhood; feelings of guilt from the nonsense you were taught in the nursery. You do know at heart that it’s all bosh, don’t you?’
“How I wish it was!” she replies.
Julia finds herself in an impossible situation: married to an unfaithful husband and in love with a man who has a wife. In the end, she separates from her lover because, “the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I’m not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s.” Julia was offered a moment of grace that enabled her to see clearly that her setting up rival goods to God was the source of her unacknowledged unhappiness.
Her life left a path that resembles of a tornado’s. And yes, new, beautiful life springs from tilling dead plants into the soil. We too can have great hope that the Julias in our lives will come back to the joys of the Church. Women at Notre Dame are not 30 year old Julias; they are 19 year old Julies with many choices ahead of them. Catholic Guilt was the vehicle for Julia’s salvation, and it could be Julie’s protection from despondency and chronic self-hatred. Make recourse to that Catholic Guilt before its smothering takes away the shine of college triumph, leaving only an emaciated skeleton.
Elliott is a happy, guilty soul trying to teach high school to students in Michigan the joys of both. She loves to talk about such things. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.