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Monday, April 18, 2011

Catholic Guilt? Think Again

I recently heard on NPR that Alec Baldwin, one of the stars of the hit TV show "30 Rock," remarked that he was giving up "Catholic guilt" for Lent. Over the years I've heard similar remarks about Catholics and feelings of guilt, but because I tend to be suspicious of conventional wisdom, I couldn't help but wonder if it is true that Roman Catholics really do feel more guilty than do non-Catholics.

So, I looked around at available surveys, and one of the few that asked a question concerning guilt was the "National Study of Youth and Religion," which began in 2003 and initially surveyed 3,290 English and Spanish-speaking teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 and their parents. The data presented in the table below are not from the initial survey but from the third wave of the survey, which was taken between September 2007 and August 2008 and interviewed 2,532 young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 (most of whom were interviewed in the first wave -- you can find more information about the survey here: National Study of Youth and Religion, Wave 3 (2007-2008).

The question concerning guilt was worded as follows: In the last year, how often, if ever, have you found yourself feeling guilty about things in your life? Was it . . .
  1. Very often
  2. Fairly often
  3. Sometimes
  4. Rarely
  5. Never
The results appear in the table below:

As you can see Roman Catholic young adults do not feel any more sense of guilt than do other Americans. In fact, while 18.3% of young adults from a Roman Catholic background had felt guilty either very often or fairly often in the past year, a higher percentage of young adults from Non-religious (20.5%), Evangelical (21.7%), Black Protestant (25.4%) and other religious (22.0%) backgrounds had felt guilty either very or fairly often in the past year. Put another way, only young adults from a Mainline Protestant background were less likely to feel guilty (17.7%) than were young adults from a Roman Catholic background. So much for Catholic guilt.

Of course, these results do not speak to how guilty older generations of Roman Catholics feel (e.g., Alec Baldwin) as compare to non-Catholics, nor do they capture what, if any, other factors (e.g., gender, education, socioeconomic background, etc.) might play a role in generating feelings of guilt (you would need a nice ordered logistic regression model to tease those sorts of answers out). Nevertheless, at a minimum these should give us a pause and caution us about blindly accepting what passes for conventional wisdom.

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