February 06 2019 | by

DEAR DR POPCAK: I am a 35-year-old Catholic woman who has recently married a lovely and very understanding man. I am now expecting a child and I really look forward to being a responsible mother. The problem is that, when I was much younger, from my 20th to my 30th birthday, I led a very sinful life of wild partying, alcohol and, above all, rampant fornication. In that period I changed some 20 lovers, and at one point I even had three men at the same time. I now feel deeply ashamed about my past life. My husband knows that in the past I was a bit dissolute, but he is not aware of the full extent of my past immorality.

I have been to confession many times, but I never seem to be able to shake off this feeling of guilt and shame. I feel as though God has not forgiven me, not even after a proper confession, and despite the inner certainty that I will never sin again in this way in my life.


Although it would be easy to say that guilt that remains after we have reformed our lives should be dismissed, I suspect that the guilt you are feeling is meant to say that God isn’t finished with your healing. While guilt and shame are usually responses to having done something wrong, they can also point to a different kind of moral injury. For instance, a person who has been a victim of a violent crime, or who has experienced abuse, or even has been used by someone else, will often experience a sense of guilt or shame even though they themselves have done nothing wrong. Why is this?

In his book, Love and Responsibility, Pope St John Paul suggests that this sort of guilt and shame is the result of being treated as an object rather than a person. Although most people think the opposite of love is hate, in truth, the opposite of loving someone is using them. When we love someone, we build them up. We work for their good. We help them become more of a person. But when we use someone we ‘thingify’ them. We turn them into a mere object – a means to an end.  When someone treats us that way, we experience shame as a warning sign that is meant to say, “Get away from this person/situation! You are meant for more than this!” 

I would suggest to you that the lingering guilt and shame you are feeling even after having reformed your life and received forgiveness through confession is not an indication that God has not forgiven you or that you are still sinning somehow. Rather, I believe it is a sign that you are continuing to struggle to see your worth as a beautiful daughter of God who deserves to be cherished, loved, and treasured. When you see the life that you have created with God’s help and start to feel grateful, Satan throws your past in your face and makes you feel ashamed, unworthy. He tells you that “someone with your past” doesn’t deserve all this. That while you are pretending to be a good an upright person, inside you are “really” still just some object that people can use however they want to.

This is a terrible lie, and rather than giving into it by dwelling on your past sins, you must fight against it by reflecting on all the ways God has shown you his infinite love and mercy in your life. Take some time to write out how God led you out of the life you used to live. What changes did God bring about in your heart to help you get to where you are now? Every day write down at least 5 examples of how God showed he loved you today. What little blessings did he bring in to your life? How did he show you that you are his precious daughter whom he loves? You might write down anything from the big things, like that unexpected windfall that helped you meet a bill you were worried about, to the fact that you found a parking space close to the grocery store door.  Make a point of giving God the credit he deserves for loving you and caring for you in big and little ways every day.  Review your journal daily, and make a point of asking God to see these blessings as his way of saying, “I love you and you are precious to me.” Additionally, prayerfully reflect on John 8:1-11 and allow yourself to hear the voice of Jesus speaking to you. Educate yourself on living the Catholic vision of love and sex in your marriage so that your relationship can continue to facilitate your healing by being built on love rather than even incidental use. If you still struggle with persistent feelings of guilt, seek help from a qualified spiritual director or pastoral counselor who can help you facilitate the healing God still has in store for you.

Updated on February 06 2019