Can Christians Have “Healthy Shame” about the Body? (The Answer Isn’t What You Think).


Lisa Madrid Duffy posted a blog about the new sex ed curriculum published by the Pontifical Council for the Family.  (And to be honest, before you ask,  I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly review it yet. That said, although I understand there are some who have expressed concerns, my cursory view is that it is probably more appropriate than any other off-the-rack sex-ed program that exists, but stay tuned for more when I get a moment).


Regardless, in that post, she mentioned  that the program–whose English translation is….clunky–discusses the need to have a healthy sense of shame about the body and sexuality.  LMD rightly takes issue with this phrase insofar as she understands it to mean that we should somehow be ashamed of our bodies or our sexuality.  She rightly notes that no Christian should ever be ashamed of his or her body or sexuality. In fact, I’ll go one further and point out that being ashamed of either our body or our sexuality is, in large part,  the heresy known as Jansenism.

Even so, there is another sense of “shame” that every Christian should know about and is actually both healthy and appropriate.


In Love and Responsibility, which is the book Pope St. John Paul the Great wrote as a kind-of pre-cursor to the Theology of the Body, he argues that shame, as an emotion, is a gift from God like all the emotions.  In essence, it belongs in a similar category as guilt, or fear.  Each of these feelings, when it is function according to its godly purpose, is a protective emotion in that they protect us from real or possible harm.   Healthy guilt (as opposed to scrupulosity) protects us from threats to our moral or relational self.  Healthy fear (as opposed to anxiety) protects us from threats to our physical well-being.  So, what does “healthy shame” (as opposed to self-hatred) protect us from?

Simply put, healthy shame protects us from being used.  We are created by God to be loved.  That is the fundamental raison d’être of the human person; to love and be loved. To love someone is to work for their good, to help them develop into their best selves, to help them be the best person they can be.  The opposite of love–argues TOB, is not hate, but use.  To use someone is to turn a person into a thing, something that can be employed to some other end and then disposed of.  To be used is to be treated in the exact opposite manner that a person should be treated. Where love always makes us into even better persons if we accept it, use always depersonalizes us even when we allow ourselves to be used.


Shame then, rightly understood and healthily employed, is the emotion that allows us to know if someone is trying to use us or we are allowing ourselves to be used.  It is intended to warn us away from people or situations that are not looking out for our best interest and want to treat us as an object or tool.  Along with healthy fear, and healthy guilt, healthy shame (again, as opposed to the unhealthy alternative, self-hatred) serves as a warning light on the human dashboard that lets us know that either someone or something is threatening an important aspect of our overall well-being.

Having a healthy sense of shame our about our body or our sexuality, then, does not mean that we hate our body or our sexuality or are somehow suspicious of them. It means that we love our body and sexuality so much that we never intentionally place ourselves in situations where will be used by others or allow others to use us.  It means that we treasure ourselves and expect to be treasured by others.

I agree with Lisa Madrid Duffy that this needs to be better explained in the English text of the PCF’s sex ed program, but now, at least, YOU know what the truth is. For more help in living out the Catholic vision of love check out my book, Holy Sex!  Or, to effectively convey the Catholic vision of love to your kids, check out Beyond the Birds and the Bees.

Escaping the Blame Game: 5 Steps to Reclaiming Your Power


When things go wrong, we love having someone to blame.  It’s a seductive game that makes us think that blaming others will give us control, but in reality, as long as we play the blame game–whether serving or being served–we have no power to change anything.  We may manage to convince ourselves that nothing is our fault, but it also means that we won’t be able to do anything to respond to our problems because taking action would be akin to taking back the blame.

“Who?  Me?”

Blame is an early fruit of Original Sin.  In the Garden of Eden, when God sees Adam eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam responds that “the woman made me do it!” and in turn, Eve exclaims, “the serpent made me do it” (Gen 3:12-14). In this exchange we see the alienation and the powerless that comes from blame as well as how blame sacrifices love on the altar of pride.  Rather than loving each other and working for each other’s good as they did before the Fall, our post-lapsarian parents can hardly wait for buses to be invented so that they can throw each other under one!

Love, and Responsibility

A running theme in Pope St. John Paul the Great’s Theology of the Body is that the keys to authentic happiness and healthy relationships are love and responsibility.  Love is the commitment to working for the good of others while responsibility represents “the ability to respond” effectively to the challenges we face.  Blame undermines love by making us treat persons as problems–things to be fixed, not people to be loved and helped to grow.  Simultaneously, blame undermines responsibility by paralyzing us.  We tell ourselves we didn’t do it, so we “shouldn’t” have to do anything about it.  But if the people we want to blame don’t accept that blame, we’re left staring at the mess feeling self-righteous…and stuck.  The more addicted to blame we are, the more we surrender our ability to be authentically loving and effectively responsible which, ultimately,  steals our capacity for both joy and happiness.

Accepting responsibility is not the same thing as accepting blame.  Many of my clients struggle with this idea, but the truth is that having the power to respond to a problem says nothing about who caused it.  When we embrace love and responsibility instead of blame, we stop worrying who caused the problem and begin focusing on what can be done to solve the problem.

5 Steps to Reclaiming Your Power

So, if blame disempowers us, how can we reclaim our power over the challenges and problems we face?

1.  Identify the problem to be solved.  

Stop asking who caused the mess.  Even if you could solve this mystery, the mess would still remain.  In fact, while you are arguing about who’s at fault, the mess is just running all over the floor and getting harder to clean up–so to speak.  Instead,  simply state the nature of the mess that has to be addressed.

2.  Brainstorm solutions.

Ask  what needs to be done to solve the problem.  Collaborate with the people around you to identify the steps that would need to be taken to address the issue.

3.  Take the Lead

Don’t wait for others to respond.  Begin gathering the resources necessary to solve the problem and roll up your sleeves to address it.  Don’t worry if “it’s not fair.”  You’ll feel more powerful if you “do” instead of “debate.”

4.  Enlist Support

While its good to take the lead, don’t let others off the hook.  You might not be concerned with who is at fault, but you need to be deeply concerned with asserting that everyone has the ability to help you respond to the issue.  Insist that everyone who is touched by the problem join you in responding to the problem.

5.  Set Limits As Necessary

If someone who is affected by the problem refuses to join you in responding to it and attempts to leave you holding the bag, consider what boundaries you might need to set on the relationship or consequence you might need to apply to prevent yourself from being taken advantage of by that person in the future.  Charity may require you to bear this current offence patiently, but it doesn’t require you to commit to living the life of a doormat.  The “personalisitic norm” (i.e. the moral principle stating that human beings are persons–not objects– who have a God-given right to be treated with love and never used) tells us that we have a right to limit our relationships to people who are committed to working for our good and who want us to work for theirs.

Aiding and Abetting?

But doesn’t this approach just let people off the hook? How will guilty parties ever learn if we don’t force them to accept their rightful blame?

The 5 Step Process to Beating Blame  I’ve outlined above allows the guilty person to experience their faults as a call to love and responsibility.  Think of all the times Jesus confronted the sinner with the words, “I do not condemn you” (John 8:10). By following Jesus’ example, we enable the person who caused the problem to feel supported not shamed and because of this, we increase the likelihood that they will willingly join in cleaning up the mess and learn from their mistakes.  Those who refuse to respond to this call to love and responsibility will either be compelled to change or will alienate themselves from their relationship with us because of the boundaries and consequences we impose after-the-fact.  People with good hearts will respond generously and gratefully to this approach.  By contrast, people who are intent on habitually finding other people to clean up their messes for them will eventually be sidelined, their impact on our lives mitigated by the limits we set to protect ourselves from their attempts to use us.  Chronic offenders will either learn or be let go, but they won’t ever be let off the hook.

The next time you’re tempted to play the blame game, focus on applying these 5 Steps to Beating Blame and enjoy the increasing sense of competence and confidence you feel as a result.  To learn more about leaving behind the blame game and setting effective boundaries with the users in your life, check out God Help Me, These People Are Driving Me Nuts!   Making Peace with Difficult People.  or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn how our telecounseling practice can help you stop being taken advantage of.


Shame on You

I’m So Ashamed.

Shame, guilt, embarrasment.  Emotions that are as universally experienced as they are universally unwelcome.

Elizabeth Duffy has a great post on shame on her blog.  Personal, poignant, and thought-provoking.   But I thought I would chime in to offer some additional insights from Pope John Paul II.

In Love and Responsibility, then Karol Woytyla, wrote a great deal about shame.  He argued that shame is a protective emotion that warns us that we are being treated as an object, not a person.  I think Elizabeth’s example of discovering her friend’s dad’s Playboy magazines is particularly apt.  Looking through the magazines, she saw plenty of examples of people treated as objects, and she felt a sense of shame.  God has hardwired us to expect to be loved as persons and not used as things.  Shame is the feeling that warns us that we are in proximity of a situations where people–and possibly even I–might be used.

Shame is a protective emotion like fear (which warns us about physical harm) and guilt (that warns us about harm to our integrity) or even embarrassment (which warns us of potential threats to our social well-being).

Like any emotion, protective emotions like shame, fear, and embarrassment can be healthy or unhealthy.  They are healthy if they help us identify a threat, take corrective steps,  and move on.   They are unhealthy if, instead of protecting us, they paralyze us and stop us from doing things that would be good for us to do.  Fear becomes anxiety when it stops us from taking healthy risks.  Guilt becomes scrupulosity when it stops us from receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness.  Embarrassment become social anxiety when it stops us from engaging with others.

We shouldn’t be afraid or resentful of these protective emotions, but we should be careful to use them as they are intended.  They aren’t supposed to paralyze us.  They should move us to solutions that resolve the problems to which they bring our attention.  And if these protective emotions are more suffocating than helpful, we should seek help, because that is not how we were created to be.

 For more information on overcoming unhealthy manifestations of shame, guilt, and anxiety, check out God Help Me, This Stress is Driving Me Crazy!