Shame and Honor

[Note: as I have no time to write new posts these days, I am posting older posts that I never made public because I was not convinced they were done. But, well enough…]

I was talking with a colleague the other day about the breakdown of marriage and family life in the West. In particular, we discussed the specific role of shame and honor in our culture.

Here’s a half-digested spin-off from that lengthy conversation…

True Shame, Right Honor

All cultures, including our own, employ the power of shame and honor to perpetuate and preserve certain social mores. Shame and honor serve as internalized regulators of behavior that relate individuals to social norms, and are absolutely essential companions to a just social order that rewards and punishes those who comply with or rebel against a society’s accepted norms. Shame is an internalized suffering of social censure that greets deviant behavior, while honor serves as an internalized affirmation that accompanies social approbation for one’s socially acceptable conduct.

We agreed that, in this sense, shame is not in itself an undesirable thing. But we added an important qualifier: shame and honor must be founded on the presupposition that the social norms they relate us to are grounded in truth, goodness and beauty, and lead to the cultivation of a community of virtue. Shame and honor are not in and of themselves good or bad, but take on a good-bad character inasmuch as they are related rightly/wrongly to the truth of the human person.

Of course, a thousand nuances flow from this that clarify what is meant by “good” and “bad” shame, but the general point stands that all societies require internalized dispositions of shame and honor if they are to cohere in an orderly way.

My colleague, playing off this point, made an interesting observation: much can be said about what a culture values as true and good and beautiful by the way it parses out shame and honor; or by who it shames or honors. Especially, he opined, it’s instructive to look carefully at the way it informs sexuality, marriage and family life.


We talked more about the almost universal practice of couple-cohabitation before marriage, and its bedfellow, non-marital sex and mused about the extraordinary shift in the culture of shame in this regard: while at one time premarital cohabiting and non-marital sex were considered socially shameful, now those who even infer that such behavior is shameful themselves feel the powerful censure of shame.

This inversion of honor and shame makes the “cost” of thinking, speaking and acting Catholicly much higher, which in turn requires from Catholics a strong sense of Catholic identity, a strong network of like-minded faithful to lend support and a sustained commitment to live as a disciple of Christ who is willing to carry the cross of shame when it’s called for. This “cost” of enduring shame in the act of speaking the truth in love, my colleague said, is what Jesus must have meant in the 8th Beatitude: 

Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.  Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Side Point

An aside, based on my experience. Over the years, especially when I was working on a college campus, I have noted how deeply this cultural shift has penetrated young Catholics. I have had the blessing of watching college-age men and women come alive in their faith, and become wildly desirous to be orthodox and live out their faith. At the same time, very many times, these same young people were actively having sex outside of marriage with (in some cases) another ‘devout’ Catholic. What intrigued me most, though, was not that they had fallen into this pattern of behavior but rather that they often found themselves deeply puzzled by the fact that they didn’t “feel” any shame about their behavior, and wondered how something could really be so wrong when it felt so right. At times they would conclude that ∴ God must not be displeased, as they equated their own internal emotional feelings of shame/pleasure with divine displeasure/pleasure.

I recall one time when I confronted a young man on this issue because of his prominent role in a church ministry. He was a daily Mass goer, frequenting nocturnal adoration and passionately involved in Church activities. I will never forget our conversation, and at the end of it he said in a very matter-of-fact manner regarding his sexual activity with his Catholic girlfriend: “It may seem unorthodox, but we don’t feel bad, we don’t think God minds and we have no intention of stopping. We even pray afterwards…”

Indeed, how deeply we breathe in our cultural air without even knowing how profoundly it informs our Catholic identity! How important our Church’s teaching stands as a prophetic voice apart from culture to help us sift out the wheat from the chaff. Making the hard counter-cultural choice of internalizing this voice of Christ speaking in his Church beats at the very heart of conversion. It is this graced conversion alone that will render us able to face and embrace a Christ-culture wherein we even come to feel the honor of goodness and the shame of sin.


Yes, I know, I only here state the obvious.

I guess the personally useful insight I received from our conversation was this: the Church’s call to each Christian is to first be converted in the midst of our culture, allowing culture to be converted in, and then through us. And, in light of our conversation above, we are called to evangelize and cultivate a culture of shame-honor based on the true-good-beautiful as revealed in Christ. It calls for a creative, impassioned and informed response.


One comment on “Shame and Honor

  1. […] [Note: as I have no time to write new posts these days, I am posting older posts that I never made public because I was not convinced they were done. But, well enough…] I was talking with a colleague the other day about the breakdown of marriage and family life in the West. Source: Neal Obstat Theological Opining   […]

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