Phenomenology, Natural Law and Counseling: Understanding and Addressing Shame

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By Andrea Vasquez, University of Dallas

There is much disagreement regarding whether there is an objective standard to which we can judge the morality of human acts – especially those acts deemed as not causing harm to others let alone affecting others at all. This is so because of varying understandings of law and its consequent relation to human nature, with some viewing it as something imposed onto and thus in conflict with nature. However, recognizing moral law as the inherent essential duties of the human person which in turn reveal his fundamental right to live according to his nature (Veritatis Splendor, §13) allows for a proper, phenomenological understanding of the subjective experience of sin and shame, recognition of how it is revelatory of man’s relation to his sin, and an understanding of the higher calling that our innate aversion to immoral acts is directing us to and that can be achieved through counseling and related psychological assessment.

“In things that act according to nature,” the rule that defines their proper order of existence “is the natural force that inclines them to their end,” (Aquinas, 2-1.21.1) – that is, in the case of humans, the natural law inscribed within them by the Creator. This must be so because discomfort and feelings of incongruence following immoral acts can take place within the actor even without an other’s knowing, for when “what he…sees when looking in the mirror does not conform to [the] norm [of his nature], shame is the likely result,” (Austriaco, 1195). A phenomenological study that I conducted for my thesis revealed a similar condition to be inherent to the experience of shame – that is, in feeling ashamed and concerned about their appearance, one realizes that, in a sense, some parts of their self is not “up to them” solely (Vasquez, 18). Whether incarnate or not, the mere possibility of another’s perception of the individual and the fact that this impression could be other than what was intended creates a sense of uneasiness that often leads to depression, self-criticism, body-image control and related behaviors (Choma et al. 2009; Gioia et al. 2020; Lazarus & Shahar 2018). I considered Jean-Paul Sartre’s image of the keyhole to make sense of this moment wherein one is confronted with the possibility of their self for the other (Sartre, 1943/1984). When consciously alone and surveying a scene through a keyhole as an undisclosed observer, one is completely engulfed in these means so that their consciousness and actions have no transcendent reference (Sartre, 1943/1984). This moment wherein the individual is no longer aware nor separable from their action is interrupted by “The Look” of the other which throws them out of their encompassed self (Sartre, 1943/1984). Seeing-the-other is essentially synonymous with the experience of being-seen-by-the-other, for the other’s existence – even if merely imagined – serves only as a function to affirm the fact of one’s self as having the potential to be an object of another’s perception (Sartre, 1943/1984). Thus, this image contextualizes the discomfort naturally arising from “being caught” in an immoral act as if being seen peeping through a keyhole that, I would argue, is demonstrative of the natural law and conscience that all humanity is endowed with.

In the case of action in accordance with the law inherent to our nature, it is deemed right and moral because “the action does not swerve from the order of its active principle to the end. But when an action strays from this rectitude, it comes under the notion of sin,” (Aquinas, 2-1.21.1). Thus, the natural negative reaction following sin is one characterized by a sense of defect or disintegration, for “in shame, one feels inadequate, lacking some desired type of completeness or perfection” (Austriaco, 1194-5). This is so because, in disordered action, that which is merely perceived as a good is pursued to the point that resisting its pursuit becomes practically impossible, and so it would naturally follow that – should this not be a genuine good as dictated by what our consciences knows to be so – a sense of true satisfaction and fulfillment is never quite reached. In fact, it is clear that, in these cases, what results is the exact opposite: shame. This is illustrative of what phenomenological philosophy understands as intentionality, that by which we perceive and uniquely color the sensible around us which illustrates the role we play in our immanent world and its phenomena’s constitution (Husserl, 1950/1964). Thus, the co-constitutive presence the individual brings to the act of perception refers to the role that one’s particular mode of directionality towards the perceived, noesis, plays a part in making manifest the meaningful appearance that consciousness is directed at, the noema (Husserl, 1950/1964). Therefore, phenomenology can be employed in understanding how it is possible that individuals could come to the conclusion, by the act of intentionality, that certain ends – even objectively immoral ends – ought to be pursued as good or at least can be deemed as licit. While this is certainly valuable in understanding how different people’s consciousnesses come to exist in the way that they do, moral theology and its understanding of the natural law reveals that, regardless of the subjective experiences and values people come to hold, there are objective standards we ought to follow – even if psychologically challenging.

This innate sense of the natural law within the individual that they implicitly know they are falling short of clearly refutes modern attempts to understand law as something imposed from without and necessarily at odds with our nature as beings endowed with free will. Conscience and the law it subordinates itself to is therefore indeed a product of formation within our being “that signifies the perceptible and demanding truth in the subject himself,” (Ratzinger, 25) but certainly not one of human forces. Conscience is not a result of a sort of autonomy, subjectively constructed through the individual’s volition and thus serving as a sort of oracle that uniquely determines each individual’s set of values; rather, the conscience is an organ that belongs to our very essence endowed with a proper manner of functioning and which orders from within (Ratzinger, 61). Thus, it mustn’t be understood in the context of a heteronomy that renders it distinct from our nature and wherein our freedom is imposed upon and ruled over by an impersonal authority exterior to us. Instead, it should be understood in the context of a “participated theonomy” wherein our free obedience to the law allows us to participate in God’s wisdom, discover the truth of our creation (Veritatis Splendor, §41), and partake in genuine freedom – that is, the “outstanding manifestation of the divine image in man,” (§33).

Therefore, action incongruent with the natural law inscribed within and meant to order man’s path to flourishing will result in painful shame within the soul as it experiences the body acting against form. However, this experience of discord is purposeful in the way that it aims to call man’s attention to the ill-faring soul, a feeling that “disturbs the false calm of conscience and could be called conscience’s complaint against [one’s] self-satisfied existence,” (Ratzinger, 18). Specifically, it preoccupies the individual “with his specific transgression and [thus he] is concerned about how we could possibly undo his deed” (Austriaco, 1187) by overcoming his unhealthy tendencies to it and related attitudes. He knows the act is at odds with his identity, as was referenced earlier in terms of the phenomenological conditions undergirding the experience of shame, and is naturally inclined to rectify this by realigning the exterior reality of his potentially long-held actions with that of his interior nature – even if this rectification proves to be easier said than done. The peace being sought for here is that of the interior gaze which is “not just a participation in exterior participation of the world…[but] also an interior dimension of participation in the vision of the Creator himself,” (John Paul II, General Audience on Creation As a Fundamental and Original Gift). Man desires to be in the state of perfection prior to the fall wherein he did not experience “an interior rupture and opposition between what is spiritual and what is sensible” (John Paul II), nor did this misfortune cloud his ability to see through to the God-given identity and dignity of his fellow man. This “original good of God’s vision” was “prior to any “critical” complication of knowledge and of human experience and is seen as closely connected with the experience of the meaning of the human body (John Paul II, General Audience on The Fulness of Interpersonal Communication).

Alas, in light of the loss of the pure gaze resulting from the fall and perpetuated by the divorce of freedom from law (Veritatis Splendor, §17), man can no longer naturally understand the fundamental link between his God-given nature and his comportment, nor can he recognize this truth in others. Resulting is the distinct phenomenon of shame that we subject others to, via our fallen perception, while also fearing our potential subjection to it. “Shame brings with it a specific limitation in seeing with the eyes of the body” rather than “with all the peace of the interior gaze…because personal intimacy is disturbed and almost threatened by this sight,” (John Paul II, General Audience on Creation As a Fundamental and Original Gift). Psychology thus understands shame as a “self-conscious emotion,” (Austriaco, 1186), for in it man doesn’t evaluate his worth and dignity by that which was divinely inscribed by the creator within him but instead subjects himself to the faulty gaze of others which condemns from without. Unaware of his true identity, he certainly no longer trusts in the possibility of being genuinely known apart from his misdeeds and perhaps deems the possibility of renouncing his sin as hopeless, this echoing the physicalist notion wherein the body is viewed as raw datum or a mere good to be used and passively shaped by act rather than having meaning in itself and by way of its form. Nonetheless, we are fundamentally relational beings meant to commune and be loved even in the aftermath of the fall, and thus “with shame, the human being manifests almost instinctively the need of affirmation and acceptance of this “self,” according to its rightful value. He experiences it at the same time both within himself, and externally, before the “other,” (John Paul II, General Audience on The Fulness of Interpersonal Communication).

Man’s lack of recognition of his identity as a son of the Father combined with the world’s unfortunate tendency to relegate his dignity and worth to his acts results in another dimension of shame wherein man is identified with the sin by which he strayed from his human nature. He “experiences fear with regard to [his] “second self” which, in light of his identification with his immoral act, “is substantially fear for one’s own “self,” (John Paul II, General Audience on The Fulness of Interpersonal Communication). Thus, shame “engages one’s sense of self…,” (Austriaco, 1186) and, as a result of his unfortunate identification with his misdeed and stubborn disbelief in re-integration, man’s only options are to either assimilate into a community wherein he can experience a mere semblance of acceptance and forego judgment for indulging in his disordered inclinations or hide away in his shame, also never to participate in true disclosure nor communion with others. Both of these are grounded in man’s innate desire for acceptance and are characterized by his movement to wherever he thinks it can be found, for he lives with the fear that others “will discover that he is inferior, defective, and inadequate,” (1187). These distinct reactions to the voice of the conscience from within are instinctual to man as a social being, psychologists proposing that shame is utilized by individuals for facilitating group dynamics wherein, by either prompting individuals to seek out like-minded groups or pushing them into isolation, it “preserves the long-term survival…of the interpersonal relationships that anchor human communities” (1188). This is made manifest in Fr. Austriaco’s article regarding post-abortive shame. That the attempt to lower the shame women experience post-abortion has not to do with the woman’s personal perceptions of herself but with that of those around her reveals the relational dimension to this phenomenon wherein we fear being perceived as something we innately know we ought not to be.

Thus, shame whereby man defines his worth and identity by his actions – and which leads to either his relinquishing to a lifestyle conducive to his misdeeds or hiding away for fear of judgment – is not what was intended for humanity. Instead, the discomfort experienced in the aftermath of immoral acts should call attention to the natural law we were uniquely designed with and that prepares us for reintegration and our return unto communion with the Divine. “In this way, the human body acquires a completely new meaning, which…expresses the personal human “self” [and] derives its exterior perception from within,” (John Paul II, General Audience on The Fulness of Interpersonal Communication). Understanding our identity and the natural law as inscribed from within not only makes clear the responsibilities it renders us with but also invites us into reconciliation with He who, despite our folly, calls us His and can restore the sonship that was lost through sin. The proven success of psychotherapeutic techniques and counseling at attending to the mental and emotional suffering of clients by equipping them with the tools and encouragement needed for the transformation of their lives ought to prompt recognition of these approaches as tools and clinicians as shepherds which the Father can employ to bring about our healing. After all, it is He who, “faithful to his love for man, gives him his Law in order to restore man’s original and peaceful harmony with the Creator and…to draw him into his divine love,” (Veritatis Splendor, 10).

Works Cited

Austriaco, Nicanor (2015). Abortion Shame, Abortion Shaming, and the Reintegrative Mercy of God. Nova et Vetera 13 (4).

Choma, B. L., Shove, C., Busseri, M. A., Sadava, S. W., & Hosker, A. (2009). Assessing the role of body image coping strategies as mediators or moderators of the links between self-objectification, body shame, and well-being. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 61(9–10), 699–713.

Gioia, F., Griffiths, M. D., & Boursier, V. (2020). Adolescents’ body shame and social networking sites: The mediating effect of body image control in photos. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 83(11–12), 773–785.

Husserl, E. (1964). The idea of phenomenology. (W. Alston & G. Nakhnikian, Trans.). The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. (Originally Published 1950).

John Paul II. Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor. Washginton, D.C: United States Catholic Conference, 1993. Print.

John Paul II, General Audience on Creation As a Fundamental and Original Gift (January 1980). At The Holy See,

John Paul II, General Audience on The Fulness of Interpersonal Communication (19 December 1979). At The Holy See,

Lazarus, G., & Shahar, B. (2018). The role of shame and self-criticism in social anxiety: A daily-diary study in a nonclinical sample. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 37(2), 107–127.

Ratzinger, Joseph. On Conscience: Two Essays. The National Catholic Bioethics Center, 2007.

Sartre, J.P. (1984). Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes. (Original work published in


Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 2nd, rev. ed., trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1920; New Advent, 2008): I-II, Q.21, Art. 1,

Vasquez, A. (2022). Confronting Possibilities of The Self: A Phenomenological Understanding of Shame. (Unpublished BA thesis). University of Dallas, Irving TX.

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