For more than 40 years I smoked like a chimney (or “like a divil”, as Irish people used to say), and it wasn’t altogether surprising when, around 2011, I developed a bronchial condition which was categorised as a “COPD” – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Attending the excellent Royal Brompton Hospital in London, which has catered for chest conditions since before the Crimean War, I saw written on my notes in dark letters “heavy ex-smoker”.

And so, I brought the full blare of Catholic guilt to my health condition, lecturing myself on the Wages of Sin and ruminating on Reaping As We Sow. If I was breathless and vulnerable to chest infections, it was all my own fault. I was the author of my own misfortune and the instigator of my own ill-luck.

Why was I so stupid as to puff away at two, sometimes, three packets of Gauloises, Gitanes or Marlboro a day? I did it knowingly, deliberately, and with the clear example of my mother, also a heavy smoker, who had developed emphysema as a result.

What a blockhead!

Many will disparage Catholic guilt, but it can be a useful tool for examining your conscience and taking responsibility for the errors you have made. Sometimes it’s hard to take responsibility. It’s much more comfortable to blame circumstances, or “society”, or other people, or your genes.

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