Taylor Swift’s “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” is the Catholic Guilt Anthem We Didn't Know We Needed

November 30, 2022

Please read with discretion, as this post has content related to intimate partner violence and sexual abuse.

Taylor Swift has a reputation for writing lyrics that pack a punch – they’re gorgeously poetic and yet heart-wrenchingly relatable. In a hidden gem vault track from Midnights (3 a.m. Edition), Swift (who is rumored to be a cradle Catholic) has proven herself even more relatable to her Catholic fans with a song that I would like to dub the unofficial Catholic guilt anthem: “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve.”

The Story Behind “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve”

In the song, Swift reflects on a relationship that she had more than a decade ago and the ways in which it has continued to affect her. Due to the specific details she includes, it is widely believed to reference her relationship with John Mayer, during which he was 32 and she was just 19.

In the immediate aftermath of their breakup, she wrote the angsty ballad, “Dear John,” calling Mayer out for his emotionally manipulative behavior and expressing her regret for not heeding her loved ones’ warnings to stay away from him. In that song, she concluded, “I should’ve known.” Fans speculate that re-recording “Dear John” for the upcoming Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) caused a resurgence of feelings, causing her to reflect on the relationship and what she would say to her younger self.

The title of her newer track, “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” (WCS) signifies her expanding understanding of the different layers of hurt that came along with their relationship and of the complicated guilt that goes further than a simple, “I should’ve known better.”

On the one hand, she does feel that she could have and should have stayed away from the relationship, which even at the time she knew went against her better judgment. She takes responsibility for her choice, noting that she believed she wanted it at the time and that “the pain was heaven.

On the other hand, though, she realizes that the guilt should not be entirely hers to bear. WCS is particularly poignant because Swift wrote it at the age Mayer was when the pair dated, giving her new insights into the ways she believes he took advantage of her youthful naïveté. She criticizes him for pursuing a relationship with her despite a large age difference and power imbalance. She admonishes him for “wash[ing his] hands” of any moral responsibility for entering into a predatory grooming relationship with her just because she was technically a legal adult: “And if I was a child, did it matter if you got to wash your hands?”

As in “Dear John,” she expresses indignation at the emotional manipulation that left her feeling hurt: “But, Lord, you made me feel important, and then you tried to erase us.” Her choice of diction throughout the song is extremely violent (“pain,” “wound,” “poison,” “weapon,” “hitting”), highlighting their unhealthy relationship dynamics. While she admits to her role in the dysfunction (“living for the thrill of hitting you where it hurts”), she makes it clear that she sees Mayer as the true villain, straight-up referring to their time together as a “dance with the Devil.” In her most gut-punching line, she skillfully makes herself sound like a teenager again as she demands that Mayer give back all he has taken from her: “Give me back my girlhood; it was mine first!”

But ultimately, the song is not about Mayer as much as it is about how the situation affected her relationship with herself, her heart, and her faith.

“Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” and Faith

WCS is dense with religious imagery. Swift laments, “Ooh, all I used to do was pray,” and reflects that if she had known better, “I would’ve stayed on my knees, and I damn sure never would have danced with the Devil.” She mentions “heaven,” “stained glass windows,” and “the God’s honest truth,” and the official lyric video has background scenes of churches and candles.

There are all sorts of biblical allusions. She calls out Mayer for “wash[ing his] hands” of responsibility, à la Pontius Pilate. She reflects with remorse, “And now that I know, I wish you'd left me wondering,” which could be an allusion to Eve’s regret after eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. And the line, “The wound won't close, I keep on waiting for a sign,” is reminiscent of Doubting Thomas, who needed a sign that the resurrected Jesus was real, and the sign he was given was Christ’s open wound.

The religious imagery comes together to contribute to her thesis: “You’re a crisis of my faith.” That is, the guilt she felt from acting against her better judgment and the shame she felt as a result of the abuse she experienced ended up destroying her faith. The regret and shame she felt was not just a compartmentalized remorse over one bad decision; it permeated her whole sense of identity and self-worth, distancing her from the Church she had previously taken comfort in.

Part of this distance may have stemmed from a purity culture that made her feel irreparably damaged by certain sexual behaviors she might have engaged in (consensually or not). “If you never touched me, I would've gone along with the righteous. If I never blushed, then they could've never whispered about this,” she reflects. “If you never touched me” is in the passive voice, suggesting she may have not been entirely comfortable with the speed of their relationship. But “If I never blushed” is in the active voice, suggesting that she felt actively guilty about what they were doing together. In purity culture, girls are taught that straying from Church teachings makes them like a chewed up piece of gum or a “crumpled up piece of paper” (to make another Swift reference) – in other words, irreparably tarnished and unworthy. 

Against her will, she feels like something has been taken from her. When she implores, “Give me back my girlhood!” there is so much pain there, and it is about more than just sex. By making sexual purity a proxy for all virtues, purity culture puts so much of a woman’s identity up for grabs as something that can be taken from her by a man. When Swift demands her girlhood back, it could be about virginity, but it could also be about herself – her trust in her own convictions, her sense of belonging in the Church, her hope of true love, her belief in her own goodness, her childlike relationship with God, or any number of other facets of girlhood. She feels that Mayer had the power to transform her from a girl into a woman, before she was ready and against her will – but no man ought to have the power to do that. This erroneous belief is the result of a grossly distorted purity culture.

As a consequence, she sees herself as irrevocably changed. She will never know who she would have been if she hadn’t been in this relationship. In fact, she uses the same “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve” language in another bonus track on the album, “Bigger Than the Whole Sky.” This track is often thought to be about mourning a miscarriage or another loss of a loved one, but an alternate interpretation bolstered by the lyrical parallelism is that Swift is mourning the woman she could have become if she didn't make the choices she regrets: “I’m never gonna meet what would’ve been, could’ve been, should’ve been you.”

Indeed, throughout WCS, Swift explicitly confesses, “I miss who I used to be,” and “I regret you all the time.” She wants to be past that chapter of her life, but more than a decade later, “the wound won’t close.” Even as she has moved on from Mayer, dated other guys, and is now in a committed and happy long-term relationship, something is impeding her healing process. She reflects, “If clarity’s in death then why won’t this die? Years of tearing down our banners, you and I.” A banner is like a flag, something that represents a cause you have allegiance to. She felt that she had to tear down the banner of her faith as she was no longer worthy to wave that flag. And yet, it doesn’t bring her the healing she hopes for; the pain won’t die.

“God rest my soul,” she begs repeatedly. As a result of her shame, she can no longer find peace in the Church the way she used to. But she can’t find that peace outside the Church either, and something in her heart keeps pulling her mind back: “stained glass windows in my mind.”

As she cycles through lamentations in the outro, sometimes she tellingly switches up “the wound won’t close” with “the tomb won’t close,” recalling the open tomb at Jesus’ resurrection. As hard as she tries to shut her faith out of her life – to close Jesus in the tomb – the tomb won’t close. Jesus refuses to let shame be the stone that closes off her relationship with Him.

Catharsis for our Catholic Guilt

Swift’s lyrics tend to be intensely personal, referencing hyper-specific details. And while we may not be able to identify with specific details, she has a magnificent power to make art that resonates with so many. In this case, I’m calling “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” a Catholic guilt anthem because it rings true with those who are grappling with Catholic guilt.

The guilt and regret that manifest in the song are palpable, but this guilt is not just a result of the narrator’s bad choices. There are several factors at play:

1) She made a choice that she knew at the time went against her parents’ and friends’ warnings and what she had been taught was right. She chose to do it anyway.

2) She was manipulated and/or taken advantage of in some way in the relationship. There was likely emotional or psychological abuse, and possibly some level of physical or sexual violence. By its nature as abuse, this is not her fault, and she is not morally culpable. 

3) There is another layer of guilt and shame laid on her by our Puritanical religious culture that puts too much emphasis on sexual purity at the expense of a regard for the whole person: Swift’s lyrics suggest that she feels so damaged by her shame-filled experience from years ago that there is still deep pain in her relationship with God and the Church, which affects her to this day.

Each layer of the wound requires a different treatment: Confession, therapy, and reform, respectively.

Confession and Therapy: Remedies for Catholic Guilt

Sometimes, Catholic guilt is good. It’s a way that the Holy Spirit talks to us through our conscience, letting us know when we’ve missed the mark, and calling us to do better. We should feel guilty if we knowingly did something we shouldn’t have. In that case, we have the sacrament of Confession, in which we own up to our role in the wrongdoing and are graced with relief from guilt and a path to true healing.

However, there is a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is a productive feeling meant to lead us back to God, whereas shame leaves us feeling isolated, empty, and alone. Guilt tells us that what we did is wrong. Shame tells us that who we are is wrong.

In WCS, Swift illuminates the complicated interplay between the two feelings, both the guilt she feels for her choices that led to the unhealthy relationship, but also the shame that grew within her as a result of the abusive dynamics.

Some priests – often those who have training as therapists or gifts of emotional intelligence – can sit with us in Confession and help us sort through which of our perceived sins are true sins and which are a result of our distorted perceptions. People who have experienced abusive relationships or have been coerced as a result of power imbalances often feel shame for things that they are not morally culpable for.

No matter how ashamed you feel, I am here to tell you that being abused is not – and can never be – a sin. Even if you didn't fight back, even if you didn't say no, even if you experienced mixed feelings at the time.

And while the Church’s stance on this is unequivocal, priests are imperfect, individual men, and not all of them do a great job of communicating this truth in the confessional, either because they’re short on time or poorly trained or just not exceptionally comfortable with these delicate topics. I wish all priests were trained as therapists, but they’re not. (In fact, there is a shortage of both.) Regardless of whether Confession makes you feel fully healed on the spiritual level, it’s also good to seek healing on the human level – and that is precisely what therapy is for.

In fact, one Swiftie described WCS as “‘Dear John’ after therapy.” In “Dear John,” Swift’s emotions are raw, full of anger and self-blaming. In WCS, however, she comes to an understanding that she was young back then, and a grown man was emotionally abusing her. With distance, she is able to reflect on how it affected her and look back more empathetically at her younger self. Her anger is not the fresh anger in the moment but rather the righteous, protective anger of someone who sees an injustice being done. She sees herself more tenderly, more like the beloved child God sees, a sign of therapy-induced growth.

“Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” and Unhealed Religious Trauma 

The religious imagery of WCS struck a chord in a similar way among different listeners who were raised Catholic, but who are no longer practicing for various reasons. The song has brought up the pain of feeling ostracized by or unsafe in a Church that was once so important in their lives.

On TikTok, many people are using sound from WCS to reflect on their religious trauma from experiences like coming out as queer, being slut-shamed, or experiencing an unwillingness to accommodate their needs as disabled or neurodivergent people.

In the Gospels, Jesus showed kindness toward women who worked as prostitutes and women who had committed adultery, and yet sexuality – especially women’s sexuality that is deemed deviant for one reason or another – has been made into this all-consuming, identity-definining thing. We have turned sexuality into a gatekeeper for our churches to keep out the very people that Jesus was making a concerted effort to reach. 

Crucially, in our efforts to build bridges to welcome lapsed Catholics back, we need to recognize the trauma that has been inflicted on young, impressionable Catholic kids and teens by bad theology and particularly by bad sexual ethics education. We need to recognize that people in the Church have done things that have pushed others away from their relationship with God. As a Church, we need to recognize that harm, reach out with humility rather than judgment, and work to repair the relationship.

Holding Abusers Accountable, Inside and Outside the Church

And with this discussion of abuse, I would be remiss not to mention the ways in which the Church’s sex abuse crisis has led to a crisis of faith for so many of us. Swift’s line, “If I was some paint, did it splatter on a promising grown man” hits like a punch in the stomach, and it holds a damning mirror up to the abuse scandals and cover ups in the Church.

Swift uses this clever play on words to reference the trope of the college rapist who should not have to face consequences for his actions because he is such a “promising young man.” But in the case of her abuser, and so many of the abusive priests in our Church, he was a grown man who should have been held accountable for his actions but instead was protected and valued above the victim because of all his potential. 

I can’t help but think of the case of a priest at Franciscan University that recently came to light. When the victim of abuse by Fr. David Morrier tried to disclose her abuse to another priest, Fr. Shawn Roberson, he cut her off and accused her of splattering paint on the promising Morrier’s reputation: “I’m sure if I go home tonight, and ask Fr. Morrier about this, which I intend to do, he will have a different story, so instead of sitting here gossiping, which is a sin, why don’t we focus on why we are here and that is you and your problems.”

Stories like these are enough to cause a crisis of faith for anyone. I wish the institutional Church would’ve, could’ve been better. It certainly should’ve.

It’s time for us to turn to the sacraments and therapy to seek healing for our Catholic guilt. We must be the hands and heart of the Church by reaching out to others to welcome them back and heal their religious trauma. And we must remind the Church that it should, can, and must do better to prevent and punish abuse, protect the vulnerable, and generally act more like Jesus.

Author’s Note: This piece is best described as a literary analysis through a close reading of Taylor Swift’s art. I don’t know Swift on a personal level. When I refer to Swift, I’m talking about her as the protagonist of the autobiographical song. As it is literary analysis, this involves a lot of speculation and reading between the lines, so any assumptions I make about the nature of her relationship with Mayer or with her faith are purely speculation. That’s between her and God, and I’m sure she’d like to keep it that way.

Mary Grace Cebrat

Content Advisor, 2021-present

Mary Grace Cebrat attended college at Washington University in St. Louis, where she studied religion and politics, with a special focus on 21st century Catholic feminism. She now works with K-12 students as an academic coach and is back in school to get her MSW. When she's not working, you can find her roadtripping across the Midwest with her newlywed husband, Tomek. Her other hobbies include playing New York Times word games, baking sweet treats, and looking at aspirational houses on Zillow.

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