By Paul B.
An Introduction to What Scrupulosity and Mortal Sin Are
In ancient Rome, as part of their state religion, the Romans would offer lengthy sacrificial events, often lasting around three hours! If the people messed up even one small part of the ritual, they started the entire ceremony over again. An imperfect ceremony greatly upset their gods, or so they believed. While I am obviously not a pagan, I think there is something to learn from this.
The Roman perfectionism is a great parallel of Catholic scrupulosity, which is one of those oddball things that nobody nowadays realizes exists but is actually a huge problem. Scrupulosity, to oversimplify, is moral perfectionism. To elaborate, it is confusion over what qualifies as mortal sin versus venial sin; every sin seems mortal (meaning that it cuts us off from God completely – we are no longer in a state of sanctifying grace and cannot be assured of our salvation if we were to die right then). To some small extent it is honorable to think this way: even the slightest sin offends God, and I don’t want to offend God, for that is an evil. However, this comes to the logical yet very mistaken conclusion that all sin is mortal. If that were the case, then the Church wouldn’t have differentiations between mortal and venial sins! The Church’s three requirements for a sin to be mortal are that the sin committed must be of grave (serious) matter, it must be completely and willingly consented to by the doer, and the doer must have full knowledge of it.
Part I: Viewpoints on the Moral Life
For me, scrupulosity often strikes as a confusion of what is grave matter – clearly, telling an off-color joke is not as serious as murder, but… what if it is? UGHHHHHHHH!!!
This is not to say that something less serious than murder can’t be considered a mortal sin, but there is a balance that needs to be learned. For this kind of scrupulosity, it is important to learn that not every sin constitutes grave matter. While every sin does offend God, venial sins do not tear us apart from Him. It’s like a married couple; if the husband insults the wife out of frustration, and apologizes after, that is certainly more understandable than if he went and had sex with their neighbor. To be sure, if the husband doesn’t apologize then it could lead to more problems, but similarly, even if the husband apologizes for the adultery, that still doesn’t solve the problem. This leads into one of the big concerns for the scrupulous person – what should I say in Confession? Do I even have to go? But that comes later.
The scrupulous person sees the moral life very legalistically – one of two extremes. Neither extreme truly satisfies the definition of living a moral life, although they both emphasize (albeit too much) certain truths. The scrupulous view of sin is very hard and fast; “I’ve sinned, so I must pay for my crime.” With every sin comes a certain punishment, and God as the just judge places the sentence upon you that you yourself have chosen by your actions. This view sees the truth, correctly, that sin comes with consequences, and that God allows these consequences to happen because, in a very real way, we have chosen for them to happen. On the other hand, the lax view of sin is very forgiving; “I’ve sinned, but that’s okay, because God forgives me. Sorry, God!” With sin comes no consequence, for God is merciful and will forgive us if we are truly repentant. This view sees the truth, correctly, that God is merciful and will bless us for our penitence.
But clearly both of these views, taken to their extreme, cannot be correct, for they are contradictory. This is because, as stated before, they are both extremes that take one aspect of truth and run with it to the neglect of the rest of the aspects. While people can be found at all sorts of places on the spectrum, these are merely the final extremes of each side. Because this tract is addressing scrupulosity specifically, I will address the legalistic side more than the lax side.
Part II: The Intellectual Colosseum
The scrupulous person cannot wrap their head around the lax view of sin, for they understand that the lax view denies the need for the Sacrament of Confession, but the scrupulous person also fails to understand the emphasis on mercy. To be blunt, the scrupulous person sees God as waiting for us to slip up on some minor thing so He can catch and punish us but this is exactly what the Pharisees did to Jesus. They wanted to arrest and kill Jesus, using violations of the law such as working on the Sabbath as justification for this deeper hatred. The scrupulous person puts themselves into the position of Jesus, and God in the position of the Pharisees.
When the scrupulous person does accuse themselves of a sin, their whole system locks up. They become trapped in an intellectual Colosseum, unable to escape until the problem is defeated. For me personally, because in the faith life I am more reason-based than emotion-based, I tend to try to reason my way out of scrupulosity through convincing myself I actually did not sin because it was either not grave matter, I did not have full consent, or I did not know what I was doing. This used to work as my scrupulosity was developing, but as I became more experienced in dealing with the affliction, new situations arose that could not be solved by mere reason. All that would happen is a descent into despair, because if I can’t explicitly prove my innocence then I must have sinned – even when I know for a fact that I did not. It’s as though I were framed for a crime I did not do, but the “evidence” was all there, pointing at me. No matter what happened, the emotional and mental effort it took to even confront my scrupulosity was always physically taxing.
This is the part of the lock-up where pride comes in; if I cannot prove it myself through reason, then it cannot be true. But, as stated in Proverbs 3:5 (NABRE), “Trust in the LORD with all your heart; on your own intelligence do not rely” (emphasis added). The scrupulous person, if not firmly on guard, will learn to stop trusting the Lord. This is the gravest part of scrupulosity, and leads to the actual mortal sin of despair, or total distrust in God to the point where, even if He tells you, you are not confident in your salvation. It is the belief that God will condemn you even though you’re trying your hardest to love Him and not to sin. Thereby, one major remedy to attacks of scrupulosity is to trust in the Lord.
Part III: Jesus, I Trust in You
For the longest time, the phrase “Trust in the Lord!” seemed so abstract to me. What does that even mean? As I stated, the way I approach my relationship with God is very reason- and logic-based. Often times this means God will speak to me through my intellect, often formulating thoughts in my head that answer my questions. My initial thought was trusting in the Lord meant to trust in whatever thought comes to my head first. Clearly this does not work, as the devil loves to get places first. This brings scrupulosity in and of itself, questions of “Am I doubting or rejecting the voice of God?” when the first thought that comes to mind is often a thinly disguised attempt by Satan to mess with me.
As I researched and came to a deeper understanding, I realized that trusting God has nothing to do with believing every thought that comes to mind. Trusting God means firmly planting your belief that, through good and bad, God will carry you toward what is best not only for your own salvation, but for others’ as well. It will most certainly not always be what is “good” in a material, physical sense – although that is a possibility. Trusting God means placing our hope that God will bring good out of what is happening. For me, this certainly made sense for those who are suffering – it is the consolation that everything will work out for the better. But what about during the good times? What does it mean to trust Jesus when it doesn’t seem like there are any obstacles to overcome?
Aside from the fallacy that there is nothing to overcome (there is always sin for us to root out, as we are fallen creatures who reinforce patterns of sin in ourselves), trusting the Lord means two things. Firstly, when trials do come, He will be there for us; but secondly, we must trust that the Lord will help us continue on this path, not merely the moments where we feel good, as feelings come and go, but the deeper spiritual truth of our standing with God. Provided we don’t reject it through mortal sin, the Lord will always be there, carrying us across the ocean of life, whether it be sunny or stormy. Even if we reject it, the Lord is always there to welcome us back, through the Sacrament of Confession.
Part IV: Confession
The scrupulous person views the Sacrament of Confession like a trial. I go to plead guilty, receive my sentence, and serve my time through doing penance; once that’s done, I’m a free man. But it is much more than that: “I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance” (Luke 15:7, NABRE). Christ rejoices in our coming to Confession more than we do! The reason we go to Confession is not simply to “pay our dues”; it is to reconcile our relationship with Jesus. A judge does not love the condemned any more than he would love a stranger he met on the street. But if God is the just Judge, then we have a huge advantage, for this Judge wants to see us free more than we want to.
That’s all fine and good, but shouldn’t I be able to simply confess my sins in prayer and have Christ forgive me one-on-one? Not quite, because for the scrupulous person, a solution without rules to follow seems like no solution at all. But on a more theological note, the Sacrament of Confession is explicitly referenced in Scripture: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16, NARE). Sin damages not only our relationship with Christ, but also our relationship to the Church; this Sacrament therefore not only reconciles us to Christ but reunites us with the Mystical Body of Christ. In addition, it is almost as if the Sacrament was made for the scrupulous person, for by hearing the priest very explicitly say, in the name of Christ, that he absolves you of your sins, the scrupulous person gets the message. Sometimes all a scrupulous person needs is a very explicit and blunt statement.
However, the scrupulous person can also be overwhelmed by the sacrament. What should I confess? Do I need to go, or am I convincing myself that I’ve mortally sinned? Do I need a certain number of sins to go? The answers are simple to most, yet complex to the scrupulous person. Here I will try to give some basic tips for guiding the scrupulous confession experience:
1. Only confess sins that you are CLEAR and CERTAIN you committed! If you doubt whether you did sin, whether you had full knowledge and consent, or whether it was grave matter, preface it with explicitly acknowledging your condition of scrupulosity and saying that you are unsure of the sin. The priest will then understand and be able to give you sound advice accordingly. And be sure to pray and ask the Lord for clarification — sometimes He may give you certainty on an issue before you even go to Confession!
2. Do not re-confess sins you stated in your last confession! A re-confession of a sin means that you doubt the efficacy of the last confession. By doubting the sacrament, you deny its power, and therefore implicitly deny the power of the absolution you are receiving right now. Trust in the Lord that your past sins are forgiven through His mercy in the sacrament. This, however, does not mean you do not need to confess habitual sins, which is different from re-confessing a sin.
3. Do not worry about “missing” a sin! The human memory is a surprisingly weak thing, and God does not expect us to keep a running tally of all our mistakes, major or minor. After all, if He doesn’t write with Sharpie in a book of sin, neither should we. It may help give you peace and security to add the words, “For these and all other sins I may have committed that I do not remember, I am truly sorry,” to the end of your confession of sins.
While these are just basic tips, they are not hard-and-set rules. The scrupulous person should not use these tips as commandments, but as guidelines in a pinch. What the person really needs is a spiritual director.
Part V: The Voice of Reason
It is imperative to FIND AND STICK WITH A SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR! It is capitalized and bolded because it cannot be stressed enough. A spiritual director can give an objective second opinion on all of one’s scrupulous attacks, and many times, the person will find that their scrupulosity sounds silly when explained out loud! While spiritual directors are highly recommended to all the faithful, it is basically necessary for the scrupulous person. A trained spiritual director can give valuable guidance in one’s spiritual life – where one is succeeding, where one needs to be pushed. Often, the solution to the problem is simply their presence and listening.
By finding a spiritual director, the scrupulous person takes a profound leap of faith: acknowledging they cannot solve the problem alone, and subsequently taking steps to seek help. By placing trust in another person who is not only wiser but trained in this kind of counseling, the scrupulous person learns not only how to defeat individual scrupulous attacks, but also practices placing trust in another – invaluable practice for learning to trust in God!
Part VI: My Own Story
I suppose this article would be incomplete without me justifying my experience. I grew up in a good Catholic family, went to Mass every week, Catholic school, and frequented the Sacraments. I firmly believe I inherit my rational side from my dad, who is always reading and learning about the faith, everything from apologetics to moral theology. He would become my unofficial spiritual director as my scrupulosity developed and continues to be a voice of reason even as I have found a fully trained director.
One of my primary passions is video games. I absolutely love playing them, learning about them, and reading the backstories of the companies and development of games. However, one of the major problems plaguing the field is piracy. Video games are expensive, and many of the older games and consoles can become prohibitively expensive. I was fortunate to be able to afford my games legally, but many people resort to downloading the old games to their computers via a process called emulation, which relies on illegally distributing the game files. It is very tempting to see a game be available for free – and right NOW! – even if it is stealing. After all, it violates copyright law, and the companies that made those games therefore have a right to be able to sell their product.
I became a fervent anti-piracy advocate, not just for video games, but in all fields, such as music and movies, and began to read into what makes emulation illegal. However, this led me into an incredibly legalistic mindset of what is okay and what is not, and I learned way too much about copyright law for my own good. I got to the point where I thought it was wrong to even watch a video of gameplay footage that was recorded from an emulator. Naturally, being a kid who took his faith seriously, there was instant bleed-over from being worried about the law to being worried about morality.
As I stated before, I would combat these attacks of scrupulosity with reason – “well, it’s not actually grave matter,” or “well, I didn’t know it was a sin at the time,” etc. More recently, though, I have come upon scrupulosity not affected by reason. For instance, one time I played a game online that I believed wholeheartedly was legal, but because I had been so used to thinking it was illegal, I still felt horrible after. This was a case where I sufficiently convinced myself I had not sinned, yet I still felt like I did – emotions overriding reason. It took a visit to my spiritual director to rest the case. Another case was where I began to mull on whether or not I had confessed sins from years ago that may or may not have been mortal. It led me into a state of despair, which itself was a mortal sin… kind of defeating the purpose of thinking about whether or not I had mortally sinned. Ironic.
I have by no means defeated scrupulosity. In fact, there have been numerous times where I prayed very fervently to God to simply take this cross away from me. At a very young age, I prayed about this and the Lord offered me a choice: you may keep scrupulosity, or you may choose another cross. I decided to keep scrupulosity, mostly because all of the other crosses I could think of were physical pain, and I did not want that. Every time since then, I have prayed for complete deliverance from the affliction only for the Lord to show me what an ironic blessing it has been.
But… I just spent the whole tract explaining why scrupulosity is horrible! How can I say something so backstabbing?
God can take the most horribly mangled, disgusting piece of trash and turn it into the most beautiful, magnificent, ethereal work of art. The mental state of constantly being afraid of sin led me to avoid countless situations where, I believe, I would have most definitely sinned. Furthermore, it cultivated within me an all-too-uncommon understanding that sin is indeed serious. I see all the ways I could have fallen off the wagon during my teenage years, and yet, by the grace of God alone, acting through my scrupulosity, I stand where I am today. I see how my scrupulosity has not only kept me away from sin but pushed me to do the right thing when confronted with the choice of temptation. Of course, much balance is necessary and, ultimately, I do believe a firm defeat of scrupulosity is what I personally need. Nonetheless, I would not be who I am today without this affliction and I certainly don’t think it’s going away any time soon… but perhaps that’s because it is the way God wants it; perhaps my growth and salvation depends on it.
Part VII: Advice for the Long Haul
To close, I thought it would be helpful to share some miscellaneous advice in addressing scrupulosity.
● Get a spiritual director! I hope I don’t need to emphasize this more, because I can’t.
● Don’t ever believe God is looking to trap you or catch you in sin. He is a loving Father who wants to be in eternal communion with you far more than you will ever want to be with Him.
● Conversely, don’t be too hard on yourself! Perfectionism often begets misery. The greatest saints have also committed some of the greatest sins. Which leads to the next point…
● Never doubt the mercy of God! Even when you find it difficult to forgive yourself, God waits for you like the father of the prodigal son.
● Meditate on the Passion of our Lord. Christ didn’t get shredded, beaten, and nailed to the Cross to bleed and die so you can doubt your salvation. Trust that He will do all He can to bring you home.
● Do not mull on past sins. Trust the Lord has forgiven you, especially if you have gone to Confession! If it is definitely a mortal sin, and you have yet to go to Confession, GO! One of the most harmful things you can do to yourself is to keep thinking about a past sin, playing it over and over again in your mind, and going back and forth trying to prove you’re still in a state of grace. If you see yourself heading towards a long and pointless train of thought, stop yourself and ask God for the grace to trust His mercy. What’s helped me is to just tell myself, “No, the Lord forgave me of that. End of story,” or “No, I know I didn’t sin. End of story,” and change the subject.
● Go to Confession regularly! However, if you’re going every other day, that could just be a further manifestation of scrupulosity. This is where a spiritual director can help you determine how frequently is spiritually healthy for you, which leads to the next point…
● If you’re absolutely locked up in scrupulosity and have no way to talk to your spiritual director immediately, give yourself time between confessions. While time does not make all sins right, it does give your brain, and soul, a break, allowing you to tackle the problem in a better state of mind. More importantly, don’t tackle the problem without asking God for help! This is basically the longer, more theological version of “sleep on it.”
Lastly, the most important piece of advice I, or anyone, could give you…
● Learn to trust the Lord. If it sounds too abstract to you, then I’ll make it explicit. Trust that the Lord will do everything He can to bring you to Heaven, and that He will give you the grace to follow Him if you are open to it.
May God grant you peace of mind, happiness of days, and fullness of life. Amen.
Edited By: Zachary Maher