E. Christian Brugger is Professor of Moral Theology at Saint Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, FL. He has a BA in biology from Rutgers, Master’s degrees in moral theology and moral philosophy from Seton Hall University, Harvard University and the University of Oxford, and a Ph.D. in moral theology from Oxford. From 2015-2017, he served as a Theological Consultant to the Doctrine Committee of the USCCB. He publishes widely in sexual ethics, bioethics, natural law theory, and Catholic Social Teaching. His most recent book is Catholic Social Teaching: A Volume of Scholarly Essays (Cambridge University Press, 2019). He lives with his wife, Melissa (of 25 years), and three of his five children in Briny Breezes, Florida.
Q. If one is in practical doubt (i.e., has a doubt of conscience) as to whether or not some action one is contemplating is sinful, one should gain moral certainty that it is not sinful before proceeding. But what about the doubts of one who struggles with over-scrupulosity? What if the process of searching for the truth is laborious and time consuming? Can one proceed with doing the act that one is in doubt about before one has resolved the doubt? Since one is in doubt, is this like being invincibly ignorant? Thank you, Gabriel.
You are correct to say that one whose conscience is in doubt over whether some contemplated action would be sinful should not proceed with the action until the doubt is resolved. This is because — as befitting the nature of doubt — one believes that what one is contemplating might be morally wrong. To do something thinking it might be evil means one is willing to do evil. If one’s doubt concerns a matter of grave moral seriousness, and one is conscious before choosing of this gravity and is free not to act, and yet acts despite the doubt, one would sin mortally.
Many people struggle with mild over-scrupulosity that does not seriously impair their moral decision-making. But severe over-scrupulosity can cripple it. In such a case, they should seek out a good Catholic mental health professional to help them understand the reasons they feel these emotional and cognitional constraints and so over time to learn to choose more freely.
Nevertheless, even one who suffers from severe over-scrupulosity should not do what he believes might be evil. For even if it is not objectively a wrongful kind of act, his adoption of it while believing it might be wrongful is a judgment on himself.
This may distress those who suffer from pathological over-scrupulosity. They may feel on the one hand they have a duty to act, but on the other are crippled by intrusive doubts as to whether acting would be morally evil: damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
One way of moving past this stalemate is to adopt the judgment of trusted (and trustworthy) therapists or advisers, accepting their judgments over one’s own, realizing that one’s own faculties are colored by the habit of unreasonable scrupulosity.
It would not, in my opinion, be wrong to proceed with an action that one accepts to be licit on the judgment of someone one trusts, while still feeling strong conflicting emotions stemming from one’s psychic condition.
But to return to the question, no, one should never proceed with doing anything that one has conscience doubts about before one has sufficiently resolved the doubts. If after reasonable effort one is incapable of resolving one’s doubts, then one should refrain from the action in question.
Lack of resolution definitely does not constitute invincible ignorance, which is a condition that one does not know one is in. The invincibly ignorant person by definition is not afflicted with doubts of conscience over what he’s contemplating but sincerely believe what he’s doing is morally licit.
But in the case at hand, one is not ignorant of the fact he is in doubt but rather quite conscious. To proceed with the act over which he is in doubt, while telling himself it’s okay because he’s inculpably ignorant, would be a kind of culpable self-deception.