Three saints who famously battled scruples: St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Alphonsus of Liguori (Register Files)
If we don’t present the Catholic Faith in a beautiful way, we’re doing it wrong.
Recently, I have seen a number of social media posts from Catholic parents whose children suffer from scrupulosity. Though the parents may be unfamiliar with the word “scrupulosity,” or even the concept, they wonder why their child exhibits certain religious fears and concerns. Though it’s a difficult subject for me to discuss, I feel compelled to address the concerns of these parents. Why difficult? Because at various points in my life, I have suffered from scrupulosity myself. And I can tell you firsthand that it is extremely difficult to both suffer from and overcome.
If you’re not familiar with the malady, you might think of scrupulosity as being in a constant state of doubt about your personal sanctity, irrespective of your prayer life and reception of the sacrament of Penance. Accompanied by this doubt is the belief that you can’t do anything exactly right. You might think that the operative word here is “right” — but for the scrupulous person, the operative word is “exactly.” As in, “In Confession this afternoon, did I explain my sins exactly?” Or, when in the Communion line, one asks, “Am I exactly certain I’m in the state of grace?” You get the idea. In short, the scrupulous person often thinks of nearly everything as a sin.
Where does scrupulosity come from? There is no easy answer. In his 1946 book titled Pardon and Peace, Rev. Alfred Wilson addresses the issue of scrupulosity at length and suggests that while it may have physical, psychological, and/or spiritual causes, it’s often difficult to know its origins for sure.
But while we’re speculating on the matter, I’d like to posit one possible cause: I believe that a catechetical overemphasis on sin (especially mortal sin) in a child’s early years can be devastating to those personality types inclined toward scrupulosity, and even damage their very notion of God.
Before I continue, I want to address a thought or two you might have as you read this.
First, you might be thinking that scrupulosity is incredibly rare today—that our bigger problem by far is laxity. I’ll concede that point, but should we ignore the suffering of the scrupulous child because the rest of the world is lax? That’s like dismissing the anorexic because of the prevalence of obesity.
Second, you might be thinking that many catechetical texts only deal superficially with sin, if at all. Again, I’ll concede the point, but some other texts—perhaps as an overreaction to lax ones—tend to focus too much on serious sin and not enough on the love of God.
The three conditions necessary for a mortal sin (grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent) are not always easy concepts to grasp. Anecdotally, I have had a number of conversations in my adult life in which devout adult Catholics misunderstood the three conditions concept. Their misunderstandings used to shock me; now I expect them. Yet, we expect small children to not only comprehend the conditions for mortal sin, but to properly apply them in their young lives? Oh, and by the way, where you spend eternity depends upon doing it properly.
Does that mean we should never mention sin to our children? Of course we should mention sin. And not only should we mention sin, we should stress the fact that sin makes us unhappy. But there’s a better focus for that topic, and that is by speaking about what does make us happy: the virtues. In the discussion of moral action, the focus should be on virtue, rather than on the lack of it. In the Summa Theologiae, Saint Thomas Aquinas presented an exposition of virtues, and only then did he discuss the opposing vices. That’s a great guideline. Young children can understand that.
Further, overall catechetical emphasis should be focused—unswervingly focused—on the central truth that God loves you. Sadly, catechetics doesn’t always accomplish that. For instance, even in the revered Baltimore Catechism—which was a common text used for decades in America—there is a question presented, “Why did God make you?” The textbook response is: “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” Absent in this riposte is this fact: God loves you. Though teachers and parents can certainly supplement catechisms and incomplete answers, this is a glaring omission. The lingering feeling that God might not love you—or that God’s love for you is contingent upon your level of holiness—is often a huge problem for the scrupulous person.
Contrast this with what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about the love of God. And it doesn’t take long: Part One, Section One, Chapter One reads: “For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence.” The Catechism goes on to speak of man entering into a “real intimacy” with God. I remember reading this as an adult for the first time and wondering why the drafters of the Baltimore Catechism had failed to present this sentiment to me and children like me. Is the fact that God loves us appropriate teaching only for adults?
In short, if we don’t present the Catholic Faith in a beautiful way, we’re doing it wrong. If the central emphasis is not on God’s love, the curriculum needs to be re-imagined and redesigned. Otherwise, we might expect some degree of scrupulosity. Yes, a dogmatic examination of sin is necessary. Without that, the presentation is not only dishonest, but plants the dangerous seed of laxity which also clouds the conscience. But rather than placing a myopic focus on sin and its lacking nature, we need to be constantly looking for better and better ways to illustrate God’s love to children—and stop scrupulosity before it has a chance to begin.