Have you ever heard of the term ‘scrupulosity’? It is a fairly common challenge in the spiritual life, and a scrupulous person is one who is continuously fearful or anxious about offending God, and often has a hard time distinguishing between venial and mortal sins.
Recently on The Cale Clarke Show Cale tackled the topic of scrupulosity, and admitted, “Really I’m preaching to myself here, because I struggle with this. I always have.”
Illustrating what scrupulosity means, he said, “At the end of the day, it’s not trusting in the mercy of Christ. It’s this nagging sense of being unforgiven. It can sometimes be an obsessive-compulsive disorder that can get into the spiritual life as well. It can cause people to doubt the efficacy of the sacrament of Confession. Am I really forgiven? Maybe I didn’t do it properly. Maybe I forgot to tell the priest something and now I’ll be damned for all eternity because of that.”
“This can be an extremely debilitating condition in the spiritual life, and cause a lot of unnecessary suffering for people,” he said.
To help those who suffer from scrupulosity, Cale pointed to a work called The Ten Commandments for the Scrupulous. It was originally written in 1968 by a Redemptorist priest named Fr. Don Miller, and has been revised by Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR in recent years.
Cale noted that Fr. Miller said one of the “commandments” generated more correspondence over the years than any other – you shall not confess doubtful sins in Confession, but only sins that are clear or certain.
Perhaps you’ve run into this situation, in which something you did wasn’t sinful but you felt like it was. Or you worry that you accidentally committed a sin and feel that your salvation may be lost if you don’t confess something. So what does a person do if they’re not sure whether or not they committed a sin?
According to the Ten Commandments for the scrupulous, Cale read, “Don’t confess doubtful sins in Confession. Doubtful sins don’t count. There’s no need to confess something that doesn’t clearly and certainly exist. In fact, it’s harmful to yourself to confess that which is doubtful. Such a practice is not at all helpful and should be resisted.”
Cale told listeners, “Now, I can almost hear some of you saying, ‘Well I’m not sure if I actually doubt if I’ve sinned or if I’m just trying to fool myself to believe that I doubt that I sinned.’ Boy, that’s a complicated thought.” But this advice is not meant for those who want to live outside the teachings of the Church by doubting that something is a sin when it is clearly a sin. Rather it is meant for those who think that everything they do might be a sin, and feel compelled to confess things that simply make them anxious.
But perhaps you’re thinking it’s better to be safe than sorry. Can it really be harmful to confess something even if it’s not a sin? Shouldn’t we be fearful of sinning? If you’re going to be anxious about something, shouldn’t we be anxious about offending God? Cale pointed to a quote from St. Alphonsus Liguori, his advice to confessors, to illustrate why we shouldn’t allow our anxiety to control our spiritual lives.
St. Alphonsus Liguori said, “Scrupulous persons tend to fear that everything they do is sinful. The confessor should command them to act without restraint and overcome their anxiety. He should tell them that their first obligation is to conquer their scruples. They should act against their groundless fears. The confessor may command the scrupulous person to conquer their anxiety and disregard it by freely doing whatever it tells them not to do. The confessor may assure the penitent that he or she never need to confess such a thing.”
Cale said, “If you don’t know if it’s a sin or not, don’t confess it. Because we only confess things that are sinful. I think that’s the main point here.”
Listen to the full conversation below: