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January 2015 Letters

Q: I’m seventy years old. Lately I’m plagued by memories of serious sins, even some from my childhood. I can’t remember whether I confessed them or whether I tried to minimize their seriousness in my description to the priest. I’m trying to trust in God and leave the past behind. What should I do?

A: Your uncertainty is caused by the disease of scrupulosity, not by whether you actually have unconfessed or incompletely confessed sins. Your uncertainty shows that your scrupulosity is active and unrelenting.

However, there is grace in your experience. In the midst of your anxiety, youÕre able to remember GodÕs active healing and forgiveness. YouÕre living in the tension of the pull between grace and scrupulosity, and thatÕs progress. ItÕs exactly where you should be at this moment.

Grace will prevail. GodÕs will for you will be accomplished no matter how strong your anxiety and struggle. You are loved and forgivenÑnot as you one day might be, but as you are today. Through GodÕs grace, your conviction will strengthen each day as you grow in trust and in the deepening experience of GodÕs love.

Q: Jesus said that whoever believes in him should have eternal life. If itÕs really that simple, why are people with scrupulosity afraid of hell? And what if you believe but die in a state of mortal sin?

A: You’ve really hit the nail on the head. Your question captures the power of the promise of life that comes to us from Jesus and coexists with the murkiness of scrupulosity.

Objectively, a person of faith is required to believe that we all have the potential to commit serious and mortal sin. No matter how difficult it might be to imagine, even a person of faith actively trying to live the will of God each day is capable of freely choosing to commit an act of mortal sin. Stranger things have happened.

But mortal sin is not lurking behind every bush and shadow waiting to ensnare the unsuspecting believer in a moment of weakness. Serious sin results from an escalating pattern of decisions and actions that culminates in a choice that becomes mortal.

This process isnÕt mysterious. With serious reflection, we can easily chart and understand it. Spiritual traditions like the daily examination of conscience can interrupt the escalation before it becomes a mortal choice.

Many people are caught up in the notion of the penalty of sin, particularly penalties that were once routinely attached to a thought, word, or action. With the exception of very serious offenses, the Church no longer emphasizes automatic penalty; it now emphasizes how human beings make decisions and regulate their moral choices. You can search high and low through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and you wonÕt find a reference to the clear penalty of mortal sin and/or venial sin. You will find an entirely holistic approach. It never minimizes sin; rather, it brings it into focus with a clearer understanding.

For people with scrupulosity, the invitation is clear: Devote more energy and care into believing in the fullness of the grace of God and eternal life.

The flip side is also essential: Spend less time in the fanciful and harmful expression of fear and anxiety.

Q: Father, I can no longer trust your advice. In the August 2014 newsletter you incorrectly asserted that drinking black coffee before receiving holy Communion will not break the eucharistic fast. Since you were wrong in this matter, I have lost all confidence in your advice.

A: My answer was not incorrect. Many interpreters of the law agree with me, and others who interpret the law more strictly donÕt. But that’s not the important issue here.

What’s important is that youÕre looking for certitude that is not attainable. YouÕre vigilant in all things, large and small. I find it hard to believe youÕd be careless about this matter in any way, yet your unyielding position ensures that youÕll never be free from the ravages of scrupulosity. YouÕre unwilling to live with imperfection, doubt and, in the matter of the eucharistic fast, conflicting opinions and interpretations of the law. You demand simple black-and-white answers that leave no room for complexity and nuance.

This is a trap. Your perspective dooms you to escalating anxiety, fear, and doubt instead of calm and certitude. Grace canÕt penetrate the barriers youÕve constructed. GodÕs love will eventually and eternally penetrate them, but GodÕs invitation to a life of grace here and now is something you seem to be resisting.

This response may seem harsh, but itÕs totally honest. Scrupulosity that demands total and complete certitude in all matters is the only type of scrupulosity that cannot be healed or subdued. If youÕre unable to even consider nuanceÑif you see only black and white and no grayÑthe sunshine of grace canÕt penetrate.

Fear, anxiety, and guilt feed on the illusion that certitude is attainable. The more demanding you are of certitude, the stronger your fear, anxiety, and guilt.

Grace, on the other hand, invites us to risk, believe, and imagine. ItÕs the ultimate experience of losing your life to gain your life (Matthew 10:39), as Jesus so lovingly invited us to consider and to believe.


Q: On Sunday I moved an artificial plant from my living room to another room. It took only a few minutes, but now IÕm afraid I broke the fourth commandment, ÒKeep holy the Sabbath.Ó Should I confess this as a mortal sin or a venial sin?

A: You shouldnÕt confess it, because you didnÕt sin. ItÕs fine to engage in this kind of work on Sunday. I and many other people find cleaning, redecorating, and other simple household tasks enjoyable and relaxing. The fourth commandment wasnÕt intended to regulate this kind of activity. The editors of the Old Testament were regulating the kind of work that is well beyond the experience of most people in our developed world. The editors would in fact marvel at what we call servile work.

I mention this only because it helps to illustrate the necessity of taking the text of the Scriptures in context and not reading something into it that isnÕt there.

For the commandments to be a source of spiritual animation, we must be willing to engage in the hard work of interpreting and applying the commandments to our time and experience. This is a personal effort, but itÕs also the effort and the responsibility of our faith community.

Published in2015 JanuaryArticlesSA Mailbox