Answers to questions I gave to one SA member over the last few months fill this month’s column. The questions are not necessary to illustrate my point, and my answers do not reveal facts that could identify the questioner.
Each paragraph answers one question. As you read my answers, rather than try to guess the “sin” that might have prompted each question, identify your feelings as you read each response. Better yet, pinpoint the stew of feelings you feel as you go along.
“There is no sin in any of this. You are exchanging ideas you found useful. They are not your ideas. There is no assumption that you generated them. It is only a conversation.”
“So, you were upset with how you were perceived, and you expressed it.”
“The key words are that ‘you fear.’ That is what is going on. Not sin.”
“Bad smell, certainly. Sin? Not a chance.”
“No. There is nothing remotely wrong with this.”
“It was not and is not a sin. Beauty is a gift from God.”
“Would you have reacted in the same way if the men were not black?”
“Fear is an emotion. Your inclination is something different. I do not believe it was a racist act but simply being overcautious.”
“Not really. I would advise that you do not try and figure out the meaning of your past events. That is not helpful and will only open a can of anxiety, doubt, and worry.”
“Perhaps, or it could just be concern for your son.”
“Again, what would the sin be? Curiosity?”
“The only ‘sin’ you are committing is the refusal to let go and release the forgiveness of God into your life. You are pestering and pecking yourself to distraction and anxiety.”
“Just because you feel bad about something does not indicate sin. A feeling is a feeling.”
“No. They do not need your approval or your disapproval. What is expected is nonjudgmental respect.”
“No. It is a hug.”
“Again. Feeling uncomfortable does not mean you have sinned. It just means you are uncomfortable.”
“No, they are not. Here is a challenge for you. Could you provide me with an example of a real sin that you committed? Not something that you feared or imagined but a real sin that needed to be confessed.”
In answer to one of my responses, the person replied, “It appears I can’t tell the difference. Situations come up all the time and I remember past things that I have done. They appear to be sins to me, otherwise I would not be a bother to you. Reconciliation and improving is a theme talked about in church. There is no blame here, and I wonder what other parishioners are doing….Believe me, this is difficult.”
I replied, “I have no doubt it is serious, and I take you seriously. I believe you know what a real sin is. Please share with me what you believe because I think it would be helpful.”
After this exchange we returned to the established pattern of questioning and answering. The reader has offered no example of what a real sin might be, not from a sense of bad will or obstinance but because of genuine confusion, in my view. This confusion is not rooted in catechetics. I am pretty sure this person knows the meaning of venial and mortal sin.
Instead, I believe this person has a disorder that confuses feeling with sin and seems to allow for no natural human response or behavior. This sort of thinking often includes a vision of a “gotcha” God, where life is a never-ending series of traps and obstacles intended to trip up the person and send that person to eternal punishment. No amount of vigilance on the individual’s part is ever enough.
The constant in each of these questions and responses is that they were prompted by a feeling. The warning sign of the possibility of sin for the individual seems to be at least partially rooted in the feeling and the emotion. A person with scrupulosity should not approach such feelings catechetically. You cannot learn, research, or memorize your way to helpful management of scrupulosity. What is required is a serious reordering and understanding of human feelings and emotions. A medical intervention of some type might be a good first step; not the only step, but a good first step.
A final thought. This short reflection illustrates that responses to questions by a priest, a confessor, or a friend do not help a person with scrupulosity. Answers only provide temporary relief. There will always be another question. Real healing needs another path.
Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR