It came as a genuine surprise to me when I realized that, despite my good intentions, most of what I have written over the years in this newsletter has not helped our readers very much. My writings apparently have been useful to those who want to maintain their scrupulosity because my advice makes the disorder a bit more comfortable, takes the edge off, perhaps even puts it into perspective. But if you have wanted to manage your scrupulosity so you have some control over the obsession and the compulsion, some control over the repeating rituals, then this newsletter has been of limited use.
Recently I have made my columns more direct because I realized my mistake and have taken steps to correct it. Why? I do not want you to maintain your scrupulosity. I want you to manage it to the point where it is mostly just background noise and not the full orchestra.
My turning point and the change in my perspective happened when I recently confronted my understanding of sin. In that process, I was invited to come face to face with sin. I had to study its definitions and seriously consider the human actions that I so casually labeled as sin because of the training I have received and the nonstop drumbeat about the ravages of sin and its destructive power in the Christian story. A strong sense of sin was required in order to fully appreciate the selfless saving action of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. I had to more fully understand the pervasiveness of sin in order to appreciate the meaning of what it means to be redeemed and saved.
A desire to understand sin generally, dig into it, and record many manifestations of sin preoccupied the great theologians of the past. The entire systematic theological system, which took a single human thought or action and pursued that thought or action down a path to the place where every possible meaning of the action had been categorized, was a work that occupied theologians for centuries. They were intent on identifying sin, rooting it out, cataloging it, and uncovering many nuances that could be identified with human sinful actions. Nothing escaped their categorization, and everything was weighed to determine the gravity and scope of what has been categorized. Venial, mortal, grave, serious and everything in between became their points of measurement.
Because of their untiring efforts, it became obvious to reasonable people that the human race was steeped in sin. Thankfully, there was a remedy. This remedy could not change the fact that sin was omnipresent in the human condition from birth, but it was a remedy nonetheless that instructed everyone about the existence of sin and its all-pervasive presence. An awareness of sin invited people to seek a sacramental remedy of reconciliation to correct the obvious imbalance.
For the sacramental remedy to be effective, sinners must pursue and root out the sin within them with the same diligence and perseverance with which the systematic theologians categorized it. Nothing is to be left to chance and nothing that is recognized as sin should remain secret. Every sin, including even thoughts about sin, should be brought to light in order to be confirmed, judged, and forgiven, with a small price of penance to be paid.
While this system has worked well for some, it has not worked well for non-Christians and non-Catholics. Steeped in sin, they have had no realistic way out of their predicament. A second group comprises baptized Catholics who refuse to accept and confess their sins. They are hardened sinners and downright nasty. A third group is made up of men and women engaged in an activity and experience that God finds unacceptable. Through the years, some of these people have been effectively barred from seeking a sacramental remedy for their sin until they have repudiated their actions in advance and documenting when possible. There have been others for whom the process had not worked. There have always been more people for whom the system has not worked than for those it has helped. But that fact has never been part of the story of confession and Catholics.
One group the system has completely failed are the people who are scrupulous. They are not hardened sinners at all. They truly love God and are concerned about their relationship with God. But they also experience internal struggles, the biggest being with anxiety, which has many causes and manifestations. This anxiety is often attached to trauma over intrusive thoughts and the juxtaposition of such thoughts with God or something else sacred. Plus, details do not help them; they make the anxiety deeper and darker. Participating in a system where devotion to detail is required or you have somehow failed means the scrupulous are in a constant state of perceived failure. If they are unable to take part in confession, they perceive they have failed to perform a sacred duty and think they have failed God, a bad result in their minds.
Previously I have tried to help people sort out their sins. I have tried to help them categorize them correctly and do the math. That has not helped because I effectively have ignored the fact that no effort would be useful and helpful if I did not first deal with the anxiety.
Second, I have concluded that I need to confront the obvious fact that not all spiritual practices and disciplines always help all people.
Third, I must introduce the scrupulous to a God and a Church who does not demand the kind of perfection from them that has seemed to be the minimum requirement. They will still hear from others with different perspectives who will seek some sort of perfection that will not help. But in this newsletter, the scrupulous will read my best efforts to try to truly help.
I have just started to change and be more aware and focused on what is required. Much more needs to be done.
Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR