A consistent worry of people who suffer with the scrupulous condition is their understanding of sin. They worry how they may or may not be sinning, or if not sinning, placing themselves into situations where sin might be possible. Practice of the concept of “the near occasion of sin” may sound reasonable: Why not choose to avoid experiences that have the potential to tempt a person to sin? But if you experience scrupulosity and perceive that sin is omnipresent, avoiding the near occasion of sin often becomes confusing and problematic.
Moral theologians, when instructing the general population and not those who suffer with the scrupulous disorder, speak of two categories related to the near-occasion concept: “remote” and “proximate” occasions of sin. A remote occasion of sin may lead to sin, but the chances of sin being chosen and acted upon are unlikely. A proximate occasion of sin is one in which the experience usually makes the possibility of choosing to engage in sin effortless because most obstacles have been removed and there is a clear path to engagement.
Here are examples of both categories: Most moral theologians would say that watching a movie with brief and occasional nudity might constitute a remote occasion of sin that could lead a person to a sin of impurity. Contrast this with a second choice, a proximate occasion of sin in which a person chooses to watch a pornographic movie. People who do not suffer from scrupulosity can clearly see that the second, proximate choice sets the stage for the sin of impurity, while the first, remote occasion of sin does not.
However, the distinction between remote and proximate occasions of sin is rarely clear for those with scrupulosity. They see both examples I described as proximate occasions for sin. Worse, the tendency to perceive the most harsh and severe sins possible enter their minds. A scrupulous person struggles to make a healthy judgment that their choice is not severe, often perceiving the presence of even the smallest possibility of sin to be enough to flip their thinking from “remote” to “proximate.”
Thus, considering the two types of near occasions of sin I cite is of little value in the lives of those with scrupulosity. Scrupulous people struggle with their own experience and understanding of the human condition, which includes the good, the bad, and the ordinary “gray” areas of life. But for scrupulous people, few gray or “good” experiences exist. “Bad” dominates.
If your perception of the human experience is predominantly severe, cautious, and/or suspicious of every human action as somehow tainted by sin, the concept of the “near occasion of sin” does not help you manage your life, especially if you have scrupulosity. If you perceive life as constantly being lived on the verge of catastrophic sin, if you experience the human condition as some kind of test of faithfulness to the plan of God and consistently judge that you are ultimately unfaithful, you will judge everything to be sinful, and you will seldom, if ever, perceive it in any other way. Your anxiety is unbearable, and no theological definition or explanation will make any improvement in your life.
If the problems I have described consume you, please do not use the concept of “the near occasion of sin” or its categories “remote” and “proximate” occasions of sin in your life. Lump them with all of the other useless distractions that are on your list of ideas to avoid: searching for clarity, seeking the ultimate definition, receiving the same and exact reassuring answer from two or more people, making a good confession of all your sins “perfectly” in number and in kind, and so on.
Remember: You do not have a theological struggle. You have a spiritual struggle with a mental disorder that is filling you with anxiety and fear. The hard truth is that you cannot think your way out of it or earn your way out of it. Something more is required to effectively confront the issue.
This newsletter has consistently discussed the basic steps that are required to engage scrupulosity in a healthy manner. The goal of each suggested strategy is to take the inner struggle and doubt out of the personal darkness of secrecy and bring it into the light. It is not effective to struggle quietly, speaking only in the darkness and anonymous confessional, whispering your fears and sharing your anxieties, and seeking reassurance. Such an approach leads to isolation, and the isolation reinforces your judgment of being alone, sentencing you to struggle silently with a disorder that is crippling. Find or continue getting help from a professional familiar with how to manage scrupulosity.
You may be tempted to think about the concept of the near occasion of sin as it applies to you, but it is important to let it go. You have other issues that are more important that require your attention and your effort.
Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR