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An Unequal Exchange


If a person has no real freedom to act, he or she cannot commit a mortal sin. Traditional and trustworthy Catholic moral theology accepts that the scrupulous condition effectively diminishes the capacity of the person who is suffering to make some decisions with the necessary freedom. Moral freedom is required to consent to an action. If the ability to consent is not present, there is limited responsibility for the action. This is particularly important to consider when examining mortal sin. 

Catholic moral theology accepts six distinct conditions or hindrances that limit freedom to consent: fear, ignorance, passion, habit, violence, and mental illness. OCD/Scrupulosity is an example of mental illness, a disorder that limits the sufferer’s ability to make a free decision in the specific areas of life that are affected by the scrupulous condition. This “diminished capacity” does not apply to all areas of life. It is not a “free pass” to escape responsibility, but it does apply to the areas of decision-making that are impacted by the scrupulous condition. For most people who suffer with scrupulosity, these areas are easily defined and recognized, while other areas of decision-making seemingly are not affected by the condition.

Whenever the capacity to make a full, free, moral choice is diminished, another feeling often accompanies the scrupulous condition. If recognized and acted upon, it indicates that the scrupulous condition is likely at work. This feeling can become a useful tool in managing the disorder. That feeling is one of impending catastrophic consequences. Scrupulous people often believe they seldom commit venial sins. The scrupulous condition falsely identifies actions as mortal sins or something perhaps worse, sacrilegious, or blasphemous. This misperception and identification of moral responsibility is challenging. Freedom is diminished and fear is increased.

In truth, this is an unequal exchange. There is no benefit to the exchange, except for the disorder of scrupulosity. The person who is suffering does not benefit from the exchange in the least. They experience this uneven exchange profoundly. It seems that as freedom diminishes, the capacity for catastrophe fills the vacated space. This feeling that catastrophe is inevitable brings a certain cruelty with it. The person who suffers with the disorder has not freely consented to the exchange but most certainly suffers the full extent of the consequences.

This exchange feels effective and normal to scrupulous people. Their misdirected perception causes them to believe everyone understands life as they do. Sadly, scrupulous people are often surprised at how calm other people seem to be in comparison with how they feel when confronting “peril” and flirtation with the “inevitable eternal damnation.” It never occurs to them that people without the condition are not perceiving life in exactly the same manner. Their deeply felt experience and perception is patently false. People who do not suffer with scrupulosity have not perfected a skill that scrupulous people lack. The truth is that there is no peril, no inevitable catastrophe. The scrupulous condition is the cause of the perception.

As I referenced, the feeling of impending doom and gloom opens an opportunity to manage the disorder. If you recognize that the catastrophic feeling is erroneous—a warning sign—you may be able to head off judgment that you committed a serious sin.

This feeling of increased catastrophe is the Achilles heel of the scrupulous condition, the exposed underbelly of the disorder. Catastrophe is completely out of context and inappropriate to whatever the action it is associated with. Therein lies the weakness of the disorder, although it may not at first seem to be the case. 

The catastrophic feelings that scrupulosity triggers never reflect reality. Life is simply not that perilous or frightful. There are certainly moments that are both and there are occasions when the identification of catastrophic possibility is appropriate, but it is most certainly not an everyday experience in normal living.

There is only one central catastrophe that is really at work in the scrupulous condition. The suffering is anchored in a false understanding but useful interpretation, at least to the scrupulous condition, of the image of God. The false assumption is that the judgment of God demands eternal damnation as the ultimate reality, the result of a life lived, unless a person is vigilant and never lets down his or her guard. When this interpretation and understanding is activated, scrupulosity makes some kind of sense. It is simply too much to risk, since eternal damnation is so permanent. It is eternal, and damnation after all. Who wants to risk that outcome?

The belief that eternal damnation is an ever-present reality and the conditioned hypersensitivity to this perception is the ultimate “diminished capacity” of scrupulosity. It diminishes the capacity of the human person to accept a God who loves, who forgives, and who desires above all else to be in relationship with his people. This false belief effectively reduces God to a bully who probes with delight to discover every potential weakness, offering “gifts” such as human sexuality, creative imagination, even feelings, not as gifts that help and build up the human spirit but rather as traps to catch the unaware human in a web of eternal punishment. When the scrupulous condition is at work, the sufferer believes this false God delights in what he has captured and casts another tortured soul into hell. It is perverse, but it feels real to one who suffers with the scrupulous condition.

Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

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