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The Lexicon of Sin

Even the most casual understanding of Church history—an understanding that is not rooted in academics or the concentrated study of history—reflects that the Catholic Church loves systems. The Church is the great organizer, a role it has played in Western culture since the collapse of the Roman Empire around the year 400. Out of the ashes of Rome’s destruction, the Church filled the stability void and began the slow process of rebuilding what had been obliterated.

This is no history lesson, but this general perspective on the Church’s love of systems and organizations helps us understand the Church. We benefit from a variety of systems within the Church: liturgical, legal, dogmatic and doctrinal, sacramental, moral, ecclesial, and many others in a vast list. Each system was developed with a practiced eye toward order, discipline, and stability, essential values that had been lost in the destruction of the Roman Empire.

Some people believe the systems stem from the order and stability of the universe itself and reflect the loving hand of God the Creator. Others may not have quite this experience of wonder and awe but nonetheless acknowledge how important systems seem to be in the larger scale of things.

One system that people with scrupulosity encounter daily is the lexicon of sin. Over the centuries, saints, scholars, and theologians have painstakingly knitted together the lexicon of sin, actions that are presumed to be against the will of God and therefore displeasing to God. The lexicon may be identified as an orderly, rational, and coherent representation and listing of what the Church understands to be the will of God. This lexicon has been essential to the spiritual practice of people who desire to live a religious and holy life. It has been and can be a reassuring measuring device in helping us answer a question we ask ourselves, “How am I doing?”

As wonderful as systems are, and indeed we have numerous examples of how well systems have served people, they have limitations. Most systems presume some sort of organized truth (absolute truths, some might say) that can be observed and measured. How a system interprets what is perceived depends on the core animating principle of the system. For example, to over-generalize to make my point, science often asks “how,” while religion prefers “why.” Different perceptions may generate different answers to the same question.

Any system, regardless of what it studies or represents, can be helpful and useful, but not if it manipulates the “evidence” to fit the system. When the evidence is made to fit the system, the resulting conclusions are fundamentally flawed. When authenticity is abandoned in a scientific experiment, the data will be corrupted and cannot be duplicated, an essential quality of authentic scientific discovery or practice. When authenticity is abandoned in a religious system, corruption also occurs, even if it doesn’t happen right away. Nonetheless, the system will be stressed and the authenticity of what is believed will be challenged.

In all systems, there are numerous examples where practitioners have manipulated the evidence to “make it fit.” They do this for a variety of reasons, some as simple as being reluctant to let go of an idea or insight because it is not supported.

Other times, manipulation occurs because something is unknown or misunderstood, and therefore the application—even if performed in good faith—is flawed and incomplete. Among the numerous examples to support this statement is the human understanding of sexuality and gender. You likely know about the tensions that exist in our culture because of this clash of understanding and acceptance on matters of gender and sexuality.

With that background on systems, how does scrupulosity come into the conversation about systems, specifically the lexicon of sin?

The lexicon of sin spiritually harms people with scrupulosity. The disorder itself wreaks havoc upon people who have it. Scrupulosity consistently and deviously manipulates the evidence of a thought, word, or action, assigning to it a seriousness and consequence that is not supported by the evidence. This manipulation corrupts a scrupulous person’s ability to use the lexicon of sin as a stable and authentic representation of his or her religious life. Rather than helping people truthfully answer “how am I doing,” the disorder answers with a lie to those who have it: “You are not doing well at all.”

For the disorder of scrupulosity, the lexicon of sin is a playground, an opportunity for mischievousness. For the scrupulous mind, the lexicon is a minefield filled with detail after detail, a never-ending series of definitions that leads to more definitions and more questions. The conclusion? While it may be difficult for many people to accept, the lexicon of sin is not a helpful spiritual tool for the scrupulous. If you have scrupulosity, do not engage this lexicon. Doing so will trigger compulsive and repetitious behavior that masquerades as a useful spiritual practice. It is not.

Instead, especially during this season of Lent, I suggest three steps to the scrupulous:

1: Acknowledge your sinfulness without engaging a traditional examination of conscience.

2: When confession is helpful, confess that you are a sinner and need God’s healing grace.

3: Ask yourself, “What is the evidence that this fear and anxiety is indeed sinful?” Never ask how you are guilty. Your confessor will encourage and appreciate your choice and spiritual practice, and you will be better off.

Systems are wonderful, useful, and necessary. They have helped and guided humanity in our spiritual and cultural journeys. But systems are only useful when they receive information that is not manipulated, incomplete, or in some other manner corrupted. When we are able to recognize both the power and the potential weakness of a system we desire to engage and use, we are better off.

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