Questions Answered – November 2020

A Scrupulous Conscience

Question: I suffer from OCD and scrupulosity. What is the best thing to do about confession? I keep making General Confessions and I still have many doubts. It is ruining my spiritual life. My confessor said never go into detail. Could I say I am sorry for all my past and present sins and be given absolution? Any suggestions for being scrupulous?

Answer: Dealing with a scrupulous conscience can be very trying indeed. First, it might be good to define it. A scrupulous conscience is one unduly influenced by fear to consider something evil which is not. Moral manuals and encyclopedias examine this excess of concern about sin in everything from brief articles to extended treatments of the causes of scrupulosity.

Before going into these practical treatments, it is important to distinguish a tender conscience from a scrupulous conscience. A person with a tender conscience can be excessively detailed in their attempt to find every small possibility of evil but when advised by a confessor with further knowledge, assent and have their excessive concern resolved. People with scrupulous consciences suffer not just from a desire to arrive at a thorough expression of all sins but from undue fear that they can never know all their sins and cannot have their fear or concern resolved by competent explanation. They are convinced they know more than any confessor. This is a problem of humility and must be carefully distinguished from an obsessive-compulsive disorder, though the same person might suffer from both.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is not the same as a scrupulous conscience. OCD sufferers have a conflict in their emotions caused by a false presentation of morals between excessive fear and objects of pleasure or pain which have been “buried alive.” These objects have been erased from the conscious mind so that a person does not think about them specifically and become concerned about them.

For example, OCD sufferers may be terrified of all sexual passions because they are convinced that all feelings in this regard are sinful. Sexual feelings naturally arise in puberty because God created them as a necessary yet immature entrance into thinking about the good of someone else besides the self. The OCD neurotic, who has been trained that all such feelings are evil, naturally experiences the passion of fear when such feelings arise as the proper response to threatened evil. They can become so afraid they do not admit they have sexual feelings and yet compulsively act out on them because the fear keeps them from being admitted into the higher part of the soul where they can be governed by reason. A therapist dealing with these sufferers seeks to reduce the influence of fear so that the repressed objects may be admitted into consciousness so that it can be guided by reason and will.

A scrupulous person sees sin where there is no sin, but traditional sources like the Catholic encyclopedia hold that this is more a habitual state of mind than a matter of simply individual acts. They are characterized by an anxiety for the present and the future. One moral manual states that they have difficulty distinguishing right from wrong. The word scrupulous comes from scrupulus in Latin, which means a little rough, sharp stone. Scrupulous people experience constant doubt as to the moral truth and do not trust anyone but themselves, even though they are tormented by doubt.

Ron Conte holds on his website that there are several causes for this which might serve as a guide for possible help with this condition. The most basic is ignorance of Catholic moral teaching. Both OCD patients and scrupulous people had very bad moral education. OCD patients cannot help themselves with their desire for holiness because of the unconscious nature of the illness. Scrupulous people, on the other hand, may be properly taught the difference between mortal and venial sin, objective sin, subjective responsibility and things like this. Their problem is not unreasoned fear which guides conduct but lack of humility in being taught. Nothing has been more lacking for the past forty years than correct moral teaching.

Second, a scrupulous person has pride and faith only in their own judgment. Their desire to be holy is good. However, though they profess lack of faith in their own judgment, they cannot trust the judgment of others. Everyone knows one must mortify the passions for pleasure, but one must equally mortify the passions of fear and pain. Humility would seem to be the cure.

Third, a scrupulous person lacks trust in God, which is the first key to solving any spiritual difficulty. Morality must be based on love and the scrupulous conscience has a tendency to turn venial sin into mortal sin. Prayer is key to this. He should be encouraged to decrease his confessions (once a week will do) and increase his practice of prayer. Prayers like the Rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet can be especially useful here. He must also be constantly reminded of the love of God as well as warned to forget his scruples.

God loves sinners. He loves us so much that he laid down his life for us — and took it up again. Why? So that we could live in the freedom of the children of God. It is absolutely true that we must respond to God’s gift by striving to live good lives. But in the end, every single one of us will know God as a grace, a free gift of love. As sinners, we commend our misdeeds into the hands of a loving God. We need to learn to trust him, to learn to look for God more than to look for sin. As Sirach says, “Let us fall into the hands of God and not into the hands of mortals, for equal to his majesty is the mercy that he shows.” (Sirach 2:11)

The questioner maintains he has both OCD and a scrupulous conscience. He should be encouraged to be sure this diagnosis is correct. It is difficult to have both. If he has OCD, he needs to consult a therapist. If a scrupulous conscience, he should be more open to the above means, especially the emphasis on prayer.

The Human Knowledge of Jesus

Question: Our priest tells us that Mary, and then the young Jesus, did not know who they were! He insists they made errors, e.g. Jesus disappearing and Mary being mad when he stayed behind in the Temple as a child. They sinned, in other words. It seems that he does not understand the Man-God, and also that Mary cannot sin because she was conceived without Original Sin.

Answer: Opinions like this are common among some priests today because they have been taught a strange secular Christology in the seminary. This is one devoid of any metaphysical content. This was termed in the recent past as a Christology from below as opposed to a Christology from the above. The former emphasized an interpretation of the Gospel which only admitted truths which could be described in the senses and limited to the scientific method as possible especially regarding Christ and Our Lady. The latter expressed the doctrine taught in the great Creeds which many taught needed to be reinterpreted according to the “signs of the times.” In this case such expressions referred to the contemporary world which was devoid of any real concern about absolute metaphysical truths.

When it came to the humanity of Christ, this interpretation limited things like his knowledge to only what could be acquired in the ordinary human way of things. This was the same with Our Lady. Obviously the divinity of Jesus was a matter of faith, which tended to be reduced to what people called “myth.” Though there may be myths in Scripture, the Genesis story for instance, this is not true of the Gospels. Myths are, according to John Paul II, primitive ways of expressing philosophical truths. So though there may be primitive ways of expressing metaphysical ideas in the Old Testament, this not true of the Evangelists who wanted to record “what Jesus did and taught.” (Acts 1:1).

There are also rather famous modern Catholic writers who maintain, for example, that Jesus did not know who he was until his baptism in the Jordan. The theophany of the open heavens and the voice was as much for his benefit as for others. Sadly, this is also applied to the infancy narratives, where things are maintained such as that Joseph actually thought that Mary was unfaithful to him, or that the parents of Jesus were really mad when he stayed in the Temple, and things like this.

The teaching of the Church has always been counter to these rather simplistic ideas of the Incarnation. Regarding his human knowledge, since he is true man, integral man and perfect man it is important to maintain first that he has a human intellect though his person is divine. In fact, Jesus has two intellects: divine and human. The problem was with his human intellect. His human intellect functioned just as ours does, but in distinction to our way of knowing, is not limited to the knowledge we acquire here on earth. As perfect man, he experiences all the different ways a man can know as a part of his mission. So from heaven he takes the Beatific Vision which he alone has from the moment of his conception. From ordinary human knowledge he takes acquiring knowledge through the senses by investigation and discovery. If he wanted to know Latin, he would have had to hear it spoken.

Thirdly, he also knows by infusion as does Mary through divine revelation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear on this third point: “But at the same time, this truly human knowledge of God’s Son expressed the divine life of his person. The human nature of God’s Son, not by itself but by its union with the Word, knew and showed forth in itself everything that pertains to God. Such is first of all the case with the intimate and immediate knowledge that the Son of God made man has of his Father. The Son in his human knowledge also showed the divine penetration he had into the secret thoughts of human hearts.” (CCC 473) “By its union to the divine wisdom in the person of the Word incarnate, Christ enjoyed in his human knowledge the fullness of understanding of the eternal plans he had come to reveal. What he admitted to not knowing in this area, he elsewhere declared himself not sent to reveal.” (CCC 474) So Jesus clearly knew who he was from the moment of his conception and Mary certainly knew who he was from the Annunciation through the words of the angel.

When these truths are applied to some of the difficulties in the infancy narratives, it is clear that one is dealing with divine and supernatural events which, though not absurd, still must be taken on faith since they cannot be proved by reason.

In the incident of the finding in the Temple, the parents sought the child in sorrow because they loved him. They were not angry. Jesus is also not disobedient or chiding them but also demonstrates how he already knows who he is and what the nature of his mission is. His only response is to ask why they looked for him for three days. They obviously knew who he was. The first place they should have looked was the Temple. This is Catholic Christology.

This should lead you to read the Catechism and others sources. They are readily available today on the Internet if nowhere else. Inform yourself and pray for the priest.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

Please send your questions to:
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
375 NE Clackamas St.
Portland, OR 97232
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  1. Avatar Therese G. says:

    Is stubborn pride always a part of scrupulosity? St. Therese of Lisieux had terrible scruples as a young girl, but she was always helped by the guidance of her older sister Marie (Story of a Soul, chapter IV). She didn’t think she knew better–she always felt reassured after talking things over with Marie, and did exactly as Marie told her–she just couldn’t help having an excessively anxious approach to everything pertaining to her spiritual life. Would that be classified as a form of scrupulosity, or some other spiritual/emotional disorder altogether?

    • Avatar Jean Hosier says:

      It seems St. Therese had a “tender conscience”. I have not heard that term before reading about it in the second paragraph of Fr. Mullady’s answer. Thank you.

  2. Avatar Tom Showerman says:

    Dear Father Mullady, Would you please consider giving the faithful a blessing at the end of your EWTN programs? Sincerely, Tom Showerman