Last week, I wrote a bit about scruples and how to recover from them. One reader responded:
While appreciating your exposition on scrupulosity, I dare say that the real problem among the faithful is a lack of scruples … As a Convert from Protestantism, it is easy to see this embrace of the heretical Protestant beliefs in the total depravity of man (therefore don’t worry so much about sin – Hello, Year of Mercy) and that of “Once Saved Always Saved; I’m hearing these errors and those like them from Catholics all the time. Many more Souls are in danger for the lack of scruples than are from an excess of scruples; so why so much in so many venues about too much concern for sinfulness when there is obviously too little?
Another reader agreed, saying:
Yup. I don’t see much of that either. A few scruples & a little fear of God would go a long way.
Do they have a point? It does seem a bit odd to write about how to recover from a crippling sense of sinfulness when, well, look at us. Look at the world. Civilization as a whole is suffering from scruples in the same way that Kanye West is suffering from shyness.
Part of the problem is that there is a specific spiritual meaning for the word scruples, and then there is a more general meaning. In general, in secular usage, having “scruples” just means having some hesitation before doing something that you think might be wrong. It means being careful and prudent, thorough and meticulous, and not letting yourself off the hook. And yes, many of us could use a bit more of that.
But scruples in a Catholic context isn’t just about being cautious. It’s not an antidote to laxness, and it’s definitely not a movement toward God in any way. It’s simply another kind of sickness, just like laxity — another tool that the devil is happy to use to pry us apart from our Savior. There is nothing extra-holy about being scrupulous, nothing super-Catholic. It’s a perversion, and should never be encouraged or lauded. It’s not seeing with extra sharpness; it’s just another kind of blindness.
Yet a third reader responded with a comment that deserves some attention:
This may sound a bit strange, but I think that scrupulosity and the apparent loss of scruples are both symptoms of failing see the love and mercy of God … Knowing God’s mercy does not mean that we will sin more, it means that we can safely acknowledge our sins and find forgiveness.
I’d like to especially emphasize that last part: “Knowing God’s mercy does not mean that we will sin more, it means that we can safely acknowledge our sins and find forgiveness.” Scruples — and wishing for more scruples in others — is not a sign that we understand sin or forgiveness, or that we see things especially clearly. It’s a sign that we don’t trust God. It’s as if we believe that, in order to accept mercy and forgiveness, we have to already do the work ourselves — to perform surgery on our own bodies, and present the diseased tissue to God, already excised and packaged, just waiting for Him to sign off on the fact that, yes, it was malignant and needed to go.
When we believe in scruples, we think we need to do the work ourselves. We reduce forgiveness, and God Himself, to a rubber stamp. “MERCY” [whomp]
But mercy isn’t the fee that God is contractually obligated to pay to us after we submit an invoice for our sin in the confessional. Mercy is, itself, the transformational work. Mercy opens our eyes for the first time. Mercy is diagnosis and treatment and good health. It is bigger than we can imagine. It grows. It makes us grow. It simultaneously reveals the true horror of our sin and shows us how empty and powerless that sin is. That’s the full picture that we’re missing, whether we’re lax or scrupulous: sin is horrible, and sin is eminently conquerable.
In a way, the first commenter is right: the Year of Mercy does tell us “don’t worry so much about sin.” But he’s wrong if he thinks that mercy means “go ahead and keep on sinning, because there’s always mercy.” Instead, the penitent who brings even his paltry, imperfect regrets to the divine surgeon will come out the other side worrying less about sin — not because it’s no big deal, but because God is so much bigger. So much bigger.
When we accept mercy, that means that we are ready for God to do whatever He wants . . . even if it’s better than we think we deserve. We are all the man born blind. We know we’d like to see, but we don’t even know what that means, until here comes Christ. What do you think the man born blind saw first, when his eyes were opened? Surely it was the face of Christ. There is nothing else worth seeing.