Are scruples good or bad? If we speak of someone as ‘scrupulously honest’ we probably intend this as approval. It suggests a commitment to honesty which is greater than we ordinarily expect, but cannot fail to admire. But we also use the word to describe a neurotic attention to detail which bogs us down, and makes the final decision less important than the process of decision. We may in fact end up by never making the decision at all.
Scrupulosity in this second sense may well be the outcome of a fearful temperament: that is, one which has an exaggerated fear of getting it wrong. Since I have a tendency towards this, I prefer to believe that most people suffer from scruples in one respect or another. I don’t want to be alone in this!
I wonder whether the sort of Catholic moral education most of us received contributes to this. I have written in the past of the ‘computer Catholic’. This is the claim that, in theory at least, one could feed the details of a moral choice into a computer programmed to contain the totality of Catholic moral teaching. It would then, instantaneously, feed back “sin or no sin, mortal or venial, degree of gravity etc.” Now that we have the Internet and Skype we could no doubt make our Confession on line, express our firm purpose of amendment and receive absolution, together with the appropriate penance.
I believe that it was once ruled that one couldn’t make a Confession on the telephone – which might rule out the Internet element – but we would still be left with the issue, where mortal sin was concerned, of full knowledge and full consent. In the old days this might have been a practical issue: did we know that the Church had ruled our action to be grave matter, and was the performance of the act an outcome of duress or freely chosen? Nowadays, with a better knowledge of human psychology that would be harder to assess. And the decision is important in the light of, say, being run over by the next bus. A decision one way would lead to a rap on the knuckles in Purgatory while the other would lead to all eternity under torture. This is rather a big difference. And, with so much hanging on it, scruples were bound to appear.
Today the decision is much more complex. A good example of identifying grave matter and the factors which might reduce culpability is at question 2352 of the Catechism (or you can look it up on http://tinyurl.com/cz1w ) You will see here how, while this might be pastorally useful, it could leave the potential mortal sinner in a scrupulous quandary. And this may occur with decisions related to bringing up children , honesty at work , potential white lies – and so on.
I am interested to know how many of us suffer from scruples. Are they damaging, or something we have learnt to live with. And, if we want to reduce our tendency to scruples how do we cure the habit?