How the church saves the scrupulous

Friday, February 17, 2017 - Updated: 7:00 am
By David Mills

She loves the Catholic Church, she wrote, and wants to become a Catholic, but she thinks the church will be bad for her. “I am prone to religious scrupulosity,” someone named Lynn wrote in a comment on one of my Aleteia columns. “Unfortunately, I obsess about religious rules and become a prisoner to them. It seems I was not meant to be Catholic. Alas. God bless, though.”

The column (web address at the end) had described the value of holy days of obligation. Obeying the church’s rule about going got you to the place you’d be blessed, even when you didn’t want to go.

We think of the church as an ark. It’s a place of rescue and safety. We still suffer because we’re human and everyone else on board is human, but we’re safe and dry. If we were outside, we’d drown. But some people outside the church see it as a dangerous place. They fear it will hurt them.

Like Lynn, who thought the church would mess her up. Strictly, “scruples” means the fear that something is a sin when it isn’t. (If you want more on this, look up “Catholic Encyclopedia scruples” on the web). I suspect, because I’ve known people with this problem, that in her case it might mean tying yourself up in knots because you don’t know whether you’re doing the right thing for the right reason. You second-guess yourself, wondering if you really believe it, if you really love Jesus, if you really trust God. Scruples in either form can really mess people up.

I thanked Lynn for her honesty. Then I said straight out that everyone is meant to be a Catholic. The Catholic Church is where the fullness of the faith and the life of Christ are to be found. God wants us to have the whole thing.

Of course, all of us bring our brokenness with us when we enter. If you’re tempted by scruples, you’ll still be tempted by scruples. Indeed, the new Catholic may find the church showing him that he’s even more broken than he thought. But the church also offers you the means to move toward healing and wholeness.

Maybe you’d even be more tempted by scruples than you had been. The church does have more rules than most of the Protestant bodies. She has more rules because she sees the world more clearly and has higher hopes for you than they do. She’s like the coach who sees that you could be an Olympic sprinter when you’d settle just for finishing a local charity’s 5K race. He pushes you a lot harder because he knows what you can be.

I was a convert, too, I said, but my experience had been different from hers. I worked for 15 years in a Protestant seminary, and many of our students suffered from scruples. They could tie themselves up in the most extraordinary knots, wondering if they really loved God. They didn’t always feel that they did, so they fussed and fretted, often so much that they despaired.

So staying outside the church didn’t save you from scruples. On the other hand, I continued, the church’s rules actually protect you from scruples. This is the thing Lynn didn’t see.

I liked the rules I found when I became a Catholic. The church says, “Here’s what you do.” I can do it or not. All straightforward and simple. I don’t have to fuss and examine my motives and second- and third- and 20th-guess myself, and wonder if I really meant it. I don’t have to feel it, I just have to get in the car and go. Or not, if I want to say no.

Here’s an important point some people like Lynn don’t see. The church that’s telling you to “Do this” assumes that she’s talking to a child, to a beginner, to a rookie. She asks for obedience because she knows that practice usually precedes understanding, and understanding often precedes actively feeling it.

You go to Mass on the holy days of obligation because the church tells you to. Eventually, over time, with practice, you see the point. Eventually after that, you start feeling it. It feels right and it may even be fun.

Mills’ weekly Aleteia column can be found at http://aleteia.org/author/david-mills.

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