In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Moral Scrupulosity Soon after confessional penance was made compulsory, reports began to be sounded about a peculiar neurosis (as it would be called today) exhibiting itself among the laity. By the end of the thirteenth century, the occasional reports had exploded into an “epidemic” (Delumeau, 1990: 1): Moral scrupulosity—an overly exacting, paralyzing anxiety; a dread that even an offhand word, thought, or deed might, if undivulged to the priest, be the one that occasions eternal damnation. (The term comes from scrupulus, the smallest unit of Roman measurement [ca. 1/24 oz.].) The scrupulous soul kept meticulous records of their morally suspect acts that they insisted on confessing weekly, if not daily, in an increasingly frantic effort to escape God’s censure . The stated goal of the enterprise, of course, was to avoid plunging at death into the fiery maw of Hell; its consequence was sometimes to cripple the penitent’s ability to function effectively in an ambiguous moral world. Although as we shall soon see, scrupulosity by other names was well-known long prior to his time, the official labeling of the condition is credited to St. Alphonsus of Liguori (1696–1787). His characterization still provides the basis for contemporary discussion. “(Scrupulosity is unrestrained apprehension ) seeing evil where there is no evil, mortal sin where there is no mortal sin, and obligations where there are no obligations ” (Alphonsus, 1905: II, book 1, chap. 2). To this day, scrupulosity remains one of the most formidable challenges for the Catholic pastor; a small library has emerged to explain it and to recommend solutions (Haering, 1963; Lasko, 1949; Lord and O’Boyle, 1932; Ciarrocchi, 1995; Santa, 1999). 23 C H A P T E R 3 The “Scrupulous Disease” A number of Catholic pastoral psychologists account for scrupulosity by means of neo-Freudian concepts, arguing that it is the consequence of an overactive superego, perhaps resulting from “fixation” at the so-called Oedipal stage of psychosexual development. Implicit in this theory is the conviction that obsession is a general symptomology, of which scrupulosity is merely an accidental attribute. Were the patient not Catholic, their obsessions would not disappear; they would merely attach to another object. In his own analysis of the subject, Bernard Haering argues that with its devotion to hairsplitting technicalities, scrupulosity (like its priestly variation, casuistry) evinces all the signs of a “mass neurosis” in that it involves “legalistic fixation” and a “helpless compulsive drive for spiritual security and certainty” (Haering, 1963: 162–63). However, he fails to acknowledge the possibility that confession itself inadvertently might aggravate the condition. My suspicion, independently supported by the exhaustive research of Jean Delumeau (1990: 296–303), is that by forcing penitents’ attention away from concrete behaviors (with discrete spatial and temporal limits) onto the unplumbed depths of their inner worlds, confession probably entices more than a few—specifically, those, as it would be said today, without firm “ego boundaries”—off the precarious ledge of moral security into the chasm of vertiginous subjectivity. As Delumeau shows, long before confession was made compulsory, there was already widespread conviction among Christians concerning the fallen-ness of earth and of earthlings. By the end of the first millennium, an entire literature of contemptus mundi had evolved to describe it (Delumeau, 1990: 9–17). Furthermore, a panoply of malevolent spirits were routinely cited to prove it. In addition to this, a cottage industry of magic had been devised to avert their powers: para-liturgical chants and blessings, set-apart precincts, and equipment: holy water, the Virgin’s tears, the blood, hair, and body parts of deceased saints, sacred shrouds, and the like (Kaebler, 1998: 101–25). What confession effected was the psychologizing of contempt. Penitents were made to understand that decrepitude did not just reside “out there” in the world; it inhabited the 24 Confession and Bookkeeping deepest crevices of their own bodies, manifesting itself as blasphemous , wicked thoughts and cravings. Each Christian was now positioned to experience themselves as “a demon clothed in flesh” (to quote a period metaphor), as “a devil incarnate,” or as a “sewer of iniquity,” whose “sins outnumber the hairs on [their] head” (Delumeau, 1990: 1). By means of confession, in other words, fear in the abstract transmogrified into fear of one’s self.1 Whatever its causes, the epidemic of scrupulosity after 1300 calls into serious question the validity of Weber’s judgmental stereotype, alluded to in chapter 1, in which the medieval Roman Catholic laity lived “ethically, so to speak, from...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.