Imagine if St. Francis of Assisi were alive today.  Imagine he walked into an average Catholic Church and confessed his sins.  I fear the average priest would laugh at him and call him “scrupulous.”

But this would be a big mistake.  A man’s venial sins are a big deal in the eyes of God, and while no priest should be hard on people for their venial sins (nor mortal sins except extremely rare occasions) a priest should believe a penitent’s accusations against herself.  (A penitent is the person confessing her sins and the confessor is the priest hearing penitents’ confessions, usually in a confessional box.)   A priest should never correct a sensitive conscience unless he be totally sure he is listening to a scrupulous conscience.

Most modern priests have an erroneous definition of both terms, and we will look at St. Ignatius of Loyola to prove this.

What is a sensitive conscience?

Sensitive consciences are consciences which fear both mortal sin and venial sin as an offense in God’s eyes.  Saints had sensitive consciences, and we should want them, too.   A sensitive conscience should not manifest itself in a manner that is prissy or snotty or self-righteous or even horrified at one’s sins in a public manner that is disingenuous.  A sensitive conscience is rather one that loves God with her whole heart, soul, strength and mind and confesses all mortal and venial sins with the understanding that all sins are an offense against an all-loving, all-good God.

We should want sensitive consciences, but that doesn’t mean we should walk around with over-sensitive personalities.  We should have soft-hearts but thick skin.  The saints had sensitive consciences and they confessed their venial sins with real-horror (not fake-horror.)  We should want to confess all our sins (mortal and venial; see 1 Jn 5 for a delineation of gravity) with a cognizance of how much they offend God (but how much greater Jesus Christ’s mercy is.)

What is a scrupulous conscience?

Scruples or scrupulosity is a spiritual disease that is often compared to spiritual OCD.   For example, one may start going to confession twice a day out of fear that temptations against the 9th commandment were given consent.

The notion of scruples being “spiritual OCD” is not a bad definition, but many modern-confessors and amateur theologians believe that scruples are marked by erroneous judgments on matters of moral theology.  This is incorrect, according to St. Ignatius of Loyola, for the saint teaches that “an erroneous judgment” is “not a real scruple.”— Spiritual Exercises #346.

According to St. Ignatius of Loyola, scrupulosity is not when you think non-sins are sins.  Rather, scrupulosity is better defined as when you are not sure if deed x, y, or z is a sin.  For example, St. Ignatius of Loyola says “if I continue to be anxious about the matter, doubting and not doubting that I sinned, there is a real scruple.”—Spiritual Exercises #347.  Thus, scrupulosity is going through life always saying “Was this a sin? Was that a sin?” 

A bad confessor will conflate a penitent’s’ sensitive conscience with another penitent’s scrupulous conscience.  Then, a bad confessor will tell one penitent that his mortal sins are venial sins and perhaps the next penitent that his venial sins are only scrupulosity.  This is a very bad idea for a priest who wants to save souls.  (But most priests who mock others’ venial sins are not out to save souls.  Or, perhaps they choose to mock others’ venial sins because they themselves are in mortal sin!)

On the other hand, a good confessor will generally trust the penitent who says “I accuse myself of the following sins…” be those sins mortal or venial or a combination.  A good priest usually trusts that what he hears are sins, even if it sounds lightweight to him.

Indeed, a priest is called to be not only a physician, but also a judge.  So, sometimes a good priest will feel an inspiration from the Holy Spirit (or simply remembrance of a good solid moral theology book) to inform the penitent that sin-x was greater than she thought or perhaps sin-y was less severe than she thought.  On rare occasions, the priest-as-judge will tell someone that putative-sin-z was not a sin at all.  On even more rare occasions, the priest will have to judge the penitent as non-sorry and deny absolution until the penitent decide on her own she wants to change her life.

A priest should never mock anyone for confessing venial sins.  Furthermore, a priest should never accuse a penitent with a sensitive conscience of being “scrupulous” unless she be truly in a state of confusion of not being able can not figure out if her deeds are sinful or not.  (See the above definition from St. Ignatius of Loyola.)

St. Ignatius of Loyola writes, “If one has a delicate conscience, the evil one seeks to make it excessively sensitive…if one has a lax-conscience, the enemy endeavors to make it more so.”—Spiritual Exercises #349.   Thus, if a penitent is truly underestimating or overestimating her sins, then she is displaying an erroneous conscience, not scrupulosity.  And the priest should equally give gentle guidance to help her ramp-up or ramp-down  hardness on oneself.  

If the penitent truly can’t figure out of deeds x or y or z are sins, then this is truly a scrupulous conscience he is dealing with.  In this case, the confessor needs to be equally gentle, but elicit a strong trust in the penitent to go to just one confessor (preventing confessional-hopping) so that one good confessor can guide the penitent on judging one’s own soul with much, much greater precision, strength and love of God.  In the mean time, she is to trust her confessor as to what he judges are sins or not.  But again, this is the rare case of true scrupulosity.

Normally, we priests trust what people confess are really sins.  In summary, we should all want sensitive consciences but we should not want scrupulosity or spiritual-pride.