Scrupulosity and Traditional Moral Theology Manuals


I was doing some light research on the issue of conjugal rights for an email that I am composing, and I came across a blog which has several posts consisting of excepts from older moral theology literature. Consider the following link, for example:

A traditional Catholic theologian on avoiding sexual temptation

In general, it is a mortal sin to carry on conversations, even out of levity, concerning marital intercourse, concerning what is allowed and forbidden for spouses, concerning the methods of preventing conception, of masturbating, etc., especially if this takes place among young people of the opposite sex…

What implication does this have for the many threads on CAF dealing with the marital act?

Honestly this manual makes me want to avoid people altogether.


Moral theology manuals are just that: moral theology. They are not Magisterial. Often you wil not find any Magisterial support for stuff such as the example you quoted. Imagine statements along the lines of “Some moral theologians consider it a mortal sin to blah. But the majority, and the likely opinion that blah is only a venial sin.” How in blazes are we supposed to form our consciences on a matter of grave sin based on a “majority” opinion?

To be honest, I consider them to have been heavily responsible for the plague of scrupulosity afflicting many Catholics.

Some stuff is indeed sound, and for such stuff, they will be supported in the Catechism or some other Magisterial documents (e.g. supporting one in his sin, etc.) But others, such as the quote above are just out there.

I would stick to the principle: if you’re not a theologian, stay away from theology. If you’re not a moral theologian, then at all costs, stay away from moral theology. Stick to catechesis instead.


A person with scrupulosity should avoid reading such material.


Actually, moral clarity is the antidote to scrupulosity. When someone understands the bounds of behavior, it becomes much more simple to adhere to good moral behavior. It’s kind of like the discipline involved in learning an instrument, once one becomes proficient at playing an instrument, it becomes much more harmonious and joyful. A virtuous life is an unburdened, free and joyous life.


Unfortunately this misunderstands the affliction of scrupulosity. The scrupulous more often than not DO have moral clarity: they have a good knowledge of what is sinful and not, on an intellectual level. Further, the scrupulous, more often than not, are also among the most virtuous of people precisely because they do possess this knowledge and painstakingly try to avoid sin.

One who understands scrupulosity would know that neither of these actually help them. Despite their knowledge of sin and virtue, their consciences have gone haywire and are essentially non-functional. This is what causes the suffering. More and more, it is becoming understood as a religious form of OCD, which is a real mental affliction.

No, moral clarity is NOT the antidote to scrupulosity because they already have that and IT DOESN’T HELP THEM. The antidote to scrupulosity is unconditional OBEDIENCE TO ONE’S CONFESSOR.

The scrupulous should absolutely, unconditionally, stay away from moral theology books and material, especially the older ones.


Thank you for the replies. I had a meeting with my spiritual director today. I will try to avoid moral theology writings, which will also mean that in general I will have to stay away from the moral theology sub-forum (otherwise I will have angst over the various questions people ask).

I do wonder though, what am I to make of Edward Feser’s defense of the manualist tradition? For example:

There is also the fact that the priests for whom the old manuals were largely written needed guidance in the confessional, as did their penitents. And that means, inevitably, a way of telling mortal sin from venial sin – grave matter from light matter, sufficient knowledge from insufficient, sufficient consent from insufficient, in all the areas of human life where we find ourselves tempted. If you don’t like this, blame Catholic doctrine.

This I think is quite correct. The scrupulous could quite easily recite by memory all kinds of rules and guidelines, and lists of sins and objective matters for confession (informed by such things as pamphlet examinations of conscience), and yet their minds are utterly disquieted.

However, I don’t think it is altogether wrong to say that moral clarity is an antidote – since the very problem with the scrupulous person is that he is full of fear, uncertainties, and in decisions in regards to *particulars * – but rather that moral clarity is an end rather than a means of antidote.



Such can yes be often correct.

There are degrees of scruples. So I would not say their consciences “have gone haywire and are essentially non-functional”.

Scrupulosity does not = OCD though it can be such - or can be related at times - and those with one can struggle with the other.

Moral clarity CAN be part of the cure of Scrupulosity. It CAN assist them. Depends on the scruples and degree of scruples etc. But YES obedience to a regular confessor (aside from manifest sin like he says - go rob a bank and share!) is very Key.

Some with scruples ought to not read moral theology books (especially those of the older kind that got into all sorts of things and which some things are out of date (laws of the Church etc) (I would error on the side of them NOT reading them). Others could. Ones regular confessor can direct each.

That again is Key. Quite right!


See my posts above.

Yes the “manualist” tradition served the Church well …and has much to offer…but some things are outdated etc (Church laws on fasting can change…etc) - and can serve to cause some difficulties for many with scruples.


The manuals referred to were designed to train seminarians properly to judge many different sins and their circumstances. Most of these would never be the subject of some formal magisterial teaching or other, but are the fruit of hundreds of years of reflection and pastoral practice and are derived indirectly from first principles rooted in the Church’s perennial moral teachings.

These manuals aren’t just some off the wall production of mere opinion, but were approved by bishops and used almost universally to train priests for hundreds of years.

Some respect for these facts, and the concern the Church used to have for the careful preparation of confessors, would be preferable to casually asserting one’s own personal opinion as superior to the wisdom of our forefathers.


I see your point, but the difference lies in Hell. There are businesses/restaurants in the bathrooms of which one will find a sign posted near the sink reminding employees to wash their hands.

I currently work at an early childhood education center in its After-Care program, and back when I was doing my online training I remember being instructed about how staff and children must wash their hands (e.g. scrubbing your hands for 20 seconds). I don’t think most people are obsessive over these hand-washing exhortations or suffer anxiety on account of them.

But then again there is not the threat of Hell behind them.

On the other hand, mortal sin – even one – means eternal damnation should one die in that state. And can anybody think of anything worse than eternal damnation?

The thing with the manuals is that it reveals to us all kinds of things that are considered sins, and the way the scrupulous mind processes the identification of sins goes something like this:

Look, lots of (mortal) sins. Lots of mortal sins because it is so easy to sin. It is so easy to sin because there are so many opportunities to sin. With so much ease and so many opportunities it is likely that I have sinned/will sin mortally. Therefore, etc… insert here all kinds of fears about the present state of one’s soul and all kinds of perceived precautions one must take to avoid sinning, e.g. avoiding people).

Basically its a feeling of being overwhelmed by what seems like the immense difficulty of avoiding mortal sin and the temptation to regard mortal sin as inevitable, hence temptation to despair, etc.


Hence my noting that such can be something they ought to themselves not read. That they ought to have a regular confessor and follow his direction (which can likely be in part “do not read those books”).

My point there above is that such is not taking person without scruples…and making them scrupulous. Not generally. Just as the fact the the signs in the bathroom are not going to make generally a person without out OCD - start obsessing and compulsively washing.

I was noting that there is not some general principle that Christians who are not Theologians are not to read Theology…that was in a way inferred up above. Though perhaps again they were simply intending to steer those with scrupulosity away from reading various things that they ought not due to their difficulty (a regular confessor can advise each).


I will re-post an older post of mine.

A person struggles with scruples - what ought they do?

A person with scrupulosity --ought to have a* “regular confessor” who can direct them --and even give them some general principles* to follow -to apply (principles for them due to their particular scruples -they are usually not for those with a normal conscience).

Thus with their direction they can “dismiss scruples” (in the older language despise them) - “act against them”.

Scruples are to be dismissed ~ not argued with.

To borrow and image from a Carthusian from centuries ago: Scruples *are like a barking dog or a hissing goose -one does not stop to argue with a barking dog or a hissing goose does one? * No one keeps walking.

Such ‘obedience’ to a regular confessor who knows of ones scruples (except in what is manifest sin - such as if he told them it was ok to murder someone or something certain like that) is key. Such is the age old practice.

Also counseling -(especially if one also has OCD) could be helpful depending on the case -but one would want to look for a counselor who can assist one in following the Churches Teachings - not go contrary to them (I have heard CA staff mention

Here was a not too long ago post from Jimmy Akin of CA that I saw in the Register and saved for those who struggle with such.

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