LAXITY AND SCRUPLES
IN every question of conscience there are two opposing factors:
Liberty, which is agreeable to our nature, which allows us to do as we
list; and Law which binds us unto the observance of what is unpleasant.
Liberty and law are mutually antagonistic. A concession in favor of one
is an infringement upon the claims of the other.
Conscience, in its normal state, gives to liberty and to law what to
each is legitimately due, no more, no less.
Truth lies between extremes. At the two opposite poles of conscientious
rectitude are laxity and scruples, one judging all things lawful, the
other all things forbidden. One inordinately favors liberty, the other
the law. And neither has sufficient grounds on which to form a sound
They are counterfeit consciences, the one dishonest, the other
unreasonable. They do unlawful business; and because the verdict they
render is founded on nothing more solid than imaginations, they are in
nowise standards of morality, and should not be considered as such.
The first is sometimes known as a "rubber" conscience, on account of
its capacity for stretching itself to meet the exigencies of a like or
Laxity may be the effect of a simple illusion. Men often do wrong
unawares. They excuse themselves with the plea: "I did not know any
better." But we are not here examining the acts that can be traced back
to self-illusion; rather the state of persons who labor under the
disability of seeing wrong anywhere, and who walk through the
commandments of God and the Church with apparent unconcern. What must
we think of such people in face of the fact that they not only could,
but should know better! They are supposed to know their catechism. Are
there not Catholic books and publications of various sorts? What about
the Sunday instructions and sermons? These are the means and
opportunities, and they facilitate the fulfilment of what is in us a
bounden duty to nourish our souls before they die of spiritual hunger.
A delicate, effeminate life, spiritual sloth, and criminal neglect are
responsible for this kind of laxity.
This state of soul is also the inevitable consequence of long years
passed in sin and neglect of prayer. Habit blunts the keen edge of
perception. Evil is disquieting to a novice; but it does not look so
bad after you have done it a while and get used to it. Crimes thus
become ordinary sins, and ordinary sins peccadillos.
Then again there are people who, like the Pharisees of old, strain out
a gnat and swallow a camel. They educate themselves up to a strict
observance of all things insignificant. They would not forget to say
grace before and after meals, but would knife the neighbor's character
or soil their minds with all filthiness, without a scruple or a shadow
These are they who walk in the broad way that leadeth to destruction.
In the first place, their conscience or the thing that does duty for a
conscience, is false and they are responsible for it. Then, this sort
of a conscience is not habitually certain, and laxity consists
precisely in contemning doubts and passing over lurking, lingering
suspicions as not worthy of notice. Lastly, it has not the quality of
common prudence since the judgment it pronounces is not supported by
plausible reasons. Its character is dishonesty.
A scruple is a little sharp stone formerly used as a measure of weight.
Pharmacists always have scruples. There is nothing so torturing as to
walk with one or several of these pebbles in the shoe. Spiritual
scruples serve the same purpose for the conscience. They torture and
torment; they make devotion and prayer impossible, and blind the
conscience; they weaken the mind, exhaust the bodily forces, and cause
a disease that not infrequently comes to a climax in despair or
A scrupulous conscience is not to be followed as a standard of right
and wrong, because it is unreasonable. In its final analysis it is not
certain, but doubtful and improbable, and is influenced by the most
futile reasons. It is lawful, it is even necessary, to refuse assent to
the dictates of such a conscience. To persons thus afflicted the
authoritative need of a prudent adviser must serve as a rule until the
conscience is cured of its morbid and erratic tendencies.
It is not scruples to walk in the fear of God, and avoid sin and the
occasions thereof: that is wisdom; nor to frequent the sacraments and
be assiduous in prayer through a deep concern for the welfare of one's
soul: that is piety.
It is not scruples to be at a loss to decide whether a thing is wrong
or right; that is doubt; nor to suffer keenly after the commission of a
grievous sin; that is remorse.
It is not scruples to be greatly anxious and disturbed over past
confessions when there is a reasonable cause for it: that is natural.
A scrupulous person is one who, outside these several contingencies, is
continually racked with fears, and persists, against all evidence, in
seeing sin where there is none, or magnifies it beyond all proportion
where it really is.
The first feature--empty and perpetual fears--concerns confessions
which are sufficient, according to all the rules of prudence; prayers,
which are said with overwrought anxiety, lest a single distraction
creep in and mar them; and temptations, which are resisted with
inordinate contention of mind, and perplexity lest consent be given.
The other and more desperate feature is pertinacity of judgment. The
scrupulous person will ask advice and not believe a word he is told.
The more information he gets, the worse he becomes, and he adds to his
misery by consulting every adviser in sight. He refuses to be put under
obedience and seems to have a morbid affection for his very condition.
There is only one remedy for this evil, and that remedy is absolute and
blind obedience to a prudent director. Choose one, consult him as often
as you desire, but do not leave him for another. Then submit
punctiliously to his direction. His conscience must be yours, for the
time being. And if you should err in following him, God will hold him,
and not you, responsible.
Next: THE LAW OF GOD AND ITS BREACH