In the 1957 movie, “12 Angry Men,” a dozen jurors are assembled for the purpose of determining whether a boy, accused with the murder of his father, is guilty of the alleged crime. The first ballot, though one-sided, lacks the required unanimity to convict: 11 guilty; 1 not guilty.
And so, the arguments begin.
Juror #4—who seems motivated purely on the facts—maintains that the boy is guilty. However, after much deliberation, Juror #4 removes his glasses, revealing marks on his nose. Reminded of similar marks on one of the eyewitnesses, Juror #9 asks Juror #4, “Can those marks be made by anything other than eyeglasses?”
Juror #4 realizes that, for all his intelligence, he had failed to see a pivotal aspect in the case (one which we won’t give away here). Employing a paradox popularized in the ancient Greek plays and myths, it was in removing his glasses that he was finally able to see. Juror #4 then changes his vote to not guilty.
In this scene, Juror #4 underwent a form of intellectual conversion; that is, he had come to see the truth, and—this is crucial—embrace the truth. The embrace of truth is a wonderful thing, indeed. In this case, intellectual conversion was needed to exonerate a suspect. In real life, intellectual conversion is necessary not only to see the innocence in others, but sometimes, in ourselves.
The properly-formed conscience
Previously, we referenced Cardinal Ratzinger’s illustration of the vital importance of a properly-formed conscience. Focusing on the danger of laxity, Cardinal Ratzinger states that “Whoever is no longer capable of perceiving guilt is spiritually ill.” From the perspective of scrupulosity, we should observe that the reverse is also true—whoever is no longer capable of perceiving innocence is spiritually ill.
Cardinal Ratzinger uses the analogy of conscience being a “signal lamp” to the soul. But whereas the signal lamp has gone dim in the minds of the lax, the scrupulous person has stared at it for so long that he’s gone blind. The mind of a scrupulous person is a harsh courtroom in which the prosecutor repeatedly accuses, the jury convicts on all counts, and the defense attorney is utterly silent.
Let’s not dance around it—the persistent bugaboo in the mind of a scrupulous Catholic is that he or she accidently commits the crime of mortal sin on a regular basis. How could that be? Because (depending on his or her level of scrupulosity) almost everything is viewed as a mortal sin.
Here’s an example: a scrupulous person who drops a rosary may be plagued by nagging questions such as, “Did I drop it because I am angry at God? Isn’t that a mortal sin?”
For some scrupulous people, this thought process is common. To help counter these doubts and worries, they need an intellectual conversion, beginning with an understanding of what mortal sin is and is not.
What a mortal sin is—and what it isn’t
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church” teaches that, for a sin to be mortal, it must fulfill three conditions: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” (Emphasis mine.)
Simply put, mortal sin is not the stuff of accidents.
The scrupulous often indict themselves after the fact. Father Alfred Wilson reminds us, however, that as far as full knowledge is concerned, “we must know and recollect its gravity at the time of acting…”
That’s a vital clarification for the sufferer of scrupulosity. Father Wilson writes that while “we must beware of whittling down God’s law and deluding ourselves that hardly any sins are mortal,” we should also “beware of a pharisaical mentality which would make all sins mortal and the friendship of God almost impossible to preserve.”
Using intellectual conversion in overcoming scrupulosity
One thing that might help the scrupulous person is to imagine himself not as the accused, but as the juror. Let’s say that you are a juror in a trial involving a boy dropping a rosary. Keeping in mind that there must be grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent, do you find him guilty beyond reasonable doubt? Of course not. And, for that matter, how much deliberation is really needed before you come to the not guilty verdict?
So why apply a different standard to yourself?
Whatever else scrupulosity might be, we have to recognize that scrupulosity is a fallacy that must be fought—at least in part—by reason and logic. Intellectual conversion involves the consistent application of reason to faith. And for those trapped in a web of scrupulosity, intellectual conversion—the embrace of truth—is a huge step toward overcoming scrupulosity.
Of course, it is not the only one. We must also recognize and embrace the love of God. That is our topic for next time.
John Clark is an author, speechwriter, and a weekly blogger for the National Catholic Register. He has written hundreds of articles and blogs about Catholic family life and apologetics in such places as Seton Magazine, Catholic Digest, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. A graduate of Christendom College, John and his wife Lisa have nine children and live in Virginia.