I worried about hell a lot when I was 11 years old. My older brother once coaxed me into saying the first syllable of “helicopter” aloud. I panicked and cried hysterically for an hour, certain I was destined to suffer for eternity for uttering a blasphemy. I spent afternoons in my bedroom closet pawing glow-in-the-dark rosaries as I sought atonement for my perceived misdeeds.
When I turned 12 in 1971 and could barely be coaxed out of bed, sick with worry about the state of my sin-soaked soul, my mother took me to a doctor who told her that I was suffering from “acute scrupulosity.” He explained that acute scrupulosity is a mental condition, a sub-variant of obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which a person suffers a pathological degree of moral fastidiousness often based on the fear of committing a mortal sin. The illness is well documented in the psychological community as well as in the Church. Catholic leaders recognize the danger of this condition; even Saint Ignatius declared that acute scrupulosity was a “dangerous trap laid by the devil to keep the soul enslaved.” It has also been described as a “widespread pernicious ailment” by early popes.
I later learned that the onset of puberty combined with a tendency toward scrupulosity can land a one-two punch in the vulnerable psyche. It certainly did with me. Every sexual feeling or impulse, every fleeting jealous thought, every unkind word sent me into a spiral of worry, fear and anxiety. I wandered around in a daze, disassociated (Am I even real? Is the world real?) weepy, weak and feeling worthless. I tried to play the part of a free-spirited teen, but I lived in fear of missing Mass on Sunday.
Though I didn’t physically harm myself, my mind turned against me with constant accusations about what wrongs I committed. When I accidentally walked out of a Chinese restaurant holding onto the cloth napkin provided during dinner, I insisted on walking 10 blocks back to return it. If my mother became upset by something done by my brother, who was addicted to drugs, I scoured my conscience to glean whether there was something I had done or not done to cause her unhappiness. The internal verdict was always “guilty.”
I attended Catholic school for eight years taught by nuns who used physical force starting in first grade. I eagerly absorbed the Church’s teachings about an all-knowing merciless God through them. I was hungry to know what I had done wrong, and they fed me. I craved the order of their lists: greed, lust, gluttony, limbo, purgatory, heaven, hell. I yearned for the loving approval of Mother Mary.
“Lord, I am not worthy,” I said, and I believed it until it made me feel sick and satisfied at the same time.
But I barely needed God to judge me. I was more vigilant, more punitive, more exacting than he was. I could barely wait for confession on Saturday afternoons, when I reported on all that I had done wrong the week before.
I attended a public high school, moved to New York City to attend college, and experimented with doing something “wrong” now and then. I delved into meditation, read deeply about other spiritual practices. I met, fell in love with and married a Jewish man. I thought I was free of intense guilt, but later, during the early stages of both of my pregnancies, I felt certain that if a birth defect were detected, I would be crushed under the weight of opting for an abortion. Though I never had to face that dilemma, it became an obsession. It was the psycho-religious equivalent of pre-gaming. It was pre-sinning.
I’m much better now -- 22 years of therapy, mood stabilizers and a happy home have brought me a long way. But even in my “evolved” state, I almost always feel guilty about something, from forgetting a friend’s birthday to climate change. What could I have done to make a difference? Guilt has worn grooves in my brain, and I default to its power in many aspects of my life -- from motherhood to citizenship to my weight.
While acute scrupulosity affects individuals in other religions, it turns out it is weirdly common for Catholics. According to some surveys from the 1940s and ’50s, one quarter of American Catholic high school students and one in every seven Catholic college students suffered from scrupulosity. We Catholics were loaded with guilt, but why, I wonder, does the Church itself almost always avoid the term as it grapples with its abuse crisis?
I am among the ranks of raised-Catholics who are furious at the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church when it comes to the notion of guilt and the weekly revelations about abuse. Its evil acts and deliberate ignorance of those who committed them have ruined thousands of lives and destroyed the faith of many more. By doing so, the Church has thrown away the value of any of its worthy deeds. Statements, treatises and lectures from the pope and his representatives contain thousands of words in reaction to the accusations but rarely, if ever, the word “guilt.” Apparently it’s too fraught, too definite, too legal, too final.
Instead of guilt, the Church accepts outright denials.
“I absolutely deny participating, in any way, in the acts which I’m slanderously being accused of,” the Chilean newspaper La Tercera quoted the Rev. Cristian Precht Bañados as saying, according to a statement from the Archdiocese of Santiago. After years of defending those who concealed Precht’s abuse, he was finally defrocked by the pope.
Defrocking is a slap on the wrist, a weak watery response. It in no way deprives him of personal freedom. It in no way imparts guilt upon his protectors.
“The Body of Christ is lacerated by the evil of sexual abuse,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We prayed the Angelus together for God’s mercy and strength as we work to heal the wounds. We look forward to actively continuing our discernment together identifying the most effective next steps." To which I say, there’s no need for discernment. That’s too fine a notion for the blunt emotional and physical trauma you caused. The Church does not deserve discernment.
“God weeps” for the sexual abuse of children, Pope Francis said after meeting with victims in September 2015. But no mention of guilt. No “we deserve everything we have coming to us.” Bring it on. No contest. Tell us where to sign our confession.
In a 2,000-word “Letter to the People of God” issued in August, the pope wrote: “May fasting and prayer open our ears to the hushed pain felt by children.” Isn’t being the leader of hundreds of clerics who raped children enough to do that? What about: “I was in charge. I’m guilty. I resign and hand over every possession and asset of the Church to the victims?”
“The archdiocese [of Galveston-Houston] deeply regrets such a fundamental violation of trust, and commits itself to eliminating such unacceptable actions.” But not, “We are guilty as charged.” No “we will turn over every document, decline all statute of limitation defenses, stop vilifying victims.” No “we admit our liability, our felonies and turn over the issue of damages to the civil and criminal courts.”
DiNardo further stated that the Church is “relying upon consultation with experts, laity, and clergy, as well as the Vatican." What about taking the victims' words on face value and ordering abusers and their protectors to appear at the nearest police station to record a statement in which they identify their acts and ask for the most severe punishment? That’s how the Church trained me to act. Confess or risk damnation.
I realize what I’m asking the Church to do is a pure fantasy. There are insurance companies and consultants and a million unimaginable Machiavellian machinations behind the Vatican’s curtain. No one’s going to advise the Church to admit it all without putting up a fight. Though the Church is asking for mercy and appears contrite, it is using much of the same legal strategy as secular predators such as Bill Cosby.
I can’t say that suffering from acute scrupulosity was all bad. Holding myself to those ridiculously high standards has fostered a sense of fairness and compassion. I am the one to whom my family turns for advice when faced with a moral conundrum. My Jewish in-laws refer to me at the rebbetzin.
But I don’t worry about hell like I used to when I was 11. Nowadays, I swear without feeling guilty, especially when someone mentions the Church’s effort to save its reputation. I don’t need a rosary or a priest’s absolution to feel whole and worthwhile. I refuse to feel guilty turning my back on an institution determined to hide behind its wealth and power.
From the parish priest to the pope, I strain my ear to hear the refrain “mea culpa.” But to me, there is nothing but silence.
Patricia Lawler Kenet is a writer living in New York City.