Recently a friend of mine asked me if I could recommend any books for someone who was struggling with scrupulosity -- in particular, the Do I Have A Sufficiently Serious Reason To Delay Pregnancy sort of scrupulosity, mixed with depression and struggles with anger and being overwhelmed. I wanted to help, so i put some thought into it.
Longtime readers will know of my irritation with the tendency of some corners of the Catholic internet, lacking any actual lists of rules from the Magisterium, to write their own rules for what constitutes a Serious Reason and then disseminate them.
My position is that those entrusted with the teaching authority of the Church, as well as the inspired writers of Scripture, knew what they were doing when they didn't, for example, add "subclinical depression isn't a good enough reason to watch your fertility signs" or "if only one spouse is sure that it's a good time to try for another baby, the other one should get in line." The fact that the Church has declined to give further guidance beyond generosity and the good of the family, is itself a kind of guidance: a signal that discernment about family size and childbirth timing belongs not to theologians and pastors, nor to doctors and therapists, nor to social media friends and Twitter, but to a well-formed married couple themselves -- and no one else.
I couldn't think of any books that I could recommend through experience, although I found some promising titles via Google. I know of a number of web-published articles and blog posts that make the case for backing off from pressuring others with the so-called Grave Reasons and minding yer own business, but as it was of course web-published articles and blog posts that helped convince my friend's friend that her own struggles were not bad enough -- that she was not good enough, and if she could only be better she could handle everything, and maybe the first step towards being better was to take on more and more and more -- well, I wasn't sure that piling more websites, no more authoritative than the others, would help.
So I suggested working on recognizing scrupulosity in general, and left it at that.
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Later on this week it occurred to me that there is another sort of commandment -- one that is much, much more fundamental to the Christian life than anything having to do with married life, since it applies quite strictly to everyone of any age and state of life -- that, despite its importance, is similarly light on the details.
We all know we've got to do it. In a very real sense our salvation is said to depend on it. But no one -- not Christ's words in scripture, not the Catechism, no papal teaching document, no synod -- has ever told us exactly how to do it, or how to know when we've done it, or given us a checklist of features of successfully practicing it. And yet this virtue, this activity, is not something that is purely spiritual or invisible; like generosity in the service of life, it plays out in the arena of real contact between real human beings, and if we invite it in, if we practice it, somehow (but no one will tell us how, exactly) it will change the course of our days.
I am speaking of forgiveness. We know it's always necessary: Jesus said himself that we can't be forgiven unless we forgive. We know it must be offered again and again, without practical end; that, at least, is what the exegetes tell us that "seventy times seven" times means to say to us.
But beyond the teaching that we have to do it, and that we are never allowed to give up doing it -- we are not told what we have to do to be forgiving.
How can we ever forgive enough? There is no "enough," because our model of forgiveness -- just like our model of life-giving generosity -- is God Himself.
There is only what we are called to do. And because it is a matter of a call, no one can figure that out for us. We have to discern on our own.
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Let's talk extremes: Almost nobody (unless they are trapped, themselves, somehow) believes that the injunction to forgive means that a physically abused person must go on putting himself or herself in danger of more abuse. We don't say that there is a limit on forgiveness; rather, we advise that forgiveness doesn't require the risk of being harmed by a dangerous person.
And yet... all forgiveness means some level of risk and vulnerability (otherwise we wouldn't have to remind people to do it). And so there is always the open question of how much vulnerability we can create before we have forgiven.
The question is open. There is no checklist.
"If your neighbor commits such-and-such a crime against you, and then he apologizes and makes restitution, forgiving him means declining to press charges. But if your neighbor commits such-and-such a different, particular, crime, and then apologizes and makes restitution, forgive him some other way while you still press charges." Nope. We don't get advice like that.
"If you lend money up to $X and the borrower never pays you back, forgiveness means that you stop demanding the money and you should be willing to lend to that person again. If the unpaid amount is between $X and $Y, forgiveness means that you stop demanding the money, and don't think of it again, but probably you should not lend to that person again. If the amount is between $Y and $Z, it is permissible to take the borrower to court for the money, while forgiving the borrower in your heart..." Nope. We don't get advice like that.
"If a family member hurts you in such-and-such a way, forgiveness means that you tell the person of your hurt and then never speak of it again, and not gossip to other members of the family, and keep going to visit the relative who hurt you, and send Christmas cards, and the like. If a family member hurts you in a different way, forgiveness means that you keep silent about the hurt, keep visiting with that person, and learn to change the subject when necessary to avoid the topics that lead to people saying hurtful things. But if a family member hurts you in such-and-such a different way, it's okay to separate yourself completely from that person and quietly work on your own anger issues without subjecting yourself to further mental abuse, and that is what forgiveness means in that case." Nope. No specific advice.
Look in the encyclicals all you want. Read the Bible as much as you want. There is no algorithm.
But isn't this dangerous? Aren't some people going to feel trapped by the injunction to forgive, trapped in cycles of self-hatred, trapped in abusive relationships, trapped by toxic family members demanding what they have no right to demand?
Yes. It is dangerous. And people are trapped in this way.
And yet it would be dangerous in a different way if we were given such an algorithm, because we would none of us have any room for discernment -- for working out the best way to forgive in a specific situation, with specific human beings.
We have a Church, not a clinic; we have a Teacher, not a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual; we deal with disordered human persons (including ourselves), not with disorders. We have to judge the situations that we are in by looking at the needs of the people who are affected by the situations. We as individuals are the only ones who can see the details of our surroundings. A predictive, exhaustive flowchart (if P then Q) would, I presume, hobble us; leaving no room for a flowering of authentic human forgiveness, it would tempt us to go just so far and yet no farther.
It might serve as an excuse to limit forgiveness, by telling us when we had forgiven "enough."
Forgiveness comes in different shapes, and we have to see the shape it will fit into, in our hearts and in our relationships, and work over and over again to more fully fit it into its place. But it isn't ever done and isn't ever enough. The nature of forgiveness, like generosity, is a nature of readiness-to-serve; never saying "I am done," but instead always ready to be called to do something more.
What that something may be, we apparently have to figure out on our own, for it to be forgiveness and not some other thing -- maybe, a good thing, but something else.