In my last piece on this topic a few people pointed out to me a glaring omission. Here I will attempt to remedy this and briefly discuss a few crucial distinctions that we must keep in mind.
Suggestion to Sin
In the last piece, we discussed sources of scrupulosity in pride. While it is true that pride is a strong factor, it is also true that there can be other sources of this malady. Let us consider the seven stages of sin broken down this way:
- Spiritual Blindness
Here we will focus on the first three steps. The first step, suggestion, bears upon the distinction between Original Sin and actual sin. Original Sin is a condition, not a moral action. It refers to a darkened intellect, a weakened will, and an inclination to evil. In order to be healed from this wound, all men need the grace of God through Our Lord Jesus. But the crucial point to seize upon here is that a suggestion to sin, stemming from our fallen condition, is not an “actual sin.” In other words, there is no need to go to confession for suggestions to sin. By contrast, as the Baltimore Catechism says: “Actual sin is any willful thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the law of God” (Question 52).
The crucial difference is in an action of the will. Suggestions to sin are not actions of a man’s will, but happen to him without involvement of his will. We will return to how the will is involved below.
What is the nature of these suggestions? Suggestions are thoughts, emotions, and inclinations that are internal. These are known as logismoi among the Greek Fathers. There are three places they come from: the world, the flesh, and the devil. In particular in our flesh, wounded by Original Sin, psychological factors like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can create an overwhelming inclination toward scruples.
Healing from Evil Thoughts
There are many factors that can help heal a soul from evil thoughts. One aspect is what we put into our imagination. Evil suggestions can be mitigated by a strict discipline of praying the rosary every day, practicing mental prayer every day, and restricting all evil images (like movies) as much as possible. This helps keep your imagination focused on the things of God and helps to heal this faculty of the pollution of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Especially if you are a man struggling with a severe psychological condition, this healing may take years. But persevere, brother, for our Lord has given His infallible promise: Come to me, all you that labor, and are burdened, and I will refresh you (Mt. 11:28).
Another crucial point here is that emotions can also be suggestions to sin. For example, a sudden flare of anger may arise in you and be overwhelming. But still, if your will has not yet acted, you have not sinned. You must learn over time to moderate your emotional life. Emotions arise from our sensual appetites, and Original Sin causes our sensual appetites to overwhelm our souls. As we grow in virtue, we must learn to govern our emotional life with our intellect and will. Again, this takes time.
Additionally, on the level of sensual appetites, it is crucial to fast. The reason is that it curbs our concupiscible appetite, which is attached to impurity, clouding our intellect. St. Thomas observes that the vice of folly, which is opposed to wisdom, is caused primarily by sins of the flesh (S.T. II-II q46 a3). Therefore, fasting can moderate this sensual appetite, and this also gives great help to healing a darkened intellect.
But most of all, frequent reception of Holy Communion is essential. In this great sacrament, our venial sins are cleansed. In this we also place our trust in the Lord’s power and not our own. Overcoming these difficulties requires the cessation of trusting in ourselves and turning all of our trust to God. On the level of suggestions to sin, we must have the humility to see ourselves as disordered but to trust that God is infinitely greater than our worst evil. By ourselves we are sinners, yet with God we can become holy. Scupoli says these two truths — distrust of self and trust in God — are the foundation of the spiritual life (Spiritual Combat, ch. 2).
We next move to the second stage of sin, and this is where the distinctions become difficult. This is because under Original Sin, it is difficult to distinguish in our minds when we examine our conscience. This is why, especially with scruples, we must trust in God and not primarily our own intellect when examining our conscience.
Pleasure is something more complex, because we may say pleasure can be found in different faculties and powers of the human soul and body. On the one hand, there is a certain pleasure intellectually, as when a man sees a beautiful array of stars and marvels. This intellectual pleasure is an immediate apprehension by the intellect of beauty and does not involve the will.
There is also a sensual inclination to pleasure, such as when a man who is hungry sees and smells a delicious plate of his favorite food. His concupiscible appetite is immediately inclined to this pleasure. Still, his will has not yet acted.
In these two examples, we introduce suggestions into our intellect that are not necessarily suggestions to sin. As I emphasized above, even evil suggestions are not actual sins. What makes a sin a sin is always an action of the will. Prummer, following St. Thomas, defines as willful act as “that which proceeds from an internal source of action accompanied by knowledge of the end sought” (20).
So we first have the intellectual pleasure we mentioned, as well as the sensual pleasure inclination. What happens next is that your will makes a choice. You may choose to turn toward the pleasure or turn away. In other words, by our will, we may choose to continue to have this pleasure or not. If the pleasure is in something good, then the choice to indulge it is also good. But if that pleasure is in any way evil, then taking pleasure is also evil. As St. Thomas observes, “pleasure in a good action is good and in an evil action, evil” (ST Suppl. q49 a6).
Summing up what we have said so far, the Doctor of Moral Theology explains it this way:
The suggestion is the first bad thought that is presented to the mind: this is no sin, but, when rejected is an occasion of merit. “As often,” says St. Antonine, “as you resist, you are crowned.” The delectation takes place when the person stops, as it were, to look at the bad thought, which by its pleasing appearance, causes delight. Unless the will consents to it, this delectation is not a mortal sin; but it is a venial sin, and, if not resisted, the soul is in danger of consenting to it: but, when this danger is not proximate, the sin is only venial. (Sermon XLVII)
Thus, the action of the will enters in at the pleasure stage of sin. Here is where we may commit a venial sin by “entertaining” an evil thought: choosing to continue to have pleasure in something sinful. We must note here that St. Alphonsus also states that if this pleasure is against purity, it is not venial, but mortal, since these pleasures lead immediately to consent by a proximate danger.
Recall that a willful act includes an action of the will and knowledge of the thing sought. Prummer then makes the following distinction: “if the knowledge is intellectual the voluntary act is perfect; if it is sense-knowledge the voluntary act is imperfect” (20). By this we may distinguish between willful pleasure and willful consent. In the former, a soul simply chooses to have more sensual pleasure — normally venial, unless it is against purity. In the latter, he moves his intellect to intentionally pursue this pleasure — this may cause a mortal sin, depending on the gravity of the thing sought. That is why consent is the final internal stage of sin, which immediately leads to the first external stage: act. This is why our Lord connects the internal sin of adultery with the external, and the internal sin of murder with the external (Mt. 5:21).
In a man’s labors under scruples and Original Sin, it is crucial that a soul seek and find a knowledgeable confessor in order to untangle these distinctions to bring clarity and peace to his mind. If no good confessor can be found, seek the support of a spiritually mature and charitable friend. Read the spiritual classics, and practice mental prayer. When tempted to despair, pray the Act of Hope continually. Persevere in prayer, and God will grant you rest from your enemies in due time.
Who can understand sins? from my secret ones cleanse me, O Lord:
And from those of others spare thy servant. If they shall have no dominion over me, then shall I be without spot: and I shall be cleansed from the greatest sin.
And the words of my mouth shall be such as may please: and the meditation of my heart always in thy sight. O Lord, my helper, and my redeemer. (Ps. 18:13–15)
Timothy S. Flanders is the author of Introduction to the Holy Bible for Traditional Catholics. In 2019 he founded The Meaning of Catholic, a lay apostolate. He holds a degree in classical languages from Grand Valley State University and has done graduate work with the Catholic University of Ukraine. He lives in the Midwest with his wife and four children.