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Mea Maxima Culpa

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From my sophomore year, I attended a private Catholic girls school some  miles from my home.  It was a place run by nuns still in full habit (the “change” wouldn’t come until graduation week my senior year) and filled with girls who were trying to be good.

I can remember how odd I thought that last thing was, even at the time, and I’ve thought of it on and off over the years since.  What brought it up this time was this

This is a blog post, related to (but not directly concerned with) the Zimmerman trial.  It’s not a blog I read.  I found it because it was posted on FB and I followed the link.
Before you go off to read the thing, let me give you a couple of warnings.
The big one is that this thing is very, very long, and much longer than it ought to be.  Any decent editor would have cut at least a third of it.  The woman is manifestly distraught, and she lets that lead her into repetitions and loops that make the reader want to go “all right, already, I’ve GOT it.”
The other warning is that it would be easy to misread this as another example of the kind of thing I posted the link to a while back, that flagrantly self-righteous essay on Paula Deen.
This isn’t that, although this woman, like the man writing on Paula Deen, erects an absolutely impossible moral standard on matters of race–in fact, a moral standard that’s impossible not only because it’s too strict, but because it is, in several places, self-contradictory.
What this is, instead, is the writing of somebody who, in my day, would have belonged to the Sodality.
If you are a Roman Catholic, the word “Sodality” probably has some meaning for you. 
I was not brought up a Catholic, so the word has a very specific meaning to me related to the Sodality society in my school.  Your experience of Sodality may be very different from mine.  If it is–and if it’s nicer–then I apologize for the fact that my head keeps generalizing it.
In my school, the Sodality was an organization, like a school club, run by a nun and dedicated in honor of the Virgin Mary. 
The girls who belonged to it were known throughout the school to be “very religious.”  All the girls I knew who joined religious orders when they left high school belonged to the Sodality.  The Sodality  met to say novenas, attend masses, make the Stations of the Cross in season, do special penance for Advent and Lent.  They may also have done some charitable work,  but that wasn’t something I knew anything about.
What got to me about the girls in the Sodality, or some of them, was the way in which they were religious.
These were girls who had a deep inner conviction of their own sinfulness.  They tried very hard to be good, but there was never a moment when they were unaware that they were falling short.  They worked every day for perfection, but all it got them was a clearer and clearer understanding of their deep and ineradicable faults.
If I’d read The Imitation of Christ at that point in my life, I’d have recognized this as a perennial response to Christianity. 
And I’ll admit it hasn’t surprised me in the years since that so many of the Sodality girls ended up leaving Catholicism for various forms of evangelical Protestantism or giving up religion altogether.
And I  have to give the Catholic Church credit where credit is due. It has seen this particular phenomenon often and it knows how corrosive it is, not only to faith but to everything else in the person’s life.  The Church calls it “scrupulosity,” and calls it a mortal sin.
For a long time, I thought scrupulosity was a specifically Christian issue.  I thought it arose out of the emphasis in some Christian traditions of the utter  unworthiness of man for salvation.
I’ve been around a little longer now, and I no longer think this is the case. 
I think that this is, most probably, a very standard issue type of human temperament.  I think some people are simply born feeling this way about the world–or rather, born with the tendency to respond to ANY moral instruction by feeling this way about themselves.
I’m sure the psychiatrists have noticed this by now and turned it into some sort of syndrome or disorder or whatever, but what’s important to me here is this:  if your mind works this way, what happens to you if you do not believe in religion?
I think that what happens is this.  You find a handy moral code in the swirling confusion of relativism around you, and you attach your scrupulosity to that.
I am not denying that there are lots of people like like the author of the Paula Deen post who are into various fashionable moralisms because it gives them a chance to be self righteous without work, or because it provides a base of power over other people through socially validated bullying.
But I think there are even more  people who take up those  moralism who are like this–people w ho have to attach their deep sense of unworthiness to something, people who have to obsessively examine their consciences and find themselves wanting, people who need to do penance day after day after day.
In fact, I’ll go farther than that.
I think the practitioners of scrupulosity are absolutely necessary for any moral code to gain traction in a society. 
Without the legions of the unworthy crying out for absolution and never really being able to get it, or accept it, a moralism will never become fashionable, and a Savonarola is just some jerk who won’t shut up.
And I think that’s what we’re seeing here–not an overall attempt to replace Christian morality, or even nineteenth century morality, with this new set of things.
I think that what we’re seeing is people who have lost the ability to believe in those things but who still desperately insistantly need something to attatch these feelings to. 
I think it’s no accident that the grand shaming-and-naming guilt rituals of left liberal moral exhibitionism are so  much like–all that stuff they  made the witches and the heretics do.
I think it’s so much the same because the issue isn’t the content of the moral code, but the need for a good hefty chunk of human beings to deal with internal and unbudgable convictions of personal guilt.
And yes, this DOES have something to do with Socrates.
I’m getting there.

Written by janeh

July 18th, 2013 at 9:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Mea Maxima Culpa'

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  1. I remember Sodalities. During Sunday Mass priests used to read out the church notices: the St Vincent de Paul Society to meet at such and such a date/time; this or that Sodality, some other date/time yada yada. These earnest young women invariably displayed conspicuous piety, but those that I knew personally often failed miserably to live up to the ideals when “out of uniform” and back in the bosoms of their families and neighbourhoods. Screeching harridans is not an unjust description of many of them in everyday life. (Just as drunken, often violent thuggishness was the workaday face of many of the pious pillars of the Vinnies and the Knights of the Southern Cross.)

    Was it Chesterton who said, words to the effect that those who don’t believe in God will believe in anything? Well, it obviously doesn’t apply to every such person, but for those to which it does apply, the ferocity of their belief and self-righteousness is startling.


    18 Jul 13 at 11:18 am

  2. One inevitable part of the scrupulosity personality seems to be extending one’s own feeling of unworthiness to everyone else. Like people who lie expecting that everyone else is also lying. If you see nothing but sin in your own self, you also see nothing but sin in those around you (for whatever definition of sin there is).

    So if you focus on sexual harassment, that’s all you see around you. If your obsession is environmental, or climate change or um…same sex marriage, that’s all that impacts you.

    Narrow focus, while thoroughly human and possibly leading to amazing achievement, is not always the best of humanity.


    18 Jul 13 at 12:15 pm

  3. Well, everything but the conclusion.

    I think we’ve all seen that it’s easier to change convictions than personality–as witness Saul of Tarsus, Whittaker Chambers and many others.
    2. And yes, no cause progresses without fanatics. Parkinson wrote that the Kingdom must be immanent to SOMEONE, and seems to be correct.
    3. BUT individual fanatics are only an annoyance or an inspiration, depending on my beliefs and temperament. It’s when someone wishes to impose an impossible standard of conduct on a community that you start having trouble. A sincere fanatic in power is often the worst of governments. Fortunately (?) even when fanaticism is in power, they’re vastly outnumbered by those for whom the sacred cause in only an excuse to gain power.

    Mique, you’re close: it’s someone’s précis of Chesterton, which is unusual. It’s very hard to improve on GKC.


    18 Jul 13 at 12:21 pm

  4. The tendency towards scrupulosity is something I too have observed directed towards both the individual’s religious and secular sins, so I don’t have much to add to that. I don’t really understand the process. It often has the form of refusing to enjoy comparatively harmless pleasures. I wonder if it’s connected to the idea that not eating your dinner will cause children in China to starve? But it seems more likely that it’s a personality characteristic that can be encouraged or discouraged.

    I did come across an article unrelated to this topic, but connected to the idea that every American thinks they will be successful that has come up before in connection to unrealistic expectations some students have of what success they can get in return for what effort. I thought this was interesting, although I know nothing about baseball.



    19 Jul 13 at 8:27 am

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