Many of my Catholic Christian clients who struggle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and scrupulosity “feel” as if they are going to go to Hell even though they are in a state of grace, often providing as evidence the saying, “The path to Hell is paved with good intentions.” If you or someone you love unnecessarily suffers from extreme feelings of guilt and has cited this saying, then this article is for you.
When I help my clients correct their misinterpretations of this saying and accompany it with much emotional strengthening, their excessive feelings of guilt usually gradually disappear. In this article, we will: (1) attempt to discover the truth about this often misunderstood quote, (2) look at the typical sources of excessive guilt, and (3) outline a path to healing.
A Grain of Truth?
If there is a grain of truth in the saying, “The path to Hell is paved with good intentions,” then we must stress that it is only a grain. For example, imagine a doctor who claims to have the good intention of saving a fatally ill mother as he intentionally commits an abortion. The doctor’s actions may be a “path to Hell” if he or she freely commits the abortion with full knowledge of the seriousness of the evil and with full intention. The doctor’s good intention of saving the mother does not offset his or her evil intention of killing an innocent human being. If there is even the smallest grain of truth in the aforementioned saying, this is where it may be.
However, if another doctor does not intend to kill an unborn child, but rather the child happens to die through some medical procedure used to cure the deathly sick mother, then the doctor has done no wrong as long as the doctor was not negligent. In this case, the good intention was still the same as in the first, to save the mother, but this doctor did not intentionally kill the baby. In the prior situation, there was a good intention mixed with a gravely evil one, thus the doctor in it may be “paving the path to Hell.” In the latter, there were only good intentions, thus the second doctor can have a clear conscience (Hogan, para. 12-14). These two examples illustrate that it is the carrying out of a person’s evil intentions regarding serious matters that may lead him or her to Hell, not his or her good intentions.
I have never had a scrupulous client who has freely and fully intended to do a gravely evil act with full knowledge of the seriousness of the evil of the act, yet these clients still often feel very guilty because of their misinterpretation of the aforementioned quote. My scrupulous clients enter therapy believing in the following interpretation of the quote: “If I intend to do good based on what I know to be good according to the Bible and Catechism, but unbeknownst to me I am truly doing evil, then I am going to go to Hell.” As will be explained, this interpretation is false and, likewise, not Catholic.
The Path to Heaven is Paved with Good Intentions
In order to combat the misinterpretations of the quote under question, I have created a truer, more Catholic quote: “The path to Heaven is paved with good intentions.”
Support for this quote can be found in the Catechism: “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself” (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993, §1790). According to standard Catholic doctrine, we see that condemnation comes not from good intentions, but rather from going against our good intentions. As long as we understand “good intentions” to mean “intentions to act within the bounds of the Ten Commandments as we have reasonably striven to understand them,” then we can be certain that we will not go to Hell for our good intentions.
Still, some scrupulous persons may errantly think that if they have a good desire and do not act upon that good desire, then they will go to Hell. The truth is that while inaction may at times be a venial sin, it is only in a rare, unusual circumstance that inaction could be considered a mortal sin. In fact, it is often prudent to slow down and do less, giving us time to see what is truly right or wrong (Aquinas, 1920, II-II-Q49-A3) and to fully realize that unless we have committed a mortal sin, we are still in a state of grace and in loving relationship with God (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993, §1265, 1861).
Am I Going to Hell?
The only way for a baptized Catholic Christian to go to Hell is if he or she: (1) commits a seriously evil act, (2) fully knows the seriousness of the act and its evil, (3) freely chooses the act anyway, and after having done the act, (4) does not intend to humbly, contritely receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993, §1470, 1857).
While my scrupulous clients have not committed murders or written articles in the newspaper slandering innocent persons, they often still feel a heavy weight for sins that are minor in God’s eyes—they feel an amount of guilt for venial sins that would be more appropriate for mortal sins. According to Catholic doctrine, God will not send them to Hell for their venial sins, yet they still “feel” condemned by Him. Why? The answer is found once the sources of their guilt are uncovered.
Sources of Guilt
The misinterpretation of the quote under investigation has very little to do with belief systems and much more to do with the extent that one has been emotionally deprived or “left unaffirmed” (Baars, 2001). Those who condemn themselves, have usually first been condemned by important others, often in early childhood.
As my clients and I explore the sources of their guilt, we often find that they have accepted as true, the shaming messages sent to them by someone significant. When I ask my clients who taught them that the path to Hell is paved with good intentions, they typically mention a particular parent, grandparent, or another relative.
These overly critical and demanding relatives, for whatever reason, often lack mercy, kindness, gentleness, and compassion. Their criticism is often erroneously given in the name of “religion.” They have repeatedly sent the following messages to my clients:
· “You are not good enough”
· “You must not make mistakes”
· “If I am angry, then you have sinned”
· “I determine your guilt, not you or God”
· “You are always wrong, just for being you”
These relatives have or had superhuman expectations of my clients. It is as if they do not know that we all learn through experience, by trying things, making mistakes, and then trying again after making mental adjustments. However, for these criticizers, being a human is not good enough.
Sometimes we try to pour a glass of milk without spilling, but against our best intentions, we spill. When we are children, if a parent grows visibly angry with us over such a common mistake, then we are likely to learn to condemn ourselves over little things, many of which are not even sins. However, when a parent smiles at us and reassures us, we will naturally grow up feeling comfortable with our tiny mistakes. Likewise, later in life it will be more likely that we will feel an amount of guilt that matches the gravity of our sins.
Path to Healing
As is true with most psychological problems, scrupulosity is usually a manifestation of having not been fully affirmed. One could say that we were all born unaffirmed, that is, we were all born needing the continual compassionate, gentle love of our mothers, fathers, siblings, and significant others. When we do not receive such gentle caring, we are left unaffirmed, that is, in a state of emotional deprivation (Baars, 2001).
While an article such as this one can help correct some faulty views, many scrupulous clients will still feel guilty after reading it even though they now know that they are not truly guilty. This is because correcting false beliefs is only one part of the path to healing.
In order to heal from the inside out, we need to keep away from chronically critical people and spend time in the loving presence of affirming others. For this to happen, we also need to work on opening ourselves to receiving the emotional affirmation of such affirming persons.
Psychotherapy with a Catholic affirmation therapist who follows what is called the “Baars/Terruwe Model” can offer a healing source of affirmation and guidance for an unaffirmed person. Scrupulous persons can benefit not only from face-to-face therapy but also can often be helped via Skype (internet “videophone”). It is advisable to consult a therapist to see if Skype or telephone would be appropriate means for you.
A detailed explanation on the importance of making oneself open to and receiving affirmation is outside the scope of this article. For more information on affirmation and affirming living, you may wish to view the video entitled “The Power of Being: How to Overcome Our Spiritual and Emotional Troubles,” which can be found by scrolling down the web page located at http://vaticanvalues.com/power_of_being.
In this article, we revealed that the quote, “The path to Hell is paved with good intentions,” is often misunderstood. We discussed that when we do our best to follow the teachings of the Church, we can rightly say that the path to Heaven is paved with good intentions. We presented the notion that scrupulosity is often the psychological result of having been repeatedly shamed.
We also briefly touched upon how healing from scrupulosity usually requires the reception of emotional affirmation. With the help of God’s grace working through an affirming other, such as a Catholic Christian affirmation therapist, we can move towards living without the pain of unwarranted, excessive guilt. We can heal. We can find peace of mind and heart, rightly sensing that God truly loves us.
Aquinas, T. (1920). The summa theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas (Second and revised edition).
Kevin Knight, Copyright 2008. Retrieved November 5, 2010 from http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3049.htm#article3.
Baars, C.W. (2001). Born only once: The miracle of affirmation. Chicago, IL: Franciscan Herald Press.
Hogan, M.M. (date unpublished). Maternal-fetal relations. Class notes for Medical Ethics course.
Notre Dame, IN: International Catholic University. Retrieved November 5, 2010 from http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c04110.htm.
Libreria Editrice Vaticana. (1993). Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Retrieved on November 5, 2010 from http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/ccc_toc.htm.
Thomas Schmierer has a Master of Arts in Moral Theology and also in Marriage and Family Therapy. Specializing in OCD and scrupulosity, he counsels individuals by phone, internet (Skype), and in person.
For more information, visit his profile at http://www.catholictherapists.com/tschmierer/.