Clarity for Scrupulous Souls: Simple Explanations of “Grey” Sins

“It is so much the essence of sin to be voluntary, that if not voluntary, it is not sin.”

– St. Augustine

Humility is essential for conquering scrupulosity, as is the virtue of magnanimity. We must pray for these precious graces. Apart from these virtues, however, there is another attainable remedy for scrupulosity, namely, a good understanding of basic theological principles.

In this article I will provide a simple explanation/clarification of a few sins that are often misunderstood. I will not necessarily provide a definition of the sin. I think we all have an idea of what blasphemy is, for example. The sins I will explain are: –

– Lying

– Blasphemy

– Sinful thoughts (of any kind)

– Lust

– Gluttony (I will not deal with spiritual gluttony etc.)

The definitions provided are based on the Traditional understanding of sin that has been transmitted by the Apostles and the Catholic Church, to whom Our Lord entrusted the “keys” to His Kingdom. The three conditions necessary for a sin to be mortal/ serious are well-known, so I will only provide a link explaining them:

Before sharing these explanations, please ask God (frequently) for the grace to be humble, confident and loving. The intercession of St. Gertrude- who manifested a boundless confidence in God- is very powerful in this regard.


“When a person tells a lie, he or she deliberately says something that is contrary to what is on that person’s mind; there is a real opposition between what one says and what one thinks.” (‘Modern Catholic Dictionary’, Fr. John Hardon,)

“Lying is in itself a venial sin; but it can easily become a mortal sin if it is the means of doing great harm, or causing great scandal.” (‘The Catechism Explained’, 1899, p. 410)


“St. Thomas Aquinas declares blasphemy (hateful words, thoughts etc.) to be a mortal sin, unless it is committed in a hasty moment without deliberation.” (‘The Catechism Explained’, 1899, p. 344)

Those who desire to love God should pay absolutely no attention to such temptations. Imagine that a child (Thomas) loves his mother. Would he worry about accidentally saying something to offend her? Of course not. Similarly, if he came to know that his mother could read his thoughts, would he then be justified in worrying? Of course not. Nothing, in essence, has changed. Thomas’ mother, having a mind of her own, would understand if Thomas had the occasional bad thought. She would be more upset if, instead of loving her, he spent his time worrying that he was not loving her! Love, you see, is what God asks of us. Nothing else.

Sinful thoughts (of any kind)

“The thought doesn’t make the sin, but consenting to the thoughts does it.” – St. Padre Pio

“Do not be disturbed about bad thoughts; it is one thing to have them and quite another to consent to them.” – St. Francis de Sales

A holy and learned priest of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter gave the following advice: “If you toy with a thought for a brief moment, without giving yourself over to it fully (i.e. without giving full consent), it is a venial sin.” How clear and simple! Certainly we must not voluntarily dwell on the thought when it comes, but if we find that we have done so for a brief moment, we should not be discouraged. Instead, we should humble ourselves, recommend ourselves to God and to Our Lady, and focus our attention calmly on something else. Why spend our time worrying when we can simply make an act of perfect contrition?

Try this and you will find that God rewards your confidence. With what, you ask? With more confidence! … And peace! And a greater joy! Confidence in God is like a snowball; the more we practice it, the more it grows.


“… The inordinate craving for, or indulgence of, the carnal pleasure which is experienced in the human organs of generation. The wrongfulness of lust is reducible to this: that venereal (sexual) satisfaction is sought for either outside wedlock or, at any rate, in a manner which is contrary to the laws that govern marital intercourse.” (Catholic Encyclopaedia)

“… the unbridled desire for one’s own pleasure.” (‘Modern Catholic Dictionary’, Fr. John Hardon,)

“Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.” (Current ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’, 2391)

“… the sin of lust consists in seeking venereal pleasure not in accordance with right reason.” (‘Summa Theologiae’, St. Thomas Aquinas)

*For the sake of simplicity, I will only address lust in relation to those who are unmarried. I will not get bogged down with hypothetical situations and thought experiments. If we know what lust is, simple prudence will fill in the gaps.*

To merely look at a woman is not lustful in and of itself. A child can recognise the beauty of his mother without giving in to unnatural sexual urges; a Saint can appreciate the great beauty of the Blessed Virgin, or the incomparable beauty of Jesus; a man is obviously attracted to his wife. It is not inherently long to look at God’s beautiful creation. Looking at, or thinking about another, becomes lustful (and therefore sinful) when our intention is to arouse ourselves, or when there is a near occasion of sexual pleasure/arousal.

The Scriptures recommend that we practice a reasonable custody of the eyes. We should not “gaze” upon another when it gives rise to sexual pleasure or when this is likely to happen e.g. when “scanning” the body of another.

Some have applied the counsels of the Scriptures very rigorously. Certain Saints, for example, scarcely lifted their eyes from the ground. Their purity is surely commendable, but we are not obliged to do the same. Simple souls should not read certain writings of the Saints, as this may lead them to form false impressions, or to discouragement. It is recounted of one Saint that he would shed tears when beholding the beauty of a woman. Of course, he appreciated the beauty of God’s creation with reference to God.

“Immodest looks. Bold [daring] looks are forbidden, because they lead to sin, just as a parent forbids his child to play with edged tools. The sin on which the eye looks with pleasure soon takes possession of the heart… He who observes no custody of the eyes, is like a driver who pays no heed to his horses; he will be carried away and dragged to destruction.” (‘The Catechism Explained’, 1899, p. 393)


“A) Gluttony is a grievous fault: a) when it goes to such lengths that for a notable space of time it incapacitates us for the fulfilment of our duties of state or for the compliance with divine or ecclesiastical laws, for example, when it injures our health, when it is the cause of useless expenditures which endanger the interests of our home, when it makes us violate the laws of fast or abstinence. b) It is also a grave fault when it is the cause of other grievous faults.

B) Gluttony is a venial fault when one yields to the pleasure of eating and drinking in an immoderate manner, yet without falling into grave excess, and without exposing oneself to violate a grave precept. Thus it would be venially sinful to eat or drink more than is proper in order to show one’s appreciation of a fine repast, or in order to please a friend.” (‘The Spiritual Life: A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology’, Rev. Adolphe Tanquerey)

Final Thoughts/Recommendations

God is all-good, all-knowing, and the source of all good. God knows our hearts; He knows our every good desire, because He is truly the source of every good desire. When faced with doubt and uncertainty, we should reason thus: Dear Lord, you have placed in my heart the desire to love you. I do not want to hurt you by committing intentional sin- much less intentional mortal sin. This gives me confidence that I could not fall into such sin without being fairly certain of it, because you alone have given me this noble desire! Thank you, dear God. Please help me to trust more in you, and to cast aside all useless doubts and worries. Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us.

“Don’t voluntarily dwell on what the devil presents to you.” – St. Padre Pio

“Don’t philosophize on your defects.” – St. Padre Pio


– St. Padre Pio

(Speaking of temptations): “I see you, but I do not look at you: I see you because it does not depend upon me that my imagination places before my eyes things I would wish not to see; I do not look at you because with my will I repulse and reject you.”

– St. Antony

A final piece of advice, which is extremely helpful and should be practiced by all:

“He who remembers having invoked the name of Mary in an impure temptation, may be sure that he did not yield to it.”

– St. Alphonsus Liguori