What is Scrupulosity? A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding This “Pious Problem”
Recently, Simcha Fisher raised the issue of scrupulosity, the state of being perpetually afraid of sin, at the National Catholic Register. As someone who battles scrupulosity, I was thrilled to see someone raising the issue. Scruples can plague a person and wreak all kinds of havoc in his relationship with God. (All you priests are probably nodding your heads right now!)
Unfortunately, we don’t talk much about scrupulosity today, and to our detriment. Fisher had to respond to a few confused readers of her article who thought we needed more scrupulosity, not less, given the state of our sinful world. That they misunderstood is completely understandable: on the surface it would seem like having more awareness of sin would always be a good thing.
So what is scrupulosity, and why is it so bad? Let’s delve deeper into the topic.
A View from the Inside
You’re a new mother. (Play along, men!) Your first child is five weeks old. You’re tired from nighttime nursing and unfortunately you’ve caught a bad case of the Baby Blues, though you’ve haven’t yet identified the problem. All those warm fuzzy feelings you expected to have as a mother? Nowhere in sight. You’re not even sure you like being a mother, though you’re deathly afraid to admit it, even to yourself. You’re miserable and can’t understand why this bonding business isn’t going as well as it’s supposed to. Perhaps you’re even a bit jealous of your husband, who can’t help but grin ear-to-ear every time he sees the baby.
Because you’re struggling to bond with your child, you’ve embraced “baby wearing,” carrying the baby close to you using a sling or wrap as much as possible. Your friends and midwives told you that this helps with parent-child bonding, and by God, you’re going to be the best bonded mother you can be.
One morning, with baby snuggled up against your chest in your brand new wrap, you haul a basket of dirty laundry to the washing machine. As you lift the lid, however, you realize that there are already wet clothes in the washer—down deep and impossible to reach with Junior curled up against you.
What do you do?
Those of you without scruples would take the baby out of the baby wrap, set him down, and do the laundry.
Those of you with scruples will recognize the thought pattern my mind took when faced with this conundrum:
I can’t reach the clothes. We need clothes. But he’s warm and sleeping against me. Never wake a sleeping baby! So do I wait? But we’re almost out of underwear. I could take him out. But if I take him out I’m going to permanently and irrevocably psychologically damage him. I could set him down—it won’t kill him to be set down for a few minutes. But he’s supposed to be next to me! And, no, really, what if he wakes up? But I have to do the laundry…
It took me five minutes to work the problem out in my head before deciding to take the baby out of the baby wrap, set him down, and do the laundry—though not without guilt.
I laugh now, but the agony I felt at the time was horrible. I was crippled by doubt and my always-high standards, further exasperated by postpartum depression and typical new parent anxiety. This scene was just another manifestation of scrupulosity in my life. That I am prone to obsess about the possible moral repercussions of every decision is nothing new; it’s been with me my whole life.
What is a scruple? St. Alphonsus Liguori says this:
“A conscience is scrupulous when, for a frivolous reason and without rational basis, there is a frequent fear of sin even though in reality there is no sin at all. A scruple is a defective understanding of something” (Moral Theology, Alphonsus de Liguori: Selected Writings, ed. Frederick M. Jones, C. Ss. R., pg. 322).
St. Ignatius of Loyola provides an example:
“After I have stepped upon such a cross [formed of straws lying on the ground], or after anything else I may have thought, said, or done, the suggestion may come to me from without that I have sinned, and on the other hand, it may seem to me that I have not sinned. Then if I continue to be anxious about the matter, doubting and not doubting that I sinned, there is a real scruple properly so called and a temptation from our enemy” (Spiritual Exercises, trans. Louis J. Puhl, S.J., No. 347).
Catholic psychologist Joseph Ciarrocchi explains:
“Spiritual guides have long recognized how an overly sensitive moral conscience interferes with living a life based on faith. The term ‘scrupulosity’ refers to seeing sin where there is none. Some call it a ‘phobia concerning sin.’ The person judges personal behavior as immoral that one’s faith community would see as blameless…
“The French label the emotional condition which is sometimes part of scrupulosity as ‘the doubting disease.’ This describes well the dilemma of the scrupulous. They feel uncertain about religious experiences and do not find reassurance through the normal means available to them” (Joseph W. Ciarrocchi, The Doubting Disease: Help for Scrupulosity and Religious Compulsions. Ch. 1, p. 5).
The late John Cardinal O’Connor said:
“You can call scrupulosity an obsessive compulsive behavior, but clearly people become scrupulous over a broad spectrum of issues that are not clearly religious. Because of the moral sensitivity of their conscience, people scruple over the moral dimensions of their daily behavior” (as quoted by William Van Ornum, Ph.D., A Thousand Frightening Fantasies, pg. 5. All further quotes by O’Connor taken from the same source).
To sum up, a scrupulous person:
- Has an irrational fear of sin,
- Obsesses about and sees sin in things where there is no sin,
- Does not find reassurance through normal means, such as the Sacraments,
- Obsesses over the minutiae of both religious practice and moral decisions,
- Tends to blow minor, everyday incidents way out of proportion, and
- Might manifest characteristics of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
I call scrupulosity a “pious problem,” one that occurs not in the spiritually and morally lax, but among those who believe and want to be good. Its defining characteristic is fear: fear of sin, past, present, and future; fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of not having control, fear of causing others to stumble, and, ultimately, fear of God and his punishment.
Of course, there is a proper fear of God that is a gift of the Holy Spirit. This fear is more like awe—a deep awareness of God’s power and otherness that inspires deep reverence and humble reliance upon him as his creatures. This is different than scrupulosity, where a person ruminates over whether or not his actions appease God.
It’s nearly impossible for a scrupulous person to “just snap out of it.” The roots of scrupulosity are primarily emotional and defy logic and acts of the will (we can often see the illogic of our obsessions, which just adds to our anxiety and feelings of guilt). As Cardinal O’Connor said, “You don’t help a truly scrupulous individual by saying, ‘Well, you shouldn’t feel bad.’ That doesn’t do it, and you can compound the scrupulosity with such an approach.”
What’s especially interesting is that a person whose mind is otherwise healthy and free of pathological disorders can be afflicted with scruples. Scrupulosity can happen to anyone, but especially those whose consciences are naturally sensitive.
Types of Scrupulosity
Ciarrocchi says there are three types of scrupulosity: developmental scrupulosity; milieu-influenced scrupulosity, and emotional scrupulosity. Each type requires a different pastoral response.
1. Scrupulosity Resulting from Idealism
Developmental scrupulosity is a byproduct of a deep faith experience, such as conversion or growing awareness of God, particularly in adolescence. In the process, a person can become overly-sensitive and overly-reactive to sin. The person worries about “doing it wrong” and overcompensates by trying to do “it” perfectly, whether that be religious practice or making any number of moral decisions.
The good news about developmental scrupulosity is that with the help of good spiritual direction and a solid prayer life, a person can grow out of it.
2. Scrupulosity Within a Group Dynamic
Milieu-influenced scruples are the second type, representing the fact that “scruples can be taught.” This happens when significant authority figures—family, religious leaders, influential friends—in one’s life “transmit a strong fear component in their [religious] message.” Scruples come when, as a response, the person comes to believe “that bad thoughts will be punished or that only perfection pleases God.”
Milieu-influenced scruples differ from the other types in that the scruples are shared within a group. Catholics can experience milieu-influenced scruples in parish life, in religious orders, in lay movements and confraternities, among family and friends, and even online—anywhere where we meet collectively as Catholics.
The particular scruples vary greatly; one religious group may be rigorous about a particular moral dimension but permissive about others. Ciarrocchi warns against thinking that these scruples reflect liberal-conservative concerns within a group; what truly drives this type of scrupulosity is worry and fear.
A person affected by milieu-influence scruples has two options for dealing with them: he can choose to leave that particular group or he could choose to stay in the group but adjust his beliefs to ones not driven by fear. Either way, with the help of a good spiritual director, he should strive to learn and relearn the Church’s teachings in light of God’s unfailing love.
Also, I will echo St. Alphonsus Liguori and recommend avoiding persons and books that exasperate one’s scruples. For example, for many years I had to avoid reading Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ—that great spiritual classic!—because I felt my own scruples flaring up every time I tried to read it. Thankfully, I’m in good company: there are many, many saints in heaven who never read the Imitation!
3. Scrupulosity as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
The third type of scrupulosity Ciarrocchi names is emotional scrupulosity, where “scrupulosity represents specific symptoms for the emotional disorder obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD),” an anxiety disorder where “the presence of either obsessions or compulsions . . . significantly interfere with normal functioning.”
OCD is a disorder of the brain and behavior that causes severe anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one percent of Americans suffer from OCD. (In a similar vein, eighteen percent of Americans have or have had an anxiety disorder; some anxiety and OCD symptoms overlap.)
An obsession is a persistent idea, image, or impulse that the person views as intrusive and senseless. Usually the person tries to get rid of it. A compulsion is a repetitive act that a person feels compelled to carry out. The act does not usually make sense to the person even though he or she feels required to do it. Compulsions can also be internal or mental, e.g. saying a prayer to oneself in response to a blasphemous idea.
Ciarrocchi lists five common types of OCD obsessions:
- Obsessional checking, when a person worries that they did not complete an act properly and checks and rechecks to make sure it was done. Its corresponding compulsions might include repeating prayers and returning to the confessional after forgetting to confess a sin.
- Obsessional cleaning. Obsessional cleaning “involves excessive cleaning of either one’s body, or objects in one’s environment.”
- Obsessional slowness, when a person uses extraordinary precision and excessive amounts of time to complete tasks.
- Obsessional doubting-conscientiousness, when a person doubts whether or not something was done properly. The person worries about both acts of commission and omission. This can include worries over “offending” someone; the person can get stuck in a cycle of compulsive apologizing as well as thinking that imagined sins were actually committed. Ciarrocchi says that this is a common obsession among the scrupulous.
- Obsessional ruminating involves turning thoughts over and over in the mind. These thoughts are often appalling, frequent, intrusive, and cause doubt and waffling in the person experiencing them.
These obsessions can interfere in any aspect of life, but when these behaviors take the form of scruples it is particularly painful for the religious person. Fr. Thomas Santa, C.Ss.R., says:
Since the thoughts that obsess the person are often understood within the context of faith and spirituality, their experience of faith is marked with anxiety and fear instead of a source of peace and strength. They want to believe, they are doing all that they can to believe and be hopeful, but they just cannot seem to shake a feeling of impending doom, disappointment, or eventual condemnation (Thomas M. Santa, C.Ss.R, Understanding Scrupulosity, pg. 5).
These feelings cloud and impair their judgment, making it almost impossible to move forward in the life of faith on their own.
In treating this kind of scrupulosity, Catholic psychologist William Van Ornum suggests we consider five approaches: (1) behavior therapy; (2) medication; (3) directive and expert talk therapy; (4) knowledge of healthy and realistic religious practices; and (5) encouragement of positive and healthy spirituality. (In the spirit of #5, I offer Scripture for the Scrupulous, guided meditations delivered weekly by email, on my website.)
The first three treatments are the purview of mental health professionals; the latter two can and should be provided by a spiritual director. (In an ideal world one’s director and medical team would work together.) St. Alphonsus Liguori, who himself suffered from emotional scrupulosity, insists that the scrupulous “give oneself totally to the judgment of one’s superior or confessor, as all the Fathers, theologians, and spiritual experts teach.” In short, he says, this is the only remedy for illness of this sort.
Our Response to the Problem
Regardless of the type of scrupulosity a person experiences, the spiritual approach for battling scruples is the same: cultivate trust in God and gentleness with oneself.
Why? Because we believe God’s “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18). God’s perfect love heals our wounds. He corrects us with patient gentleness and sets us on the path toward freedom. He renews our mind and teaches us the true meaning of a “sacrifice of praise.” He does not demand perfection from us but instead grants us grace so that we might seek his healing in prayer, in the Sacraments, through spiritual guidance, in healthy friendship with other Christians, in acts of mercy, and through professional medical help.
For those who live with or counsel scrupulous people, I encourage you to be patient. Scrupulous people often are embarrassed by their scruples. We think others will judge us as weird or crazy and can therefore be skittish in our personal relationships. Be trustworthy—it will go a long way.
That said, also be willing to set clear personal boundaries with the scrupulous person. Co-dependency is a real temptation when we find someone we trust. Be gentle and kind in your approach, but don’t be afraid to say no as needed. It’s the loving thing to do.
Scruples may come and go, or they may be a continual cross to bear. What makes for healing and holiness is not the absence of scruples, but our patient endurance and complete reliance on God. Thoughts and feelings come and go, but freedom is found in our positive faith in God’s mercy.
From the saints:
St. Francis de Sales, Roses Among Thorns. As bishop of Calvinist Geneva, St. Francis encountered a lot of scrupulosity. Roses Among Thorns is a collection of short reflections and spiritual advice for overly-sensitive souls.
St. Alphonsus Liguori, “Peace for Scrupulous Souls” and “Moral Theology: The Scrupulous Person.” Available in Alphonsus de Liguori: Selected Writings from The Classics of Western Spirituality series, ed. Frederick M. Jones, C.Ss.R. St. Alphonsus experienced scruples his entire life and counseled many people who likewise suffered.
St. Ignatius Loyola, “On the Discernment of Spirits” and “On Scruples” from Spiritual Exercises. St. Ignatius also suffered from scruples, though not as severely as St. Alphonsus Liguori.
On scrupulosity and mental health:
Scrupulous Anonymous was founded in 1964 by the Redemptorists. Because the Redemptorists were founded by St. Alphonsus Liguori, they feel a special calling to the pastoral care of scrupulous Catholics. The current director of Scrupulous Anonymous is Fr. Thomas Santa, author of Understanding Scrupulosity (also a good resource).
Fr. Thomas Santa, Understanding Scrupulosity. A collation of over 50 years of advice from the Scrupulous Anonymous newsletter.
Trent Beattie, Scrupulosity and the Saints. A summary of pastoral advice regarding scrupulosity from the saints. Intended for a popular and specifically Catholic audience.
William Van Ornum, Ph.D., A Thousand Frightening Fantasies. A readable yet clinical exploration of scrupulosity and OCD. Endorsers of this book include John Cardinal O’Connor and Mother Teresa. The only caveat I have with it is that at a couple of points, Van Ornum implies that it’s okay to disregard Church teaching on some of its teachings on marriage and sexuality. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater—overall this is a helpful book.
Joseph W. Ciarrocchi, The Doubting Disease: Help for Scrupulosity and Religious Compulsions. Recommended for clinicians, pastors, and spiritual directors.
Far and away the greatest challenge scrupulous people face is finding a spiritual director. Scrupulous people need one and only one director, they need to see them frequently, and that director needs to know enough about scrupulosity in order to help. No wonder we have a hard time finding someone to help us!
My first recommendation is to ask your parish priest for the name of a local spiritual director who might be able to help. (Given the demands of running a parish, do not expect your pastor to be your director—though if he offers and if you trust him, don’t hesitate to say yes!) After that, I’d inquire with local religious orders, if any—those unattached to parishes sometimes offer spiritual direction. It never hurts to ask.
If neither of these pan out, you may have to settle for less-than-ideal circumstances. Try to have a regular confessor—that is, go to confession to the same priest every time, if possible. If you confess from behind a screen, make sure he knows who you are and what your situation is. Do not turn confession into spiritual direction—you still need to keep your confessions brief; Father will ask for details as he deems necessary. And although they cannot provide spiritual direction, you may need to rely more upon a professional counselor or psychotherapist for helping you make decisions and lead a balanced life.