Self-absorption is always a sign that the focus needs to be restored to God, and not to one’s own state of purity.

As an adjective, being scrupulous describes a person who’s extremely attentive to details. Those who are scrupulous get the job done diligently and meticulously. When it comes to moral matters, the scrupulous are known for high-minded principles. If you hire a scrupulous employee, s/he can be trusted not to cut corners, cook the books, or take inkjet cartridges home from the office.

Pathological scrupulosity, however, manifests as a form of anxiety disorder. Then scrupulosity becomes a morbid fear of being in a sinful state. This condition isn’t about having a sensitive conscience: it would be terrific if more people did. The scrupulous person begins to manufacture occasions of sin, seeing the mirage of wrongdoing even where there isn’t any. The scrupulous start to worry that they’re about to sin; or have sinned without knowing it. 

“Don’t be a ‘scrupe,’” a confessor cautioned me when I was a somewhat pious teenager, already convinced that going to confession repetitively was a ladder to greater holiness. This priest was warning me that the road to spiritual scrupulosity often leads, not to the echelons of sanctity of medieval saints I secretly hoped to reach, but to an inability to judge the morality of any action with clarity. When the goal becomes rooting out every speck of potential personal sinfulness, the genuine ideal—of seeking the way of holy living—is obscured. Self-absorption is always a sign that the focus needs to be restored to God, and not to one’s own state of purity. In my case, the early warning got me off a road that could have led to great suffering.

Those who suffer from the mental illness of scrupulosity express anxiety about not going to confession often enough, not confessing adequately, or not performing their penance with sufficient contrition. They confess the same sins over and over, or repeat their penances trying to perfect their remorse. Even so, the scrupulous lose faith in the ability of absolution to do its work. They may come to believe they can’t be forgiven because the evil in them is too great. This, ironically, IS a matter of sin: to doubt the efficacy of divine forgiveness. It’s like saying that Jesus died on the cross in vain when it comes to you, since you personally are too bad to be saved. Those afflicted with scrupulosity should seek professional counseling, in addition to qualified spiritual direction.

Scripture: Joshua 1:9; 2 Chronicles 20:20; Psalms 9:10-11; 46:11; 56:3-5; 103:8-10; Proverbs 3:5; Isaiah 43:25; Matthew 21:22; Luke 1:37; 24:32; John 8:12; Ephesians 3:11-12; Philippians 4:13; Hebrews 13:8; Revelation 3:20-21


Books: Understanding Scrupulosity: Questions and Encouragement, by Thomas M. Santa, SSsR (Liguori Publications, 2017)

A Worrier’s Guide to the Bible: 50 Verses to Ease Anxieties, by Gary Zimak (Liguori Publications, 2012)

Reprinted with permission from ©TrueQuest Communications.

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