Scrupulosity: a pastoral perspective


All articles published within this section of The Cor Chronicle are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Cor Chronicle

I wish to begin by commending Larisa Tuttle for shining a light on the topic of scrupulosity in last week’s paper. Since this malady leads one to a despairing sense of isolation and loneliness, scrupulosity is rarely discussed in a public forum. If my priestly experience in spiritual direction and the confessional is any indicator, however, many students sadly suffer immense anguish on account of a scrupulous conscience.

What exactly is the cause of their suffering? I have no training or credentials in modern psychology, and therefore I must leave aside the possible neurological explanations that suggest a link to obsessive compulsive disorder. But I can speak about the psyche in its original sense as the spiritual principle of the human being.

From the pastoral perspective, scrupulous people engage in relentless and exhausting self-interrogation, suspecting not only that their every thought is laced with deadly poisonous sin, but that they alone are the unique exception to God’s unconditional love. The questioning and rewinding of past events and thoughts, the catastrophizing of the present moment, the unwelcome ambushing of self-sabotage that dominates the mind: all of this serves only to torpedo one’s dignified status as a beautiful child of God.

Many students, scrupulous or otherwise, are familiar with the following interior words of doubt and distortion: “Divine mercy is available to everyone but you … You will never be pure or worthy to stand in the Lord’s presence … I am never sorry enough, holy enough, good enough, loving enough …”

But it is dreadful to listen helplessly to scrupulous penitents racking themselves in confession; I worry= that they are acting on an obsessive impulse, not expecting the Lord’s consolation through my words of encouragement and absolution.

The scrupulous mind maximizes the minimal hint of possible sin and then exaggerates that suspicion into a grave certainty. One must emphasize the word “minimal,” for that is the etymology of the English word. A “scrupus” or “scrupulous” in Latin is a small sharp stone; in Cicero, it becomes a word for worry, uneasiness, anxiety – an annoying pebble stuck in the mental shoe! The scrupulous mind, however, generates impossibly huge boulders blocking the journey of the mind to God; every path leads into a labyrinth in which the scruples themselves are the devouring minotaur.

What counsel, then, can I offer? I would suggest that practical and spiritual considerations leading to relief may happily intersect.

Those suffering from scrupulosity should never feel that they must bear this cross silently and submissively as a fitting punishment for their existence. I want to reinforce Tuttle’s point in her article: you are not alone in this struggle, nor are you destined to remain eternally alienated from God, your neighbor and yourself!

I would highlight the need for spiritual direction with a priest and an openness to professional counseling. Grace often flows through the mediation of others, and with Galatians 6:2 in view – “Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ” – learning how to identify and then share the burdens of your conscience is one concrete way that you can fulfill the law of Christ!

A consideration of Christ’s own mental anguish can also inspire hope. When Jesus endured his agony in the garden of Gethsemane before His arrest (see Matthew 26:36-46), he embraced all the torments known to human beings, whether physical, spiritual or mental, in order to conquer them by means of His all-encompassing love.

But He also knew intimately the specific sufferings endured by each human being without exception. Your anxiety, your exaggerated suspicion of sin, your distorted sense of your own divine image, were present to Him; and far from provoking Him to do unto you, dear scrupulous person, as you do to yourself, he willingly accepted them so that you could rejoice in His infinite love that breaks those servile bonds!

Christ does not define you by your sins; He rejoices rather in your desire to entrust all those cares to Him precisely because He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7) and deeply desires that you rest calmly in the shadow of His cross.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here