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Catholic Spiritual Direction

Understanding and overcoming scrupulosity – Part I of II

July 13, 2009 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Scrupulosity, Sin

Alphonsus LiguoriDear Father John, I seem to be struggling with scrupulosity.  However, when I read St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, they exhort that any small sin or attachment can keep us from union with God.  How do I know if I am scrupulous or just sensitive to sin?  How do I avoid taking sin too lightly?  If I am scrupulous, how do I overcome it?

First thing: if you are sincerely concerned about not taking sin too lightly, you can rest assured that you are not taking sin too lightly.  If, on the other hand, you find yourself convinced that you really don’t sin and don’t ever need to go to confession, then you are probably taking sin too lightly.  All the saints were keenly aware that they were sinners and made good use of the sacrament of confession.  Now on to the heart of your question.

Scrupulosity is oversensitivity to faults.  It consists in seeing sin where there is no sin, which causes us to become emotionally tense and spiritually tied up in knots.  It paralyzes the will, fills the mind with turbulence, and can cause intense interior suffering.  Since it comes in different forms and from different sources (and since the word itself is slippery), there is no single solution.  We’ll tackle this one in two parts.  First we’ll look at the types and causes of scrupulosity, then we’ll examine the practical question of what to do about it.

Sin Matters

Sin is disobedience to God’s express will.  It is a rebellion against God, a breaking of the eternal law.  As such, it offends God (just as teenagers who insult their parents offend their parents).  As a result, it disrupts, weakens, or ruptures our friendship with God.  And since friendship with God is the whole purpose of our existence, sin is our arch-enemy, the source of all unhappiness and tragedy.

Today’s culture tends to minimize and belittle sin.  What matters to a hedonistic, relativistic consumer society is comfort and personal autonomy.  Where does sin fit into an ethos like that?  There is no eternal law to break, no universal moral order against which to rebel, no Father to offend.  This poisonous ethos has a powerful ally inside each one of us: our fallen human nature.  We have an enemy within.  We tend towards self-centeredness (to which any parent of a two-year-old will eloquently attest).  This is why most spiritual directors would agree that a scrupulous conscience is less common than its co-conspirator, a lax conscience.

The essential evil of sin explains why St Teresa and St John of the Cross so fervently exhort us to mercilessly excise every sinful habit and tame every wild tendency.  We must give no quarter to sin and make no compromise with temptation – just ask Eve.  Sometimes the term scrupulous or scruples is used by folks who have made a pact with certain personal sins in order to criticize other folks who have refused to make treaties with the devil.  Their conscience is bothering them, and the presence of people more upright than themselves exacerbates the bother, so they use the label “scrupulous” as a shield.

Personality-Based Scrupulosity

Scrupulosity understood properly, however, is an authentic spiritual difficulty.  It comes most often in two forms.  The first is related to certain personalities.  Whether by temperament, upbringing, or a combination, some people have a strong tendency towards perfectionism.  When they begin taking seriously the adventure of holiness, this tendency can help, usually by energizing their efforts and giving them staying power in the face of difficulties.  But the same tendency can tangle things up.  God works patiently; perfectionist tend to be impatient.  This impatience can take the guise of paralyzing discouragement or even desperation in the face of one’s imperfections.  Keenly aware of their shortcomings, these personalities often equate holiness with impeccability – they can start straining out gnats while they still need to stop swallowing camels.

An interior flash of self-centered anger or impatience, for example, is rightly recognized as a fault – it flows from the selfish tendencies in the soul, tendencies which are un-Christlike and need to be purified.  But God is less interested in the selfish flash itself than in how we react to such things.  As soon as we recognize it, we should reign it in, like a dog that wants to run out of its leash.  Exerting our faith and willpower to keep that selfish flesh from turning into self-righteous judgments, wounding words, or spiteful actions – that’s what should concern us.  If we think we have already sinned just because the flash flashed, we are being scrupulous.  Our sinful tendencies are not sins; they can be the source of sins, if we let them.  But if, with God’s grace, we fight against them, the powers of our soul will gradually be trained to react less violently and less selfishly.  In that way, we grow in virtue.

Turmoil and Temptation

The second form of scrupulosity comes from the devil in the form of a temptation.  In this spiritual attack, the person who is sincerely seeking holiness and has made progress towards it is suddenly confronted with doubts about what God’s will really is for them.  If sin can be understood as rebellious disobedience to God’s will, holiness is its contrary: loving obedience to God’s will.  But what if you start seeing God’s will everywhere?  What if you start thinking that choosing which outfit to wear has as much moral and spiritual weight as obeying the commandment against murder?  Well, you think to yourself, what I wear does matter to God – he wants me to reflect his dignity, but he also wants me to avoid ostentation and provocation.  So what is his will for me?  Which outfit should I wear?… These kind of doubts can also come in even more subtle forms.  We experience a flash of interior anger; we govern it as Christ would have us; all is well.  But then, we start wondering why the flash happened in the first place.  Did I encourage it without realizing it?  Did I allow a selfish thought to take root in my mind, and the thought bore the fruit of that flash?  Am I doing something to displease God that I don’t even realize?… And we find ourselves in a labyrinth of doubts and “what ifs” and “maybes” that really torture the soul and won’t leave it in peace.  It is a trial, and it can be severe, that many saints have undergone.

Sometimes this second kind of scrupulosity can also derive from psychological conditions that are clinically treatable, chemical imbalances or wounds from trauma.  It is not always easy to tell the difference.  Usually it takes looking at other factors and behavior patterns in a person’s life, not just the scrupulosity itself.

Those are the common manifestations of scrupulosity, or over-sensitivity to faults.  More could be said about each one, but that’s enough to lay the groundwork for the next post, which will examine some tactics for dealing with scrupulosity in practice.

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • Tony

    THank you, Father. Very helpful. May God bless you!

  • Ann

    Father, I talked to both of my parish priests and they both said I’m not scrupulous, just sensitive to sin. Though, I really think I am. I think small sins are mortal sins, actually I always think I’m in mortal sin…even though deep down I know I’m not. I’m in constant interior suffering. I also think part of it may be the devil, Iv’e recently started to have a stronger relationship with God…so maybe he’s tempting me? I would greatly appreciate your thought on this! Thanks! –Ann

  • Maria Clara

    I also struggle with this. I have a huge connection with St. Therese btw, who suffered with this. I suffered from anorexia nervosa and have undiagnosed aspergers. I believe the eating disorder was driven by perfectionistic tendencies. St. Therese interceded for me once miraculously. I am in constant interior torment and its frustrating my life purpose I feel and where God wants me to put my energies because I feel I am continually battling with my mind. I have insights that could be classed as brilliant and yet I am tortured and feel as though I am not fulfilling all of my potential or getting a clear direction as to where my life is going.. Please pray. Thank you.

    • LizEst

      Praying for you, Maria Clara.

      Perfectionist tendencies are a real problem. They manifest themselves not only in seeing sin where there is none but also in our day-to-day lives. They can cause family, friends and co-workers to keep their distance from a person because that person must have everything perfect. And, of course, no one is perfect except God Himself. Father John has, as always, written a good summation of the issue.

      For the spiritual aspect of this, I recommend that, if you do not have a spiritual director, you look for one and follow his or her advice. Sometimes, someone with scruples needs to have an authority figure be very direct with them. So, it may even be that the only way to get some peace on this is to bring it up in confession, after confessing your real sins, even though scruples are not a sin but an affliction. Considering that the priest is taking the place of Jesus in the confessional, listen to what Jesus is telling you through the priest. Listen and obey. If the priest says, “you must never confess thus and such again,” do what he says. Put your mind at ease that it is not to be mentioned from that point on.

      In addition to the above, many parishes offer healing Masses. I recommend you attend one of these where prayers are said for all those with a serious illness. And, you have personal knowledge of how serious scruples can be. Often, the priest will anoint people during the Mass. It is my experience that no one is asked what their affliction is during these Masses. You can double-check that, if you like, before going. Remember, the holy sacrifice of the Mass is very powerful medicine. And, God wants to give you peace and that eternal happiness, joy and love that can only be found in Him.

      God bless you Maria Clara. You are on the right path.

    • Becky Ward

      A Perfectionist’s Prayer:
      As you have instructed Lord, I will allow myself to be less than perfect today, and I will extend that same courtesy to others, as I seek only to do Your Will through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

  • wolfman91

    This podcast will offer some help for the scrupulous: http://thescrupulouscatholic.wordpress.com/the-scrupulous-catholic-podcast/

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QJPSTEVMQAO3LALLJEHDGQTXOI Teresa

    Father I have experienced these flashes of anger during reading scripture it parlyzes my soul. I am not mad at God. I fear this so much and tears come down so much. I have suffered trauma and abuse but I am not thinking about it during reading scripture yet it comes so strong. The temptation is to rip the bible. But why? I am at a lost of this. I have even more worse ones praying the chaplet  of divine mecy and rosary and intensifies so much when I have felt I have sinned. I need to get an understanding of this. Is this pride? I am concerned as I do have a spiritual director but he is not a priest so how am I to bring this up. Do I need to confess this. I have been because often I feel it is a mortal sin and I dont want to recieve holy commuion until I have confessed this. I have started going to daily Mass and I am worried I may recieve Jesus in the state of Mortal Sin. This is so discouraging and I keep promising Jesus to not do this but I do. I need  guidance on this.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/QJPSTEVMQAO3LALLJEHDGQTXOI Teresa

    Temptations that lead to sin are not supplies right. It is when you think you have sinned but have not. But how do I know if I have sinned since some of my thoughts are uncontrollable. It is difficult to discern and so I bring all of them to confession because I am not just sure. I am not clear as to what the difference between temptation and sin of thought? Only if one is uncontrolled temptation and other is controlled sin. I would like more clarity on this matter.

  • LizEst

    Teresa – I have read this post and the one you left a few days ago.  A temptation is just that – a hint, an urge that you should do or think or not do or not think something.  Everyone gets tempted.  Remember, even Jesus was tempted…and Jesus never sinned.  So, please understand that a temptation is not a sin.

    For sure, temptations are a tool of the world, the flesh and the devil.  To sin, you have to agree to the temptation, even if you don’t carry it out.  You have to have full knowledge of the temptation and agree to it. 

    Let me give you an example:  let’s say you are reading Scripture and the temptation comes to rip up the Bible.  But you don’t agree to it.  You don’t do it.  You have not sinned. 

    On the other hand, let’s say the same temptation comes to rip up the Bible and you give in to it and say yes to it in some way.  That’s where the sin is, even if you don’t tear it up.  So, if think it is a good idea to destroy the Bible, then that’s the sin is in your thoughts.  If you go ahead and do it, it is worse!  But, as long as you are fighting against it, it is not a sin.

    When a temptation comes, pray against it.  Distract your mind to something good.  The devil would have you stop your prayers and pious practices because you are receiving many graces from them.  He would have you fall into depression and despair because of what has happened in the past.  One saint, when temptations came, used to say to the devil something like, “I didn’t start this (prayer, Scripture reading, chaplet) because of you, and I’m not going to finish it because of you.” 

    One caution, we are not a match for the devil, so do not think you can do this on your own.  It is Christ who delivers us.  I do recommend you see a priest about this.  Temptations to do violence to holy things, although they can happen to anyone, if they are extremely strong, can be a sign that the devil has more than a passing interest in you.  Take this to a priest so he can evaluate the situation and give you some additional advice.

    Here are a couple more resources for you. 
    1. This is a link for Catholic therapists: http://www.catholictherapists.com/
    2. Many here have recommended a book:  “Unbound” by Neal Lozano (and also his book “Resisting the Devil”).

    God bless you Teresa…and give you peace.  My prayers for your healing.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/MGEE5L6JWXSXFIYXC2UAQNNWO4 Patricia

      Thank you I will get this book. I do have a counselor. Patricia and Teresa are the same person. I offten use my confimation name.

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