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Catholic Spiritual Direction

Understanding and overcoming scrupulosity – Part II of II

July 21, 2009 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Scrupulosity

Alphonsus Liguori

Editor’s Note:  In part I, we looked at how sin matters and factors of personality, temptation and turmoil that play a part in scrupulosity.

Dear 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?

The word “scrupulous” comes from a Latin word meaning “pebble.”  Like a scale that registers the weight of even the tiniest pebble, the scrupulous conscience is thrown into doubts about its love for God and fidelity to God’s will by tiny faults or questions that, objectively, should not disturb its peace.  Scrupulous people feel intense anxiety after confession: “Did I confess everything?  Did I confess sincerely?  Did I explain everything sufficiently?”  They also often feel debilitating anxiety about whether or not they are truly in the state of grace, and whether they should receive communion (when we sincerely doubt whether we are in the state of grace, we should make as sincere an act of contrition as we can, and then receive holy Communion).  As we explained in the last post, this condition of over-sensitivity can cause great interior suffering.

Whether scruples arise from a combination of personality and circumstance, or whether they are more developed and a true trial allowed by God and sent by the devil, the direct remedy is the same.  It consists of practicing the virtue of obedience.  This is simpler for those in the religious life than in the lay life.  Nevertheless, the principle is the same.  Scrupulosity is like a temporary darkening of the conscience; one’s interior compass has gone haywire and you can’t tell what direction you are going in.  The only way out is to let oneself be guided by an objective party, a confessor or a spiritual director who knows how to listen, is experienced in the spiritual life and in guiding others, and whom you can trust solidly.   If you don’t have a regular confessor or spiritual director, but you find yourself suffering from scruples, that should be a good motivation to ask God to help you find one, then go looking.

The Task of Obedience
When you explain the situation to your director, explain fully why you think you suffering from scruples.  The director will listen to the description of your situation, ask some questions, and restate what you have said in such a way that they show they have understood clearly.  They may either confirm your suspicion that this is indeed a case of scruples, or they may offer another explanation – a misunderstanding about the difference between venial and mortal sin, a misunderstanding about the nature of a particular sin, another psychological factor… In either case, the key step for you is to obey.  Trust that God will use your director to guide you, as he has used directors to guide all the saints.  Your director will probably give you some very specific and firm points of work and instruct you to report on them.  For instance, as regards the sacrament of reconciliation, he may instruct you to confess specifically only your mortal sins, and to confess all your venial sins together, as a group.  He may instruct you to absolutely discard any doubts about whether you have sinned, practically ordering you to admit as sin only those actions where you have absolute, mathematical certitude.  He may instruct you, even without giving reasons (scruples can blind our capacity to reason clearly), never to confess again past sins that you have already confessed.  He may even tell you that if you do not trust him enough to obey, he will help you find another spiritual director whom you can trust.  These kinds of instructions may be hard for you to fulfill, but fulfill them you must, if you want to make your way though the dark valley of scrupulosity and emerge back into the interior peace of a healthy, balanced conscience.

The very nature of the cure, firm and faith-guided obedience to a trustworthy confessor or spiritual director, shows why God at times permits his children (us) to suffer this painful trial: it is an excellent workout for the virtue of humility, and it is a sure way to purify us from hidden attachments.

In our day and age, a lax and lazy conscience is more often met than a scrupulous one.  In either case, however, the first sign that we are deviating from the true path of moral and spiritual growth is usually inner turbulence.  Our God is a God of peace, and his peace goes deep.  When we lose it, that may be because we are trying to paddle through the shallow muskeg of an apparent shortcut.

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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  • James

    After reading these articles on scrupulosity I am able to see myself very clearly as I believe I struggle immensly with scrupulosity.

    I have the stongest desire to please God and do his will in my daily life. However I become preoccupied with my failings and faults as I see this breaks my relationship with God . I often try to be the perfectionist, and accuse myself of sin however big or small. I feel a sense of turmoil and discouragement in my spiritual life. I struggle with not wanting to take sin to lightly and being scrupulose. However Father I thank you for your articles to allow me to see what I am struggling with. Now I need to get on the path of dealing with my Scrupulosity.

    Please pray for me. It is difficult to deal with.

    • Masouza61

      I am praying for you! What city do you live in!

      • History-maker

        Please,pray for me too. My name is Diana.Thank you!

        • Becky Ward

          I will pray for you too Diana!

  • Guest

    Thank you Fr. John for these two articles. Self-doubt has been my major struggle as I endeavour to live my Faith. From you 2 articles, I have learned what to look out for and have seen where I have been going wrong by tormenting myself with past sins which I have already confessed. At times, I doubt my intention and motives in perservering to live in Santifying Grace and this disturbs my peace. However, I have benefitted immensely from these two artcles and I shall discuss them with the Priest who is aware of my emotional condition and whom I have requested to be my Spiritual Director and he has consented. God bless you Father. And thank you for promising to pray for us who rely on your Website to assist us in your earthly journey to our Eternal Home. May God bless you immensely in the coming New year 2010 and beyond

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  • Tony

    Thank you, again, Father. Thanks be to God, above all.

  • Mtaddei

    There is some research to suggest that the post birth period of some women sometimes includes a scrupulosity.  For some it is need of physical order and for others it is of spiritual order.  My understanding is that this challenge may also accompany other hormonal and stress situations.

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

    Father ok from what you have said I should discuss this with my spiritual director that I could have scrupples. Am I attached to my trauma and abuse? It seems so dysfunctional if there is such a thing of holy amneshia. I have been so discouraged about scrupples as it does leave me in such interior pain and suffering. I have alot of shame and guilt and with that I bring it to confession. I just need a whole lot of prayers.

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

    Are serious temptations should be confessed or is it following scruples.

    • LizEst

      Teresa – A short answer to your question:  Serious temptations are just that.  They are temptations and not sins.  They are not to be confessed as sins.  Yes, you are being scrupulous, or “following scruples”, if you confess temptations as sins.

      Now, that I have said that, it is not wrong to tell the priest in confession that you are having serious temptations and would like to get some help for them.  You could ask him for his advice.  Or, you could ask to talk to him outside of confession to discuss these serious temptations and what can be done about them.

      Please take a look at the response to your questions in Part I, which I posted here:  http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog/2009/07/13/understanding-and-overcoming-scrupulosity-part-i/comment-page-1#comment-13925

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

        Thanks LizEst. I will look at that!

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