As one who has struggled intensely with scrupulosity, I can attest to the fact that it is a dreadful experience.  Any seriously scrupulous person, I think, would admit that preoccupation with fear of sin, questioning whether this or that act was a sin, feeling at practically every moment a need for confession, etc., so engrosses him as to deprive him almost totally of any happiness whatsoever.  Being absorbed in this way by inescapable anxiety, scrupulous persons become rather incapable of functioning normally among their peers.  Worst of all, they become disinclined to the spiritual life.  In short, scrupulosity is seriously harmful to the faithful who bear it as their cross.  It is therefore extremely important that those who struggle with it are not left to their own devices.  Through the practical advice offered here, I count this article as a way of offering them my help.  

Before learning how to conquer scrupulosity, I think it is helpful to first really understand what it is.  I found a marvelous essay on the topic for a college research paper that I wrote.  The author of the essay, Fr. William Doyle, S.J. (1873-1917), distinguished between “two kinds of scruples”.  There are “[p]urely intellectual scruples”, which, he says, “are really only doubts”.  Harmless and not in need of treatment, they are scruples of the kind where, once one “become[s] morally certain that the act in question is not sinful, the scruple vanishes”.  On the other hand, Fr. Doyle refers to “scruples which affect the inferior [or sensitive] part of the soul”.  Emotional in nature and affecting naturally sensitive persons most often, they predominate over reason and completely distort moral judgement. They do this, Fr. Doyle maintains, through “the strong impression produced on the senses”, which draws “a force which resists the mere statement of facts” (Scruples and Their Treament, 2).

The faithful who suffer from these emotive scruples are in dire need of help.  Thankfully, wise figures like Fr. Doyle have offered their advice to show them a way forward.  In Scruples and their Treatment, Fr. Doyle offers five general “remedies” for those struggling:

  • Prayer
  • Vigilance
  • Struggle against Depression
  • Obedience
  • Generosity in Self-conquest

According to Fr. Doyle, the last two Remedies “are by far the most important” (Scruples, 5).  In my own experience, I have learned something especially about the indispensable value of obedience to one’s confessor.  Fr. Doyle insists that such obedience must be “obedience of action” and “obedience of intelligence”—and that it must be “perfect, trustful and blind”, although not to just any confessor, but an “experienced ” one (Scruples, 5).  These are strong words; they even make me uncomfortable.  Yet, precisely the problem with scrupulosity, is that it makes one unable to heed these words of Scripture that exhort us: “[O]n your own intelligence do not rely” (Prov 3:5).  Though often with good intentions, scrupulous persons choose always to act and believe only as they see fit.  I think they would do well instead to put their trust in these words of our Lord: “He that heareth you, heareth Me, and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me” (Luke 10: 16).  They should do so like little children obedient to their fathers, without fear that they are giving obedience to man instead of God.  If one is prone to such fear, then I leave him with this question from Fr. Doyle: “Can he doubt that these words spoken by our Lord to His apostles, apply to priests, heirs to their authority over the penitent?” (Scruples, 6).

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  • John Sposato

    I am a scrupulous person. Let me add a couple of additional bits of advice to this excellent article.

    1. Many, perhaps most, cases of scrupulosity involve a form of OCD. Find a faithful Catholic psychologist that will be sympathetic, both to your condition and to your faith. They’re out there, and they can be extraordinarily helpful adjuncts to the care of a regular confessor. They will add a degree of psychological and emotional support to the spiritual support that regular confession with a consistent confessor is providing. DO NOT seek the help of a secular psychologist who has no appreciation of your faith or your spiritual struggle. This is actually dangerous and can impede your search for spiritual health.

    2. I need to be careful with this one, because I DO NOT want to suggest that, if you are scrupulous, you should wallow in your suffering or that it was imposed on you by God to advance your holiness. NO! However, the spiritual suffering experienced by scrupulous people is significant, and there is much spiritual benefit that can come by offering this suffering to God through the joining of it to the passion of Christ. Do everything this article suggests in order to manage or recover from your illness, but, while you are gaining control of your condition through the use of these aids, offer the suffering you experience to God as a way of gaining graces for yourself and others. It can be extraordinarily redemptive.

    3. Consider the Divine Mercy Devotion and praying regularly the Chaplet given to St. Faustina in her visions of Christ. As you grow in this spiritual discipline, you will learn and experience the mercy and love of Christ at a depth and degree of richness that you cannot now imagine. It is both freeing and restorative.

    To all out there who are suffering with this condition, my heart goes out to you, and I offer now the praying of my next Chaplet for your recovery. Please know that Christ suffers with you, and He loves you more than you can know. When the temptation to think that He has abandoned you comes, know that this comes from the devil and our own spiritual weakness. It is a lie, and you should never believe it.

    God bless you.

    • Sean Mitchell

      Thanks so much for your incredible words of wisdom, John. I am especially happy that you pointed out the psychological aspect often present in scrupulosity–namely, OCD. I myself have been diagnosed with OCD and would be the first to say that there is no shame in seeking psychological help. And in my own case, medicine prescribed by a licensed psychiatrist has helped immensely. My apologies if that’s a bit too personal, but I think it’s worth mentioning.

      • John Sposato

        Not too personal at all. I myself suffer from it. We help destroy the stigma by talking about such things openly and without shame. God bless you. We each travel this same road, so we are brothers in that regard. Stay strong.

  • Sean Mitchell

    As the author of this article, I should make a clarifying comment about this line:

    “Fr. Doyle insists that such obedience [i.e., obedience of the scrupulous person to his confessor] must be “obedience of action” and “obedience of intelligence”—and that it must be “perfect, trustful and blind”, although not to just any confessor, but an “experienced ” one (Scruples, 5).”

    I do not mean to imply by those words that Fr. Doyle was suggesting “inexperience” makes a confessor unworthy of the penitent’s obedience. That would seem to contradict the Scripture that Fr. Doyle relies on for his argument: “He that heareth you, heareth Me, and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me” (Luke 10: 16).”

    It seems that Fr. Doyle was simply trying to convey that obedience for the scrupulous person is best given to a confessor experienced in dealing with scrupulous persons, not that obedience to a confessor without such experience would be entirely unhelpful, and much less that it would be wrong.