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From the Simple to the Complex

By Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

One basic truth of the evolving and emerging universe is that all life, all systems, all organisms begin development in a simple state and then evolve into a more complex manifestation. No form of life, matter, or behavior suddenly appears in its complete form; instead, it slowly and patiently evolves. Nothing is exempt from this basic law.

Evolution is a scientific theory, but just because it’s “only” a theory doesn’t mean it should be dismissed. The word theory actually corresponds with a religious word we’re more familiar with: doctrine. Religious doctrine is a statement that cannot necessarily be proved true, but that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed.

In religious traditions, we call the evolution and emergence of truth revelation; science prefers to leave it at “evolution and emergence.” This important point can be illustrated by traditional Catholic doctrine about the Blessed Mother, originally understood and celebrated as Mary being theotokos, the “mother of God.”

As more truths about her role and her place in salvation history emerge, men and women of faith celebrate that she is “blessed among women.” The simplicity of the original doctrine has evolved into a more complex and nuanced understanding. For people who challenge the “truth” of what we proclaim, no proof will satisfy—but we can nevertheless trace the doctrine’s evolution from simplicity to complexity and deepen our understanding and appreciation.

Scrupulosity also evolves from the simple to the complex. When we experience the first pangs of scrupulosity, we think it’s just a simple case of obsession or compulsion, a simple doubt or unanswered question. As the disorder grows, the questions and anxieties evolve into a complex, tangled web. This is no longer a single compulsion or anxious obsession—it’s layer upon layer of meaning, memory, ritual, pain, and suffering.

People with religious scrupulosity often struggle with a complex interpretation of what is required of them in their religious practice, routinely rejecting a simple response and trusting only a complex one. However, a complex response is not a requirement of religious practice—rather, it’s a painful manifestation of the turmoil of a scrupulous conscience.

As scrupulosity evolves from a simple impulse to a complex experience, attempts to successfully treat and heal it also become complex—there is no simple answer, no simple path to healing.

Since we cannot go back to the original simple experience and discover a simple answer, is there any hope of healing?

Yes, but many people with scrupulosity don’t want to hear the solution.

The most direct path to healing is to acknowledge the complexity of the disease and pray for the grace to accept that it cannot be changed. This is where the truth of what is scientifically understood—the movement from simplicity to complexity—can be religiously experienced:

  • You cannot outthink scrupulosity.
  • You cannot arrive at a complete moment of clarity and certitude.
  • You cannot learn and perfectly practice imagined complex rules of religion in a manner that will give you satisfaction and comfort.

But this is also true:

  • You can learn to accept that you have this disorder and that it hasn’t been either chosen for or inflicted upon you.
  • You can learn to recognize that questions with layer upon layer of complex doubt and anxiety are the manifestation of the disorder, not authentic, required religious practice.
  • You can return to simplicity by determining, with the help of God’s grace, to embrace the clear manifestations of God╒s love for you. Everything that seems to complicate that experience may be real, but that’s not grace—it’s religious scrupulosity.

Science teaches that everything moves from the simple to the complex. People with religious scrupulosity can practice acknowledging this reality, seeking the simple and rejecting the complex.

You needn’t be trapped. You can choose to live in the freedom of the children of God.

Published in2015 OctoberCover Articles