One manifestation of scrupulosity is an endless barrage of questions fueled by obsessive or compulsive thoughts. But instead of bringing peace and relief, the answers to those questions bring more questions, and eventually the search is temporarily abandoned due to overwhelming frustration and exhaustion. After a brief and uncomfortable respite, the frantic search is renewed, and the cycle begins again.
This ritual isn’t simply questioning for the sake of questioning. It’s a desperate struggle to find personal reassurance and conviction. People with scrupulosity—the religious manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—ask these questions within a highly charged religious context and understanding: “Despite how I feel, am I truly loved, and am I safe from eternal condemnation? My rational self tells me yes, but my emotions scream no.”
The fear of condemnation fuels the anxiety and provides the emotion that drives both the obsession and/or compulsion. Because of their fear of sin, many people with scrupulosity can’t seek helpful behavior modification, because to engage the behavior is to “give permission” for the sin.
What many people with scrupulosity don’t understand—not because of error or sin on their part—is that all people feel incomplete, unloved, and imperfect. People without scrupulosity also have doubts and feel incomplete, unloved, and alone, but those feelings come and go. People with scrupulosity, on the other hand, have those feelings all the time.
I don’t like to use the words normal and abnormal when I discuss scrupulosity, because I don’t want people with scrupulosity to apply the word abnormal to their entire life experience. But the scrupulous condition is not the norm. It is abnormal to be dominated by feelings and emotions that make us feel incomplete, unloved, and uncared for despite our best efforts.
In moral theology, any condition that distorts a person’s reality into something the vast majority of other people don’t experience diminishes that person’s responsibility. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that God gives all people free will that makes us responsible for our acts “to the extent that they are voluntary” [emphasis added] (1734). “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors”.(1735)
When people aren’t free because of extenuating factors, their actions aren’t voluntary and therefore are not sinful—and neither are their effects. No matter how distasteful the actions, the people committing them are not responsible and therefore have not sinned.
What all this fancy jargon means is quite simple: If you have scrupulosity, you’re not responsible for the questions, thoughts, and feelings you’re convinced are sinful. You have a terrible affliction. You are not generating the actions for which you take responsibility. There is no sin—venial or mortal—there is only suffering.
Does this mean you’re not capable of exercising your free will, the voluntary freedom that is a gift of God’s grace to each member of the human family? No, most certainly not. You routinely engage your free will in many areas of your life, making mature and responsible choices and decisions every day. But those free and responsible choices don’t involve the area(s) of concern in your scrupulous condition. It’s those areas of concern in which you experience the effects of “diminished or even nullified” responsibility.
The ultimate answer to the questions you ask every day is this: You are truly loved, and you are not on the path to eternal condemnation. You have a powerful affliction that robs you of peace. Your suffering, pain, and anxiety are not in any way sin, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel like sin and that your anxiety about sin isn’t real.
Your feelings and anxiety are real. What is not real is your conclusion that the concerns generating the emotions are sinful.
Feelings, real. Sin, not real.
Excerpts from English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church for the United States of America © 1994, United States Catholic Conference, Inc.—Libreria Editrice Vaticana; English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Modifications from the Editio Typica © 1997, United States Catholic Conference, Inc.—Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR