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Finding Common Ground

In ministering to scrupulous men and women for decades, I’ve learned it’s almost impossible for me to completely understand the full reality of what an individual is experiencing. It’s not that I don’t understand how crippling fear and anxiety can be. I’m all too familiar with the consequences of fear and anxiety. But I’m unable to fully understand the unique experience of another. Although each person’s experience of scrupulosity shares some common elements with the experiences of others, the uniqueness is more prominent than the commonality.

In talking with a person who has scrupulosity on any topic, we can use the same words to describe what we are experiencing, but the words may mean different things to each person. For instance, I might say I feel fearful, and the other person may say he’s also scared, but the depth of our fear sets us apart. On a scale of one to ten, I might give my feelings a routine three or four while my friend’s fear is a profound seven. Neither of us can fully grasp the depths of the feeling of the other, perhaps making a useful conversation difficult and frustrating.

This unknowable uniqueness can also get in our way when other subjects are discussed. For example, when I’m discussing mortal sin and venial sin or the minimum requirement for Catholic living with someone with scrupulosity, I become aware that we may use the same words but mean something entirely different. Thus a conversation can become fraught with false starts and incomplete results because each person’s experience is unique. In such a conversation, no one is trying to hide or evade. The roadblocks show up simply because of each person’s experience, religious formation, and the complexities resulting from the fear and anxiety that accompany scrupulosity.

So it would seem that any conversation that attempts to be useful and pastorally helpful is almost impossible, but that’s not the case, as long as the people who are interacting agree on a common position.

If you have scrupulosity and talk with someone about religious ideas, I suggest you rely on traditional, Catholic, and orthodox teaching as your points of commonality, your common ground. If you and the person you’re with concur, you’ll have a good talk.

Official Church teaching is always a good starting point for discussions among Catholics about religious ideas. While the scrupulous condition may interfere with the helpfulness of any discussion, if you keep returning to your common ground of official Church teaching, you’ll at least have a secure base.

Don’t expect a panacea, because even dogma and the orthodox tradition are subject to interpretation. Take the works of Thomas Aquinas and Alphonsus Liguori. Both men are saints and were faithful theologians. The works of both accurately reflect orthodox and traditional Catholic teaching. Still, there are nuances in their teachings that become clear in the pastoral applications of their teachings. Why? Like you and me, Sts. Thomas and Alphonsus were unique. When their teachings clash, we can celebrate rather than feel frustrated because each saint brought unique manifestations of the Spirit of God to God’s table. Trust that their writings are good.

What’s the solution to the conundrum caused by clashing theological and spiritual teachings? I believe there are at least two points where agreement seems to be essential in order to proceed. First, remove the scrupulous condition and perspective from the interpretation of the teaching. Second, opt in favor of the most contemporary pastoral application. Let me explain.

When a scrupulous person interprets a directive or practice, the teaching will always be understood from the perspective, the fear, and the anxiety that is the experience of scrupulosity. The loudest “voice” will be the scrupulosity, not the teaching. Thus it’s important to accept the interpretation of the teaching from the perspective of someone who does not suffer from the disorder. That’s a primary reason that the saints have traditionally insisted that scrupulous people follow the direction of a confessor.

Opting for the most contemporary pastoral application is also important. Generally, Church teaching and teachers have progressed in helpful ways over the years, so a modern perspective of Catholic teaching can help the people in the pew, including those with scrupulosity. All of us can learn. We can learn from our mistakes. We can be open to new perspectives. We can acknowledge that new information suggests new understanding.

Over my many years in pastoral counseling people with scrupulosity, I’ve learned that because there is more uniqueness than commonality within the lived experience of the scrupulous condition, effective management of the disorder requires extra attention and discipline. I encourage you to make every effort to achieve at least a shared and common understanding of whatever subject you’re discussing. It’s counterproductive to assume that we understand what we’re talking about with each other without first taking the time to understand the interpretation and the context of the topic. Failing to seek to understand and then be understood leads to more frustration and an increase in anxiety. Seeking common ground is good overall advice, but it’s particularly important for pastoral counseling and therapy sessions. I pray that we use this advice so we have a better chance of experiencing the grace of God.

Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

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