Skip to content

Tied Up in Knots

I receive frequent commentary about the SA newsletter from many readers. Most find it a helpful publication. There is, however, one commentator who routinely responds negatively to my pastoral direction. He also occasionally offers an example of how scrupulosity manifests. This month I’m sharing a letter from him that relates a struggle many of our readers share:

If I confess my sins to a priest, I have to promise to God that I don’t intend to sin ever (ever!) again. And since I find myself incapable or unwilling to say that, I have been and am delaying (for years) going to confession. Thus I also don’t go to Sunday Mass because it’s pointless for me. I’m now seeking a solution to my lack of determination and single-mindedness. Because it has to be a lifelong one.

This statement is a valuable example of one of the results of “crooked thinking” that’s so often part of the experience of scrupulosity. Here we find three issues, which I will address in an effort to help our community. 

First, the writer misrepresents and misunderstands the devotional prayer prayed by the penitent during confession. Second, he misunderstands who can keep promises. And third, our friend reveals the slippery path that often results from such misunderstandings, which are complicated by fear and anxiety, and lead to an all-or-nothing viewpoint. Permit me to comment on each component.

“There are a variety of different Acts of Contrition suggested in the rite of penance,” according to the Vatican News website. The traditional prayer, an alternate, and other versions of contrition prayers used during confession all state the penitent’s intention to avoid sin. Penitents can’t promise to never sin. They are required to confess their sins as they understand them and express sorrow. The priest is then required to offer the prayer of sacramental absolution. The forgiveness of the sacrament is dependent on the mercy of God. The grace of the sacrament is received to help us try to live a life more reflective of the kingdom of God. Our Lord wants us to do our best to live the best life we can. But God knows no one can ever promise not to sin.

Of course, people make promises that bind them, in a canonical sense, to a way of living. Such promises include the vows the clergy make. However, for promises to be binding, people must be fully aware of the ramifications of their promises and capable of fulfilling them. As a result of the disorder, people with scrupulosity aren’t capable of fulfilling a canonical promise to avoid sin. Diminished capacity, which limits freedom, makes this kind of promise null and void, despite the best of intentions. Thus, even if the devotional prayer in confession were intended to be a canonical obligation—which it is not—such an obligation could not be assumed by a scrupulous person. I hope my thoughts on the letter writer’s first two points will reveal the process that’s at work and help scrupulosity sufferers. His two points bring us to our third point of consideration.

Misunderstandings complicated by the crooked thinking of the scrupulous disorder lead people down a slippery path that “ties them up in knots.” Trapped by their misunderstandings and fed by fear and anxiety, they can only adopt an all-or-nothing viewpoint. This perception is made all the more confining and abusive when the person assumes exaggerated responsibility for the predicament and blames it on their supposed lack of determination and single-mindedness. Mentally, they beat themselves up.

I have shared this letter and my short answers in the hope that some readers might recognize the dynamic that is at work and also recognize the harm that this kind of crooked thinking leads to. 

Does any path lead to spiritual freedom for the scrupulous? Yes, but as I have mentioned many times in this newsletter, it is a journey that fosters management of the disorder, not necessarily a cure. The path does not begin with questions, research, self-discipline, and more obligations. If that were the way to spiritual freedom, every scrupulous person could be freed from the disorder! No, the path requires acknowledgment and acceptance of the disorder, as well as daily growth in understanding the pathological consequences of it that are manifested in each person. Once a person accepts that he suffers from the condition of scrupulosity and takes the necessary steps to learn how the disorder is manifested in his life, he can then choose—with the help of a confessor and the medical profession—the best therapeutic regimen.

My dear friends with scrupulosity, some spiritual practices can help you manage the disorder. Certain therapeutic disciplines can sharpen your management skills. And there are particular medicines that have proven to be extremely helpful. Each of these components can help you control the disorder of scrupulosity. But don’t do the treatment by yourself. Spiritual confessors and medical professionals are essential in helping you “untie the knots” and experience the freedom of a child of God, which you most certainly are. 

Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

Published inCover Articles