Stubbornness is the biggest obstacle to taking the long journey of learning how to manage and then managing the scrupulous condition. This impediment has no other rival. Until it is acknowledged and appropriate steps are taken to correct the situation, there is no effective way to begin to learn important management skills and healing.
Some refuse to consider that their beliefs about their own experience of scrupulosity might be inaccurate. That is the most concerning manifestation of stubbornness. Scrupulosity sufferers often stick to their incorrect perception because they have invested research into it. However, the information they glean is erroneous and prevents them from managing the disorder. The result? Confusion and the maintenance of a roadblock to healthy choices. Unless the proper focus and remedies are applied, the suffering caused by the disorder remains unchecked.
The most common error that sufferers make is their inability to acknowledge the full context of an action they identify as potentially sinful. Context is important, but context is often discarded or improperly engaged. When the full context of an action is unknown, understood, or engaged as part of a decision-making process, perception and understanding get skewed.
To illustrate, a woman who recently corresponded with me insisted that certain actions were always mortal sins, regardless of the context of the actions. She insisted that no circumstance could change the designation. She was particularly insistent that “full freedom and consent of the will” was always engaged when a person committed such a sin. I stated otherwise, noting that freedom could be compromised in such a manner as to deprive a person of true freedom and responsibility. I presented the moral argument that religious obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) limits freedom, meaning no sin could result from the actions of a person with religious OCD.
She was having nothing of my argument and insisted that people with religious OCD could set aside their OCD (or it could go into remission) and have the necessary freedom to commit a sin. Her stubbornness caused her to dismiss all of Catholic moral teaching, argue for an imagined moment where religious OCD was not present, and effectively commit herself to maintaining her scrupulous condition. She would not see that her argument was coming from her disorder.
She could not perceive that she was committing herself to persistently doubt her decision-making process. Could a person with religious OCD set aside religious OCD to sin? No, that could not happen. Scrupulous people usually assume the worst and would consistently determine that they therefore freely choose serious sin. This line of thinking is self-sabotage and maintains the disorder. It prevents any chance for management of the disorder in a healthy manner.
In the orthodox Catholic moral tradition, some disorders are so serious that they are understood as always limiting freedom. Such disorders are understood as perpetual and antecedent. Perpetual means the disorder cannot be cured and is always present. Antecedent means that if a person has the disorder, it is operative before, during, and after the decision-making process.
Religious OCD is an example of a disorder that is both perpetual and antecedent. It cannot be cured. It can only be managed. The presence of the disorder severely limits freedom. This means people with religious OCD are always concerned about their relationship with God. They are always anxious and unsettled that they may choose or permit an action that might displease God. And to them, the displeasing action is always serious. No exceptions. If religious OCD is not managed, that is what they believe. Friends, how could people suffering with this disorder consciously choose to commit a sin that severs their relationship with God? They want to please God, not offend God. I find it impossible to believe that people with religious OCD might somehow, even for a few seconds, lay aside their OCD, choose to commit a serious sin, and then take up the OCD again. If that was even remotely possible, why would they not choose to lay their OCD aside on other occasions? The whole scenario is ludicrous.
I pray for the woman with whom I have been in correspondence about this issue. I pray she lets go of her stubbornness, considers the alternative, and chooses to take her healing journey. I know it is scary to confront scrupulosity, but it is necessary in order to be truly free and healthy.
Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR