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It is almost impossible to engage in a discussion about thoughts with a person with scrupulosity. It does not matter what kind of thoughts the discussion might include: intrusive, deliberate, creative, anxious, sexual, harmless, blasphemous, whatever. For a scrupulous person who struggles with her or his personal experience about thoughts, we can presume that the person believes the thought and the feeling associated with the thought is sinful or potentially sinful. As a result, discussions deteriorate quickly into ones about moral choice and responsibility. It is seemingly unavoidable.

Even though such conversations are unavoidable, quite sincere, and many times even intense, they are misdirected. Thoughts are not the issue, which is difficult for scrupulous people to understand and appreciate. The issue is anxiety. Everyone has thoughts, even Jesus did. Even some of his thoughts were intrusive. 

Anxiety that is persistent and permanently a manifestation of the individual human experience of life is a disorder. As a disorder, it is the primary subject matter and focus in any conversation about feelings, emotions, thinking, or virtually any topic. Anxiety pretty much corners the entire scope of any conversation with a person who suffers from a severe case of it. Scrupulous people are anxious people.

To try to help a scrupulous person by steering him or her to the Bible, the catechism, the teachings of the saints, and any other seemingly useful avenue to help change their ideas about their thoughts is a dead end. This hopeless path leads to confusion and complicates any healthy process of growth and development. This is an unnecessary detour because, again I repeat, the issue is not thoughts. The issue is anxiety. The anxiety will keep scrupulous people from profiting from any information used to help them change their minds about their thoughts. 

It is absolutely a dead end to read anything in the spiritual library of the saints that discusses temptations, thoughts, or any related subject. Pious and theological writings—including the essential works of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Francis de Sales, or any other saint or religious author writing about these subjects—are not helpful. Each author is writing for the general public and is not considering the ravages of the anxiety disorder in their writings. They knew nothing about the disorder and could not address it. While there were, of course, anxious people in times past, anxiety was not understood to be a mental disorder until fairly recently. The sages of old simply did not understand that it should be considered and referred to as a disorder.

If scrupulous people desire to read or study something that will help encourage them about their thoughts, their time is better spent reading about anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and related subjects. For scrupulous people seeking answers about thoughts, religious material likely will be confusing, disorienting, and may trigger more anxious rumination.

Permit me to be as unambiguous as I can be as I address the sufferers: If you suffer with the anxiety disorder of religious scrupulosity, your thoughts may feel intrusive, unwelcomed, freely generated, and entertained, but they are never sinful. No matter how frightening. No matter how distasteful. No matter how they manifest themselves and are experienced, your thoughts are not sinful. They are not venial sins. They are not serious sins. They are not grave sins. They are not mortal sins. They are a manifestation rooted in the disorder that you suffer from. The disorder of anxiety.

The anxiety disorder of scrupulosity means that you are suffering from what moral theologians would define as “diminished capacity.” The mental disorder of scrupulosity diminishes your capacity to make a truly free choice, or to enter a process of discernment, that is not tainted by your scrupulosity. No matter how hard you try and no matter how much you might convince yourself that you are responsible for your choice, your freedom and your responsibility are diminished. When scrupulosity is present and active, your freedom to choose is impaired and therefore the consequence of your choice is limited. When there is no freedom to choose, there is not the required “matter” for sin.

This understanding that I have presented is not a “get-out-of-jail-free card.” It is not a blank check to engage in any kind of behavior that you desire. I do not mean to say that a scrupulous person has no free will or freedom to choose. To those of you with scrupulosity, there are entire areas of your life that are not influenced by the disorder where freedom is possible. However, when you are dealing with the anxious focus and experience of your scrupulosity, freedom is diminished. Intrusive thoughts are always influenced by scrupulosity and always engage the condition of diminished capacity.

Included in this explanation of thoughts would be behaviors that are commonly engaged and which are also subject to diminished capacity. I will specifically mention ruminating over past sins (the thoughts of what you once did or might have done or incompletely confessed), restitution (the thought that you need to fix and repair your past sins), and particularly sexual feelings and emotions (the thought that you somehow freely generated the thought that produced the emotion or the feeling).

As I have stated on many different occasions, scrupulosity is not primarily a spiritual problem. It is an anxiety disorder. It employs the language of religion to describe the feelings and emotions that are generated by the disorder. It is not about sin, it is about anxiety and fear. 

Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

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