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Same Question, Different Answers

One of the most consistent complaints I hear from people who suffer with scrupulosity is that “it is impossible to get the same answer to the same question from different people.” This is a source of great consternation and often leads sufferers to high degrees of frustration, instead of the clarity and reassurance they seek.

The traditional answer to the complaint is a mantra sufferers have heard before numerous times: “That is why the consistent directive for scrupulous people is to limit their questions to one person, a single confessor who may be helpful.” Even though that is the traditional answer and is typically best for sufferers, they often feel it is unsatisfactory, flippant, or incomplete. Thus a fuller context may help.

First, remember that scrupulosity has often been identified as the “doubting disease.” It has this label for good reason. Even the most consistent and clarifying answer that could possibly be provided would not satisfy the sufferer. There would be another question. A plea for more clarity. That is the core experience of the scrupulous condition. The answer itself is not the issue. Rather, it is that people with scrupulosity ask questions endlessly. Those with the condition never get satisfactory answers because the condition causes them to ask more questions.

Second, each experience of scrupulosity is unique. While the constant asking of questions is common, people experience the disorder differently. There are certainly shared experiences, but everyone is unique. The uniqueness results in sufferers reacting in their own way to answers. If one word seems out of place to the person asking the question or if the inflection feels wrong to him or her, the entire answer becomes suspect. This sets up an impossible situation for anyone trying to answer a question. Sufferers, no one can answer a question in the way you may have rehearsed the expected response. Your respondent may know the answer, but no one can know how you expect the answer to be delivered.

This second point may sound almost absurd and unbelievable. I can only state that it is true, based on my many years of pastoral experience. It took me a long time to understand the dynamic. I used to believe I was making a mistake when I was not. I could not answer any question “correctly” because I could not be expected to know the exact wording that had been rehearsed. As I began to understand that no answer would be totally satisfactory, I began to comprehend the dynamic.

Another point to consider in seeking a helpful context is that the human condition and experience of communication is complex. It also is individual, personal. For example, no two actors will repeat the same lines in the same way. Or, listen to two eyewitnesses describe a car crash they both saw. The descriptions will never match. That is the beauty and the limitation of human communication. The differences between descriptions become even more striking when you consider how people interpret what they hear. Again, no two interpretations will be alike.

It is even harder for two people to see eye to eye on the subjects of religion and religious practices and disciplines. The understanding and theological experience of one person may be totally different from those of another. The nuances can be numerous. Both people will answer honestly, with no attempt to deceive or misdirect, but each person’s theological starting point makes all the difference in the world. 

For example, when a person is discussing Catholic moral teaching and perspective, it is essential to understand and accept that the Catholic tradition is itself nuanced by history, experience, conscience, and innumerable other factors. If your starting point is the theological viewpoint that is representative of an understanding of a well-ordered world, a hierarchical model, a perfect modeling on earth in the threefold order of Christendom, championed for centuries as the correct viewpoint of the world and forever codified in the Council of Trent, you will have one starting point. If your framework is of a diversity of tradition and experience, accepting of a wider understanding of different cultures and experiences—respectful of the condition of humanity that experienced the Incarnate Word of God to form the people of God as presented in the documents of the Second Vatican Council—you will have a completely different starting point. To generalize, one perspective is primarily historical while the other is living, dynamic, and still under development.

For a scrupulous person, the divergence in these theological perspectives is often maddening. It can be confusing and unclear, even though it is just a basic disagreement. The experience of asking a question and receiving an answer is gray, not black-and-white. It is “in between,” held in tension in a murky middle where reality is often experienced. If a scrupulous person can somehow limit his or her exposure to just one theological perspective, much of the anxiety in the questioning often can be reduced or experienced in a way that is less perplexing. 

Accepting one theological perspective might seem helpful, but it may not be. Accepting one perspective may comfort the sufferer, but it does little more than help him or her maintain a tolerable level of tension in the scrupulous condition and does little or nothing in the process of healing and learning how to effectively manage the scrupulous disorder.

I hope this explanation helps our readers with scrupulosity. It may produce more questions in search of answers. But I believe it may be a good beginning in explaining why the same question can be answered differently. When those with the scrupulous condition can learn about the disorder and the experience and then effectively apply what they learn to their own situation, they have taken a positive next step. 

Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

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