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Ten Things I Know

By Fr. Thomas M. Santa, C.S.s.R.

Lists of ten are plentiful. You might recall the “Top Ten” skits of late-night TV host David Letterman that often produced extended comic relief. Of course, not all lists are funny or rank the best or most important item first.

The points I share here are ten topics, concerns, and perspectives I have identified as active within the scrupulous disorder. They are simply reference points for the readers of this newsletter. To be considered a scrupulous person, you do not need to experience all or even most of the attributes on the list. However, chances are that some of the points represent your own experience of scrupulosity.

  1. Living in silence. The most common experience of the men and women who suffer with scrupulosity is keeping the disorder a closely guarded secret. Few, if any, members of their family—except perhaps for a spouse or some other significant person—will have any indication of the mental torture and suffering that is experienced. As a result of “living in silence,” many scrupulous people falsely believe that few, if any, other people suffer with the same kind of disorder. Silence isolates them from a larger reality. It is not intentional, but it is predictable.
  2. Unwelcome thoughts. People with scrupulosity routinely believe they generate each thought within their mind and that they control the content of every thought. They cannot be convinced that all people have unwelcome thoughts. They routinely reject the idea that any individual person is not responsible or could ever be responsible for the content of the thoughts that randomly appear in their consciousness. They are confused by the notion that there are a variety of interpretative meanings that can be assigned to thoughts. It does not matter if the thoughts please, inspire, amuse, disgust, generate fear, or seem “beyond the pale.” People with the disorder falsely believe an intrusive or unwelcome thought must in some manner be seriously sinful.
  3. Hyper-responsibility. Scrupulous people often believe they are responsible for every human emotion, feeling, physical sensation, thought, reaction, or perception—in short, every normal human experience. This hyper-responsibility means they assume “moral authority” and assign “moral consequences” to every human experience.
  4. Diminished capacity. People with this issue misunderstand how it applies to the exercise of “free will” and “consent.” They falsely assume it is a “golden ticket” allowing disruptive behavior or an excuse to evade personal and moral responsibility. They may think diminished capacity identifies some people but that it does not apply to themselves.
  5. Believing all nudity is sinful. Many scrupulous people are extremely preoccupied with “custody of the eyes” and immodest dress. Some even believe their own nude body and the nude body of their spouse must be avoided at all costs. This perception clashes with the reality of Christian thought and moral practice. Modesty and chastity respect the body and appropriate nudity. It is not sinful to be human. The body is the manifestation of God’s creation and is intended to be celebrated and appreciated, not avoided, ignored, or—worse—disciplined so it is viewed as some kind of impediment to the working of the Spirit of God.
  6. Ignoring context. Moral action is dependent on context. An action cannot be judged or categorized honestly if the context is also not considered. Moral acts do not take place in a vacuum. They are not isolated events. An action is significant and essentially defined by the context in which the action takes place. Context is not relativism, a charge often leveled against it. In fact, properly understood, relativism is both objective and subjective context.
  7. Unable to live with doubt. Doubt and uncertainty are essential to the human condition. Both invite study, information, and discernment. Sometimes, doubt invites acceptance, nothing more. A person who does not doubt and who believes he or she is always correct is seriously misinformed.
  8. Doubting sacramental validity. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) clearly teaches that validity is sacramentally determined by two things: matter and form. It is not dependent on the disposition of the person who is performing the sacrament or receiving the sacrament. If the correct matter is present and used and if the correct formulation is pronounced, the sacrament is valid. There are no exceptions.
  9. Claiming the guilt of Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. This most grievous sin is best understood as a sin committed in the time of Christ. It describes the actions of the scribes and Pharisees. They knew that the man before them, Jesus, was the Incarnate Word of God. Nevertheless, they chose not to believe him and actively worked against him. Some even accused him of being the son of Beelzebub. Unfortunately, some incorrect interpretations do not acknowledge the necessary historicity of this sin and apply it broadly. In the process, this application can cause harm and anxiety by ignoring the meaning and context of the sin.
  10. Hope for the improbable. Many people who struggle with scrupulosity hope a sudden and dramatic cure will come upon them, freeing them of the disorder forever. Although healing is indeed possible—the power of grace cannot be overemphasized—for most people with scrupulosity, the healthiest expectation should be that they will learn the skills to effectively manage their disorder. It can and will become “background noise,” but it is unfortunately persistent and seemingly perpetual.

In almost thirty-five years of actively engaging in this ministry and after speaking to hundreds (if not thousands) of people with this disorder, this article reflects some of what I have learned about scrupulosity. This list is not exhaustive and could probably be improved, but it contains themes I hear often and try to answer. Perhaps something in the list resonates with you or describes your experience. Perhaps you have struggled with something on the list and now you have gained some clarity. I hope nothing on the list confuses or disorients you. That is never my intention.

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