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Scrupulosity: When Catholic Guilt Goes Wrong

scrupulosity

The word scrupulous is usually used to describe someone who is extremely thorough and attentive to detail. It’s meant to be a compliment. However, for many Catholics, being scrupulous is something else entirely.

What is Scrupulosity?

Scrupulosity is a type of religious OCD which is becoming more and more common. For those who have never experienced this themselves, imagine a dose of “Catholic guilt” on steroids. It’s more than having a guilty conscience; it’s having a crippling conscience. A person who is suffering from scrupulosity becomes obsessed with their most insignificant weaknesses and sins, so much so that it becomes their primary preoccupation.

With this mindset comes an intense fear of failing God, which results in the inability to make even minute decisions. More than anything, these persons desire to please God and follow His commandments, yet they remain convinced of their constant failure. Because of this, it’s hard – almost impossible – to have a loving, personal relationship with God. Prayer and the sacraments put them face-to-face with anxiety and despair.

My Experience with Scrupulosity

My scrupulosity manifested when I was eighteen years old, the end product of a manipulative relationship.
Because of the abuse, I couldn’t function properly. I didn’t trust my own understanding of reality enough to make decisions. At the same time, I was growing in my faith and wanted so badly to be the woman God wanted me to be. My life centered around being sinless. I only wanted to please God, but I was convinced that any little mistake would have a cosmic impact on my personal salvation.

I became diligent, thorough, and attentive to detail with every single aspect of my life. I couldn’t stop myself. If I failed to meet my own standards I became paralyzed with guilt. I was sure that every single failure on my part was a mortal sin.

Even mishaps that weren’t my fault had a crippling effect. Once, knowing that I wanted to attend the noon Mass on my college campus, I made sure that I finished my lunch within the time frame needed to keep the fast. Halfway through Mass, a piece of spinach dislodged itself from in-between my teeth. Without thinking, I swallowed it. Looking back now, I know that I had done nothing wrong and I still could have received Communion. Unfortunately, the sickness had too strong a hold on me. I was convinced that I had violated the fast. I panicked and had a full-blown anxiety attack because I was unable to receive Him.

Scrupulous Saints

If you’re someone who is struggling with scrupulosity (and maybe you didn’t even know it until now), please know that you are not alone. Many canonized saints have struggled with scrupulosity and self-condemnation.

St. Maximilian Kolbe’s scrupulosity was so severe that his superior assigned a fellow priest to accompany him throughout his day. Anytime Maximilian had a condemning thought, he was required to voice it to his brother priest. This priest would then show Maximilian where his feelings had led him astray.

St. Alphonsus di Ligouri, bishop and Doctor of the Church, is said to have exhausted every confessor in Naples in his search for relief from his own condemning thoughts.

Other scrupulous saints include St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Katherine Drexel, St. Francis de Sales, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. They are proof that with the help of God’s grace, we can truly find relief from this burden of scrupulosity.

Healing from Scrupulosity

In addition to the example of the saints, here are five things that assisted me on my own path to healing.

1. Total Consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary

Convinced that I was a hopeless sinner, I turned to the Blessed Mother. I had heard good things about consecrating oneself to Our Lady, but I was most interested in her protection. Since I was fairly certain that I was going to hell, I thought that “buddying-up” with Mary might increase my chances of making it to heaven.

Ironically, I almost didn’t follow through with the consecration. I didn’t feel as though I had been zealous enough in my prayer. I was ready to redo it all but my confessor forbid it. Out of obedience to him, I finished my consecration. In all sincerity, I felt a change in myself the very next day. It was no fix-all, but I was no longer in the depths of despair.

2. The St. Benedict Medal

Self-condemnation is a symptom of scrupulosity. After my consecration, I started to be able to decipher between God’s voice and the voice of the enemy. Around the same time, I was also introduced to the St. Benedict medal. Containing many different blessings and prayers, my favorite aspect of the medal appears on the back. The Latin reads, “Vade Retro Satana, Nunquam Suade Mihi Vana — Sunt Mala Quae Libas, Ipse Venena Bibas.” In English this means:

Be gone Satan! Do not tell me your lies. Evil are your words, drink your own poison!

Whenever critical thoughts began to surface, I found myself repeating these words and I experienced some relief.

3. The Grace of the Sacraments

When you’re dealing with scrupulosity, church might be one of the last places you want to be. However, because you’re in need of healing, church is exactly where you need to be. For me, frequenting the sacraments despite my intense fear of God was my greatest act of faith in God’s mercy.

Monthly confession helped me to trust in God’s clemency. It also made it clear to me that many of the things I was confessing weren’t actually sins. Once, as a penance, the priest even told me to “stop doing that” in regards to my self-condemnation. It worked. After all, I had to obey him if I wanted to be forgiven.

The Eucharist became my life-blood, and gave me a whole new understanding of the sacrifice of the Mass. Never in my whole life had I prayed these words so fervently: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” After four months of receiving the Eucharist daily, I realized a change had taken place in me; I was far less anxious throughout my day.

Lastly, asking a priest to administer the Anointing of the Sick was one of the smartest things I did. Scrupulosity is an illness, and this sacrament exists specifically to help those individuals who are struggling because of physical and mental ailments. It helped me to accept my cross and unite my sufferings with Christ. I actually felt better physically because of these graces.

4. Personal Prayer

This is one of the most beneficial things I did for myself. By spending time talking with God intentionally every day, I learned to recognize His voice. A personal relationship slowly blossomed. I learned that He is good and loving, not Someone who is waiting to judge my every move.

5. Professional Help

Unable to find a licensed medical professional in my area, I sought out a spiritual director. He was able to help me see that my scrupulosity was the result of incorrect patterns of thought that had been ingrained as habit. For me, these thought patterns had developed during that abusive relationship. Without the assistance and affirmation of this priest, I would not have been able to move forward as quickly in my healing process.

Spiritual directors and mental health professionals are trained to specifically help individuals who find themselves in these types of situations. If you have access to a priest or religious who is also a mental health professional, that would be the ideal. If you find yourself in a similar situation, do not be ashamed to reach out for help.

If you’re someone who struggles with scrupulosity, please do not despair. There is hope. There is relief. You can beat this. Just stay close to Jesus.

Have you ever struggled with scrupulosity? How did you overcome it?

Written by Grace Bellon, lover of bearded men, rich coffee, cheesy puns, cuddly doggies, and Catholicism. You can find out more about her here (warned ya she liked cheesy puns).

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13 Comments

  • Reply
    Renee
    December 28, 2017 at 5:33 pm

    Thanks for posting this! You did so well expressing how scrupulosity feels. One thing that helped me a lot was the book Searching for and Maintaining Peace by Fr. Jacques Philippe as well as consecration to Our Lady. I had a very similar situation: my scrupulosity manifested itself when I was 18 as well, and after an abusive and traumatizing relationship. Nice to know I am not the only one. Sometimes thinking you are makes it worse. God Bless!

    • Reply
      Siobhan
      December 29, 2017 at 11:14 am

      So glad you mentioned that book! I forgot to mention it in my comment. I haven’t read the whole thing, but I ran across a quote from it that was really helpful for dealing with scrupulosity.

    • Reply
      Grace B
      January 2, 2018 at 10:50 am

      Oh my goodness yes! Thinking I was the only one made me so ashamed too! It was in vulnerability that I found freedom from the shame. A book that really helped me was Spiritual Freedom by Fr. Dave Pivonka. He basically told me not to cover it up anymore!

    • Reply
      Anonymous
      January 12, 2018 at 3:03 pm

      Great books! Fr. Jaque Philippe’s Interior Freedom was also helpful for me. It is vital that you get a spiritual advisor in this situation! I felt I could trust a priest because they were closely knit with the Church. I also found help with a Catholic counselor. It is vital that you trust these people! God uses them as tools! 🙂

  • Reply
    Siobhan
    December 28, 2017 at 5:43 pm

    Thank you so much for this beautiful post! I suffer from OCD, and one of the ways it manifests itself is scrupulosity, and really anything having to do with my faith. I’ve been frustrated by the lack of resources available to Catholics who struggle in this way, so I’m so glad you decided to share your experience and advice. A couple more thoughts:
    1) It can be hard to find the right professional help. Psychologists can sometimes suggest thing me that are contrary to Catholic or teaching, or just don’t get the Catholic thing. But priests can sometimes be well-meaning but unable to handle the situation. (I have been told by my spiritual director to treat spiritual doubt as a sin…not a good idea if you’re scrupulous!) So don’t be discouraged if the first person you speak to isn’t helpful…keep looking.
    2) Recognize that God is bigger than your scrupulosity. It took me a while to understand this. He can reach your heart in spite of all the fear and self-loathing.
    3) Read the Autobiography of St. Therese. She describes her bout of scrupulosity as a “martyrdom.” When I read this, it hit me for the first time how sanctifying my suffering could be. Trusting in God, praising Him, and offering up my pain in the midst of what feels like despair is truly a martyrdom. In the moment I can’t always do this, but I have told God in advance that o want to offer up my suffering, and I believe He hears me and accepts this offering.

    • Reply
      Grace B
      January 2, 2018 at 10:56 am

      That is so true! It can take a looong time to find the right person to help you out; I didn’t find my spiritual director until 2 years in to constantly looking. I got a lot of “no’s” and the counselor I saw was no help. My spiritual director was average, but just his calming presence was a huge help to me. Honestly, it was personal prayer and the sacraments that changed my heart (like you mention in #2)

  • Reply
    Mary
    December 29, 2017 at 7:23 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this. I have had a similar situation to what you described and I’m grateful to know I’m not alone! Grateful to God for your hopeful witness.

  • Reply
    Grace B
    January 2, 2018 at 10:56 am

    That is so true! It can take a looong time to find the right person to help you out; I didn’t find my spiritual director until 2 years in to constantly looking. I got a lot of “no’s” and the counselor I saw was no help. My spiritual director was average, but just his calming presence was a huge help to me. Honestly, it was personal prayer and the sacraments that changed my heart (like you mention in #2)

  • Reply
    Grace B
    January 2, 2018 at 10:58 am

    My pleasure Mary! It truly makes me angry when I hear someone being scrupulous. I’m not angry with the person mind you… I’m angry with Satan for twisting good desires. That is why I try to speak up as much as I can when I recognize the tendencies!!

  • Reply
    Lisa Ciarrocchi
    January 15, 2018 at 8:23 pm

    My Father-in-Law, Joseph Ciarrocchi wrote a book on scrupulousity. It’s called The Doubting Disease. He was the chair of Pastoral Counseling at Loyola University Baltimore.

  • Reply
    Ann MCerlean
    March 20, 2018 at 9:37 pm

    It seems to me that peace doesn’t come through scrupulosity because It’s an effort to be “perfect”. You can try and try to be perfect, but it doesn’t happen. There are lots of examples of this for me, that need to be understood from “the spirit of the law”.

  • Reply
    Olivia
    August 10, 2018 at 6:52 am

    Hello just wanted to thank you for writing this 🙂 makes me feel less alone! I started to have symptoms of scrupulousity a few years back when I started being more serious about my Catholic faith, really desired to please God and strive for holiness. Thank God He revealed through a testimony I read which brought light that it’s
    a legit thing called scrupulousity which people struggled with. Since then, there have been victories but I still struggle at times. Sometimes it causes so much anxiety and feels like the small daily decisions will determine the state of my soul. But appreciate your advice and vulnerability in sharing your story!!!

  • Reply
    Teresa
    December 9, 2018 at 2:32 pm

    Thank you for this story and thank you all for commenting. We’re definitely not alone. You described scrupulosity so well. I’ve been struggling with it for about 8 years now and sometimes I feel it’s gone completely and at other times, when I’m more anxious in general, it comes back. Just recently I read “Searching for and Maintaining Peace” by Father Jacques Philippe and I’d recommend it to everyone. Here’s a great quote from the book:
    “One of the most common strategies of the devil in his efforts to distance us from God and to slow our spiritual progress is to attempt to cause the loss of our interior peace. Here is what Dom Lorenzo Scupoli, one of the great spiritual masters of the 16th century, who was highly esteemed by Saint Francis de Sales, said: ‘The devil does his utmost to banish peace from one’s heart, because he knows that God abides in peace and it is in peace that He accomplishes great things.’”
    I can’t express how tormented I feel sometimes at mass, often right after confession, and especially before communion. The devil tries really hard to steal my peace and often does. I try to let go of intrusive thoughts and let them pass but it’s so hard sometimes because of my anxiety. I feel guilty about the intrusive thoughts, which in reality, have nothing to do with me or my desires. It’s exhausting at times. Lately, I’ve been successful at ignoring them and it’s thanks to what I’ve been reading in the aforementioned book.
    I used to go to confession to different priests because I was so embarrassed of making a scrupulous confession and had a few awkward experiences, for example, the priest would exhale deeply while listening to me confess the number of times I’ve done things that probably weren’t mortal sins. I could tell he was extremely annoyed.. But some of them were very patient and would explain that God is not a police officer, but a merciful father. Anyways, I realized over time that it would benefit me to have one confessor so last year I went to only one and it was still hard at times, but better because he was understanding. Currently I’m on maternity leave and (un)fortunately can’t choose my confessor. I can only make it to mass and confession at my parish where the priest is someone I know personlly so I felt pretty stressed going to him for confession, but I’m offering it up and I reminding myself of the advice i was given by so many priests over the years. For example, if you have doubt and you’re not sure if something is or isn’t a mortal sin, then it’s probably not a mortal sin and you should receive communion. (I tend to forget or I get filled with such anxiety that I avoid communion just in case I’m in a state of mortal sin.) Another reminder, after confession, any other sins that you forgot to say are also forgiven! (I tend to freak out if I forgot to say something, which also steals my peace. I often write down what I’m going to confess to avoid that, which some people think is a bit nuts.. ) I’ve also been told by a priest that it’s hard to commit a mortal sin. It doesn’t happen accidently or easily. We have to willfully desire to do, say or think something for it to be mortal. (Also, of course,the matter has to be grave and we have to know that it’s grave. ) And now a tip from a priest regarding intrusive thoughts: „Don’t take them seriously!!!“ Laugh at them. He told me that it’s rather comical when pious, old ladies confess instrusive thoughts regarding Jesus and the saints. The devil’s trying to scare you. The thoughts have nothing to do with you and they should not be taken seriously. Think of how absurd they are and try to laugh at them..

    I hope our struggle with scruples brings us closer to God..And I hope we beat them soon!

    God bless!

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