Catholic Scrupulosity (Fear and guilt in the spiritual life)

By Father Joseph Gill

St. Thomas Aquinas taught that “virtue is in the middle”. Too much of one thing is a problem, just as too little can be a problem. There is a “happy medium” between gluttony and starvation, between workaholism and laziness. We must seek to strike that middle balance between two extremes!

This is also true in our spiritual lives. Not praying is bad, but it would also be bad to pray so much that someone neglects their daily duties. Not caring about sin is problematic – but also problematic is an over-emphasis on sin, with its accompanying fear of damnation and constant feeling of worthlessness.

It is this latter state that I wish to discuss today. Having been in pastoral ministry for ten years, I have met many people who struggle with scrupulosity – a spiritual and psychological disorder that is marked by constant guilt about moral or religious issues. A scrupulous person feels like they have sinned grievously, even when objectively they have not. They magnify every small sin and mistakenly believe that even little trivial things are mortally wrong. Often, there is a tragic and obsessive fear of damnation, an overly judgmental God, and an urge to confess more frequently than necessary.

From a psychological standpoint, scrupulosity is closely related to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. The obsessions (unwanted, intrusive thoughts) are the overly-guilty feelings that someone gets for even the smallest sin. The compulsions (ritualized actions meant to compensate for the obsessions) involve too-frequent Confession, extreme penances, or a prayer life that is either rigid or done out of fear.

One sign that someone might be suffering with scrupulosity is too-frequent Confession. It is a wonderful gift that we offer Confession daily, but the US Bishops recommend that Catholics confess monthly. Personally I take part in the Sacrament every two weeks, and I know that some people go weekly, particularly if they struggle with serious mortal sin. But if a person has a desire to confess multiple times each week, then one might want to ask if scrupulosity is in-play.

Another sign of scrupulosity is the feeling that they are always in a state of sin and are never pleasing to God. I want to be clear with what is a mortal sin. There are really only three main categories of mortal sins that most genuine Christians commit:

– Deliberately missing Mass on Sundays or Holy Days of Obligation (if you are sick and unable to make Mass, you are exempt from this requirement – please do not confess it if you missed Mass out of sickness!)

– Intentionally and deliberately committing a sexual sin (again, notice that it must be intentional and deliberate – an unwanted sexual thought, even if it lasts for a while, is NOT a mortal sin; it is a temptation. Any unwanted thoughts that we do not intentionally call to mind are NOT sinful). Any deliberate sexual actions outside of the open-to-life marital covenant are mortally sinful (including the deliberate use of pornography).

– Intentionally getting drunk or using illegal drugs.

Yes, there are other mortal sins (murder, grand theft auto), but these are rare. The aforementioned three are the three main ones that practicing Christians frequently confess.

Notice, though, that all three are INTENTIONAL –someone cannot accidentally commit a mortal sin! If there is any doubt as to whether or not the action was intentional, a person may always presume that it is NOT a mortal sin (because the requirements for mortal sin are grave matter, FULL consent, and FULL knowledge).

Why is this important? Because when a person thinks they are constantly in mortal sin, constantly in danger of losing their salvation, and believes that god is perpetually judging them and never pleased with them, then they lose the joy and freedom of their living faith in Jesus Christ! We do not have a faith that is based in fear but one that is based in our confidence in God’s infinite mercy for sinners. Scrupulosity robs the faith of its joy and freedom, which is what Christ came to win for us!

[There are many Catholics, who may not specifically suffer from scrupulosity, but still focus too much on their their sinfulness, have an unhealthy fear or anxiety in the spiritual life, and look to God through the eyes of fear. They still feel guilty and rarely feel good enough. It’s about multiplying prayers, and chaplets, and Rosaries, and good works, so they are “good enough.” It’s about working for God’s love rather than living in a healthy relationship with Him. This is still a dark and pessimistic view of the God who is love and mercy itself. Many have “Catholic guilt” which is often not healthy. Even in this, we need to come to know who God is on a deeper level and His unconditional love for us, whether we are “good” or not.]

So if someone suffers from scruples, what can they do? First, make acts of trust in God’s mercy. Read the book: “Scruples and Sainthood.”

The Diary of St. Faustina can be a great help, as can praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy or reading the book, “I believe in Love” by Fr. Delbee.

Second, perhaps talk to a priest about it – and then follow his advice. Third, for severe cases, it might be helpful to visit a Catholic psychologist who can help develop coping techniques for the severe feelings of guilt. Finally, realize that even some great saints struggled with scruples. For example, St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote, “After I had accidentally trodden upon a cross formed by two pieces of straw, there comes to me a thought that I have sinned … this is probably a scruple and temptation suggested by the enemy.”

We do not believe in a God who is waiting to strike us down for small sins. He is merciful and wants us to rejoice in the victory He has won! Although we seek to avoid sin, our sins should not fill us with anxiety, scruples, or despair – because Christ’s Precious Blood is more powerful than our sins

Fr. Joseph Gill is a priest of the diocese of Bridgeport, CT. Originally from Maryland, he was ordained in 2013, he has worked in parish ministry and as a high school chaplain. His passions are forming young disciples of Christ and using the media to evangelize. He can be reached at frjosephgill@gmail.com.

About Bryan Mercier

Bryan Mercier is a professional Catholic speaker, retreat leader, author, YouTuber, and a Catholic apologist who has been teaching and preaching for almost two decades. He has also been aired on TV and radio in different states, including Relevant Radio, Ave Maria Radio, Sirius XM Satellite, and EWTN. He is the founder of "Catholic Truth," a non-profit dedicated to the New Evangelization and helping Catholics to know, love, and live their faith with purpose and passion each day!
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