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Never really sure … the dilemma of scrupulosity

30 November, 1999

Daniel L. Lowery C.Ss.R. explains how some people’s spiritual lives can be afflicted by scruples, a debilitating fear and anxiety about sin and evil, related to obsessive-compulsive psychological conditions.

In ordinary usage the word scrupulous means strict, exact, punctilious, careful. Thus, we might think of a “scrupulous accountant” as one who is exact in his or her work, or a “scrupulously honest” person as one who would never compromise the truth in, the slightest way. In Catholic moral theology, however, this general understanding of scrupulous is used to describe a spiritual-psychological state called scrupulosity. In this article I will address basic questions about scrupulosity.

Scrupulosity may be described as a state of morbid anxiety and fear, even panic, about sin and evil in one’s life; an abiding sense of guilt; and a feeling that one is always in the state of sin. The word scrupulous is from a Latin word meaning ‘a small, sharp stone.’ A scrupulous person is like a hitch hiker with a stone in his or her shoe – every step of the spiritual journey is painful.

Cyril Harney OP, in his excellent article on scrupulosity in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, describes some of the dynamics of scrupulosity in this way: “Scruples render one incapable of making with finality the daily decisions of life … (Scrupulosity) causes ordinary, everyday questions to be viewed as impenetrable and insoluble. Decisions require a disproportionate amount of time and energy and are always accompanied by feelings of guilt and doubt. Never at peace, the mind compulsively re-examines and re-evaluates every aspect of a matter about which scruples centre. With increasing doubts and mounting fear, the mind is so blinded and confused that volitional activity becomes difficult or impossible. The will is unable to act without immediately reacting against its previous decision.”

Obsessive-compulsive behaviour
From a psychological viewpoint, many experts describe the scrupulous personality as obsessive-compulsive. This type of personality tends to centre on a core of obsessions and compulsions. Complete books have been written on this topic. Since we have limited space here, we might over-simplify by saying that an obsession is a useless or irrational thought that persistently forces itself into the consciousness of the individual. A compulsion, on the other hand, may be described as a useless or irrational act that a person feels compelled to carry out.

Examples of an obsession include persistent thoughts about seriously aggressive acts toward parents, spouse, or children; blasphemous thoughts in the mind of religious persons; recurring thoughts involving obscene language or perverse sexual acts; and constant focus on thoughts of germs, disease, or infection.

Some examples of a compulsion are ritualistic acts of dressing and undressing, the need to repeat certain phrases or sentences in exactly the same way every time, and washing one’s hands with excessive frequency.

With these in mind, two points should be emphasised. First, obsessions and compulsions are often intertwined. While it is easy to define them separately, it is not always easy to distinguish them in a particular person’s behaviour. Second, almost every person experiences mild transitory obsessions and compulsions. In their neurotic form, however, they tend to be more persistent and more absurd and may grow to the point of seriously interfering with one’s normal life.

This seems to be what happens in the area of scrupulosity. Theologian George Lobo SJ in his book A Guide to Christian Living, points out that “the scrupulous person is terrified by the prospect of sinning. After an action, he is inclined to examine it over and over again to find possible aspects of guilt. He is impelled to purge the guilt by worrying or by repeated ritual acts like frequent and mechanical confession and other devotional exercises. At times, compulsive impulses are joined to the obsessions of scrupulous ideas. The more they are suppressed by anxiety, the stronger they become.”

These various descriptions of scrupulosity throw a spotlight on what every scrupulous person experiences on a regular basis: terror of conscience, fear of punishment, feelings of guilt, need for purification.

All age groups
Research and experience show that scrupulosity is not confined to any one age group, sex, occupation, or level of education. Scrupulosity frequently seems to start in the middle to late teen years. As young people develop a sense of responsibility and an appreciation of moral values, they may begin to take every moral obligation very seriously and be tormented with doubts about their thinking and their behaviour. Fortunately, for many, this phase passes in a short period of time. But not for all. Most scrupulous adults can trace their scrupulosity to these teen years.

Furthermore, a number of elderly persons encounter scrupulosity in a strong way. For some, this encounter may be their first. More commonly, however, it is a return to a former state. Some elderly persons spend a lot of time alone and have a lot of time to think and worry. Some are preoccupied with the approach of death and with “getting their accounts in order.” They tend to look to the past a lot and worry about immoral behaviour, the confession of their sins, whether they were truly sorry, and the like.

A popular assumption holds that women are more subject to scrupulosity than are men. This assumption may be due to the established fact that women are more likely than men to acknowledge emotional difficulties and seek help. Whatever the proportion between men and women, many men also suffer from severe scrupulosity.

Surprisingly, many professionals with a high level of education and weighty responsibilities still suffer in their personal life from acute scrupulosity. They seem able to separate their professional life from their personal life.

How it expresses itself
Scrupulosity can express itself in a number of ways. For example, scrupulous persons often repeat prayers again and again because they cannot get them “right.” They tend to torture themselves over the confession of sins in the sacrament of reconciliation. Never satisfied that they have confessed their sins properly, they always feel the need to confess these same sins “just one more time.”

Receiving Holy Communion is also a difficult problem for the scrupulous. Eucharist is sacred to all Catholics, but the scrupulous experience an added dimension of fear: “Am I receiving worthily or sacrilegiously?”

They also worry constantly that they are in some way being disrespectful to Eucharist. “Have I kept the fast perfectly?” “Did a particle of the host fall on my clothes or on the floor?” The questions are almost endless.

Moral behaviour raises all kinds of doubts for the scrupulous. Requirements of justice, especially in filling out insurance forms or tax returns, create severe problems for the scrupulous. The area of sexuality and modesty is a veritable minefield. Every passing sexual thought is considered a serious matter. The area of interior judgments about others or evaluations of their behaviour is also fraught with worry and blown out of proportion.

These are merely examples. Every area of Christian life can raise disturbing and fearful thoughts in the mind of scrupulous persons.

Causes of scruples
It is safe to say that the causes of scrupulosity are many and that we don’t know a great deal about them. Father Harney (in his previously mentioned article) writes: “While knowledge of scruples has grown and the appreciation of their complexity has increased, the precise cause or causes are still a matter of theory.” The ancient discussion about nature versus nurture, heredity versus environment, comes into play whenever the causes of scrupulosity are considered. In other words: Is a person born with a tendency toward scruples, or is a person taught to be scrupulous? Is scrupulosity coded in one’s genes, or does it result from one’s family upbringing?

In trying to pinpoint the causes of scrupulosity, some theories emphasise innate dispositions, both physiological and psychological. Psychologically, there may be a certain “psychic impotence” – that is, an incapacity to resolve doubts or to resist obsessions and compulsions. Some experts believe that this inborn weakness may be explained by an organic or chemical imbalance. At present, however, this theory lacks scientific evidence.

Environmental factors also seem to be significant. Scrupulous individuals often have a childhood history that includes a rigid and repressive atmosphere in the home, heavy emphasis on cleanliness and order, and extreme stress on conscientiousness. George Lobo describes this well: “Scrupulosity can generally be traced to anxiety arising from an over-religious and overprotective upbringing, which leads to faulty development of the superego… Faulty attitudes concerning God, morality, sex, etc., acquired during childhood, are a strong contributory factor.” When a certain type of personality – insecure, fearful, hesitant – is immersed in this kind of environment, scrupulosity may result.

From a religious viewpoint, a common condition among the scrupulous is a very negative image of God. This leads to an exaggerated fear of the sacred and perhaps explains why the scrupulous struggle with prayer and the sacraments.

Need for help
The degree of scrupulosity – how deeply it affects a given individual – varies widely. Almost every scrupulous person needs some help, but the kind of help varies from person to person. When scrupulosity is so severe that it disrupts a person’s normal functioning and renders daily living difficult, professional psycho-therapy may be needed.

In regard to questions of sin, doubts of conscience, and the use of the sacrament of reconciliation, scrupulous persons should place themselves under the guidance of a regular confessor and should be willing to obey that confessor absolutely. One of the foremost theologians of the church, St Alphonsus Liguori who suffered from scrupulosity himself – gave this advice to the scrupulous: “I tell you that you ought more implicitly trust in obedience to your confessor… This advice is given by all the Doctors of the Church and the Holy Fathers as well. In short, obedience to one’s confessor is the one safest remedy which Jesus Christ has left us for quieting the doubts of conscience, and we ought to return thanks for it.”

As the same time, however, scrupulous persons should try to improve their religious education and expand their moral freedom. It is especially important that the scrupulous try to change their image of God from that of a dour judge to that of a loving parent. It is also important that they try to come to a better understanding of how conscience is correctly formed.

Finally, the scrupulous can help themselves by developing the habit of acting against their doubts and fears. Every time they act against these worries, they reduce the strength of their scrupulosity. This is sound spiritual and psychological advice, and the scrupulous need not be afraid to follow it.


This article first appeared in Ligourian and is published here with a permission from Reality (January, 2002), a publication of the Irish Redemptorists.