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Scrupulosity: A Little Bit of Hell

October 15, AD2013 71 Comments


Do you never feel forgiven no matter how many times you confess your sins?

Do you obsess over blasphemous thoughts that invade your mind against your will?

Do you agonize about whether or not something you\’ve done is sinful, even when other faithful Catholics and even your priest assure you that it\’s not?

Is your conscience so hyper-sensitive that you cannot find peace with God?

If so, you might want to start reading up on a condition called scrupulosity. It is one of the most painful psychological states there is — it can feel like hell to the sufferer.

I was surprised to learn that Fr. Paul Marx, the late, great pro-life hero, suffered from scrupulosity as a young seminarian. He recounted in his autobiography\"\" that the agony of that condition was worse than any other pain he had suffered in his life (and he suffered an incredible amount of physical and psychological pain in his worldwide, decades-long mission to end abortion).

I know from personal experience how devastating scrupulosity can be. A family member of mine suffered from it, and when things became torturous for her, intervention was needed. There is an understanding now that scrupulosity is one type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD); recognition of that fact is how my relative was able to get her scrupulosity/obsessive thoughts under control. The relief is beyond description.

Scrupulosity is incredibly harmful and can lead souls right out of the Church. Martin Luther suffered terribly with feelings of total depravity — he could not feel \”clean\” no matter how many times he received absolution. His scrupulosity led to the formation of his doctrine of sola fide (salvation by faith alone) and the idea of \”eternal security,\” i.e., that sin, even grave sin, cannot jeopardize a Christian\’s salvation. It\’s not a stretch to say that scrupulosity was a catalyst for the Protestant Reformation, which tore the Body of Christ asunder.

I had a dear friend, now deceased, who grew up Catholic in the 1950s. She suffered from torturous scrupulosity as a girl, causing her ultimately to leave the Catholic Church. I asked her about her experiences, and she told me the following:

I\’m not sure how or exactly when it started. I know I was still in grade school. I went to a Catholic school for 9 years. Sometimes we would go to Mass before school and I would take Communion like most of the other kids. In school we learned about sin — venial, mortal, and the worst of all, mortal sin of sacrilege. I remember trying to grasp the concept of eternity in hell. Fire, forever, without end. This is what would happen to a person who died with mortal sin on their soul. I found the idea too frightening.

We went through the Ten Commandments and the sins against them — some of which I was too young and innocent to comprehend. Then one day on my way up to Communion, it occurred to me that maybe I had a mortal sin on my soul, but I continued to receive Communion. That\’s when it all started. I felt ill and had my mom pick me up from school. I spent the rest of the day with a knot in my stomach, worried that I had committed the dreaded mortal sin of sacrilege. Eventually I was able to dismiss the fact that I had done such a thing. But I decided that I wasn\’t going to repeat that episode. I know now that what I thought was sin at that time wasn\’t. But I was ignorant and unsure so just to be on the safe side I avoided Communion.

We were expected to receive Communion every first Friday of the month so during the week we had Confession during school hours. I found myself confessing to numerous sins (just in case) because a bad confession was considered a sin of sacrilege. After Confession my mind would be bombarded with all kinds of things which I tried to fight but eventually I would decide that at some point I had a sinful thought, could not go to Communion, at which point the torture would stop. Then all I would have to do was be sick that Friday. Eventually it got to the point where I was \”sick\” all that week.

I was embarrassed and ashamed because all my friends were receiving Communion on a regular basis. The struggle within me was pure torture and in that I felt totally alone.

I told no one. I was too ashamed because it all seemed so crazy. I had no hope that anyone could possibly understand. Looking back, I wonder how in the world the priests who heard my confession didn\’t have a clue about my scrupulosity.

It wasn\’t until high school that I heard anything about a scrupulous conscience. I went to public high school (freedom) but attended religious class once a week. The nun who conducted the class once referred to a boy who had to continue to go to confession because he suffered with a scrupulous conscience. It was then that I realized my problem.

My friend never did come back to the Catholic Church, living out her life as an evangelical Protestant, resigned to live \”on My Father\’s front porch\” as she put it, never quite able to come back inside the home she missed and longed for.

Scrupulosity is not a condition unique to Catholicism by any means, however, as Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and those of other faiths are affected as well.

If you think you are scrupulous, there is help! First, understand that you likely have a form of OCD and it can be treated. Second, please read the monthly Scrupulous Anonymous newsletters and the \”Ten Commandments for the Scrupulous\” (along with the \”revised\” Commandments). Third, read the book, Understanding Scrupulosity: Questions, Helps, and Encouragements, by Thomas M. Santa. And fourth, find a spiritual director or confessor who has experience dealing with scrupulosity.

It might be hard to believe, but with the help of others and God\’s grace, you can and will find peace.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

Filed in: Education

About the Author:

Leila Miller is a wife and mother of eight children who has a penchant for writing and a passion for teaching the Catholic Faith in simple ways. This summa cum laude Boston College graduate also enjoys debating secularists, and in her spare time she fancies herself a bit of a Catholic matchmaker. She manages two blogs that accommodate those hobbies well: Little Catholic Bubble, and the invite-only Catholic Moms Matchmaking.

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