Scrupulosity, in the Catholic sense, is the tendency to focus on our sins too much, forgetting Our Redeemer and His mercy in the process. It is the tendency to remember the law while forgetting the Law Giver. A person with “a case of the scruples” has likely forgotten that the law was made for man and not man for the law (Mark 2:27). In other words, scrupulosity is a good intention (love for God and his inherent good morals as exercised in our faith and good works) gone bad (works without faith in Christ and what he has done on the cross).
By the very nature of our humanity we are free agents: we have free will. And free will means that we can choose good or we can choose evil. In the Catholic DNA, there is an acute awareness of this reality. We choose evil at our own peril and this is serious business. Sin should never be trivialized. But choosing the good and the holy is not only possible and attainable: we have a loving God who has made it His mission to help us to that end! He even goes so far, when we fail, to cradle us in the arms of His tender affection. This means He extends His hands of mercy and He forgives us, curing the soul with His Passion and the Hope of Eternal Life.
It is Possible to Be Good
Says the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
In order to reach this perfection the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ’s gift, so that . . . doing the will of the Father in everything, they may wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor. Thus the holiness of the People of God will grow in fruitful abundance, as is clearly shown in the history of the Church through the lives of so many saints. (CCC 2013)
From this heology we get the idea that human beings, united to God and partakers of his grace, can attain true “goodness” in this life. While the final perfection comes only after death, a certain state of human perfection is possible on this side of things. But this truth hinges on a caveat: all of life is grace and God is the originator. The love of Christ, the mercy of Christ, the grace of His very character; these are all “first things”. They are at the beginning of every good work, every thought and every joy of our lives. It is the magnanimity of God in all His graciousness that animates our lives to faith and works of charity. But too often this truth is lost on us. We forget that grace comes first and we fall into an unbiblical and anti-Catholic view of man wherein by our own works we can merit our salvation.
Where Scrupulosity Comes From
It would seem that scrupulosity finds the occasion to present itself when we work on reforming our soul. The love of God calls us out of some present sin or state of lukewarmness into the deeper waters of His providence. When He calls, and we answer, this journey of desire often times leads to a scraping away of old habits and the putting on of new, holy ones. But since we are free agents, we must cooperate with the Holy Spirit in this work. And it is in this effort, on our part, that we can make the mistake of looking too much at our works and imperfections and in the endeavor, lose our vision of God and that original redeeming call. Before we know it we are counting our imperfections and meditating on them instead of meditating on the wounds of Christ, His pierced side, His flowing mercy, His own suffering for our sake. Indeed, our response to sin should lead us deeper into the contemplation of what God has done to redeem us. Scrupulosity is a gazing inward, when our gaze ought to be on God instead. And whenever we spend so much time looking at ourselves instead of God, we are in trouble! These are occasions for pride to set in, and selfishness and various tricks of the devil. The devil would rather us focus on our imperfections and despair of God’s mercy rather than look at the Maker and keep our eyes fixed on Him.
And here we might recall the wise counsel of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who said:
Your sins are very great and beyond number. Never will you be able to make satisfaction for them; so many and so great are they, not even if you strip the very skin from your body. (Canticles ch. XXIV)
Out of Scrupulosity and Into the Wells of Salvation
The cause of loving God is God. I spoke the truth, for He is both the efficient and final Cause. It is He who gives the occasions, it is He who creates the affection, He consummates the desire. St. Bernard of Clairvaux
The key to overcoming scrupulosity is to remember this: Man cannot save himself. Only God can do it. And he has accomplished it through the Passion and raising from the reigns of death, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Keep in mind that to look at our sin and to despair is to forget the cross of Christ. To forget the cross of Christ is to lose Christianity along the way. Remember that our Lord is long suffering and desirous to save us (1 Timothy 1:16). He knows our imperfections and our weakness far better than we do. It is when we look upon them and feel the temptation to despair that we ought all the more to be willing to run into his arms, to touch His pierced side, to contemplate His burning love for mankind, to draw water from the well of his salvation.
In the words of that good Doctor of the Church, Francis de Sales:
Have patience with all things but first with yourself.