Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental illness that is characterized by obsessive thoughts that bring about a lot of psychological distress. In order to dispel the obsessive thoughts, people with OCD turn to compulsive behaviors. For example, a person might be obsessed with the presence of bacteria or dirt in the home, so in order to dispel the distress associated with germs and filth, he or she might clean the house for several hours per day with harsh chemicals and undue attentiveness to the tiniest specks of dust.
Most Catholic counselors understand the extreme manifestations of scrupulosity to be a form of OCD. Scrupulous people are constantly worried that they have sinned and feel that they cannot bear the uncertainty of the state of their souls. They have difficulty discerning whether they have committed a sin and whether the alleged sin was mortal. In order to dispel this distress, they might ruminate on their sinfulness for hours on end, check with multiple spiritual authorities about the same issue and sometimes frequent the confessional multiple times per week. It is a painful mental and spiritual illness and it can be quite difficult to treat for both spiritual directors and counselors alike.
While OCD/scrupulosity is a big topic, the subtext of scrupulosity is what always draws my attention. Scrupulous people often feel that their approach is simply “playing it safe.” They might say: “Father, I know I was just in confession yesterday, but I wasn’t sure if this was a sin, so I figured I would come back just to be safe.” It can be difficult to argue with that logic. Let me try.
Here are three brief points: 1. It’s an unsustainable and miserable way to live. People who struggle with scrupulosity are often also depressed, anxious and somewhat paranoid. The work of the Holy Spirit in the soul, on the other hand, brings forth fruits of peace, joy, patience and gentleness.
2. It’s an error about who God is. The implicit message of scrupulosity is that God has intentionally made it impossible to reach heaven, laying traps and just waiting to say “Gotcha!” at the pearly gates. This is not the Triune God of Christianity. It more closely resembles Loki or other “trickster” gods of pagan religions.
3. Scrupulous people feel that their consciences (acts of judgment on moral action) can never be trusted. This is not the teaching of the Church. Each person has a conscience which, though in need of formation, can and ought to be followed (Catechism of the Catholic 1776-1802).
If you struggle with intense scrupulosity, you might consider counseling in addition to spiritual approaches. Ultimately, the healing remedy for scrupulosity is an attentiveness to the promises and desires of Jesus. The Lord spent Himself and literally shed His blood that we might be free from sin, not that the specter of sin might haunt and perturb us. He is quick to forgive and generous with His mercy. What is more, He wants you to be with Him and has made the way for you: “Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am, they also may be with me” (John 17:24).
The virtue needed to counteract the pull of scrupulosity is a heartfelt trust in God, based in a deep knowledge of His tender compassion for you.