Scuppered by Scrupolosity?

‘Scrupulosity’: the trusty term for select individuals who strap themselves to a self-made mental rack. The reasons they may mentally castigate themselves are inevitably bound to practices of the faith. Catholics who painfully pinch their hands when they forget to bless themselves when they pass a church. Or bite lips when they are not sure if it was an hour they fasted for Communion or a mere fifty-nine minutes... Or did we break our fast by brushing our teeth with toothpaste thirty minutes before Mass? Those of us who attend PG films but feel sullied for watching the graphic clips from trailers or, sharpen our nails on our scalps, when we find ourselves laughing at some seedy joke in a cartoon. It's a good job we gloss over the detailed translations of Shakespeare's works. Could it be the bard was partial to the bawdy?!

Scrupulosity may take the form of trawling through the waters of the conscience for any type of minor sin. In my case, should I have had extra toast? Oh no, I'm guilty of gluttony now! People like us trash about in the waters between what is an outright sin and what our own confused consciences may perceive as sin. We terrorise our minds because we inadvertently put ourselves in what may be an occasion of sin or because due to poor human memory we have forgotten a minor duty. Or else, in pride, we want to be holier than thou. The scrupulous Catholics are the invisible minority. We would be well at home in a JP Wodehouse novel, stumbling after Jeeves asking his advice.

What makes it particularly difficult for the overly scrupulous few, is that our culture of extremes and excess, renders moderation invalid. Problem pages of the mainstream papers and magazines are lined with confessions of people who have difficulties with controlling their appetites, select depraved passions etc. Clinics are sprouting up everywhere to facilitate the curing of people with anything from masochistic sex addictions to buying soft-toy addictions, from addiction to barbiturates to betting to body building. Catering for healing-of-addictions is a huge market! There's a new colourful 'therapy' for everything, and there's even a closed circle of thought that everyone, (no exceptions) has a serious addiction. Well some of the great saints did teach that everyone has an addiction to sin. But addiction to sin isn’t in the list of addictions written by secular associations. I have a private fantasy to contact one of these organisations who tell people it’s perfectly normal for everyone to have an out of control addiction, and ask them how they will help me with my (made-up) addiction. I plan to tell them I have an addiction for eating gherkins. We’ll see what transpires. But what actual, practical recourse is there for those on the total opposite of the spectrum, the self-controlling (and obsessively) scrupulous?

It would do well to muse on the advice of the saints. The great saints taught consistency, never dangerous extremes; that to obsess over one's own faults was a barrier to developing true love of God and for saving the souls of others. Padre Pio, gifted with bi-location and the ability to 'read souls' was very good at helping the scrupulous. In fact, he even guided me! One day after confession I sorely regretted not confessing that I had stuffed myself on gluten free cake. A few hours later, I (accidentally) found an Internet account of a man who forgot to confess to Padre Pio that he had eaten extra figs. He raced back to Padre Pio. Before the man could speak, St. Pio warmly cajoled him, laughing and saying extra figs were no sin! The scrupulous have recourse to Our Lady, the Queen of Saints. We may (and should) pray to our lady for peace of mind.

Prayer could be important to a twelve-step programme for scrupulosity. A friend of mine and I had an idea to start a local SA society, that’s Scrupulists Anonymous if you hadn't guessed. We would keep it low budget, all in the guise of being low-key. A dark, damp garden shed would be rented and pound-shop candles procured. Seats would be stolen from someone's camping kit. We would even have watery ribena and salty spam sandwiches on offer. Well, we wouldn't like to make these poor tortured souls feel even worse by indulging them in plush surroundings and foods? Oh, and let me not forget the glow in the dark rosaries! I can imagine the scene now. 'Am… name is Pam and my worst scruple is wondering if I have broken my fast for Communion by wearing peach smelling lip balm hours before Mass. Oh help! I just tasted some in my mouth! I am going to mass in four hours time!' I can imagine that at least one tortured girl would run out of the shed half way through the meeting shouting, ‘oh! Help! I’m too close to members of the male of the species! I’m having lustful thoughts!’

One draw back to having these types of support groups (as if!) would be, as anyone with experience of pious Catholic company knows; people can pick up scrupulosity habits. I know of people who have been told (in pious company) to only receive Holy Communion with their eyes shut tight, so that they won’t distract the priest with open eyes. I have found no argument to substantiate the wrongs of receiving with open eyes and view the matter as people misreading their own personal opinion and foisting it on others as justification for what they perceive as solemn duty, i.e. playing the part of the Pharisee. And yes, Pharisees do lurk, I was chided once because I had not kept my eyes low enough as I walked up to the Communion rail. Sigh.

However, if you are keen to avoid ‘spreading’ scrupulosity, one thing definitely to avoid is becoming a nit-pick of others. Those not content to futilely find faults with themselves, resort to endlessly griping about how so and so wore bright pink lipstick at a funeral or how some man rushed out of Mass, a minute before Mass was over. We run the risk of becoming modern day Pharisees; thinking ourselves so tough on ourselves, that we can be even tougher on others.

Should a soul fall into the whirlpools listed above, outside of earnest prayer and spiritual reading, one needs a lifeguard in the form of a good confessor. Like Padre Pio, a good confessor will guide the penitent to see what is a sin proper, and what is just obsessing over self-perfection.

The above was originally published by The Brandsma Review.


  1. Are you Catholic and over the age of 18? Have you said the Rosary Prayer at least once in the past year? If so, please take part in an anonymous research study online that examines the place of the Rosary Prayer in Catholic individuals’ lives. To participate in this doctoral research study, click the following link: Participation is anonymous and free of charge.


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