Scrupulosity: The Occupational Hazard of the Catholic Moral Life


God’s grace is the most powerful thing on earth. By making his own life available to us, God demonstrates his sovereign love and power.

It must have been tempting for God to build man with freedom but to prevent him from misusing it in any serious way. But that would have made the gift of freedom an illusion. This great gift of love is freely offered, and we are free to accept or reject it. If it were forced upon us, it would have no value.

The gift of freedom is a twin with the gift of grace. As grace without freedom is not grace, so freedom without grace is not freedom. Freedom as an end in itself, freedom to "do what I want," leaves us with a profound restlessness and despair. Freedom is in its fullest splendor when it is aligned with truth.

Scrupulosity is a corruption of freedom. The scrupulous person is anxious that he has committed a sin when in fact he has not or is convinced that his venial sins are mortal when they are not.

The Descent into Scrupulosity

This is the kind of reasoning that can lead a person into scrupulosity:

  • It’s one thing to offend a human person. These offenses can be forgiven.
  • Things start to get bad when you offend a person of high dignity.
  • The more sovereign the person offended, the more dangerous the offense.
  • Things get really bad when you offend the greatest person—or rather, the three greatest Persons, namely, the Trinity.
  • Even if the offense seems minor, it is still an offense against an infinite being.
  • Though there are different degrees of sin, all sin is of one kind; all offenses against God are equally serious.
  • Given the inevitability of sin, there’s not much hope of salvation.

One is now in the realm of scrupulosity. It’s the occupational hazard of the Catholic moral life. If you take morality seriously, you are vulnerable to this error. Like most mistakes, it gets half the picture right, which is why scrupulosity is attractive. It is right about the seriousness of human freedom, which is not a game. We do have the power to dislodge God’s grace from our hearts through sin. But scrupulosity gets the other half of the grace/freedom picture wrong: It fails to take into account that God’s grace is so powerful that it is not as easily dislodged from the heart as the scrupulous person thinks.

Scrupulosity takes myriad forms. Here are a few descriptions that depict the errors a scrupulous person can fall into:

  • The scrupulous person may believe that the difference between venial and mortal sin is only one of degree. The misuse of freedom that offends the Trinity, of whatever degree, is serious.
  • The scrupulous person may believe that his faults are sins or are so rooted in sin that to show a fault is tantamount to sin.
  • The scrupulous person may believe that his psychological disorder is the result of sin, and actions stemming from it are sins. He may believe that those who think psychological disorders minimize or negate our freedom are wrong.
  • The scrupulous person may believe that having even a fleeting impure thought (maybe sexual thoughts or thought about revenge) is sinful. He may believe that we are able to control our minds completely, so that if anything impure enters it has been freely chosen and therefore sinful.
  • The scrupulous person may believe that any imperfection puts a barrier between him and God.
  • The scrupulous person may believe that our only hope is the sacrament of reconciliation, and because sin happens constantly, he must receive the sacrament continually.

There are good intentions behind this way of thinking. It is meant to emphasize our freedom and our responsibility and to uphold God’s sovereignty. The scrupulous individual might feel pretty small at the end of the day, but at least he’s been responsible and God remains sovereign. It is almost as if he can crank up God’s sovereignty a notch or two if he is in a demeaned state of guilt! In fact, the scrupulous person often has a feigned humility. It may look like the real thing, but it’s not.

Getting the Intellect in Order: Seeing Sin Clearly

There are theological and philosophical solutions to the problem of scrupulosity. Both are helpful, in a limited way. Since we so often operate from a set of misconceptions, getting things straight in our minds can help get us on track. Still, even when our intellect is accurate, our will doesn’t always obey it. St. Augustine noted in his Confessions that his resistance to the Catholic faith was rooted in misconceptions he had about it and that it was freeing to find out the truth.

He had a full conversion of intellect, but it took some doing for the conversion of will to follow. Remember his famous prayer: "Make me chaste, but not yet." The intellect may be the navigator, but the will is the pilot.

Sometimes the will won’t do the right thing because it is stubborn. Sometimes the will is very pliable but the psychological makeup of the scrupulous person gets in the way. Scrupulosity can be an actual psychological disorder. If this is the case, theology won’t help much, and willpower won’t either. In fact, they could cause further problems: The scrupulous person can see the solution but still not be able to rid himself of it. If you have this disorder—and you’re not alone if you do—depending on its degree of seriousness and the extent to which it hampers your daily life, you need competent professional help that is compatible with the Catholic understanding of the human person. It is very common for therapists to blame the Catholic upbringing for the problem (which may be partially correct) and then to discourage involvement in the Catholic faith as a solution! A well-meaning pastor or theologian with no training in therapy can be just as dangerous.

Solution #1: Distinguish between Material and Formal Sin

The person prone to a scrupulous conscience will find this distinction tremendously refreshing. Material sin refers to a particular act that is objectively sinful. It could be gravely sinful (mortal sin) or not (venial sin). When you look at material sin you consider the act without any reference to the person who committed it.

Once you plug a particular person into the act, you speak of it formally. If a particular person committed a materially sinful act (mortal or venial) with sufficient freedom and knowledge, then the act is formally sinful. That is, the person has some degree of culpability or blameworthiness for the act committed.

There are three ways this distinction applies to scrupulosity:

1. One might have committed a number of material sins out of ignorance and immaturity (CCC 1860) that are not formal sins. There is no culpability and no need to confess such material sins. Put the past behind you!

2. Many materially mortal sins are formally venial. Although we have the capacity to control our passions, the fact is that even a highly responsible person is not fully free when under the sway of his passions. A material mortal sin is formally mortal only if there is sufficient freedom (CCC 1860). Your past may be littered with materially mortal sins that are not formally mortal. One cannot deny the damage that such acts caused, but it is a tremendous relief for the scrupulous person to know that they are not "going to hell" for them. All venial sin is forgiven not only in confession but at the penitential rite of the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

3. A materially venial sin cannot be formally mortal. Thinking that a sin is mortal does not make it so! For there to be mortal sin, there needs to be grave matter (CCC 1857–59). This, too, is freeing for the scrupulous person who mistakenly thinks all sin is mortal.

Solution #2: Distinguish between Neutral Thoughts and Sinful Thoughts

Scrupulosity often focuses on impure thoughts. An essential distinction is usually missing from the scrupulous person’s thinking in this case: There is a difference between an impure thought entering the mind and the choice to dwell on that thought and take pleasure in it. The impure thought itself is neutral. Entertaining the thought is not.

The scrupulous person gets one thing right in this regard: A sin can take place in the mind, apart from any external act. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of the "object of the interior act of the will" and the "object of the external act" (ST I-II.18); sin can take place in both realms. The man who robs a bank sins. The man who plans to rob a bank but doesn’t do it (because of illness or an accomplice not showing up) sins, too. The man who entertains thoughts about robbery also sins. Likewise, the entertainment of impure sexual thoughts constitutes a sinful moral object. Christ emphasized this when he taught that looking at a woman lustfully—entertaining impure thoughts about her—is equivalent to adultery.

But the scrupulous person often fails to distinguish between neutral thoughts and sinful thoughts. The error is understandable. The impure thought that enters the mind may be neutral so long as a person does not intentionally put himself in a situation that invites the thought. There is no reason to feel guilty about such thoughts.

It is unrealistic to think that impure thoughts will or should vanish. They might even increase as one tries to avoid them! The goal is to avoid entertaining the thoughts.

Solution #3: Avoiding an Obsession with Confession

The sacrament of reconciliation is a tremendous gift, but it is easily misused. Ask any priest! While the secularized Catholic or the cafeteria Catholic ignores or psychologizes the sacrament, the scrupulous person obsesses on it. It is common for the scrupulous to worry about missed sins from the last confession or from the distant past and to run to the confessional too often.

Your confessor will probably tell you to stop confessing past sins or to use the sacrament no more than every three weeks or so. Listen to him! Scrupulous people tend to ignore such advice, but this is a time to be scrupulous and obey your confessor.

If you commit a genuine sin and your next confession is three weeks off, don’t obsess. Assuming that you are sorry, God forgives you as you anticipate the sacrament. When you ask God’s forgiveness, you are affected by the confession you will make several weeks hence.

Solution #4: God’s Grace Is Not Easily Dislodged

Perhaps the best antidote to scrupulosity is the awareness that God’s grace is not easily dislodged by our sinful actions, much less by our smaller imperfections. If we think we can easily lose so great a gift, we are guilty of undue pride, which often masks itself as humility: "I am a horrible sinner and incapable of God’s love." That is a false humility by which we make ourselves more powerful than we really are and minimize the sovereign power of God and his gift of grace. Our venial sins are no match for God’s grace. It is true that, with the gift of freedom, we do have the power to sin mortally and dislodge God’s grace, but scrupulous people need not be reminded of that.

John Paul II, in Veritatis Splendor 60–65, discusses the idea of the "fundamental option," whose proper use is helpful in combating scrupulosity. Deep in the core of our being we make a fundamental choice to love God and order our lives according to his will. By that choice we receive God’s grace into our being, and God’s life is so foundational that venial sin cannot destroy it. Venial sin is a manifestation of something that threatens but does not destroy our fundamental choice toward God. Since it does not dislodge the Trinitarian life within us, the very source of forgiveness is right in our midst (CCC 1863).

Solution #5: The Salvation of Grace

Ask yourself this: As a scrupulous person, what is your perspective on the Protestant understanding of grace and good works as compared to the Catholic understanding? Most scrupulous people, while aware that their scrupulosity involves a preoccupation with good works, nonetheless abhor the classical Protestant position that tends to bifurcate faith and works. Most would say, "I’d rather be a scrupulous Catholic than a faith-is-all Protestant."

Remember that the scrupulous person thinks that God’s grace is easily dislodged, that his heart is not capable of the great "weight of glory" (2 Cor. 4:17) that is grace. The classical Protestant position (which many contemporary Protestants no longer hold, by the way) is likewise guilty of thinking God’s grace has no steadfast home in the human heart.

The Protestant view of grace is the flip side of Catholic scrupulosity. For Luther and Calvin, the damage wrought by the fall of man dislodged grace from the human heart. For Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and other Reformers, God’s grace does not heal and elevate our fallen human natures; God’s grace saves us in spite of our depraved natures. God, in his great mercy, declares us to be in right relation with him—a "forensic" righteousness rather than an infused righteousness. While this view admirably recognizes the power of human sinfulness, it fails to recognize the super-power of God’s grace, which is capable of taking the most sinful human nature and healing it.

The Council of Trent, in its Decree on Justification, speaks of our new natures as the formal cause of our justification. So that we might arrive safely in heaven, God justifies us (the efficient cause), Christ gets the credit for his redemptive work (the meritorious cause), and the sacraments (the instrumental cause) mediate Christ’s accomplishment. The formal cause is the new nature that God has placed in us—his grace—by which we are rendered capable of doing good works. God does it all, but he goes so far as to infuse himself into our nature, sanctifying us.

For the classical Protestant Reformers, there is no formal cause of justification. The Protestant viewpoint, which is shared by the scrupulous Catholic, does not recognize the full power of Christ’s redemption. It is wonderful that the redemptive work of Christ allows grace to cover over our depraved natures, but it is more wondrous still that redemptive grace can heal and elevate us.

These contrasts have the power to jolt a scrupulous Catholic back to a more balanced outlook and to bring a Protestant into fuller incorporation into the Catholic faith.

Solution #6: Avoid Arbitrary Morality

Throughout Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on moral theology, he was at pains to show that the Catholic moral life was not an external imposition on the human person—forced on us from the outside by authority figures (God or the pope). The moral life is not heteronomous—that is, a set of laws that are alien to us. The quintessential example of viewing the moral life heteronomously is scrupulosity, in which God is a tyrant intent on making your life miserable and ready to pounce at the smallest mistake or sign of weakness.

People who are raised in a heteronomous environment often recoil and want to distance themselves as much as possible from the oppressive system. (I recall one such person referring to herself as a "recovering Catholic.") Such people head straight to the opposite extreme, what John Paul II called an autonomous view of the moral life: "I’m free and can do whatever I want, and it’s up to me to follow my own conscience." They ignore the fact that the conscience one follows must be informed by the truth.

Even though heteronomy and autonomy look like polar opposites, they have something fundamental in common: They are both arbitrary systems of morality. Heteronomy posits an arbitrary authority figure who tells us, "Do it because I said so and look out if you don’t." Autonomy seems to escape that arbitrariness but in fact falls straight into another version of the same thing. A moral code that says, "Whatever I choose is right for me," is absolutely arbitrary.

A person caught in the heteronomous snare of scrupulosity is poised for two possibilities: escaping into the opposite extreme of autonomy or giving others such a heteronomous snapshot of Catholicism that they flee toward autonomy. The scrupulous person may have some things wrong, but one thing he doesn’t have wrong is a distaste for autonomy. Yet his own heteronomous scrupulosity places him on a trajectory toward it.

The Truth Will Set You Free

John Paul II did not try to find some a middle ground between autonomy and heteronomy. He transcended those sad options and placed the Catholic moral life on an entirely different plane. He showed how moral truth resonates profoundly in the heart of the human person, and that truth is friendly to our being. We are built for the truth, and the truth is built within us. God’s law is made for our happiness and our authentic freedom, and our very being participates in it. John Paul referred to this perspective as participated theonomy.

It is this perspective that frees the scrupulous person.


Mark Lowery is chairman of the theology department at the University of Dallas. He is author of Living the Good Life: What Every Catholic Needs to Know about Moral Issues (Charis 2003). He writes from Irving, Texas, where he lives with his wife, Madeline, and their eight children.

This article appeared in Volume 17 Number 9.