It’s possible to be too hard on yourself or maybe on others, too, who suffer from scruples.
“Scruples” — defined in the old Catholic Encyclopedia as an “unwarranted fear that something is a sin, which, as a matter of fact, is not” — was once a familiar term to Catholics, but has since fallen out of use. No wonder: Catholics today are more likely to suffer the delusion that nothing is a sin.
Yet for Catholics who still take sin seriously, scrupulosity is more a danger than ever. Why? Because in an atmosphere of moral and religious laxity, some of us overcompensate by being too hard on ourselves. The resulting mental anguish can lead to serious spiritual consequences as well — warping judgment, sapping moral strength, and not infrequently leading to despair of God’s goodness.
Fortunately, the cure for this age-old problem hasn’t changed since Dermot Casey, SJ, wrote this definitive guide more than a half-century ago. Using simple, non-technical language, Fr. Casey divides his treatment into two parts:
(1) “The Nature of Scruples” (diagnosis), and
(2) “The Treatment of Scruples” (cure).
Some of his helpful advice:
- 8 common errors about Catholic moral and religious obligations that can lead to or exacerbate scruples
- Why scruples lead a person away from sanctity, not closer to it
- 5 common experiences or changes of circumstance that can bring on a serious case of scruples
- Telltale signs and symptoms of the scrupulous person. Dangers of incorrect diagnosis
- How to distinguish scrupulosity from a healthy fear of sin
- The main component of scrupulosity
- Why scruples are most troublesome on such occasions as Confession, Holy Communion, prayer and other devotional exercises. Remedies for each
- The kind of person most liable to scruples
- The most common form of scruples in priests
- Two deficiences of upbringing and education that can contribute to scruples in later life
- Why scruples often begin at adolescence
- 4 essential steps in the treatment of scruples
- The “rule of certainty” which the scrupulous person must grasp in order to be cured.
- Examples of how it is applied
- Four psychological exercises that by themselves actually short-circuit the mental strain associated with scruples
- St. Ignatius’ Rules for Scruples
- Categories of spiritual reading to be avoided by the scrupulous
- Why each case of scruples tends to focus on some one area of guilt
- How character, habits, daily work and other duties influence the particular focus of scruples
- How scrupulous people misunderstand the distinction between thinking and willing
- Superficial resemblances of scrupulosity to certain forms of mental illness. The all-important differences
- Why scrupulous people tend to change confessors
- What can a confessor do if a scrupulous penitent comes to him
- Why men’s scruples can be more difficult to cure than women’s
- The fundamental rule for confessors and spiritual directors in dealing with scrupulous people
- How scrupulous people can be reasonable about sin in general — yet unreasonable about their own acts
- “The really scrupulous person will tend rather to refuse to believe that he is scrupulous”
“A scruple is then an exaggerated, unreasonable fear of sinning where there is in reality no sin. This groundless fear of sinning causes doubt and trouble of mind. The scrupulous person becomes a prey to continual fear of sin, past, present and future, in the most innocuous circumstances. He is afflicted with endless doubt and mental anguish, causing a confusion of his judgment with regard to what is lawful and what is forbidden, between what is trivial and what is serious. His morbid fear of doing wrong only obscures his judgment and multiplies his doubts, and these in turn increase his fear, so that he comes to take alarm from quite insignificant and unreasonable motives.”
“‘I am bound to confess all my sins in Confession,’ says the scrupulous person, and this is true enough; he is certain of that and it causes no difficulty. But he adds, ‘Perhaps I didn’t tell everything.’ This ‘perhaps’ is quite unfounded. The normal person would have sufficient grounds to judge with certainty that he had fulfilled all that was required for a good confession. The scrupulous person cannot just bring himself to make that decisive practical judgment.”
A scruple is then an exaggerated, unreasonable fear of sinning where there is in reality no sin. This groundless fear of sinning causes doubt and trouble of mind. The scrupulous person becomes prey to continual fear of sin, past, present, and future, in the most innocuous circumstances. He is afflicted with endless doubt and mental anguish, causing a confusion of judgment with regard to what is lawful and what is forbidden, between what is trivial and what is serious. His morbid fear of doing wrong only obscures his judgment and multiplies his doubts, and these in turn increase his fear, so that he comes to take alarm from quite insignificant and unreasonable motives.
It is very useful, even necessary, to impress on the penitent from the start that his is a case of scruples, and that he is not in any way to blame for his doubts and fears. He has committed no sin in the matter which is troubling him; his mental distress is simply a bout of scrupulosity, a hard trial which God sometimes permits, but which he will get over if he does what he is told. This should be simply impressed on his mind, stated clearly in a way suited to his understanding, without any reasoning or argument….
The fear and doubt about sin which he feels at present, tell him that he must put it in your hands, that you take full responsibility as a priest. Give him also every hope of being cured, telling him you will show him the proper way towards complete cure according as he progresses. All this comes down to getting the penitent to accept the fact that he is scrupulous, that a psychological scrupulosity is the cause of all his troubles, that for the moment he sees things in a false light, as it were through colored glasses, and consequently that he will have to surrender himself to be guided by you. And the purpose of all this is not so much to enlighten his understanding as to calm his fears….
Paperback, 71 Pages, By Dermot Casey, S.J. $16.00 Buy Here