What Causes a Scrupulous Conscience? Is it OCD?

The Catholic Encyclopedia has a good but brief article on scruples, which describes the condition in this way:

“An unfounded apprehension and consequently unwarranted fear that something is a sin which, as a matter of fact, is not. It is not considered here so much as an isolated act, but rather as an habitual state of mind known to directors of souls as a ‘scrupulous conscience.’ St. Alphonsus describes it as a condition in which one influenced by trifling reasons, and without any solid foundation, is often afraid that sin lies where it really does not. This anxiety may be entertained not only with regard to what is to be done presently, but also with regard to what has been done.”

The book “A Manual For Confessors” by Francis George Belton has a chapter on scruples, which describes the condition aptly:

“Those penitents who fail to distinguish between what is allowed and what is forbidden, and who are constantly tormented by the fear of sinning where there is really no ground for such fear, are termed scrupulous. The word scruple is derived from the Latin word scrupulus, which is a diminutive of scrupus, and means a little rough, sharp stone. The confessor should be on his guard against confusing those penitents who have a tender conscience with those that are scrupulous.”

The scrupulous person has great difficulty making proper judgments about which acts are moral and which are immoral. He or she is plagued by doubts about many different acts, tending to see sin where there is none, and to see mortal sin where there is only venial sin. Another common feature of scruples is that the person does not accept the moral judgments of anyone but himself. He does not trust even his confessor’s opinion as to what is and is not moral. Yet he himself has little understanding of Church teaching on morality.

What are the sources of this problem called a scrupulous conscience? Not every case of scruples has the same cause. But three causes are most common, sometimes occurring together, other times separately.

1. Ignorance of Catholic moral teaching

The scrupulous person is often either a new convert from a very sinful life, or a person who has recently had a renewal of religious devotion. So the person is in a situation where he or she has a new or renewed concern to avoid sin, but little understanding of what constitutes a sin. This desire to avoid sin is good and holy. What is lacking, in this type of case, is a properly instructed conscience. The conscience is scrupulous because the person desires to avoid sin, but does not know how to distinguish imperfection from venial sin from mortal sin.

The chief remedy in this case is to learn the teachings of Catholic moral theology on the three fonts of morality, intrinsic evil, the distinction between venial sin and mortal sin, the distinction between objective mortal sin and actual mortal sin (material vs. formal sin), the principle of double effect, the positive and negative precepts, and the principles of cooperation with evil. Most Catholics are poorly catechized in the area of ethics. And there is no substitute for a thorough study of the subject area, in order to have a properly formed conscience.

Without this learning, the scrupulous person might somehow cast off his scrupulosity, but at the expense of not being able to discern which acts are moral, which are venial sins, and which are mortal sins.

If you need to study Catholic moral teaching, please consider my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics: A work of Roman Catholic moral theology. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a section on ethics, but it is too concise and lacks sufficient explanation for persons who are unfamiliar with Catholic moral theology.

2. Pride in one’s own judgment

Often, the scrupulous person “clings obstinately to his own judgment, placing no confidence in the decisions of learned men, or the confessor….” [Belton, A Manual For Confessors].

Pride is the first sin; it is the sin that leads to all other sins. But in a person who is seeking to avoid sin and become holier, it is also one of the last sins to be conquered. Out of pride in his or her new efforts to live a holy life, the scrupulous person often denigrates the opinion of other Catholics, even their priest-confessor and other persons who are learned in moral theology.

Some persons who are striving for greater devotion to God are overly-critical of other believers, seeing themselves as better or holier. Consequently, the scrupulous person does not trust the consciences of other faithful souls. Pride is at work here, since the person acts as if he or she is the only one with a well-formed and devout conscience.

The remedy is humility. The scrupulous person must humble himself or herself by prayer and self-denial, but also by not considering his or her devotion to be exceptional. “We are useless servants. We have done what we should have done.” (Lk 17:10).

[1 Corinthians]
{4:1} Accordingly, let man consider us to be ministers of Christ and attendants of the mysteries of God.
{4:2} Here and now, it is required of attendants that each one be found to be faithful.
{4:3} But as for me, it is such a small thing to be judged by you, or by the age of mankind. And neither do I judge myself.
{4:4} For I have nothing on my conscience. But I am not justified by this. For the Lord is the One who judges me.

3. Lack of trust in God

The scrupulous person often treats morality as if it were merely a set of regulations. This results in the false perception that any slight breaking of a rule could cause a loss of salvation by mortal sin. Instead, morality must be seen as always based on the love of God above all else and the love of neighbor as self. Mortal sin is gravely contrary to that love. Venial sin is a substantially limited offense against that love. And God is understanding, just, loving, and merciful. So he does not judge a person’s sins and failings like a Pharisee complaining about a breaking of the rules. God understands that our imperfections are not sins, and our sins may have reduced culpability due to many factors.

The scrupulous person must cultivate trust in God. As a result of this trust, they should go to Confession not more often than once a week. After any seemingly mortal sin, the scrupulous person should say a prayer of perfect contrition, and confess the sin at his or her next weekly Confession.

Daily prayer is important, but the prayers must be filled with trust, not worry. I suggest the Rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and occasional short prayers throughout the day, such as: “Jesus, I trust in you.” and “Jesus, Mary, I love you. Save souls.” and “Most holy Trinity, be merciful to me, a sinner.” and similar prayers.

Persons who do not have scruples

As mentioned in the quote above, a tender conscience is not a scrupulous conscience. A conscience is tender if it is sensitive to even the lesser venial sins, and is prone to frequent sorrow over real sins. This may be useful for a time. But the focus of our devotional lives must be love above all else. So an overly-tender conscience must be healed with trust and love, so as to not make sin — even avoiding sin — the main focus of our lives.

Consider that Heaven is filled with the love of God and neighbor. So then, what is the path to Heaven? It is the love of God and neighbor. Of course, we must avoid sin in order to get to Heaven, since all sin is in some way contrary to love, properly understood. But love must always be the main task of our souls in this life, not merely avoiding sin.

A Pharisee who avoids exterior sins will nevertheless be condemned to Hell forever, if he rejects the positive precepts, especially the love of God and neighbor.

Psychological disorders

Some persons have a tendency to worry excessively. Other persons are perfectionists, having a tendency for excessive concern for details. These natural tendencies can exacerbate a scrupulous conscience. But the main cause of scruples is not any psychological problem, but the aforementioned causes.

And now I must mention a very unfortunate situation. Many Catholics, posting online anonymously, are claiming that everyone who has a scrupulous conscience necessarily always has the mental illness called OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). This claim is false, contrary to the common theological opinion on scruples, and harmful if believed by an affected person.

Here is a list of the criteria for someone to be diagnosed with OCD. These criteria are from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (version 5). The criteria include “Excessive and repetitive ritualistic behavior” such as hand washing, checking door locks, or counting, and these rituals must take up an hour or more of time each day. There are several other criteria. Nothing is said at all about morals or conscience or a desire to avoid sin. There is essentially nothing in common between the usual theological description of scruples and the mental illness called OCD.

I have no idea why so many persons in society today gleefully self-diagnose themselves as having “a touch of OCD”. That is like claiming to have a touch of psychosis or a touch of paranoid schizophrenia. A person who is excessively neat, or is a perfectionist, or who tends to worry too much does not have OCD, nor any diagnosable mental illness. Mental health, to be sure, is a matter of degrees. We all have some imperfections in our heart and minds. But unless you have been diagnosed with a mental illness by a health care professional, you should not turn small faults into claimed mental illnesses — not for yourself and not for other persons.

It is harmful to tell someone with a scrupulous conscience that they have a mental illness. The person might spend time and money seeking psychiatric help, which they do not need. The person might fail to find help for scruples, which is a spiritual problem, if they seek that help from a psychiatrist or therapist. To claim that someone with scruples of conscience has OCD is to turn them away from seeking help for a spiritual problem from the Church, sending them instead to secular society.

And the persons who spread this claim online, and who speak as if they are giving a patient a medical diagnosis, are not physicians or psychiatrists. They are usually anonymous persons, with no background in helping the mentally ill and a poor understanding of moral theology. Please ignore them, as their ignorant advice might harm your soul.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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One Response to What Causes a Scrupulous Conscience? Is it OCD?

  1. tradconmom says:

    It may be true that someone who is scrupulous does not necessarily have OCD…….but, someone with OCD is very susceptible to Scrupulousity. My son has OCD. OCD takes many forms that change and evolve and come and go from time to time (sometimes checking, sometimes fear of germs, sometimes counting, etc), but all of them are based on believing something that simply is not true…the brain lying. It’s very sad and frustrating for the person and their loved ones. My son loves God and often shows more faith than I. I remind him to trust God, but it goes beyond that when your brain is fighting you. Pride? Maybe. I do think he can be stubborn and doesn’t see positive improvement with his OCD until he’s willing to try hard enough to fight it. Not knowledgeable about Church teachings? Again, he’s very smart. He absorbs a vast amount of information and at the age of 9 he could teach my high schoolers catechism. So. When I have to fight and convince him that he doesn’t have to sleep sitting up out of fear of lying down and therefore accidently bowing to an object and breaking the first commandment (something his nonOCD mind knows very well is not true) THEN I’d be interested in how you can make the claim that Scrupulousity and OCD are not related.

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