The Problem with Scrupulosity

Scrupulosity is a fairly common challenge in the spiritual life, but some may not even be aware of it. The scrupulous person has a very sensitive conscience, is overly worried and anxious about sin and has a hard time distinguishing between venial and mortal sins. They may worry about their salvation so much that they fail to find joy and peace in their faith. They might be so hard on themselves that they overlook or doubt God’s love and mercy.

“The good news is God’s grace helps us first to identify, to become aware that I err a little bit on the side of having a scrupulous conscience, I worry about things inordinately,” said Fr. Sam Martin. “The other extreme, I guess, is to have an ill-formed conscience that is just callous and dismissive of anything that’s sinful.”

When it comes to a well-formed conscience, there must be a good balance between the two extremes of presumptive behavior and scrupulous behavior. As Fr. Sam says, “Virtue is in the middle.”

What’s the problem with scrupulosity? “It affects us on a number of levels,” explained Fr. Sam. “One would be our understanding of God as a Father, that sometimes we’re afraid of Him. … And we need that to be rehabilitated, … to see how God loves us as a father, how He knows our struggles.” It also affects our view of ourselves, reducing our worth to our struggles and sins.

This problem is as old as original sin. Even some saints—including St. Alphonsus Liguori and St. Ignatius of Loyola—struggled with scruples. If you’re struggling, you are not alone. Pray about it and reach out to a pastor, spiritual director, or faithful friend for help.

Emily called in to The Inner Life® to ask Fr. Sam about her struggle to accept her own forgiveness. She explained that she had been away from the faith in her 20s and had an abortion. She’d been to Confession but still worried that she would be sent to hell for her sin. Fr. Sam encouraged her to read about the Divine Mercy, so she might understand the depths of God’s love and mercy for us. He also advised her to pray as the centurion did, ‘I do believe, Lord, but help my unbelief.’”

There is hope amidst the difficulty of this cross. Fr. Sam said, “With scruples, sin weighs inordinately heavy on us. And we start to have this sort of discouragement and it can lead to sadness and isolation and other darker things, too. But we’ve also found that it can lead to a magnificent dose of empathy, of real compassion for others because people with scruples, there’s some suffering but that suffering, if it’s given to God, it softens the heart for all sorts of magnificent things.”

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Lindsey is a wife, mother, and contributing author at Relevant Radio. She holds a degree in Journalism and Advertising from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Lindsey enjoys writing, baking, and liturgical living with her young family.