(See links at the bottom of this page for more information.)
The word "scrupulous" as defined in the dictionary has some positive aspects as we see here:
- conscientious, cautious, careful, circumspect.
- exacting, rigorous.
When we talk about having an overly scrupulous conscience or scrupulosity, however, this term when used by Catholic theologians means that somehow our conscience is overly exacting and overly critical of ourselves. When we have the problem called "scrupulosity" we have a problem of seeing sins where there are no sins, or mortal sins where there are only venials sins, and this leads to an inner torment of feeling guilty when there is no good reason. We can go beyond the good thing of being cautious and careful to avoid sin to the point that we are living in fear and worry, just as we can go to the other extreme and have a "lax" conscience.
An overly scrupulous conscience can include tormenting ourselves through worry or fear that we are not in God's grace or not good enough or are in the state of sin or something similar, so it robs us of the peace that Jesus came to give us. So being overly scrupulous is not good but something we want to avoid.
An overly scrupulous conscience is an exaggeration of healthy guilt. It is healthy to feel guilty about real wrongs we have done that are not forgiven as this guilt prompts us to recognize we've done something wrong and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation and help us to want to correct our future behavior along the same lines. Sometimes to conquer real sins we need to do some rearranging in our lives, such as if we constantly sin in a sexual way maybe God is telling us that he cut us out to be married and is pointing us to seek a marriage partner, work on what it takes to get married in ourself, or work on having a better marriage relationship with our spouse that we already have... as God made sex and it is good when used correctly. God made and gave us sexual feelings and attractions for a good reason (which for those of us called to marriage is to push us from within to find a marriage partner to love, to work on having a good relationship and to have children in most cases). Sometimes just working toward a goal instead of trying to find relief in other ways helps to focus that energy where it needs to be focused. Another example is if we keep sinning because we associate with people who do bad things or watch questionable movies or TV, we might need to change our situation and friends and find ones who want to help us be good rather than drag us down.
We also need to understand what is a sin. A real sin is where we know something is wrong and yet we decide to do it anyway with full consent and realization. If it is a serious matter (objectively), then it is a mortal sin if we fully realize and fully consent to do it. If we are trying to gain control over ourselves and rid ourselves of some habit or are weak in some way through no fault of our own, this lessons our guilt because if we do not completely consent to doing something sinful but can't help it, we did not have full consent. This isn't an excuse, it is just where we are at the present as we are trying to do what is right and pray for God's grace to do what is right. When tempted we should always pray and ask God for his help and grace to resist. When we go to confession and confess our sins it gives us grace to help us not to do them in the future and if we fall we get up and try again and keep trying until we conquer as with God's grace we will conquer if we keep trying. If it is a less serious matter, then it is a venial sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in detail. (See links below.)
We are to avoid sin (and we are all sinners, the Bible says) and therefore we should feel guilty sometimes when we actually commit a real sin. But even real guilt has a remedy which is sorrow for sin and repentence and reconciliation with God. If we love God, we are sorry when we offend him and ask God to forgive us with a firm purpose to avoid this sin from now on. Then God forgives us and our attitude should be to we thank God for forgiving us and return to a non-guilty state because our sins are forgiven rather than dwell on the sin or guilt. (We need to let it go.)
Since God has forgotten our sin we do too, as God desires us to forgive us even more than we want to be forgiven. God desires us to be in a close loving relationship and friendship with us. Just like with any friend, we say we are sorry, and if forgiven, we return to fellowship and a good relationship and feeling between us. God always forgives us if we are sorry, so we should forgive ourselves too. God doesn't want us walking around in perpetual guilt but to have the fruits of the Spirit. (See left panel).
In fact if you think about it, who would want us to feel perpetually guilty or unnecesssarily guilty or in torment? The evil one, who would like to take away our peace.... so sometimes scrupulous thoughts can be like temptations that we can dismiss as just temptations and not give in to them... just put our mind on something else but sometimes it takes work and perhaps outside help to be able to do this but in all cases help from God and his grace as we can do nothing good on our own and everything is a grace. We need to learn to depend on God and not ourselves as God loves us just as we are right now.
If we commit a mortal sin and we are a Catholic, we need to go to confession before we go to communion again even if we are sorry and ask God to forgive us. But at the same time we can realize that if we are sorry because we desire not to offend God because we love him and we are going to try not to ever commit this sin again (perfect contrition) then we are forgiven as soon as we are sorry and ask God to forgive us even before we get to confession. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession), we can be forgiven for sins even with imperfect sorrow. Imperfect sorrow stems from fear of punishment rather than from love of God.
Our goal should be to love God as he deserves to be loved. Fear has its place but as we progress we leave it behind and exchange it for faith, hope and love... The Bible does say that in Proverbs 1:7 "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" but it also says that 1John 4:18 that "perfect love casts out all fear". Jesus says many times not to worry or be afraid so that is our goal with his help. We need to be patient with ourselves as change often takes time.
A overly scrupulous person is often not committing sins but just worries through fear that every "bad" thought or feeling that comes into them is somehow a sin even though they didn't want them, not realizing that thoughts and feelings that pop into our minds or hearts are not sins of themselves and therefore not good or bad in that way, but are often just reports from our subconscious trying to tell us something or possibly from just being human or from wounds or traumas in our past. Unless we choose to purposefully dwell on them or act on them with our will they are not sins. See links below for more information.
So when taken to an extreme being scrupulous is not a good thing and can lead to living with a perpetual guilty conscience that never is resolved even with confession and a firm purpose of amendment which should lead to peace and thankfulness that God has truly forgiven us. If we are overly scrupulous (and there are many people who have this problem), we beat ourselves up and yet God wants us to take our focus off ourselves and put it on him. Putting our focus on the good like Philippians, Chapter 4 in the Bible says to do is a great help and is a great meditation and advice for anyone prone to being scrupulous. (See left panel.) Since this can be a habit, we need to keep trying until we form a new habit or way of looking at things.
There is a danger that if a person doesn't get a distorted scrupulosity resolved they will eventually give up and decide God is too exacting when in effect it is not God who is too demanding or exacting, but their own way of looking at things that they cling to. Our ideas of God often come from our early teaching or upbringing or thinking God is like our parents or teachers or whatever.
Getting to know the real God and what the real God expects and wants seems critical to get a more balanced and well-formed conscience, then putting all our trust in the real God instead of trusting in our perhaps incorrect feelings and thoughts about him. Oftentimes our feelings about God come directly from our feelings about our parents as we tend to project our parents onto God and oftentimes our earthly parents being only human even though we love them, were inadequate or even hurtful in some ways. A good reflection is to write down how we feel loved or not loved by God or what God is like regarding his demands on us and see how this relates to how we feel loved or not loved by our parents or other authority figures in our past, like teachers, pastors or whatever.
We find out about the real God from Sacred Scripture (reading the Bible and official church teachings such as the Catechism for correct interpretations) and from prayer and meditation especially on God's love and forgiveness as God is love. We also learn more about God from having a personal relationship with God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) over time through prayer and putting into practice what Jesus says... as when we do what Jesus tells us, we will know it is true. We retrain ourselves and remember that Jesus desires us not to worry but to have his peace, the peace he came to give us, inside ourselves. Retraining our mind with these truths from the Bible and replacing false thoughts with true thoughts can help us renew our minds like the Bible asks us to do. We must be willing to let our over-worrying side be reprogrammed with God's truth which is love, God's peace and the fruits of the Holy Spirit (joy, etc.)
In short, suffering from an overly scrupulous conscience may stem from a misunderstanding of what sin is (reading the Catechism may help clear this up especially what constitutes a mortal sin as full knowledge and consent of the will are required); what God wants (he unconditionally loves us while we are yet sinners and doesn't need us to be perfect before he loves us); or from a tendency to worry or be fearful (the Bible says not to worry or be afraid and to put all our trust in God); perfectionism; mistakenly not feeling good enough for God or others; obsessive-compulsive disorder or perhaps from some other cause.
Our goal is to have a correct well-formed conscience which is a balance between having an overly lax or overly scrupulous conscience. A lax conscience doesn't recognize some sins that are committed or isn't concerned. A well-formed conscience judges correctly what is an real sin and does not judge something to be a sin that isn't a sin. Reading and studying the Catechism can really help in this regard plus going to a good confessor who can guide us in confession.
The overall goal is to come to know that Jesus came to not only ask us to give up sin and repent but he also came to give us his peace, grace and love and his Holy Spirit and many other wonderful things which manifests as an inner peace deep inside ourselves with a realization we are loved by God. He came to show us his love and to be our Lord and Savior, our friend and brother, not just now but for all eternity. He loves us and wants us to be happy with him forever and wants to show us that true happiness comes from following loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength and loving other as we love ourselves.
Since all good things come from God, if we suffer from being overly scrupulous we would do well to pray to God and ask him to heal us and trust he will heal us as we do what we can on our end as well. "I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me." Phil. 4:13.
Some important reading to help understand more about forming a correct conscience and what does, and doesn't, constitute a sin:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church on Moral Conscience (keep reading all of Article 6 by clicking the next button to get to the formation of conscience):
The Catechism of the Catholic Church on Sin (keep reading all of Article 8 by clicking the next button to get to the part about what is a mortal sin and what is not.):
Links to other websites to help understand scrupulosity and with tips on how to conquer it:
Scrupulous Anonymous (the Redemptorists):
Help from readers:
Note: If you have any helpful links to share or want to share what has helped you to overcome scrupulosity or be in a better place around this issue, please e-mail me with your thoughts and tell me it is to post on this page. (If you'd like to remain anonymous tell me that too.)