It was a Catholic friend who first introduced me to the term “scrupulosity,” a condition in which one is overly obsessed with personal sin. The topic came up because of my friend’s observation that I had some tendencies in that direction. I didn’t disagree. But I must confess that on some level I actually took the observation as a compliment. I secretly believed that it was an indication of a virtuous life. I must be a truly moral person, I thought, to be so acutely aware of my constant failings—and to be so unwilling to cut myself any slack for them.
And I considered myself in good company. Martin Luther, the story goes, would pause while celebrating the mass and rush to confession upon remembering some un-confesssed sin. I was taking a class on Luther that semester, and finding that his thoughts resonated with me deeply. He writes passionately of how difficult it is to believe in God’s mercy in the face of the despair caused by awareness of one’s sinfulness. Even when I questioned some of his theological conclusions, his internal battles made a great deal of sense to me.
The idea that scrupulosity could actually be a problem was challenging, a notion I found difficult to assimilate. I’d always assumed that we were supposed to be closely concerned, even obsessed, with the sin in our lives; how else could we repent and become better people? I’d heard endless dire warnings about what happened to those who failed to attend to the sin in their lives, who didn’t focus enough energy on closely following the commandments to the letter. But I’d never seriously considered that there might be danger in the other direction.
Yet when I looked at the situation, I had to admit that scrupulosity was not in fact bringing me closer to God. Rather, it was driving me away. It was predicated on the notion that if I worked hard enough, did enough “right,” then I could get in the club, so to speak. I, too, could have a relationship with God. In other words, it fundamentally arose from anxiety: anxiety that I wouldn’t measure up, that God would overlook or condemn me. And the practice fueled the anxiety—because if I wasn’t good enough, I assumed that the relationship was over.
I also sometimes found myself exhibiting what I might call pathological integrity. I had little use for grace in my personal religious life, because it was fundamentally un-just. I was not going to let someone else suffer for my sins. I would instead go to hell, I figured, where I would at least have the comfort of knowing that I, unlike other less virtuous souls, had not compromised my principles: those who sin have to pay, and those who don’t earn their way to heaven shouldn’t be there.
Paul tells us that without charity, all that we do is nothing. That stops me short, when I really think about it, because I suspect that this is at the core of what is misguided about scrupulosity. Yes, it is important to be aware of sin. But to live an externally “virtuous” life or to obsess about sin without the context of charity is to commit oneself to a rigid and bleak existence: one without spontaneity, without joy, without love. Scrupulosity is not, as I once supposed, a sort of misunderstood virtue. It is actually toxic to the spiritual life.