Overcoming scrupulosity with God’s mercy – and a therapist

Ignatius of Loyola, Alphonsus Liguori and Therese of Lisieux are only a few of the saints who suffered from scrupulosity on their path to sainthood. Their desire to follow God wholeheartedly became a double-edged sword, as they often experienced great guilt and restlessness for doubting whether many of their actions were sinful — when they were not. Such struggle often kept them from enjoying life.

If you struggle with scruples, don’t let them keep you from celebrating God’s blessings in your life. Here’s what you can do about them.

Psychologists have found in this malady — still very common in our day — a close connection with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and some suggest a joint priest-therapist approach when helping a person overcome this disorder.

“Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is an anxiety disorder… Typically, the form that it takes is that people have one or more areas of fear. They are worried about something bad happening, and they engage in behaviors that we call ‘compulsion’ in order to decrease the anxiety that results from these fears,” explained Elizabeth Higbie, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at St. Raphael Counseling in Denver.

OCD can manifest in many ways, she explained. The classic examples include those of people with an obsessive fear of contamination who engage in the compulsion of handwashing, or of people who need to have everything in order as a compulsion to some other fear.

But it can also manifest in other areas, such as in the fear of harming others.

“Scrupulosity is a manifestation of OCD, and I think it is a unique manifestation because we have to consider the role of spirituality,” she added.

“[In scrupulosity] there’s an obsession that I’m not in a state of grace, that I’m not pleasing to God,” explained Father Scott Bailey, Pastor at Risen Christ and Chaplain at St. Raphael’s Counseling. “A scrupulous person really believes that they’re always guilty of serious sin. Even if their heart is in the right place, if they desire to know God above everything else, they have this anxiety that they’re making the wrong choice, that they’re not pleasing to God… While it’s a spiritual reality, there is also a large psychological element to it.”

Such guilt often comes from the difficulty of distinguishing temptation from sin.

People with scrupulosity tend to see God as a punishing God who is out to get them or waiting for them to mess up.”

Father Bailey explained: “A temptation comes to our mind, it’s appealing to us, but if we refuse to engage in that thought, then it just remains a temptation. [Yet] sometimes the scrupulous person thinks that because they have the thought to do this tempting thing, that they are in sin.”

People also experience scrupulosity in the form of real anxiety around things that are not large moral issues.

“You might find this in the person who commits himself to some particular spiritual practice, like praying the rosary every day. It’s a wonderful thing to do, but if they miss a day, then they suddenly are in concern that they are in serious sin… or that they didn’t pray the rosary with the attention it deserved,” he added. “It’s hard because maybe there are legitimate things in there, like realizing we could do a better job of praying, but it doesn’t mean that we are displeasing to God.”

Common compulsions of people who struggle with scrupulosity include going to confession very often because they think they’re in a state of mortal sin, and “priest hopping” because they don’t want the same priest to listen to their confession repeatedly.

Overcoming scrupulosity

Although Higbie assures OCD is a complex disorder — since people are often genetically predisposed to it and others can acquire it from a history of trauma — she guarantees there is hope: “I think people who get into these patterns can become very hopeless and it can feel very overwhelming and out of control. So, to remember that there is hope and that treatment really can help.”

Both Father Bailey and Higbie highlight the importance of recurring visits to both a spiritual director or confessor and a mental health professional to overcome this struggle.

For the psychological aspect of this reality, Higbie recommends finding a Catholic therapist, since scrupulosity cannot be treated as any other type of OCD.

“We have to manage [scrupulosity] a little bit differently than we manage other types of fears,” Higbie said. “Frontline treatment for [OCD] is something called ‘exposure and response prevention therapy’ (ERP). So, if someone is afraid of contamination, an exposure might be having them use a public restroom or not washing their hands… where they actually have to face their fears and not [fall into] other compulsive behaviors.

“If we’re going to treat scrupulosity, we have to take a bit of a different approach because, obviously, as Catholic therapists, we’re not going to recommend that someone engage in mortal sin and then sit with it… Instead, I typically take a modified approach where if somebody is questioning, for example, whether they have committed a mortal sin, the exposure might involve sitting with the uncertainty of whether or not they may have committed a sin, and not rushing to confession at the first impulse or fear.”

Another recommended measure is committing to one confessor or spiritual director, who can aid with the spiritual aspect of scrupulosity.

You’re not hopeless, you’re not beyond repair. The Lord is going to continue to walk with you and be with you.”

Other than helping the person make the commitment of not going to confession every two or three days, a priest can also help correct the distorted understanding of God that is common in people with this struggle.

“People with scrupulosity tend to see God as a punishing God who is out to get them or waiting for them to mess up. There’s this constant fear of condemnation… They do not think about the mercy and love that we know is available to us,” Higbie explained.

“A part of the spiritual healing is healing who I am before my God,” Father Bailey added. “Can I see myself as loved by God the father? Maybe that means that I see myself like the prodigal son in Luke 15… being embraced by the Father.”

Higbie assured there are many priests in the archdiocese who are “well-versed” in scrupulosity and encouraged those struggling with it to not be afraid to talk to one and find a Catholic therapist.

“OCD is very common, and I would venture to say that it’s fairly underdiagnosed,” Higbie concluded. “I think there’s a lot of people that don’t think of OCD or they think of it in just the traditional ways of handwashing, contamination or order; but they don’t think or know about the different ways it might manifest.

“If you find yourself having significant anxiety that requires you to do specific behaviors in order to reduce that anxiety, it might be good to seek out some professional support in assessing whether or not you would be suffering from OCD.”

“This could be the best encouragement: Remember that Jesus is actually with you and he’s actually helping you,” Father Bailey concluded. “You’re not hopeless, you’re not beyond repair. The Lord is going to continue to walk with you and be with you.”

For professional help with scrupulosity or OCD, visit straphaelcounseling.com.

COMING UP: Colorado Catholic Conference 2021 Legislative Recap

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On June 8, the First Regular Session of the 73rd General Assembly adjourned. Over 600 bills were introduced this session. Policy primarily focused on transportation, agriculture, healthcare, fiscal policy, and the state budget. However, the legislature also considered and passed many bills that could impact the Catholic Church in Colorado.  

Some bills that were passed will uphold Catholic social teaching and protect the poor and vulnerable of our society while others pose potentially harmful consequences to the Catholic Church, its affiliated organizations, and Colorado citizens who wish to practice their well-founded convictions. There were also many bills that were considered by the legislature that did not pass, including two bills that would have upheld the sanctity of life and two that would have expanded education opportunity for K-12 students.  

The Colorado Catholic Conference (CCC), as the united voice of the four Colorado bishops, advocated for Catholic values at the Capitol and ensured that the Church’s voice was heard in the shaping of policy.  

Below is a recap of the CCC’s 19 priority bills from the 2021 legislative session. For a full list of the legislation the Conference worked on, please visit: https://www.cocatholicconference.org/2021-legislative-bills-analysis/  

For regular updates and other information, please sign-up for the CCC legislative network here.  

Six bills the CCC supported that were either passed or enacted

Note: Passed means the bill was approved by both chambers of the legislature and is pending the governor’s signature as of June 9, 2021. Enacted means the bill was signed by the governor and became law.  

HB 21-1011 Multilingual Ballot Access for Voters – Passed  
If enacted, counties where either 2,000 adults or 2.5% of the adult population primarily speak a language other than English will be required to provide a ballot in that language. 

HB 21-1075 Replace The Term Illegal Alien – Enacted 
With the enactment of HB 1075, the term “illegal alien” was replaced with the term “worker without authorization” as it relates to public contracts for services.  

SB 21-027 Emergency Supplies for Colorado Babies and Families – Passed  
If enacted, the state government will allocate much-needed funding for nonprofit organizations to provide diapers and other childcare necessities to families in need, including Catholic Charities.  

SB 21-077 Remove Lawful Presence Verification Credentialing – Enacted    
With the enactment of SB 77, verification of lawful presence will no longer be required for any applicant for a license, certificate, or registration, particularly in the job fields of education and childcare.  

SB 21-146 Improve Prison Release Outcomes – Passed  
If enacted, SB 146 will establish practices that ease the transition back into society for formerly incarcerated persons.  

SB 21-158 Increase Medical Providers for Senior Citizens – Passed  
If enacted, SB 158 will allocate more funding for senior citizen care, which is currently understaffed and underfunded.  

Eight bills the CCC opposed that were passed 


HB 21-1072 Equal Access Services For Out-of-home Placements – Enacted 
With the enactment of HB 1072, Colorado law now prohibits organizations that receive state funding for placing children with adoptive or foster parents from discriminating on, among other things, the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or marital status. This new law will likely to be impacted by the imminent Fulton v. City of Philadelphia U.S. Supreme Court decision. 

HB 21-1108 Gender Identity Expression Anti-Discrimination – Enacted 
With the enactment of HB 1108, “sexual orientation,” “gender identity,” and “gender expression” are now recognized as protected classes in Colorado nondiscrimination code. This may have serious religious liberty implications for individuals and organizations that wish to practice their well-founded convictions on marriage and human sexuality. 

SB21-006 Human Remains Natural Reduction Soil – Enacted 
With the enactment of SB 006, human remains can now be converted to soil using a container that accelerates the process of biological decomposition, also known as “natural reduction.” 

SB 21-009 Reproductive Health Care Program – Passed 
If enacted, SB 009 will create a taxpayer funded state program to increase access to contraceptives.  

SB 21-016 Protecting Preventive Health Care Coverage – Passed 
If enacted, the definition of “family planning services” and “family planning-related services” will not be clearly defined in law and could potentially include abortion. Furthermore, SB 16 removes the requirement that a provider obtain parental consent before providing family planning services to a minor.  

SB 21-025 Family Planning Services for Eligible Individuals– Passed 
If enacted, SB 025 low-income women to be given state-funded contraception, “preventing, delaying, or planning pregnancy” services, which includes cessation services and sterilization services.  

SB 21-142 Health Care Access in Cases of Rape or Incest– Enacted  
The enactment of SB 142 removes the requirement that, if public funds are being used, a physician must perform an abortion at a hospital, and instead allows for abortions to be performed by any “licensed provider.”   

SB21-193 Protection of Pregnant People in Perinatal Period– Passed 
If enacted, SB 193 will eliminate an important protection in Colorado law for a preborn and viable baby when a woman is on life support.  

Five bills the CCC supported that failed  

HB21-1017 Protect Human Life at Conception – Failed 
HB 1017 would have prohibited terminating the life of an unborn child and made it a violation a class 1 felony.  

HB 21-1080 Nonpublic Education and COVID-19 Relief Act – Failed 
HB 1080 would have established a private school and home-based education income tax credit for families who either enroll their child in private school or educate their child at home, thereby expanding education opportunities for families during and after the pandemic.  

HB 21-1183 Induced Termination of Pregnancy State Registrar – Failed 
HB 1183 would have required health-care providers that perform abortions to report specified information concerning the women who obtain the procedure to the state registrar of vital statistics, thereby increasing transparency in the abortion industry.   

HB 21-1191 Prohibit Discrimination COVID-19 Vaccine Status– Failed  
HB 1191 would have prevented individuals from being coerced to take the COVID-19 vaccine by either the state or by employers.  

HB 21-1210 Modifications to Qualified State Tuition Programs – Failed 
HB 1210 would have allowed families to use some of their private 529 savings account funds for private K-12 school tuition for their children, including at Catholic schools.   

One bill the CCC opposed that failed 

SB 21-031 Limits on Governmental Responses to Protests– Failed 
SB 031 would have made it more difficult for law enforcement to protect innocent lives when protests turn violent.  

Two bills the CCC was in an “Amend” position that passed  

SB 21-073 Civil Action Statute of Limitations Sexual Assault – Enacted  
With the enactment of SB 073, the statute of limitations on bringing a civil claim based on sexual misconduct will be removed as of January 1, 2022. Under this law, victims of sexual abuse can pursue a civil cause of action if the statute of limitations has not expired, the abuse happened in Colorado, and the abuse could be considered a felony or Class 1 misdemeanor if it was a criminal case. 

SB 21-088 Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act– Passed  
If enacted, SB 88 will allow victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue public and private institutions for abuse that occurred between 1960-2022. Victims would have three years to bring a historical claim, starting from January 1, 2022. Claims brought during this window would be capped at $387,000 for public institutions and at $500,000 for private institutions, with the ability of a judge to double the damages depending on how the private institution handled the situation. Despite unanswered constitutional concerns regarding SB 88, the Colorado Catholic dioceses will also continue to offer opportunities for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to receive support in a non-litigious setting.   

While the legislature has adjourned the 2021 legislative session, there is still the possibility that they will reconvene later this year. To stay up-to-date on Colorado legislative issues and their impact on the Catholic Church in Colorado, be sure to sign up for the CCC legislative network HERE.