A SCRUPLE is often defined as "an uneasy and unfounded fear of having committed sin, based on feeling rather than reason." Scrupulosity is an obsession of the moral conscience (technically called a phobia) causing a state of acute anxiety.

The scrupulous person lives in a spiritual fog which obscures all lines of demarcation beyond good and evil. Every moral issue which arises seems to present an insoluble problem. Whichever way the scrupulous look for a solution of their perplexities, their path seems beset with possibilities of serious sin. If reason says a certain course of action is morally right, immediately a silly, nagging, interior voice pipes up that it is wrong, something at the back of their minds tells them so. Whatever the scrupulous want to do seems either wrong in itself or inspired by wrong motives. They are afraid to flout the nagging voice of the phobia, because they confuse it with conscience.

The scrupulous are sick and suffering souls who need to be handled with patience, reverence and tenderness. To tell them to pull themselves together is unkind and useless advice, because that is precisely what they want to do, but don't know how to do. To bait them as silly, obstinate or proud is uncharitable and may reveal either an insensitive or an unspiritual person. It is not very helpful either to tell the scrupulous that the funny-feeling inside is not conscience, because naturally enough they want to know what it is if it is not conscience.

The voice-theory of conscience confuses the issue. If conscience is a voice, and if in the souls of the scrupulous there are two contradictory voices claiming a hearing, how are they to decide which voice is the real voice of conscience? Must they follow the louder and more insistent voice? In that case, they must certainly follow the suggestion of the scruple, because it is the precise trouble of the scrupulous that the voice of reason is made scarcely audible by the megaphone clamor of the phobia.

The scrupulous cannot be cured until they are convinced that conscience is simply sound reason and that the phobia is merely the manifestation of a spiritual ailment. Once convinced of that, they can confidently turn a deaf ear to the nagging voice of the phobia. Ignoring the phobia will not cure it, but it will at least stunt its growth, and, as it were, chop off the tops of the spiritual weeds as they appear. To remove the phobia completely, it will be necessary to find and remove its cause.

There are myriads of causes of scruples, ranging over the physical, psychological and spiritual planes, and to find the real cause in any given case is no easy matter and requires great patience, sympathy and skill. There is no panacea for scruples, no slick rule-of-thumb applicable in and sufficient for all cases.


The cause of scruples may be and often is physical. People with indifferent health are an easy prey for worries, scruples and neuroses. Whenever we are unwell, we always tend to see the black side of things. People are often afflicted with scruples when they are suffering from shock, or from strain and nervous exhaustion caused by overwork, adolescence, change of life, et cetera.

It should be significant for these tortured souls that their attacks of scruples or, at least, their more violent attacks, are always contemporaneous with a severe nervous strain.

If the real cause of scruples is physical, the remedy must be sought on the physical plane and the person most competent to help is a doctor. The treatment will consist of drugs, tonics, rest, sleep, fresh air, nourishing food and such like. The confessor can help the doctor by assuring the patient that his trouble is really physical and that as his health improves, his anxieties and fears will vanish. Unless the physical nature of the trouble is realized, the patient will tire himself by endless self-analysis and a futile search for the non-existent spiritual causes of his worries. The patient must accept these interior trials as crosses permitted by God. He can help himself best by resignation, patience, refusal to follow up morbid thoughts suggested by his ailment, and by exercising the virtues of hope and charity. The more tranquil and cheerful he preserves his mind, the quicker will he recover physically and mentally. A quiet mind has has a very beneficial reaction on the body.

The idea of spiritual or mental trouble from nerves strikes some people as strange and materialistic. Obviously they have never reflected on the significance of Gesthemane. Our Saviour's physical agony in the Garden, severe as it was, was merely the redundance of the infinity of the greater agony in His soul. In human nature there is a constant interaction of body and soul. A few examples from everyday experience should suffice to prove this. Melancholy, for example, easily produces digestive or heart troubles; temper and anxiety cause headaches; and so on, indefinitely.

The cause of scruples may be psychological. For example, an adult who has been brought up in ignorance of sex, will have scruples when he seeks to inform himself. However reverently he approaches the subject, however clearly he sees the need for instruction, he will not be able to prevent false ideas, the result of false upbringing, from surging up from the subconscious and unconscious mind.

A large percentage of the scruples of adults, especially of women, are traceable to failure to find the right attitude towards the fundamental instinct of race preservation. Many try to convince themselves that they are "above that sort of thing" and base their emotional life on a lie.

The scruples of adolescent girls are often due to an unconscious desire for attention, i.e., for love; especially if they are being starved of love, or the manifestation of love, at home.

Among adults, scruples often arise because, unconsciously, they are looking at things through the eyes of a timid parent or a prudish aunt. Unconsciously (note the word), they are asking at the back of their minds what So-and-So would say about this. Refusal to grow up and think for themselves accounts for the under-development, timidity and want of personality of some pious souls.

Other psychological causes of scruples are excessive emotionalism, a vivid and undisciplined imagination, a hypercautious spirit due to a a too cautious upbringing "wrapped in cotton wool," and chronic lack of decision due to the fact that as a child the patient was never allowed to make up his own mind.

The causes of scruples may be spiritual, e.g., false ideas, bogey-ideas of God, defective knowledge of human nature, failure to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary actions, et cetera. All our conscious activity is conditioned by our ideas of God, and so it is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of having correct ideas about Him. "This is eternal life, that you know the one true God, and Jesus Christ Whom He has sent."

False ideas of God often have a psychological origin; for example, a person who in childhood was so constantly found fault with and reprimanded by his parents that he got the impression that he could do nothing right and lost confidence in himself --- such a one may unconsciously have transferred to God ideas of authority which derive from his parents' abuse of it. Hence he forms the idea of God as a fault-finder Whom it is almost impossible to please.

The multiplicity and complexity of the causes of scruples should demonstrate the folly of doling out slick rules-of-thumb designed to cover all cases. There are no panaceas for spiritual ailments, any more than there are for physical ailments.

Scruples cannot be cured until the root cause of the disease is detected and removed. Every confessor is conscious of the fact that sometimes spiritual advice does nor "register." The reason is because there is a hindrance to understanding on the physical or the psychological plane. A penitent, for example, who is addicted to vice is told to pray and go more frequently to the Sacraments and he seems to almost resent the advice. He does. In fact, he feels inclined to shriek: "I've tried all that, I've done all that, and somehow it doesn't work. is there no other advice you can give me?" The penitent, who knows from sad experience that the advice is inadequate, not unnaturally feels resentful, and then probably gets a scruple that he has been critical and irreverent and disparaged the efficacy of grace and the Sacraments, with the result that his last state is worse than the first.

We must not expect God to work miracles to make up for our fatuity; and to expect a spiritual cure for a physical or psychological ailment is, in reality, to expect a miracle.

Scruples cannot be cured until it is recognized:

1. That phobias are not conscience; and
2. Whence the phobias originate.

The scrupulous naturally ask: "How am I to know what my reason does dictate? My reason is strangely silent."

A good plan is to ask what you would say to a junior sister or brother or friend if confronted with the same issue. Probably you would settle the question without hesitation. "Of course, its not wrong. Don't be silly! Have you taken leave of your senses?" Apply the same decision to yourself, and don't say: "O! but my conscience is different." The moral law is the same for all. Your conscience is not different; only your phobias, your nervous system, your experiences are different.

Phobias must be combatted vigorously. The more ruthlessly they are trampled on, the better. Phobias are bullies; give in to them and they become paralyzing tyrants; combat them and they soon slink off like miserable cowards. Scrupulous soul, prove yourself a disciple of Christ, not Hitler. Beware of intuitions!

The scrupulous person should do everything in his power to cure himself of the dangerous malady of scruples. Here are a few suggestions to help in the work. The scrupulous person should:

1. Clarify his mind about the meaning of conscience.
2. Search for the root cause of his phobia.
3. Discipline his imagination, mind and will --- the will, by forcing himself to make decisions.
4. Refuse to be side-tracked by every vain fear, and force himself to continue with his previous line of thought.
5. Develop his sense of humour.
6. Try to get a truer perspective of his own importance and realize that his ego is not a synonym for Heaven and earth and the human race. There are at least a few other things worth thinking about! He could also profitably reflect on the following verse:

Once in a fervent passion,
I cried with desperate grief:
"Oh Lord! my soul is black with guilt.
Of sinners I'm the chief."

Then came my Guardian Angel
and whispered from behind,
"Vanity, my little man.
You're nothing of the kind." [1]

7. Try for a month to forget about himself and avoid any self-analysis. His problems can wait. If he will give his soul a "breather," he will be refreshed and in a better position to tackle his problems at the end of the month.
8. Think only of the goodness of God and pray for and develop hope and love of God.
9. Avoid all self-pity.
10. Ask his confessor to dispense him from integral confession and forbid him to examine his conscience before confession.
11. Throw off fear and act as though he were not afraid. Gradually there will be a beneficial reaction from the exterior to the interior.
12. Look after his health.
13. Practice absolute obedience. True, the confessor may not understand, but then neither does the penitent understand! Of the two, the confessor is by far the least likely to be mistaken.

The penitent's spirit of caution should persuade him to obey, on the principle that of two evils (or dangers) it is always wise to choose the lesser. [2]

14. Remember that no one was ever lost through obedience or saved by disobedience.

"Remember," says Quadrupani, "that according to the common opinion of the Saints, the fear of sin is no longer salutary (and therefore cannot be from God) when it becomes excessive." [3]

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis has revealed a shrewd insight into the tortuous subtlety of the devil. Screwtape owes much of his success to fuddle about conscience.

A bank which had no means of detecting true and false money, genuine or counterfeit cheques, would be liable to get into grave difficulties.

A spiritual soul who has no means of detecting counterfeit graces is at the mercy of the devil, whenever he chooses to appear as an Angel of light. Without a clear understanding of conscience, it is impossible to have any true criterion for detecting bogus graces, with which the devil has broken many generous souls.

Generous inexperienced souls often want to run before they have learnt to walk, and their impetuosity---which is due to the natural eagerness of youth and to secret pride---suits the devil very well. During times of great fervour, he insinuates the idea that God is asking for all sorts of "extras," and by so doing he throws the soul into a state of uncertainty and interior turmoil. The inspiration may or may not be from God, and the devout person is at a loss to decide. The inspiration may also be from the devil, who is anxious to overload and eventually break the soul with inevitable failure and discouragement. No possibility of a solution is offered by either the voice-theory of conscience or the special-faculty theory.

If the inspiration is rejected, the soul may be turning a deaf ear to God. If the inspiration is followed, the soul may be turning a too ready ear to the devil. If the inspiration is not followed, the soul may be minimizing and doing too little; if it is followed, the soul may over-reach itself by attempting too much. Whatever one decides, there is a possibility of mistake.

There is only one way of solving the problem securely, and that is by applying reason fearlessly, introducing the virtue without which there is no virtue---prudence.

Is the following of the suggestion beyond one's present development and grace, humbly considered? There is the crux of the matter. If it is, the inspiration is proved bogus, because to follow it would be unreasonable.

Lest this solution should sound too rationalistic, it is necessary to point out that there is no intention of insinuating that the conclusion reached by the conscience of the man of faith will always agree with the conclusion reached by mere reason. The man of faith starts out with different principles, and therefore his conclusions will frequently differ from those of the natural man. But, all the same, conclusions must always be drawn logically by the use of reason, even if the principles from which they are drawn are supernatural.


In moral problems there is seldom an automatically safe side. Usually there is a juxtaposition of an obvious danger on one side and of a subtle and, therefore, graver danger on the other side. The right side is always the reasonable side. And it is sometimes reasonable to take risks. "Playing safe" is not the same thing as prudence. In the parable of the talents, the Master castigates the man who "played safe," burying his talent to be on the safe side. He refused to trade, i.e., risk loss, and was condemned by his own servile principles. "Out of thy own mouth do I condemn thee. Thou knewest that I was an austere man, taking up what I laid not down, and reaping that which I did not sow. Why then didst thou not give my money into the bank, that at my coming I might have exacted it with usury." [4]

These words are being written in much-bombed London, where there are a few---very few---people who seldom leave their homes for fear that they may go into a district which will be bombed. It does not seem to strike them that their own district may be bombed in their absence and that instead of walking into danger they may be walking out of it. They are misled by a morbid, one-sided imagination, which concentrates on only one aspect of the question. As a result of their timidity and false myopic prudence, their lives are cramped and their normal activities considerably inhibited. How much cramping spirituality is due to a similar mistake!

The be-all and end-all of some selfish and stunted souls is personal security. "Safety first" is the dominating axiom of their spirituality. Their outlook starts and ends with self; and the main concern of their spirituality is about possible, and probably imaginary, perils to self. They must be on the safe side, they must save their skins at any cost; God's glory does not enter into their calculations. They treat God as a task-master and confuse servility and lop-sided sheer funk with prudence.

The moral virtues are always to be found in the middle between two extremes, in media stat virtus. If we take sides at all, we take the wrong side. Timid souls, however, if they find themselves predisposed by nature towards one extreme, plunge right away into the opposite extreme in order to be, as they foolishly imagine, on the safe side. To avoid a possible mistake, they fling themselves headlong into making a certain mistake.
The man, for example, who finds himself strongly attracted towards women, becomes a "woman-hater" and commits innumerable sins of discourtesy and uncharity, becoming strangely unlike his Divine Master, Who was so courteous to women. Another person, naturally witty and jovial, adopts an attitude of taciturnity for fear of dissipation. In all this false prudence, of which examples could be multiplied, there is an admixture of laziness as well as of cowardice. These souls shirk the effort of self-control required to keep nature in its place, and strike the golden mean.
The remark was once made to a timid person: "If you had lived during the time of Jansenism, you would have been a Jansenist without a shadow of a doubt."

"Why?" he asked.

"Because," replied his friend, "whenever you are faced with a moral problem, instead of considering the matter calmly and rationally, you immediately get alarmed and plumb for the sterner side, which you mistakenly fancy is the safe side, and that attitude would infallibly have led you into Jansenism."

God has given us ten Commandments only. If we make additions of our own, we imply that God's way is not safe, which is blasphemous nonsense and implicit, if unintended, lecturing of the Almighty. By all means let us do the harder thing, the supererogatory, provided our motive is love not fear; but let us not make commandments out of counsels.
To do the reasonable thing is never spiritually risky, whatever crabbed timidity may feel, because we can always count on the grace of God to assist us to do His will. In the name of conscience and prudence, the spiritually timid often throw grace and zeal and prudence to the winds. Mr. Funk, for example, is invited to become president of a secular society. If he accepted the invitation, the prestige of his office would greatly increase his power for good. He refuses, however, to accept the office for fear that his devotions might have to be curtailed or his humility be prejudicially affected. The office is accepted by a non-Catholic, possibly by an anti-Catholic bigot. Mr. Funk has no qualms or remorse, because he is too wrapped up in self to notice the opportunity lost or the implied insult to the grace of God. And all the time his real, though unconscious, motive was probably fear of not being a success and of the limelight revealing his limitations. What looked like humility was really pride. Funk, masquerading as prudence, is by no means rare.
To follow conscience faithfully in every circumstance of life is no mean nor easy achievement, and the man who genuinely attempts it soon becomes conscious of the inadequacy of human reason and of his need for the direction of the Holy Ghost. He is never sure that he has achieved objective rectitude in his actions, and so he is never self-satisfied nor impervious to advice nor critical of the actions of others. He is too much of a realist to have recourse to the stratagems of moral cowardice and seek refuge in safe-side tactics, misapplied, slick rules of thumb or in a self-righteous pose of consistency. He does not attempt "to be consistent but to be simply true." He is more anxious to be good than to appear good, even in his own eyes. Aware of human limitations, he expects to make mistakes, but he has sufficient trust in God to know that the Almighty will always be satisfied with an honest best and not blame him for mistakes made in good faith. And so, uncramped by fear, he has the courage of true humility. He lives and learns, because he is afraid neither to live nor to learn.

May the Holy Spirit grant us the liberty of spirit and the courage of true humility so that, like our Divine Master, we may grow in wisdom, age and grace before God and man, and reach the full stature of humanity and holiness planned for us by the Will of Good Pleasure of God!

No! Give to me, Great God, the constant soul,
Nor fooled by by pleasure nor enslaved by care;
Each rebel passion (for Thou canst) control,
And make me know the tempter's every snare. [5]

1. Anonymous.
2. The author does not mean evils per se as he indicates by the parentheses but dangers as such. True, objective evils are always evil. Dangers can be in the perception.---The Web Master.
3. Op. cit., p. 61.
4. Luke 19:22-3
5. Newman.