I learned a word this week. The word is “scrupulosity”, meaning a self-tormenting and obsessive worry about committing minor sins. I learned of it from a twitter thread here, where some devout Roman Catholics were discussing some less than ideal behaviour by religious orders:
@jdflynn: When I was in college, I knew a lot of guys who heard Legionaries of Christ vocations directors tell them that: a: they definitely had a vocation b: the only way to meaningfully live that vocation was to join the Legion. That’s not spiritual advice. That’s manipulative coercion.
@LeahLibresco: A friend of mine was entangled by a women’s order that counseled everyone that if you wondered about a vocation, that meant you *did* have a vocation, and any other questions or doubts were from the devil. They were placing thorns in her path and millstones round their own necks …
@RCPreKTeacher: Good grief. Speaking as someone who has struggled with scrupulosity in the past, I cannot imagine what a terrible situation it would be going to the priests of such orders as your regular confessors, if that’s the kind of spiritual advice the order is giving regularly.
@LeahLibresco: It is terrible spiritual abuse. It does serious harm to the person counseled and puts the counselor in intense spiritual danger
The term seems to originate in the Roman Catholic world. There is a useful article, “Scrupulosity: What It Is and How to Overcome it” by Charlie Johnson at the Catholic Stand website (21 May 2016) here, referencing Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century.
The Wikipedia article suggests that this religious problem in some cases may be the manifestation of a form of OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). Under the “History” section of that article we find this interesting statement:
Scrupulosity is a modern-day psychological problem that echoes a traditional use of the term scruples in a religious context, e.g. by Catholics, to mean obsessive concern with one’s own sins and compulsive performance of religious devotion. This use of the term dates to the 12th century.
There’s no mention of Bernard. But I was interested in the idea that the term “scrupulosity” dates to the 12th century (the careless wording of the Wikipedia article might lead the unwary to suppose that “scruples” is meant here). So I looked up the Taylor article, which contained the following statement on p.297:
Scrupulosity actually dates back to the twelfth century. It is derived from the Latin word scrupus. Scrupulus is the diminutive form, meaning a small stone. The neutral form scrupulum is the smallest division of weight, about the twenty-fourth part of an ounce. This tiny amount could tip the balance of a scale (Rapoport, 1989).
This claim, in varied wording, appears all over the place. So what is the reference?
“Rapoport” turned out to be Judith L. Rapoport, The boy who couldn’t stop washing: The experience and treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. New York: E. P. Dutton (1989). No page number was given. A borrowable version of this book may be found here, which I consulted.
The page is actually page 237, an appendix on “The Religious Perspective”, beginning with “The Catholic Church and OCD”. The text began:
The Catholic perspective on OCD constitutes a vast literature which has remained untapped by mainstream psychiatry. The Catholic concept of scrupulosity dates back at least to the twelfth century. It is derived from the Latin scrupus, whose diminutive form scrupulus means a small sharp stone. The neutral form, scrupulum, means the smallest division of weight, the twenty-fourth part of an ounce. A minute weight could tip the scales of a sensitive balance: the scales of conscience.
Scrupulosity, in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) signifies “habitual and unreasonable hesitation or doubt, coupled with anxiety of the mind, in connection with the making of moral judgments.”
The Rapoport volume is, I believe, the founding text of the study of OCD, and contains anecdotal “cases” of various sorts. In 1989 there was little understanding of the condition. Much of what Rapoport suggests has simply been repeated word-for-word in later publications.
There is often a tendency for unbelievers studying mental illness to conflate normal religious experience with mental illness. This does not always happen by accident. Those of my own generation remember how the old Soviet Union used to confine believers in mental hospitals, and subject them to “treatment” in order to “cure” them. It has been many years since I have heard mention of this charming practice, but then so much of the past that I remember has disappeared, or been disappeared, in the last 30 years. The Rapoport volume seems to strive to avoid this, which is perhaps one reason why it received wide acceptance.
It took me some searching and a happy accident to discover that the first edition of the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) is actually accessible on Archive.org, although only in “borrowable” form. The article on “Scrupulosity” appears in volume 12, p.1253 f. It is, in fact, the last article in the book. Unfortunately it is vague and useless. It does not refer to the “12th century” claim. Bootleg copies of the second edition (2002) are readily accessible on the web, but the article is no better.
It is therefore impossible to say from where Rapoport drew her statement.
The word “scrupulositas” itself is ancient. The Logeion site here shows usage by Columella, Tertullian, and Jerome. Indeed I find that it appears in Bernard’s Letters, Letter 101 (PL 182, col.236). A translation from the PL text may be found in the old Life and Works of Saint Bernard, vol. 1 (1893), p.342-3 online here.
I’ll give the relevant bit of Latin, and the whole of letter 101.
Fratrem Lambertum, quem in aliquibus forte fluctuantem suscepimus, orantibus quidem vobis pro ipso constantem remisimus, et nulla jam, ut opinamur, scrupulositate pristina laborantem. …
101. Bernard asks that a monk who had departed without permission should be received with kindness.
I send back to you Brother Lambert, whom I received, in some respects wavering in mind, but to whom your prayers have restored calm, so that he is not, as I think, labouring any more under his former scrupulosity. I have carefully questioned him about the cause of his coming, and also about the reason and manner of his departure. He does not seem to me to have had any bad intention in acting as he has done ; but his reason for leaving in such a manner, that is, without permission, was plainly insufficient. I took occasion from this to blame him as he deserved, to chide him sharply, to remove his hesitations and doubts, and to persuade him to return to you. Now that he is returning, I entreat you, my very dear brethren, to receive him kindly, and to be indulgent to the presumption of a brother in which there is more simplicity than malice, since he turned neither to the right nor left, but came straight to me, whom he knew for certain to be the devoted servant of your Holiness, a very sincere lover and faithful imitator of your piety. Receive him, therefore, you who are spiritual men, in a spirit of gentleness ; let your charity be confirmed towards him, and let his good intention excuse his bad action. Therefore, receive him back with joy, whom, when lost, you grieved for; and let gladness at the return of your brother speedily chase away the grief caused by his transgression and departure. I trust that, by the mercy of God, all the bitterness which his irregular departure occasioned will be soon softened by this improvement in his life.
But there is nothing in this letter indicative of anything like the modern OCD-like condition. But I am slightly reminded of the twitter thread with which we started: “Another one has gone over the wall!!! Call out the dogs!” We do not learn what the poor monks’ scruples were.
At this point a search in the Corpus Corporum site gave a proper lead: to Hugutius Pisanus, Derivationes, written in 1190. We could perhaps call him some version of Hugh, or Huguccio, or Uguccio of Pisa. The text is a dictionary of Latin terms.
He starts with scrupus, “a small sharp stone”, also called scrupulus. And by similarity these are called “molestia, sollicitudo, anxietas et dubietas animi, difficultas, subtilis questio”. From scrupus he gets scrupeus -a -um, and scruposus -a -um, full of scruple, and thus scrupulositas, and promptly quotes Plautus (!). From scrupulus he gets the verb scrupulo -as, the adjective scrupulosus -a -um, from which scrupulositas, anxiety, difficulty, etc. Here’s the Corpus Corporum text, from the SISMEL text (ed. Cecchini, 2 vols, 2004) p.272:
Et a scrupus scrupeus -a -um et scruposus -a -um, idest scrupis plenus et abundans vel asper, difficilis, nodosus, obscurus, et comparatur; unde hec scrupositas; Plautus in Captivis ‘nec meus scruposam victus commeat viam’.
Item a scrupulus scrupulo -as, idest sollicitare, molestare, et scrupulosus -a -um, scrupulis plenus vel asper, anxius, dubius, difficilis, nodosus, obscurus, et comparatur; unde hec scrupulositas, anxietas, difficultas et cetera.
This 12th century text, perhaps, lies behind whatever source Rapoport was looking at – which clearly had some Latin grammatical element -, and thus is still reflected in all those who copied her.
Whether scrupulosity is the right word for a form of OCD may reasonably be doubted, however. It seems to have a broader, less obsessive context.