A problem with “scrupulositas”

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.[14]

14. Taylor CZ (2002). “Religious addiction: obsession with spirituality”. Pastoral Psych50 (4): 291–315. doi:10.1023/A:1014074130084S2CID 147184112.

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.


12 thoughts on “A problem with “scrupulositas”

  1. Dear Roger Pearse, we had exactly this discussion last night with a colleague in the field of Late Antiquity. Why scholars and clerics in the Latin West were so attached to the idea of “correct” views, whereas in the east they were much more familiar with the possibility of having different dogmatic views. Thank you for enlightening us with this article.

  2. I had always thought the Greek East were worse, to be honest? When the crusaders came out to Syria, the locals noted that “the franks” accepted as Christian anybody who claimed to be one. In fact I have read that the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Aumery, got on very well with the monophysite Patriarch Michael the Great. For the Greeks kept inviting Michael to “ecumenical” meetings, from which, as he well knew, there was a good chance that he would not return, or would find himself detained on some pretext. Meanwhile the same Greeks were lobbying at Rome, behind Aumery’s back, to get control of parishes in the newly reconquered lands of Outremer. While in theory Michael and Aumery were not even in communion, in practice they enjoyed excellent relations! But perhaps that is politics. Amusing anecdote, anyway.

  3. You’re correct, the modern use of ‘scrupulous’ does include the not-rising-to-mental-illness temptation to doubt God’s willingness to forgive sins; there’s just more focus on the OCD angle because the tactics that work for OCD can also help with the temptation to constantly “make sure” in religious matters, as well as being a way to short-circuit the incredibly obnoxious issue where someone who is suffering from scrupulosity will start beating up on themselves because they haven’t stopped beating up on themselves. >.>

    A rather helpful explanation I was given was that scrupulosity is taking the good of being scrupulous (that is, diligent, thorough, and extremely attentive to details) in religious matters and turning it into an idol. It’s only going to be sinful if you indulge it– another point where over-emphasizing the mental health aspect can help people that aren’t helped otherwise.

  4. As a Catholic child, i was taught, in both high school and elementary school, that the source of Martin Luther’s theological break with Rome was his excessive scrupulosity in regard to his minor sins. What these sins that ML couldn’t stop worrying about were never specified. Those were left to juvenile imaginations. Henry VIII, on the other hand, was just a lech. We knew what his sins were.

  5. As dforaste, I, too thought of Luther. His superior told him, after getting a bit exasperated at his constant confession of pecadillos, “You are a fool, Martin. God is not angry with you; it is you who are angry with God.” In the context of our conservative Anabaptist churches, we use the term “over-sensitive conscience.” Having been there, I know it can be torment. But faith, along with solid brothers to walk with, can bring one through. Sadly, under-sensitive consciences seem to be the norm of the day in most of today’s Christendom.

  6. Yes, the representatives of the Borgia Pope accusing Luther of scrupulosity lacks conviction, doesn’t it?

    This is something that young people struggle with. Being sincere themselves, they fret about commiting blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, or Mt.7:21-3:

    21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

    But the truth is simply that there are many liars out there: people who simply claim to be following the Lord, when in fact they have no such intention or interest, and any knowledge of their behaviour reveals the crudest lack of devotion. The Lord is addressing the likes of the Borgia Pope, or the worldly bishop; not the ordinary man who is downcast by the humdrum everyday failures that we all experience. We have to remember that the wicked are sometimes just that.

  7. I found it interesting too from the mental health angle. There’s some noticeable overlap between perfectionism, OCD, and scrupulosity. If you’ll pardon a reference to a children’s story, A Series of Unfortunate Events had someone who tended toward OCD on safety, and it was eventually revealed as PTSD (without the children’s story going into the diagnostics, of course). To the point, all those things are obsessive strategies to mitigate a fear that the person doesn’t know how to resolve.

  8. Scrupulosity is weird, because it has ties to mental illness but it pretty clearly is more of a spiritual condition. It’s connected to pride (the bad kind) and control issues, just like perfectionism is. It’s also connected to more positive things, like having a sensitive conscience at a certain part of one’s spiritual development.

    There’s a lot of Desert Fathers discussion of how to deal with scrupulosity, although they don’t call it any specific name.

    I had my doubts about scrupulosity really being a thing, in spite of constantly encountering scrupulosity postings online in religious discussions. And then I had this really weird day when I myself had scrupulosity, and couldn’t tell if I was sinning or doing perfectly normal stuff. Not fun, and I’m very glad that it went away when I ignored it and just followed routine, as per advice in some spiritual books. I’m pretty sure that stress played a part, as well as anger, pride, and a bunch of other things, but it was really really weird, and not like anything else that’s ever happened to me.

    Re: Luther, he talks at length about his scrupulosity problems as a young man, in his autobiographical works, although I’m not sure he ever calls it that. But when he talks about what his Augustinian superiors counseled him to do, it’s pretty much all stuff from the usual list of things you do to help people with scrupulosity. And basically he didn’t do any of that stuff that he was told to do, so it’s not surprising that he didn’t get better.

  9. I think careful definition is *everything*. I read one terrible article in which the author clearly thought religion was next door to mental illness.

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