The Pull of Scrupulosity

Scrupulosity is common among young people today due to a disconnect between the ideal of sanctity and the reality of the life of virtue.

It appears that my generation is experiencing an epidemic of scrupulosity. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, scrupulosity is a form of OCD that is primarily religious. Similar to normal OCD, there are obsessions and compulsions. But with scrupulosity, the obsessions and compulsions are religious. 

Unlike OCD, scrupulosity involves an intense moralism tied to those actions. Not only does one need to act but if they do not act then they feel as though they have sinned. They need to pray their Rosary once a day, or they have sinned. They need to kiss their Bible before and after reading, or else they have sinned. They need to bow their heads whenever they hear the Lord’s name, or else they have sinned. 

The idea of a loving and forgiving God is foreign to the experience of the scrupulous. God may be all-loving, but if I don’t do these things, then He’ll condemn me. God is less an all-loving Father and more of an exacting tyrant who must be obeyed.  

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None of this is to blame the actions of the Rosary, kissing the Bible, or bowing your head at the sound of the Lord’s name. Those actions are good and holy and purveyors of merit; but the scrupulous person finds himself weighed down by these things instead of brought up into the love of God—that love which is the end of all these actions.  

Why is scrupulosity so common among young people right now? I think that it’s tied to a disconnect between the ideal of sanctity and the reality of the life of virtue. If Heaven is our goal, then how do we get there? Be holy, awesome. How do we do that? Live a virtuous life, sweet. What does that look like? Consult the lives of the saints, beyond awesome. But they’re all so different, how do I become a saint in my circumstances? Be holy.  

John Senior claimed that the family is falling apart because we severed the threads connecting them to the contemplative communities. There is a spiritual reality to that, but I want to focus on the cultural reality of it. We don’t know how to live a healthy human life. We’re told to be saints, and that’s good but how do we live a virtuous life if we don’t know what it looks like? We need living and breathing models of a life well lived. 

The reason why Europe was able to become so integrated with the Faith was because the average peasant had a living example of sanctity in his backyard. The monastery was a school of life, and if the peasant couldn’t become a monk, he could still benefit from the imitation of those living and breathing holy ones. If there wasn’t a monastery nearby, the secular priests would go on retreat to these monasteries to learn the life and bring it back to the peasants at home.  

This isn’t some naïve thought that just the action of being a monk makes a person into a saint, or that all monks are perfectly virtuous. No, but if someone has devoted their life to the habit of virtue then I can assume that they know more about how to live virtuously than I do simply because they’ve spent more time working at it.  

My generation has been told from a very young age to be saints. But we have been given no real model to follow, and the models that we have are either too far away or are centuries away. No wonder young people are anxious about being holy. If you asked someone to do anything without instruction or model they would be anxious. Some will figure it out (Blessed Carlo Acutis, Venerable Guido Schaffer, Blessed Chiara Badano, Sr. Clare Crockett). But what about the rest of us?  

Our fathers were never taught how to live a healthy and holy life, and so they never taught us. Our pastors were never taught, so how can we expect them to teach? The threads of culture which bound the monastery to the life of the family need to be reestablished. The fatherless must turn to the school of life, the monasteries, to relearn how to live. Fathers need to be able to look to their pastors, and pastors must turn to the monastics.  

We need holy parish priests to guide our local parish. We need holy active religious sisters to teach and to do good works. We need these examples of holy activity, but we’re only going to have them if they hitch themselves to the contemplatives and learn how to live the life of virtue. 

Ultimately, my generation is scrupulous because we are told about the glories of Heaven but fear that we will lose it because we don’t know the way. We try our best to piece it together ourselves, but that is no substitute for a father raising us into sanctity. We need to know the Way! We need to know Christ in the flesh, and we need living witnesses to bring Him to us. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”  My generation is scrupulous because we are told about the glories of Heaven but fear that we will lose it because we don’t know the way. Tweet This

We need saints! We need living and breathing models of sanctity that we can experience in the flesh. It is wonderful to have heroes. Cardinal Sarah is awesome. Bishop Strickland is the best. And Fr. Gregory Pine is super cool. But we need to be personally fathered and raised into sanctity. We need to see how one is a saint in temporal reality, in the muck and mire of our situation. Love does not occur through a computer screen. One doesn’t learn sanctity from a book. A person is encountered in person. Love grows elbow to elbow. Sanctity blossoms in a simple life lived with great love.  

Our priests need to flee to the monasteries! Learn the life and bring it home. Drink deep from the wells of St. Benedict, St. Bruno, and St. Teresa of Avila. It is no longer enough to read their works. We need to see their life. We don’t need more catechesis; we need more sanctity! Enough theology, we need virtue! Learn to live a life of love and love us—for “perfect love casts out all fear,” and we are very afraid.  


  • JohnMark Cayer

    JohnMark Cayer is the Director of Faith Formation at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church and School in Greenville SC. He lives in South Carolina with his wonderful wife Lucy and their dog Santiago. He is a graduate from Franciscan University of Steubenville with a degree in Humanities and Catholic Culture.

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