A few years ago, I’d never heard the term “scrupulousness.” My mother introduced me to it when I wrote a series on my personal blog about my struggles with anxiety. Now I think of it all the time–though simply recognizing it is a big step toward battling it.

I tend to view it as a sin, although a web search this morning seems to indicate that it’s more a cross to be borne. But I think Catholics in general are particularly susceptible. I would argue that scrupulousness is a big part of “Catholic guilt.”

Once I was sensitized to this tendency in myself, I saw it cropping up all over the place. It may not be a sin, but the inevitable fallout of scrupulousness is a rush to judge anyone who doesn’t share whatever I think is the right way to look at the world, and to place rigid expectations on others that constitute a heavy burden on people prone to scrupulousness–which, as I said, I think is many of us.

I would argue that scrupulousness plays a big part in a lot of the no-compromise fights we have within the Church–the political ones, yes, but also the liturgical ones (and many others). Most recently it’s struck me in the arguments about texts of liturgical songs–an assumption that because I read a particular text fragment in a certain way, a song is inarguably heretical, even though thousands of other people may find great spiritual benefit in it, and great potential for growth in holiness, because they don’t interpret that text fragment the same way I do.

For a long time, because I myself was very conservative and all my scrupulousness was about doing the right things (which were always conservative values), I thought scrupulousness was only a problem conservatives have. As I got better at combating my own scrupulousness, I began to move to the center, and that seemed to confirm my assumption.

But I was wrong. These days I am more likely to suffer from scrupulousness about environmental issues. It’s never enough. And I am VERY judgy about other people’s lack of environmental stewardship.

But the example that sparked this post was this: In the midst of my great world view shift, a quote kept cropping up over the course of months–I can’t find it anymore, but it was something like, “Your money doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the poor.” It was attributed to a pope. No arguing with that!

The obvious conclusion to draw from this quote is: anything I do to save money is a sin. I have no right to enjoy the things of the world as long as poverty exists. I should never go out to a nice dinner, I should never take a trip to see the wonder of the world, I should never own jewelry–because as long as people are suffering, “my” money doesn’t belong to me. Also, I pointed it at conservatives who don’t like taxes.

It was a big struggle. I told myself that religious figures exaggerate to shock their listeners into doing something for the poor. But that didn’t help, because of who we hold up as the ideal of Christianity: Francis of Assisi and Katherine Drexel, rich people who did give away everything they had; Mother Teresa, who lived in abject poverty for decades; the fact that to this day, a lot of religious orders take a vow of poverty. A papal quote + the body of evidence of what the Church holds up for honor made it hard to draw any other conclusion than the Church intends us to be poor rather than rich.

Even Robert Barron used that quote once.

I tried for a long time to find the exact verbiage, but couldn’t find it anywhere. Then one day, someone attributed it to Rerum Novarum #22. Finally! I went to look it up.

Guess what? Rerum Novarum 22 does NOT say I am obligated to give every single penny I don’t absolutely need for my bare survival to the poor. Here’s what it actually says:

True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, “for no one ought to live other than becomingly.”(13) But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.” (14)

Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 1891

(Note the date: eighteen ninety-one. This is not some uber-modern corruption of the Gospel. Note 2: the footnotes refer to the Summa theologiae and to Luke 11:14.)

Now, it’s important to recognize that this quote doesn’t give us a free pass to hoard money or to try to avoid paying taxes; it does NOT give us a free pass to store up wealth for our own pleasure, or for passing it on to kids, or whatever. The actual quote–like virtually everything the Church puts in writing–is nuanced to recognize the complexity of competing needs and factors. What this quote requires of us is that we discern honestly, prayerfully, what it means for us to “keep up becomingly” our condition in life.

It’s also worth noting that St. Basil the Great is a little more blunt on the topic of our responsibility to the poor:

(Note: I have not checked that quote, for what it’s worth.)

In the end, we all have to wrestle, to try to find a balance between enjoying with gratitude the good things of the earth (which are, after all, made by God), and hoarding the wealth that allows us to do so, thereby sinning by not helping those who suffer.

One Reply to “Scrupulousness”

  1. This is very well said. Too seldom do I find people really tackling this issue head on. I think that your tendency to scrupulousness gives you an ability and motivation to ask harder questions that a lot of people leave unasked. A non-scrupulous person might be able to hear someone say “You know, your stuff doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the poor,” and just nod their head in agreement and go on with their lives, but a person who struggles with scrupulosity, and who cares about doing what is right, can’t just let that go. He/she is going to think to themselves, “What does that mean? Am I sinning if I keep anything for myself not absolutely necessary for not dying? But would that conclusion itself be too extreme, and therefore sinful? What should I do?!” I know this line of thinking very well, because I have the same tendency myself.

    It can be paralyzing, but it also helps us see the need to address these kinds of questions more specifically and clearly, which, in the end, is a benefit to everyone. So this is another way in which the different gifts and personalities within the Body of Christ complement and build up the whole body.

    To bolster your point about our goods belonging to the poor, you might look at #2446 in the Catechism. This is such a crucial point and one that is often overlooked and even rejected, especially by people who put a lot of stock in recognizing the value of private property and people enjoying the fruits of their labors (which are also good and true values, but they need to be balanced by other considerations).

    The quote from Rerum Novarum is helpful. This is echoed as well in more recent Church teaching that points out that when we think of the “necessities of life” we should avoid being too minimalistic, as if all a person really needs is food, drink, shelter, etc. Consider, for example, #1908 in the Catechism:

    “Second, the common good requires the social well-being and development of the group itself. Development is the epitome of all social duties. Certainly, it is the proper function of authority to arbitrate, in the name of the common good, between various particular interests; but it should make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on.”

    That’s a much longer list of “what is needed” than we often think of. I love the emphasis on living a “truly human life.” When we help the poor, for example, the goal is not merely to keep them biologically alive, however miserable. We want to provide them not only with what they need to live, but also with the things needed to make life worth living, so to speak. Of course, there is suffering in this life. This is not heaven. We all need to make sacrifices. But we should recognize that just as keeping someone alive is a truly valuable thing, so is helping them to live a life in which they can truly enjoy, to a reasonable degree, the blessings of God’s gifts to us in creation.

    If this is something to keep in mind in our aiding the poor, it is also important for us to keep in mind when we think of ourselves and our own needs. Yes, we should be willing to sacrifice for others. But we should also remember that God has given us things to enjoy, and this too is a value to keep in mind. We should not seek to make ourselves more miserable than we have to be! We also need to consider that we are going to be more in a condition to help others if we don’t wear ourselves out in the process. Even a lot of saints have missed this. We read of saints who burned themselves out and died young because of too much fasting, overwork, etc. Could they have accomplished more if they had lived a more balanced life? Their spiritual directors often advised them to do so. Even the saints aren’t perfect, and we can learn from both their strengths and their weaknesses.

    The scrupulous person now wants to ask, “But isn’t all this just an excuse to be selfish and try to live the life I want?” It can be, certainly. All good things can be misused by clever, selfish people, and we all have to watch out for that. But if we truly want to do what is right, we can’t, as they say, throw the baby out with the bathwater. We have to try to get all sides of the equation right and not live paranoid, reactionary lives where we run off one side of the boat in order to avoid falling off the other side. We have to pray for the grace to be honest and prudent in how we live our lives.

    OK, this is becoming more of an essay than a comment on a post! Sorry about that! What you said just resonated with me and prompted a lot of thoughts.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: