Some Notes Concerning Scruples

My preferred translation of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius1 is divided into 370 short “points” or “divisions”2. The book offers some gems in the areas of dealing with scruples, scrupulosity, and decision making. Points 345-351 make up a section devoted to scruples. The section heading is: The Following Notes Help to Perceive and Understand Scruples and Persuasions of Our Enemy

Commentary

While neither a Jesuit nor possessing a knowledge of Latin3, here is my take at a commentary of the English translation of this section.

  1. The first: They commonly call a scruple what proceeds from our own judgment and freedom: that is to say, when I freely decide that that is sin which is not sin, as when it happens that after some one has accidentally stepped on a cross of straw, he decides with his own judgment that he has sinned. This is properly an erroneous judgment and not a real scruple.

This point deals with what a scruple is not. A scruple is not the same thing as an error of judgment. If you step on a two pieces of straw in the form of a cross and conclude that it is a sin, then this is an error of judgment—not a scruple.

  1. The second: After I have stepped on that cross, or after I have thought or said or done some other thing, there comes to me a thought from without that I have sinned, and on the other hand it appears to me that I have not sinned; still I feel disturbance in this; that is to say, in as much as I doubt and in as much as I do not doubt.That is a real scruple and temptation which the enemy sets.

An actual scruple is something which involves an anxious, doubting question of right and wrong. This is a temptation from the enemy. (I would assume that the case in 346 does not involve such anxiety and doubt. The conclusion drawn is with the confidence that such an action is a sin.)

  1. Third: The first scruple—of the first note—is much to be abhorred, because it is all error; but the second—of the second note—for some space of time is of no little profit to the soul which is giving itself to spiritual exercises; rather in great manner it purifies and cleanses such a soul, separating it much from all appearance of sin: according to that saying of Gregory: “It belongs to good minds to see a fault where there is no fault.”

The thing spoken of as a “scruple” in the first note is not a scruple. It is an error of judgment and as such must be abhorred. It’s a horrible thing when someone calls a thing a sin when there is no sin.

However, the scruple in the second rule may be advantageous for a devout person. It can function to purify and cleanse. If one flees from such small things, he or she is avoiding “even the appearance of sin.” He or she will seek to wipe out even the smallest sins. This is a good thing. St. Gregory is quoted as saying that a devout person sees a fault where there is none. But doesn’t this contradict what Ignatius just said—that seeing sin where there is no sin is an error of judgment which should be abhorred? I take this to mean that a devout person is extremely sensitive to sin.

From a biblical perspective, one has to be careful here. In Romans 14, Paul says that the one with stronger faith has less issues of conscience concerning what he or she eats. The point I draw is that it is good to be sensitive to true sin. However, the enemy will tempt us to feel guilty about perceived sin which is not sin at all.

  1. The fourth: The enemy looks much if a soul is gross or delicate, and if it is delicate, he tries to make it more delicate in the extreme, to disturb and embarrass it more. For instance, if he sees that a soul does not consent to either mortal sin or venial or any appearance of deliberate sin, then the enemy, when he cannot make it fall into a thing that appears sin, aims at making it make out sin where there is not sin, as in a word or very small thought.If the soul is gross, the enemy tries to make it more gross; for instance, if before it made no account of venial sins, he will try to have it make little account of mortal sins, and if before it made some account, he will try to have it now make much less or none.

The enemy is crafty and will study one’s constitution. He will play on our weaknesses. If one already has a sensitive conscience, he will seek to make it excessively so. This is so that the person will think he has sinned when he has not sinned. This will result in guilt. On the other hand, if one’s conscience is not very sensitive, the enemy will try to get him to make light of sin, causing him to not take sin seriously.

In a word, to the sensitive conscience he will make hypersensitive and thus guilty; to the insensitive conscience he will try to bring about insensitivity to sin.

  1. The fifth: The soul which desires to benefit itself in the spiritual life, ought always to proceed the contrary way to what the enemy proceeds; that is to say, if the enemy wants to make the soul gross, let it aim at making itself delicate. Likewise, if the enemy tries to draw it out to extreme fineness, let the soul try to establish itself in the mean, in order to quiet itself in everything.

Making progress means always resisting the enemy. If our conscience is lax and careless, we should try to make it more sensitive. If it is too delicate which leads one to extremes, he or she must endeavor to go be firm in going the moderate way. This leads to peace.

  1. The sixth: When such good soul wants to speak or do something within the Church, within the understanding of our Superiors, and which should be for the glory of God our Lord, and there comes to him a thought or temptation from without that he should neither say nor do that thing—bringing to him apparent reasons of vainglory or of another thing, etc.,—then he ought to raise his understanding to his Creator and Lord, and if he sees that it is His due service, or at the least not contrary to it, he ought to act diametrically against such temptation, according to St. Bernard, answering the same: “Neither for thee did I begin, nor for thee will I stop.”

The enemy may play on one’s scruples and get in the way of someone who thinks he should say or do a certain thing. The scrupulous person may question his motives, saying, “Maybe this is out of vainglory.” If faced with such temptation to doubt to do the thing in mind, he should act directly opposite the temptation.

These things are “not contrary to the spirit of the Church or the mind of superiors.” There’s no reason to question the idea if it’s not against the church or spiritual leadership.

Conclusion

I personally find it encouraging to know that many saints dealt with scruples in the history of the church. St. Ignatius tries to be a help to his community4 with these notes and rules. While we learn about scruples, we also grow in our awareness of ourselves and of the enemy’s tactics.


  1.  The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, A New Translation Based on Studies in the Language of the Autograph, Ludovico J. Puhl, S.J., Loyola Press, Chicago, IL 
  2. it was originally written in Latin[/note] 
  3. It was written in the sixteenth century and is organized very differently from contemporary books. 
  4. He is the founder of the Society of Jesus (a.k.a. the Jesuits) 
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Discernment and Decision Making

As I mentioned in a previous post, there is a definite need among scrupulous people to make confident decisions regarding the will of God. This is especially true for those with OCD obsessions are they are frequently characterized by anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty. I read a helpful book on discernment by Timothy M. Gallagher called Discerning the Will of God: An Ignatian Guide to Christian Decision Making. I will not attempt to articulate the complete process as laid out in the book, but will share a few of the key points.

Many times we have a difficult time making a choice when both options are good. Gallagher draws from the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola and gives a process of decision making when we’re faced with such a decision.

First of all, we need to have the right foundation and the right disposition. The right foundation is the love of God. Here’s a quote from the book: “Peter, Steven and Laura, Patricia, and Jeremy now have the foundation on which discernment can be built: they have experienced God’s love and desire to respond in communion of will with God—they seek, above all else, to do God’s will. All discernment must be built upon this foundation.”1

Second, we need to have the right disposition—openness to whatever God wills. Without this, the road to discernment is blocked.

Once these are in place, the discernment process can begin. The process involves three “modes.” The modes involve one’s spiritual state and how one should respond based upon this state. They function somewhat like a decision tree: if you’re in situation A, follow mode one; situation B, follow mode two; and so forth. The first mode is clarity from doubt; the second mode is when desolation and/or consolation are present; the third mode is when neither clarity, consolation, nor desolation are present. Each mode gives specific suggestions and steps for decision making. Within the third mode, there are an additional two “ways” of decision making. It is suggested that one go through the first “way” before going through the second “way.”

The last part of the book highlights the value and “fruit” of the discernment process. We may not like the discernment process, but there are definite benefits. These include surrender, peace, and enormous spiritual growth.

I found Discerning the Will of God: An Ignatian Guide to Christian Decision Making to be a valuable contribution to the decision making process. Rather than mull and obsess over questions and decisions, we now have a way to have clarity and peace. This applies especially in tough decision in which both options are good.

What are your thoughts?


  1. Ch. 2