Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Divine Madness: The Dilemma of Religious Scruples in Twentieth-Century America and Britain

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Divine Madness: The Dilemma of Religious Scruples in Twentieth-Century America and Britain

Article excerpt

Prior to the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, scrupulosity was regarded as the excessive fear of sinning. Calling an individual "scrupulous" drew attention to a serious state of existence that included fanatical performance of religious devotion combined with an overwhelming burden of spiritual doubt. In other words, scruples were an extreme type of spiritual terror. For sincere believers, fearing the Christian deity was an appropriate response to His omnipotence--but for the scrupulous believer, an excessive fear of God ruined their lives, destroying peace of mind and confidence of spirit. In contrast, today, accusing someone of possessing scruples merely signals that they are religiously observant or morally exacting.

The extreme state of religious dread of sin is often presumed to have disappeared from modern American and British societies. The religious scruples, which tormented believers in earlier centuries, are seen as failing to survive the cynical secularization of modernity. (1) As we shall see in this article, understanding and helping individuals suffering from scruples used to be regarded as the preserve of religious advisers, particularly priests. From the early decades of the twentieth century, however, the burgeoning psychiatric profession challenged pastoral diagnoses, substituting the secular, pathological label of obsessional-compulsive disorder (OCD) for the religious term "scruples". There was increasing assent that lengthy prayers and cleansing rituals were examples of "undoing" in which "the initial instinct to blaspheme and break with religious practice" was "distorted into the opposing compulsive rituals." (2) Unequivocally, Joseph W. Ciarrocchi in The Doubting Disease (1995) determined scruples to be a psychiatric, not religious disorder. (3) It was an OCD as defined by the American Psychiatric Association's The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV. (4) How were the respective jurisdictions of theologians and confessors on one side and psychiatrists and clinical psychologists on the other side to be decided, and what were the consequences for those who suffered from this affliction?

Scrupulous men and women suffered the pangs not of the damned, but of the saints. Books, published by the printers to the Pope, regularly justified themselves on the grounds that scrupulosity was "a widespread and pernicious spiritual ailment." (5) Furthermore, studies in the 1940s and 1950s provided strong evidence that scruples were a major problem in Roman Catholic circles. According to some surveys, one-quarter of American Catholic high school pupils and one in every seven Catholic college students were scrupulous. (6) Although they could not furnish statistical proof, most commentators believed that levels of scrupulosity in the 1940s and 1950s represented an increase over previous decades of the twentieth century. (7) For reasons that shall be examined at the end of this article, these high levels of scruples began to decline in the mid-1960s. Nevertheless, according to surveys in the 1970s, around ten per cent of obsessions were still religious in character. (8)

Priscilla O'Brien Mahoney was one of many Roman Catholics tormented by piety. Her passionate faith had metamorphosed into alarming scruples when she was still a child in the 1920s. The earliest indication that she had been snared by grace surfaced during her first communion when she became overwhelmed by the realization that it was a mortal transgression to willfully conceal any sins from her confessor. The implications were terrifying: by failing to confess any violations of divine law, she jeopardized her soul's eternal life. After this, her scrupulosity took the form of a morbid terror of the priest, fuelled by the fear that she had forgotten to confess some sin. In the mind of this child, defending herself against this dazzling threat was disarmingly simple:

  I set to work frantically racking my brains for a foolproof way
  of preventing such a horrible possibility [of forgetting to
  confess a sin]. … 
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