Interrogating the Wisdom of the Church That Raised Me
Lessons learned from my struggle with religious scrupulosity
When I was a child attending Catholic school, I was given an easy-to-follow set of rules that I was repeatedly told would assure my good standing with my family, my friends, and my heavenly maker above. I never dared to question why any of these rules existed, whether they were applicable to every situation in which I might one day find myself, or whether any of them could even stand on their own merits. Compliance with the rules was met with the reaffirmation of the purity of my heart and soul, and that was all the incentive I needed to play along.
The lesson I took away from that experience, however, was that to be a genuinely good person, I needn’t actually be good; I just needed to give the impression that I was good. And to achieve that — to meet the expectations imposed upon me by the adults whose collective judgment was, in my mind, wholly unassailable — I just needed to do as I was told.
But as I grew up, the nuances of reality collided with the simplicity of youth, and the old rules sloughed off their universality. Situations arose in which the path to the right choice — to the moral choice — was shrouded by complexities I hadn’t anticipated, and I suddenly discovered that I had become a bone fide moral agent.
That is to say, I had reached the stage of my life where my capacity to differentiate between right and wrong had evolved to encompass the ability to start asking questions my younger self never thought to ask, questions relating to centuries-old rules and values that suddenly struck me as morally unsound but had been presented to me as the unbridled, righteous truth.
You see, to be a moral agent is to be saddled with one particularly burdensome realization, which is that the rules we have been taught to accept uncritically are often some of the most substantial obstacles to a better world that we’ll encounter over the course of our lives. For me, this realization created an internal conflict that lasted for many years before it was finally brought under control.
I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and one of the ways that OCD can manifest itself is in the form of what is known as scrupulosity OCD. The International OCD Foundation describes scrupulosity OCD as a form of OCD “involving religious or moral obsessions” that causes sufferers to become “overly concerned that something they thought or did might be a sin or other violation of religious or moral doctrine.”
As I learned to embrace my moral agency and started challenging the merits of certain religious rules I had once regarded as sacrosanct, I began experiencing pangs of regret that quickly grew into overnight prayer sessions aimed at tempering God’s fury. But the prayer sessions were just the tip of iceberg. The intensity of my religious scrupulosity seemed to grow in proportion to the confidence with which I objected to God’s rules. Prayer sessions turned into day-long meditations at my local church. The meditations evolved into sleepless nights spent curled up in bed wrestling with a sense of shame so debilitating that you’d think I’d just ran someone over with my car. Shortly thereafter, I began intentionally harming myself in ways both physical and emotional that I’m not quite ready to share.
I was sure I was going to hell. I was sure that after I passed away, I would never see my friends, girlfriend, or family ever again. My OCD had convinced me that my personal rebellion against the wisdom of the Catholic establishment had ensured that I could never earn the forgiveness I so desperately desired. Therapy wasn’t helping, and the medications I was offered back then — this was about 20 years ago — aren’t even prescribed for OCD anymore. For all intents and purposes, I was on my own.
Eventually, I concluded that I only had two viable options left. The first option was to give in to God’s will and give up my moral agency altogether. The second option was to beat God — or rather, one religious denomination’s conception of God — at His own game.
I chose the latter.
The battle began with my objection to the idea that all one needs to do to receive forgiveness is to ask God for it. It seems to me now, as it did back then, that true atonement depends on placing yourself in a perpetual state of self-reflection. It’s not enough to acknowledge that you’ve made mistakes, apologize for them, and move on as though nothing ever happened. To put a comfortable distance between the person you are now and the person you once were, you have to revisit those past mistakes and dig into the darkest, bottommost layers of the corrupted mental and spiritual processes that led you astray. Each successive examination brings with it an opportunity to identify and eliminate the moral blind spots that are holding you back from evolving into the best possible version of yourself, and that’s the least that any of us can and should do to earn the forgiveness of those who we’ve hurt in the past.
After that, I grappled with the notion that homosexuality is a sin. Two consenting adults, bonded in love, providing each other with the purpose and joy that can only be found in romantic companionship — what was so sinful about such an arrangement? I couldn’t say. My God-given brain was unable to invent a rational justification for as arbitrary of a rule as the one that proclaims that a man may not lie with a man as he does with a woman.
Then I tangled with the prohibition on premarital sex. For better or worse, I’ve long been the type of guy who reserves physical intimacy for close relationships. I’ve never been enthusiastic about quick flings or one-night stands, so I’ve always respected and sympathized with those who prefer to wait until marriage. But even when I was a practicing Catholic, I never really bought into the idea that acting on one’s natural instincts was grounds for eternal damnation. By the time I grew into adulthood, I was able to dismiss that idea entirely, and with surprisingly little effort.
My OCD did everything it could to sabotage my journey from obedient Catholic to independent moral agent. For several years, I carried an overwhelming guilt that distracted me from everything that mattered to me at the time — my relationships, my schoolwork, and my physical health. It was terrifying and exhausting, and I spent many days locked away in my dorm begging God to have mercy on my soul.
Nevertheless, the dominoes continued to fall, until I finally became comfortable moving outside of religion and challenging many other old rules and values that were commonly accepted as self-evidently correct. I stopped believing that drug addiction was a character issue and began to see it as an actual disease. I dove into the subject of sex work and concluded that decriminalization was both the most practical and most ethical path forward. I was starting to construct my very own moral code, and I quickly realized that process had to be allowed to play itself out if I ever wanted to be able to call myself a genuinely decent man.
I can’t recall the precise moment it happened, but I eventually woke up one day and discovered that my religious scrupulosity had subsided almost entirely. I had reclaimed my moral agency. My OCD was no longer in control. And while my moral code will never be fully complete — there are, after all, infinite lessons I have yet to learn that will undoubtedly require me to adjust that code — it is at least able to withstand the scrutiny of my inquisitive, skeptical mind.
I feel compelled to point out that none of what I’ve said thus far should be interpreted as a broad condemnation of religion. On the contrary, I have nothing but respect for those who choose to lead religious lives, save for those who use their faith as an excuse to inflict harm upon or violate the rights of innocent people. We must remember that religious communities are not monoliths. Not all Christians believe that homosexuality is a sin. Not all Muslims support female genital mutilation. There is a good deal of healthy disagreement amongst believers of all different faiths, indicating that they, too, struggle with questions relating to their own beliefs and values.
We should also recognize that religious communities are not static. They share the same capacity for growth that is found in the individual self. Consider Pope Francis’ endorsement of same-sex civil unions and proclamation that gay people are “children of God and have a right to a family.” Ten years ago, it would have been unimaginable for any prominent leader within the Catholic Church to make such a declaration, let alone the Pope. That he was able to say what he said without provoking a career-ending backlash from within the global Catholic community just goes to show that religious institutions aren’t invulnerable to change.
In my mind, the big takeaway from my struggle with scrupulosity OCD isn’t that there’s something wrong with being religious, or that faith in the divine necessarily inhibits one’s personal development. It’s that to live a truly moral life, the first thing you must do is look beyond the moral framework that you’ve been told is the only proper framework to follow. You must think deeply and critically about your most sincerely held beliefs, regularly reevaluate the merits of the rules that you’ve been taught to regard as unquestionably virtuous, and repeatedly remind yourself of the obligations that you have to the people you’ve let down throughout the course of your life.
You can always be good for a moment, but you can never be good in every moment. You’re a human being. You’re destined to make mistakes, and you will continue to make them no matter how much energy and effort you invest in improving yourself. There’s no getting around that. But obedience to dubious rules and values is not the right response to human fallibility. The evolution of society starts with the evolution of the individual, and the evolution of the individual starts by asking which rules should be preserved and which rules should be discarded, replaced, or amended. That is what my struggle with scrupulosity OCD taught me. And while I very much wish that I could have learned that lesson without having to endure the misery that my OCD produced, I am grateful to have learned it nonetheless.