Catholicism, OCD, and puberty often make a disturbing mix. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can lead to a pathological degree of moral fastidiousness, or scrupulosity, often based on the fear of committing a mortal sin. At the same time, the developmental stage known as puberty unleashes a storm of biological turmoil at odds with the concept of self-restraint.
Stricken with the curse of OCD as a teenager, I also suffered from scrupulosity; in my case, it took the form of primitive self-control. Reared as a Catholic, I was taught to understand that it was a sin to enjoy impure thoughts; however, my rebellious body had secular ideas. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, impure thoughts are related to “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage…” Needless to say, the practice of masturbation was considered forbidden.
I recall that one priest informed me (during a confessional visit) that “impure thoughts” could be forgiven, if rooted in reluctant habits or uncontrollable desires. But such liberal interpretations of scripture clashed with the Church’s official theological doctrine. Most of my Catechism and CCD teachers insisted that natural sex cravings, if willingly engaged in — were indeed shameful.
Not surprisingly, tons of data can be found on the notorious relationship between scrupulosity and OCD; a frequent topic of the psychological literature. Stringent moral rectitude and ritualistic behavior can be heart-breaking in their mutual collision. My own solution, as it turned out, was to gradually break away from the faith entirely.
Since the election of Pope Francis, there seems a growing semblance of gentler views on God’s eternal judgement. The Church has recently cushioned some of its harder decrees on Hell, reciting the parable of the Prodigal Son. The latter teaches that all sins can be forgiven on the basis of penitence — even “imperfect” penitence, rooted in the terror of eternal damnation. God is merciful. He doesn’t toss people willy-nilly into the Great Abyss; rather, it’s the human soul that chooses a deliberate path from God into darkness.
My own treatment, during my acute teenage phase, was to postpone all fears of Hell until the next morning, so that I could tackle the issues of mortal sin in a more refreshed state. A good night’s sleep often calmed my preoccupations with the possibilities that sinful thoughts could threaten my position in a future afterlife. (Bedtime tranquilizers — prescribed in the eighth grade — also helped to shutter my mind in pursuit of this solution.) After a long period, the obsessions faded into the background of normal teenage noise.
A personal brush with guilt-ridden obsessions at an early age can instill in the mind an “immune response” to the indoctrination of fear. The mental vaccination that results from needless hours of suffering — when followed by enlightenment — can lead to a greater sense of freedom and optimism.
For the faith-seeker with OCD, the spiritual battle should not be a zero-sum game. The ultimate “cure” for scrupulosity shouldn’t lie in the renunciation of one’s religion, or in a personal doctrine of indifference. Such tactics represent a compromise solution.
The condition of OCD, itself, must take on the lion’s share of the blame. But the risk of scrupulosity is amplified in a culture of religious shame. I believe it’s destructive to characterize a primal surge of life — the libido — as a reason for endless guilt or despair. In the face of such ecclesiastical mental intolerance, it makes sense to seek a better solution than a zero-sum compromise. Especially for those with OCD and scrupulosity.