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Conscience: St. Alphonsus on Scruples

During the life of Saint Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787)], the effects of Jansenism and rigorous moralism on sensitive people contributed to an increase in the illness of scrupulosity. The fundamental appeal of Alphonsus is to the authority of the confessor (that is, for him, of God). How applicable this might be in a different world of differing cultural experiences is not immediately obvious. It remains useful to be reminded that “bad thoughts” are not the problem, but the consent given to them. The necessity of freedom for formal sin retains its importance. The terror-inducing tactics of former times may have disappeared. The dominance of sexualized imagery in contemporary life can cause another sort of scruple-related anxiety for sensitive people. The Alphonsian acknowledgment of freedom as necessary for sin remains valid in this context.

Alphonsus related the problem of scruples to a disturbed power of reasoning (ob rationem perturbatam). The emphasis on obedience is to be understood against this background; it is the only way a scrupulous person can retain sanity. The illness of scrupulosity affects all of a person’s life. Spiritual progress is affected, also physical and mental health. It is not necessary to conclude that Alphonsus advocates blind obedience as a general norm; he is encouraging a purposeful obedience in a particular context. Only when a person can think rationally can he act freely (libere) on the basis of what is apparent (evidens). Modern psychological theories can surely add to our expertise on these matters. Alphonsus is concentrating on the moral problem of religious scruples at a particular period. Deprived of the capacity for rational argument and judgment, scrupulous people lack the freedom necessary for sin.

If a person is in error or doubtful about the goodness of an action, no judgment can be made until the error or doubt is cleared up….The correct understanding of doubt (dubium) is critical. A doubt is legitimate when the precept to be applied is derived from an imperfect norm—for instance, a norm that has not been properly promulgated or has been abrogated. A legitimate doubt, consequently, justifies not applying a norm. The question then becomes: Can a legitimate doubt be caused by scruples? Alphonsus answers in the affirmative, offering the significant observation that the mind, being clouded by scruples, cannot think properly. A doubt can have its origin in the illness of scruples.

It is ironic how Alphonsus is sometimes quoted to propose a rigorous morality of the type he strove to eradicate.

Adapted from Conscience: Writings from Moral Theology by Saint Alphonsus,
translated by Fr. Raphael Gallagher, CSsR, (828140) Liguori Publications, 2019. To order, visit or call 800-325-9521.

Published inReflections