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The Apostolic Priority of Alphonsus Liguori: Eradication of Scrupulosity

At the level of pastoral ministry in St. Alphonsus Liguori’s time, the effects of Jansenism in theology, rigorous morality in preaching, and sacramental practice left a substantial legacy of guilt-induced scrupulosity. Alphonsus, as a missionary, considered its eradication to be an apostolic priority. At the level of personal character, there is evidence that Alphonsus was bothered by repeated bouts of scrupulosity. 

By presenting conscience as the entry point for all of moral theology, Alphonsus chooses to focus on the immediate and practical judgment of the act of conscience. Reason (ratio) is the consistent characteristic of such judgments. His four signs of scrupulosity relate to the lack of reasonable judgment in practice. Scrupulosity is an illness. Alphonsus focuses on how this illness affects one’s judgment in moral and spiritual matters. Scrupulosity is not the preserve of religious people. The sickness of scruples…is an inability to act freely and prudently. Psychological and psychiatric studies on scruples will use terminology consistent with their disciplines. If the illness is considered from a moral and religious standpoint, the signs of scrupulosity given by Alphonsus can still be recognized. 

Alphonsus, considering scruples as the incapacity to reason sensibly, emphasizes authorities who can be trusted. Did Alphonsus keep a list of the quotations and the practical advice near at hand for his own use? Quite likely. The quotations are from spiritual masters and experienced pastors. His emphasis on obedience to a director/confessor and his distinctions between higher and lower parts of the soul are from a different theological age. It would not be a contemporary method of clarification. For Alphonsus, one needs a level of certainty in moral decisions. The scrupulous person, by himself, cannot reach that certainty. Relying on the authority of a confessor/director can be, within the logic of Alphonsus, a reasonable choice to make.

It is not surprising that Alphonsus gives priority to the loss of eternal salvation as the greatest predicament for scrupulous people. We should note, however, his insistence that scruples can lead to mental imbalance, physical illness, depression, and suicide. The fact that these are not put at the same level as loss of salvation hardly lessens their importance in the practical support of a scrupulous person.

Alphonsus’ pastoral spirit in dealing with the complexity of scruples could be recovered, with benefit, by pastoral ministers.

Excerpted from Conscience: Writings from Moral Theology by Saint Alphonsus, translated and with commentary by Fr. Raphael Gallagher, CSsR, © 2019 Liguori Publications (828140).
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Published inReflections