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St. Alphonsus’ Scrupulosity

In 1729, Alphonsus Liguori was in the grip of scruples that had begun to manifest themselves before his ordination. In one form or another, they would remain with him until his death. They affected him with varying degrees of intensity. The weather was believed to be responsible for an intensification of his worries during autumn. 

His scruples were at their most distressing for about ten years. After that, the therapy of blind obedience to his directors enabled him to come to terms with himself and his doubts. He still struggled with his conscience, but to a large extent his personal sufferings and embarrassment had ended. 

Periodic outbreaks of scrupulous anxiety occurred throughout his life, but he coped, with the help of his directors of conscience. The agitation of the months preceding his death was caused more by a medical condition than by scruples.

The classic manifestations of the scrupulous conscience center on one’s past sins, even though confessed and absolved; sexual sins, usually of thought; and a morbid fear of committing sin at the moment. 

The first indication of scrupulosity is an interminable turning back to past sins,
real or imaginary, which no assurance from one’s confessor can relieve. Once one anxiety is removed, the tortured mind of the scrupulous person finds some aspect that seems not to have been properly understood or considered.

The description of Alphonsus’ scruples and mental anxieties, which he recorded for us in his notebook, reads like a classical clinical case history, illustrating every possible aspect of this condition. He displayed all the symptoms—he worried about the past, he feared committing sin, he was anxious, never satisfied. One doubt would get resolved and another immediately began tormenting him. Free for a while, the whole cycle began again—doubts, fear of having offended God, the possibility of damnation. Then, once more: consultation, advice, everything clear, peace of conscience restored only momentarily. His directors tried to give him a formula that would cover all eventualities but, of course, in vain. By its very nature, the scrupulous conscience will not be reassured; the advice itself, its meaning and interpretation, becomes a source that drives the anxiety deeper.

His scrupulosity ranged over all aspects of his life, past and present, as well as his ministry. His sensitivity about his own and others’ sexuality tormented him. Worries about his university doctorate studies assailed him. So did tax obligations on the family property.

Then, ordination brought a new, extensive field of worries to Alphonsus.

(Continued next month)

Adapted from Alphonsus de Liguori by Frederick Jones, CSsR, copyright 1998 (Liguori Publications, 803765).

Related: Never Stop Walking: The Life and Spirit of Saint Alphonsus Liguori (439287);

Moral Choices: The Moral Theology of Saint Alphonsus Liguori (802331); and Conscience: Writings from “Moral Theology” by Saint Alphonsus (828140).

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Published inReflections