1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Liguori, Alfonso Maria dei
LIGUORI, ALFONSO MARIA DEI (1696–1787), saint and doctor of the Church of Rome, was born at Marianella, near Naples, on the 27th of September 1696, being the son of Giuseppe dei Liguori, a Neapolitan noble. He began life at the bar, where he obtained considerable practice; but the loss of an important suit, in which he was counsel for a Neapolitan noble against the grand duke of Tuscany, and in which he had entirely mistaken the force of a leading document, so mortified him that he withdrew from the legal world. In 1726 he entered the Congregation of Missions as a novice, and became a priest in 1726. In 1732 he founded the “Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer” at Scala, near Salerno; the headquarters of the Order were afterwards transferred to Nocera dei Pagani. Its members, popularly called Liguorians or Redemptorists, devote themselves to the religious instruction of the poor, more especially in country districts; Liguori specially forbade them to undertake secular educational work. In 1750 appeared his celebrated devotional book on the Glories of Mary; three years later came his still more celebrated treatise on moral theology. In 1755 this was much enlarged and translated into Latin under the title of Homo Apostolicus. In 1762, at the express desire of the pope, he accepted the bishopric of Sant’ Agata dei Goti, a small town in the province of Benevent; though he had previously refused the archbishopric of Palermo. Here he worked diligently at practical reforms, being specially anxious to raise the standard of clerical life and work. In 1775 he resigned his bishopric on the plea of enfeebled health; he retired to his Redemptorists at Nocera, and died there in 1787. In 1796 Pius VI. declared him “venerable”; he was beatified by Pius VII. in 1816, canonized by Gregory XVI. in 1839, and finally declared one of the nineteen “Doctors of the Church” by Pius IX. in 1871.
Liguori is the chief representative of a school of casuistry and devotional theology still abundantly represented within the Roman Church. Not that he was in any sense its founder. He was simply a fair representative of the Italian piety of his day—amiable, ascetic in his personal habits, indefatigable in many forms of activity, and of more than respectable abilities; though the emotional side of his character had the predominance over his intellect. He was learned, as learning was understood among the Italian clergy of the 18th century; but he was destitute of critical faculty, and the inaccuracy of his quotations is proverbial. In his casuistical works he was a diligent compiler, whose avowed design was to take a middle course between the two current extremes of severity and laxity. In practice, he leant constantly towards laxity. Eighteenth-century Italy looked on religion with apathetic indifference, and Liguori convinced himself that only the gentlest and most lenient treatment could win back the alienated laity; hence he was always willing to excuse errors on the side of laxity as due to an excess of zeal in winning over penitents. Severity, on the other hand, seemed to him not only inexpedient, but positively wrong. By making religion hard it made it odious, and thus prepared the way for unbelief. Like all casuists, he took for granted that morality was a recondite science, beyond the reach of all but the learned. When a layman found himself in doubt, his duty was not to consult his conscience, but to take the advice of his confessor; while the confessor himself was bound to follow the rules laid down by the casuistical experts, who delivered themselves of a kind of “counsel’s opinion” on all knotty points of practical morality. But experts proverbially differ: what was to be done when they disagreed? Suppose, for instance, that some casuists held it wrong to dance on Sunday, while others held it perfectly lawful. In Liguori’s time there were four ways of answering the question. Strict moralists—called rigorists, or “tutiorists”—maintained that the austerer opinion ought always to be followed; dancing on Sundays was certainly wrong, if any good authorities had declared it to be so. Probabiliorists maintained that the more general opinion ought to prevail, irrespectively of whether it was the stricter or the laxer; dancing on Sunday was perfectly lawful, if the majority of casuists approved it. Probabilists argued that any opinion might be followed, if it could show good authority on its side, even if there was still better authority against it; dancing on Sunday must be innocent, if it could show a fair sprinkling of eminent names in its favour. The fourth and last school—the “laxists”—carried this principle a step farther, and held that a practice must be unobjectionable, if it could prove that any one “grave Doctor” had defended it; even if dancing on Sunday had hitherto lain under the ban of the church, a single casuist could legitimate it by one stroke of his pen. Liguori’s great achievement lay in steering a middle course between these various extremes. The gist of his system, which is known as “equiprobabilism,” is that the more indulgent opinion may always be followed, whenever the authorities in its favour are as good, or nearly as good, as those on the other side. In this way he claimed that he had secured liberty in its rights without allowing it to degenerate into licence. However much they might personally disapprove, zealous priests could not forbid their parishioners to dance on Sunday, if the practice had won widespread toleration; on the other hand, they could not relax the usual discipline of the church on the strength of a few unguarded opinions of too indulgent casuists. Thus the Liguorian system surpassed all its predecessors in securing uniformity in the confessional on a basis of established usage, two advantages amply sufficient to ensure its speedy general adoption within the Church of Rome.
Lives by A. M. Tannoja, a pupil of Liguori’s (3 vols., Naples, 1798–1802); new ed., Turin, 1857; French trans., Paris, 1842; P. v. A. Giattini (Rome, 1815: Ger. trans., Vienna, 1835); F. W. Faber (4 vols., London, 1848–1849); M. A. Hugues (Münster, 1857); O. Gisler (Einsiedeln, 1887); K. Dilgskron (2 vols., Regensburg, 1887), perhaps the best; A. Capecelatro (2 vols., Rome, 1893); A. des Retours (Paris, 1903); A. C. Berthe (St Louis, 1906).
Works (a) Collected editions. Italian: (Monza, 1819, 1828; Venice, 1830; Naples, 1840 ff.; Turin, 1887, ff.). French: (Tournai, 1855 ff., new ed., 1895 ff.) German: (Regensburg, 1842–1847). English: (22 vols., New York, 1887–1895). Editions of the Theologia Moralis and other separate works are very numerous. (b) Letters: (2 vols., Monza, 1831; 3 vols., Rome, 1887 ff.). See also Meyrick, Moral and Devotional Theology of the Church of Rome, according to the Teaching of S. Alfonso de Liguori (London, 1857), and art. Casuistry. (St. C.)