Memorial of St. Alphonsus Liguori

St. Alphonsus is the patron saint of moral theologians. In his day, Alphonsus strove to free the Church from a moral theology that was ever more influenced by something called Jansenism.

What is Jansenism? You could spend a whole day tracking its roots from Tertullian and Augustine to the teachings of 18th century Catholic Bishop Jansen, here is the short form: John Calvin was on the right track in his thoughts about the depravity of human nature, hard predestination, the separation of grace and human freedom, and more – but Calvin was too soft. Jansenism was more Calvin than Calvin.

Rather than deep dive into moral theology, in the simplest of explanations, Jansenism led to a legalism and rigidity in pastors and confessors in which the faithful were expected to pray, pay and obey – and follow the rules. Bishop Jansen did not write out his moral viewpoint until the last years of this life – and the writings were instantly condemned. But the damage was done. Jansenism was already the primary world view taught in French seminaries of a generation or more.  The English had closed all the seminaries in Ireland. All Irish priests were trained in French Jansenists seminaries. When the Irish seminaries were reopened, the teachers were Jansenists in thought. Jansenism was deeply rooted in the formation of priests, especially in Ireland.

The net effect of all this was generations of Catholic priests that were not hyper-Jansenists theologically, but were in the pastoral sense: unbeding, condemning, certain of the depravity of humanity, enforcer of rules and piety, and more. I could go on, but we who are old enough remember such priests from our youth and these days we are witness to rise in neo-Jansenism.

Is this historical legacy important? Consider Ireland. The influence of Catholicism in Ireland has been waning long before the sex abuse scandal because of the “the joyless quasi-Jansenist character of the Irish Church.” (Damien Thompson, Spectator). A Catholic culture shaped by Jansenism distorts our understanding of the human person and society, produces poor theology and worse pastoral practice and can wreak havoc even if the institutional forms of the Church endure for a time. But ultimately they will not endure.

In the first reading today, taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, there is a lexicon of words that would have spoken to the heart of St. Alphonsus: condemnation, law, freedom, weakened flesh, and righteousness in Christ – all topics of moral theology. Aphonsus wrote from his experience as a pastor and confessor and the light of the harm done by Jansenism. His was a moral theology of Joy in which God’s grace overflowed proposing and not imposing salvation – and human will was free to accept the proposal with a faith response…or not. It was a model of moderation and gentleness because Alphonsus understood “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”, we are “freed you from the law of sin and death,” saved by the redeeming death of Christ “so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us.

We are given the grace to be drawn and understand the proposal and the free will to accept the great gift – such is the simple basis of the moral theology of St. Alphonsus Liguori.


Image: Stained glass window of Saint Alphonse Liguori | Carlow Cathedral | Franz Mayer & Co. (Mayer & Co. of Munich). Photo credit: Andreas F. Borchert, CC-BY-SA