St Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) was the founder of the Redemptorists, a congregation of missionaries originally established to work in country districts.
He was also a moral theologian whose defence of “Probabilism” evoked controversy among Catholics and scorn among Protestants. He held that, should there be a dispute over a precept, the more libertarian view may be permitted provided it seemed equally probable. Liguori also defended the use of equivocation in debate. In 1863 his writings were used by Charles Kingsley to support the contention, aimed at John Henry Newman, that “truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy”.
Newman brilliantly dismissed this canard, which proved to be the starting point for his Apologia. Yet he was perhaps not wholly in sympathy with Liguori. “Much as I admire the high points of the Italian character,” he wrote, “I like the English rule of conduct better.”
The son of the captain of the royal galleys, Alphonsus de’ Liguori had been born at Marianella, near Naples, and educated for worldly success. For some time he prospered as a lawyer, gaining a reputation for never losing a case.
He loved music and the theatre, being fortunately sufficiently short-sighted to be spared any lewdness on stage. Although never seduced by schemes of matrimony, he was for a while taken up with the delights of society.
A retreat with Lazarists in 1722 inculcated sterner views. Shortly afterward he was humbled as an advocate, having failed properly to master his brief. “These
courts shall not see me again,” he declared.
Ordained priest in 1726, he soon made a mark in Naples through his simple style in the pulpit and his humane approach to penitents.
Liguori founded the Redemptorists in 1732. Yet amid all the troubles of the new congregation he still made time to write. In 1750 his Glories of Mary combated the Jansenist view that devotions to the Virgin were superstitious. His Moral Theology was completed in 1755.
From 1762 (when he was 66) to 1775 Alphonsus served as Bishop of Sant’Agata dei Goti, north-east of Naples, where he strove to reform a diocese which had fallen on evil days.
Meanwhile, in 1767, the Jesuits were repressed within Spanish dominions, including the Kingdom of Naples. The Redemptorists also came under vicious attack, accused of carrying on the Society of Jesus by another name.
Liguori defended his foundation only to suffer the humiliation, in 1778, of being excluded by Pope Pius VI from his own order.
As an old man Liguori suffered from rheumatic pains. Worse, he experienced a dark night of the soul, when every article of faith, and every virtue seemed a mockery. He clung on, though, and died aged 90 in peace and confidence.