An eighteenth-century European Catholic seeking to please the Lord might have had reason to despair. The prevailing theology of the day depicted God as a stern taskmaster who laid impossible burdens on his creatures. In this view, God expected blind obedience to a long list of rules.
It was not uncommon for confessors to withhold absolution and discourage people from receiving Communion too frequently. The law seemed to be everything, and individual human conscience had little, if any, say in determining the rightness of an action. A popular manual for confessors, noted one dissenting priest, breathed “fury, passion, sternness and fanaticism” and drove “the faithful to desperation.”
Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, a Neapolitan nobleman, was formed in this strict “Rigorist” tradition, and it left an indelible mark on his character. Especially in his younger days, Liguori was scrupulous to a fault, always worried that he had somehow offended God. It is one of the ironies of church history that this lawyer-turned-priest revolutionized theology and pastoral practice with an approach that (according to the same priest quoted above) preached “charity, sweetness and moderation.” Although scorned by leading…
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