Honouring a 'Neapolitan with Common Sense'
St Alphonsus Liguori was known as the "Saint of the Age of Enlightenment" because he lived in the 18th century, but also because he experienced its various influences to which he reacted with intelligence and courage. And if he denounced their negative aspects he was also able to grasp their positive values.
One such value was the re-evaluation of man, who was required to assert his autonomy, freedom and dignity in order to emerge "from a shameful state of minority and have the courage to use his own judgment", as Immanuel Kant said.
St Alphonsus considered these claims legitimate as long as they were contained within the proper limits and guided by faith and reason. For his part, faithful to his missionary vocation, he applied himself to carrying out this task in the field of Christian ethics.
He based his thought on certain principles that constitute the strong points of his conception of morality.
Alphonsus thus established first of all that men and women, especially Christians, are bound before they act to form a personal opinion of the legitimacy of their action and not to comply passively with the opinions of others, even reputable theologians. They need to consult their own conscience.
Recourse to one's conscience is necessary and sufficient.
It is necessary, first of all, because man is not a totally autonomous creature but depends on a superior law, which is the divine law; and he is duty-bound to know it because he must know what God's plan is and thereby collaborate with him in his activity.
Such knowledge is obtained through the conscience, which is the practical judgment of reason. The conscience is held by Catholic tradition to be an image of the eternal reason of God and participation in it.
Recourse to the conscience is also sufficient when it is understood properly, examined seriously and followed consistently.
On this point, St Alphonsus, going beyond St Thomas Aquinas' views, recognizes that the subjective intention is of crucial importance, for it impresses its moral features on external action.
Thus, the "truth" about man, thrown into stark relief and playing on the conscience and its capacity to solve moral problems, must interiorize and personalize law.
The position taken by St Alphonsus was all the more necessary if we consider the cultural environment in which he had to work and the predominant moral orientation in the Church in his time.
In those years, a great many moralists opted decisively for legal rights to the detriment of freedom; they declared that the law came first, and consequently, if in doubt as to whether legitimate action was possible in specific circumstances, the person was to abide by the law, which has the right of "possession" and could not opt for freedom: melior est conditio possidentis.
Freedom before law
As a lone rider, St Alphonsus had the courage to go against the tide. He stated and demonstrated with vigorous argument that at the beginning man was present to God and created by him prior to the law.
Man is first of all free, naturally oriented to goodness; then, the law intervenes and curtails his freedom; so freedom is certain and exists, and in doubt "possesses" or prevails over the law.
"Everything is permitted", St Alphonsus declared, "except, of course, what is forbidden".
He continued his passionate defence of human beings in another context: in refuting certain Jansenist theories which, in their dependence on Luther and Calvin, diminished the human person by viewing him as a slave of corrupt nature, unable to resist the stimuli of evil, hence, necessarily succumbing to the delectatio victrix.
Alphonsus countered this with three clear and liberating principles that can be considered a declaration of human rights and human dignity:
- man, with God's help, can overcome all the incentives to and temptations of sin;
- man has the power to resist grace and God's call; and
- man can and must collaborate with God to build his own destiny.
Reflecting on St Alphonsus' outlook in such an important sphere, Harnack wrote: "Liguori, with clarity and invincible power, has made law an ally and not an accuser of human freedom. The spirit of interiority and pastoral sensitivity that enlivened the Saint's discernment has made him a master of Catholic morals.
"Jansenist severity has been neutralized and tutiorism has passed from scrutiny to a more sincerely evangelical attitude".
And it was in thinking of the wise and peaceful equilibrium of our Saint that Benedetto Croce described him as "the most likable Neapolitan Saint: a Neapolitan with common sense".
Supreme human value
Another reason for favouring the human being is found in a Gospel maxim that St Alphonsus was in the habit of repeating in his writings and preaching: "What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?" (cf. Mt 16:26-27).
In his writing and on his lips, this maxim first of all assumed an eschatological meaning concerning man's eternal destiny; but it also included a meaning that we might call existential, since in the hierarchy of creatures the human being has the highest value.
This vision, which stemmed from faith, was also rooted in nature and philosophy. For Alphonsus, as for St Thomas, the person is quod est perfectissimum in rerum natura. The philosophical concept was raised to a religious level, which sees man as in "the image and likeness of God" and redeemed at the high price of Christ's Blood: Alphonsus, like Christ, wanted to save human beings; he too wanted, as far as he was able, to be a redemptor hominis.
One of the fundamental principles of his spirituality fits into this perspective: radical detachment from all things. This is necessary under the ascetic profile so that man may accept God in his fullness and be united to him with his whole being. This is also essential if he is to possess his full freedom as a person.
In short, St Alphonsus defended the primacy of being so that man might develop, grow, mature and become truly a person, "become what he is".
If it is true, as Gabriel Marcel says in his penetrating analysis, that the primary cause of modern civilization's decadence was the ever increasing preference in recent centuries for "having" rather than "being", which explains why man mortified himself to make the financial prevail, then the greatness of this Saint who doggedly fought for the defence of the human being at the beginning of the Industrial Age stands out in bold relief.
Universal call to holiness
The reappraisal of man, to Alphonsus' mind, reaches a higher level in the supernatural sphere, where he claims his vocation to holiness, to the perfect following of Christ. On this point he was clear and explicit:
"God wants everyone to be holy and everyone in his own state, the Religious as a Religious, the lay person as a lay person, the married person as a married person, the merchant as a merchant, the soldier as a soldier, and so forth, speaking of every other state".
Therefore, holiness is a duty for all: it is the condition for salvation because God does not admit of compromises or do things by halves; he demands that we live Baptism to the full, that all the requirements of the union with Christ be actualized, that the imitation of the Heavenly Father proposed by Jesus be fully achieved.
St Alphonsus stirred up a true revolution with his new and surprising theory. Indeed, people had previously maintained that holiness was the privileged prerogative of a few, the spiritual aristocracy; Alphonsus instead took it to convents, to the palaces of the nobility, to the desert, to the squares, to the people; both in his books and in his preaching, to all alike, he addressed the invitation "to become holy".
If Chapter V of the Constitution Lumen Gentium on the universal vocation to holiness in the Church, promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, seemed an innovation to many, which is why they are still finding it hard to believe, then how much more surprising must St Alphonsus' position have been in the 16th century, when a barrier divided the social classes and there was a clear-cut separation between clergy and laity, between Religious and people in the world?
It is thus not a cliché to say that St Alphonsus was a precursor of the new times.
© L'Osservatore Romano
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