The Confessional Prudence of St. Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor and Patron of Confessors


During my priestly training, I had the privilege of studying moral theology at a university governed by the sons of St. Alphonsus, and in this environment, I grew to know and to love this saint, a doctor of the Church and patron of confessors and moral theologians. However, though all the professors spoke well of him, only two of them quoted the actual content of his writings, and they were two professors outside of his religious order!

This oddity pushed me deeper to get to know the saint and his writings, especially his Guide for Confessors, the work, along with his Theologia Moralis, that brought him acclaim for his gentle wisdom and clarity. I learned rather quickly that certain notions that he addresses are far from the mind of seminary faculties and, as a result, far from the mind of confessors out in the field. Granted, he writes from a significantly different context. To get a flavor of this, a story does wonders. A woman confessed that she consulted a fortuneteller about curing her son with epilepsy, as his excellent biographer Frederick Jones C.SS.R recounts:

Alphonsus remonstrated her for her superstition, and told her to go away and meditate on her lack of faith, and then return for absolution. Next morning his confessional was crowded as usual, when along came the woman accompanied by her very irate eldest daughter, a beatella [one of a church’s holy women], Sister Dorothea. She took Alphonsus to task for deferring absolution for her mother — and did so all in public and with absolutely no inhibitions. Furthermore, she insisted, despite the crowd of penitents who surround his box, that Alphonsus should deal with her mother first and grant her absolution without further delay. . . . Capitulation was the only prudent course and the penitent of the previous day was immediately granted absolution.1

The superstition, the delay of absolution, the uninhibited public rebuke all speak of a situation from another world!

Despite a different context, I want to draw forth a sample of his universal wisdom, the path to form a confessional prudence. My goal in this essay to bring forth some of his forgotten gems, some of the real insights that he and his time can offer for the confessor of the 21st century. These will principally include his focus on charity, his wisdom on offering penances, a healing-oriented emphasis on repentance, and his guidance on questions of when to correct another’s conscience. With full disclosure, I limit myself to highlighting insights just from the first chapter of his extraordinary book, a chapter worthy of a read by all seminarians and priests.

The Triumph of Charity

He begins with charity, which can hardly be surprising. The first chapter addresses the four roles of the confessor: father, doctor, teacher and judge. The first line of the book sets the tone strongly: “In order to be a father to his penitents, the confessor must have charity.” His was a time where priests would refuse to hear confessions entirely or just of particular classes of people — some would hear the confessions of only the devout, or only the rich. And at times, should the confessor be open to receiving whoever God might send, he would hear their confession only begrudgingly and curtly. “A good confessor will act far differently,” he clearly notes.

When such a sinner comes to him, he will welcome him with kindness and even with a note of triumph at the gain he has been fortunate enough to snatch from the devil’s grasp. . . . In order to win them back to God, then, he must receive them with deep love and let them see how much he wants to help them.

On a more practical note, there are two dimensions of this charity that have been of particular aid for me. First, he offers particular phrases that can be offered to the penitent in charity. As a sample, I limit myself to the following: “There’s no need to be afraid. . . . Take your time. . . . If you get stuck, I’ll help you examine your conscience. . . . You’ve got every reason in the world to be at peace. . . . God’s mercy is bigger than your sins.” While I adapt the phrasings for myself, it helps form my heart to be gentle and patient. Second, he reminds us that “the confessor should never worry about the ones waiting in line for confessions. As St. Francis Xavier said, it is better to hear a few confessions well than to hear many which bear little fruit.” As a young priest, this was freeing for me. Even just the possibility of people in line was always a risk for me to not be present to the one person God was giving me, a temptation to not console, not encourage, not teach, not warn, and not love. Perhaps it may take more time to patiently address the needs of a particular penitent, but not much more. Nevertheless, if a little more time is invested to make it more fruitful, more time could be granted to the weekly schedule for confessions to ease the experience of waiting for those in line.

Wisdom in Giving Penances

He addresses the question of penance as part of the confessor’s healing office. Our practice today would probably shock him because of the standard three Hail Marys for any particular sin (obviously, I’m generalizing). We have the notion in the back of our mind that if we offer a heavy penance, people will not return. “They’ll never come back,” we tell ourselves, “if I ask someone to pray a Rosary for a serious sin, or have someone go to a daily Mass if they missed a Sunday Mass, or read five chapters of the Bible if they’ve been away from the Lord five years.” We might also be the ones shocked, however, before the practice of his day. “If a penitent is in the habit of blaspheming, the confessor should urge him to make fifteen crosses on the earth with his tongue each time he blasphemes.” It is not something we would do today, and nor would we offer a penance that is continuous. Continuous penances would include joining a confraternity or committing to a daily or weekly spiritual exercise.

These interesting quirks aside, he offers us some key guidelines for assigning penance. He stands firm with the Council of Trent’s call for the weight of the penance to match the gravity of the sin. Nevertheless, he clarifies that just causes exists which would lighten the weight of the penance.

For instance, if the penitent is really crushed with sorrow, if it is a time of jubilee, or very specially if the penitent is suffering some illness of body or soul. And lastly when the confessor prudently judges that a penance which corresponds to the sins will not be fulfilled. . . . [T]he penance should correspond to the penitent’s capability. In this way, the penance will be a help and not a hindrance to the penitent’s salvation.

Mindful of the confessor’s role as doctor, he then calls penances that fail to match the goal of a person’s salvation “poison,” akin to an overly strong dose of medicine.

But he also warns of the opposite. “Outside these cases . . . the confessor is wrong if he imposes a light penance for a grave sin.” By the choice of the penance and any words of caution or warning, the true gravity of sin and the frightening proximity to losing salvation perpetually is upheld. The proper sense of sin is maintained. As Christians, the confessor must protect the Crucified Lord from continued abuse by actual sins. As doctors, the confessor must advocate the best means for the sinner’s freedom from sin and avoidance of hell. As such, he is mostly concerned with a penance as a remedy. As such, he recommends for general practices the standard acts of Christian devotion (Sacraments, mental prayer, nightly examination of conscience, almsgiving, etc.) to develop their spiritual life. Moreover, special sins call for special remedies: “mortification of the senses should be imposed for sins of sensuality, almsgiving should be imposed for sins of avarice, prayer for blasphemy, and so on.”

The Seriousness of Repentance

In today’s confessional, the word “judge” is profanity. But for the patron of confessors, he understands his role as follows: “The confessor must learn the state of the patient’s conscience, then find out his dispositions, and finally impart or deny absolution.” Like a good judge, he must weigh the facts and get a sense of the conscience. An assessment of the penitent’s disposition would be the degree of readiness to receive or not to receive absolution. Should the amendment of life and repentance be lacking, St. Alphonsus counsels delaying absolution. “Delay” is key here. His great boast was that he never denied absolution to anyone, which appears to be something occasionally or frequently done in his day by confessors in moments of impatience or anger.

In seminary, we received the general counsel that if a person chooses to come to Confession, he or she is repenting. Admittedly, in a world where the sense of sin is slipping away, going to Confession is a radical admittance not done haphazardly. However, a confessor surely notes that at times there are lackadaisical confessions or confessions that may be sorrowing for sin, but might not have the resolve to not sin again. As repentance is the primary summons of Jesus Christ as he proclaims himself, so it should be of the priest. As such, St. Alphonsus gives us a pattern to follow for mortal sins, which can also instruct us on drawing out a deeper repentance for venial sins. He proposes saying,

Your sins have not only deserved hell, they have insulted the most loving Person that exists, they have made light of a Person Who is nothing but Goodness and Lovableness. You have turned away from Him and scorned His friendship and His grace. Are you sorry for this more than anything in the world? Do you hate the sins that you have thrown up in the face of so loving a God? Are you willing to die a thousand deaths than ever commit them again?

Each confessor would probably do well to rephrase it appropriately, but St. Alphonsus offers a clear reminder that souls would flee from sin with greater haste should they realize the horror of sin, the insult to our great Lover, and the horrendous physical and spiritual sufferings that each of our sins directly cause.

The Correction of Conscience

There are times when a medical doctor must correct mistaken notions about health that would have led the patient to make bad health decisions. Similarly, there are times when a priest must correct mistaken notions about faith and morality that would have led the penitent to make bad spiritual decisions. We could easily imagine two different extremes: The rigorists would always correct the conscience, and the laxists would never correct the conscience. St. Alphonsus advises a well-thought-out prudence that cuts between these. He gives the principle of profitability, and then offers several exceptions.

The distinction is between formal and material sin.

If it will not be profitable, he should not make the correction, but rather leave him in good faith. The reason is: the danger of formal sin is a much more serious thing than material sin. God punishes formal sin, for that alone is what offends Him.

Because our love of God comes first, we must do what we can to avoid offenses against our beloved — sin knowingly and freely chosen. He does not say that material sin due to inculpable ignorance is a healthy situation. And for that reason he talks of what is “profitable.”

To determine the profitability of a correction, the fear of harm must be considered, since a person may learn, but not repent based on the new information. Such a question would harden the heart. The magnitude of the matter should also be considered, for if something hardly affects a person’s life, is it worth the risk of formal sin? Therefore, “the confessor should weigh the harm and the usefulness, and the degree of fear of harm against the hope of fruit, and choose the greater.” There are generally not strict rules, but it is a matter of prudence.

Nonetheless, he does mention three exceptions for when a confessor must always correct a penitent. (1) “When the penitent’s ignorance redounds to the harm of the common good,” the confessor, as the defender of the common good even over that of the individual’s good, must correct even when the “correction will be useless”; (2) “If the penitent asks about something, the confessor is then obligated to instruct him in the matter”; and (3) “if the confessor realizes that the penitent will quickly accept the correction, even though he would fight it at first.”

These are insights that I believe can be fruitfully applied in today’s context where no categories or principles are laid out about when to correct someone and each is left to the lights of his own intelligence and inspiration. While this concerns confessional matters, this can provide a format for public matters of correction where the common good is or is not at risk.

Conclusion

St. Alphonsus’ Guide for Confessors is gold. These four points that I mention are but a sample of the first chapter. In the rest of the book, he brings forth other highly worthwhile points: the importance of making restitution, how a confessor should respond to someone who is in the habit of sin, understanding the sacramental seal, hearing the confessions of various groups (the scrupulous, the devout, condemned criminals, the dying, the deaf, the mute, religious, priests, bishops), and a particularly moving final chapter on assisting the dying. It is truly a guide, a handbook, a praxis as the Latin translation calls it. It is a basic how-to book.

Hearing confessions, while it cannot be merely reduced to a science, for God is surely at hand with the prayerful confessor, clearly has a rationale. There exist principles and guidelines to aid the confessor in forming his confessional prudence. And even after a priest’s best attempts to prepare himself for his confessional ministry, the holiness of the priest and the call upon heaven will assure him of the presence of the Holy Spirit to continue to meet the needs of his flock entrusted to him. May the Sacrament of Reconciliation bring forth a new generation of saints for the praise and glory of God!

  1. Frederick M. Jones, Alphonsus de Liguori: Saint of Bourbon Naples, 1696–1787, Founder of the Redemptorists (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1992), 244.
Fr. Sean O'Brien About Fr. Sean O'Brien

Rev. Sean O'Brien is priest of the Diocese of Tulsa. He holds an STL in moral theology and bioethics from the Accademia Alfonsiana, Rome.

Comments

  1. Avatar Fr. Anthony J MASTROENI STD, JD says:

    As one who has taught moral theology for over 40 years, may I commend Fr. Sean O’Brien for this excellent piece on the Praxis of Saint Alphonsus Liguori, doctor of the Church and patron saint of confessors. It would be a boon to seminary formation everywhere were the Praxis to be resurrected today and made required reading for all students of moral theology preparing for the priesthood. Admittedly, there is a clash of cultures between the 18th century and our own, but in the teaching of Saint Alphonsus there is a treasure trove of information and practical advice for confessors that could easily be tweaked out to assist us in our own day with its false presumption that modern psychology trumps everything, even the sound moral counsel of centuries.

  2. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    Thank you for your article; and, indeed, it has stimulated to me to think of the wisdom that a father and a mother need, both with each other and with their children; and, indeed, all the influences that come to bear on how they help their children. Clearly, then, parents do not “form alone”; but, on the other hand, they are in the midst of daily, family life, with its relationship to the extended family and the coming and going of friends, boyfriends and girlfriends – not to mention the wider context of society.

  3. Avatar Barry McGonigle says:

    Thank you for causing this Catholic to reflect seriously on the underused sacrament. I suppose that few Catholics consider the confessor’s perspective!! Although st Alphonsus’ words are wise they are of their time. A time when the priest might be one of a handful of lettered men in any parish. Indeed the whole process of our sacrament is anachronistic and paternalistic; entirely unsuited to dealing with a community of Christians mostly educated to high school or degree level.
    I was struck by the idea of ‘profitability’ not just for correction but for the entire experience. I suspect that many catholics find the experience unprofitable. I submit that any confession in which the words “1 Our Father and 3 Hail Marys” has probably been a waste of time for the penitent, the confessor, and the waiting line!!
    Try trusting your fellow catholics instead of patronising us.
    Do any confessors think for example, of asking the baptised Christian before them “What pennance do you think appropriate?” You might be pleasantly surprised by thoughtful responses. Certainly anyone who has taken his/her relationship with God seriously enough to seek the sacrament of reconciliation is likely in the first instance to regard prayer as a joy not a pennance!

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