Alphonsus Liguori, St.
Alphonsus Liguori, St.
ALPHONSUS LIGUORI, ST.
Theologian, founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, bishop, Doctor of the Church; b. Marianella, near Naples, Sept. 27, 1696; d. Pagani, near Salerno, Aug. 1, 1787.
Life. He was the eldest son of Giuseppe de Liguori, of a noble and ancient Neapolitan family and an officer of the royal navy, and Anna Cavalieri. After receiving his early education at home under the care of tutors, Alphonsus was enrolled in 1708 at the University of Naples, where he studied until Jan. 21, 1713, when at the age of 16 he received his doctorate in utroque jure. He practiced at the bar for some years, leading the while an exemplary Christian life under the direction of the Oratorians. When charged in 1723 with the defense of the interests of the Duke of Gravina against the Grand Duke of Tuscany, he lost confidence in the justice of his client's cause, perhaps in consequence of intrigues. Shocked by this experience he renounced the world and put on clerical dress, Oct. 23, 1723. He began his theological studies at home under the direction of Don Julio Torni and joined a group of secular priests (Congregation of the Apostolic Missions), in whose missionary activities he took part from 1724. Ordained Dec. 21, 1726, he devoted himself in a special way to the work of hearing confessions and preaching. In 1727 he organized the Evening Chapels (Cappelle Serotine ), an association of workers and artisans formed for the purpose of mutual assistance, religious instruction, and works of apostolic zeal. In 1729 he left his home and took up residence in the College of the Holy Family, known also as the Chinese College, founded in Naples by Matteo ripa. There he devoted himself to the pastoral ministry by giving missions and working in the church connected with the college. After a sojourn at Scala and providential meetings with Thomas Falcoia of the society of Pii Operarii, who was made bishop of Castellamare di Stabia in 1730, and Sister Maria Celeste Crostarosa (1696–1755), he took an effective part in the foundation
at Scala of the Institute of the Most Holy Savior, an order of contemplative nuns dedicated to the imitation of Jesus Christ, which was approved by Benedict XIV in 1750. On Nov. 9, 1732, he founded at Scala, under the direction of Bishop Falcoia, a congregation of priests under the title of the Most Holy Savior (known, after 1749, as the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer). It was intended as an association of priests and brothers living a common life and sharing in the desire to imitate Jesus Christ, particularly in the work of preaching the divine word. This congregation was formed with a special view to the needs of country people, who so often lacked the opportunities of missions, catechetical instruction, and spiritual exercises. Alphonsus gave himself to the work of the missions, to the organization of his congregation, and to the composition of his rule. His first companions deserted him, but he stood firm and before long vocations increased in number and new foundations multiplied; among the earliest were Villa Liberi (1734), Ciorani (1735), Pagani (1742), Deliceto (1745), and Mater Domini (1746).
On Feb. 25, 1749, Benedict XIV by his brief Ad pastoralis dignitatis fastigium approved the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. Alphonsus was elected superior general for life at the general chapter held that same year. In consequence of the hostility of Marquis Tanucci and of the government, which was opposed to religious orders, Alphonsus could not obtain the royal exequatur in Naples to the brief of Benedict XIV. A royal decree of Dec. 9, 1752, gave limited assurance to the future of the institute, which at the time was extending its activity in the Papal States and in Sicily. Alphonsus governed his congregation, preached missions, and busied himself in writing and other apostolic work. He was appointed bishop of Sant' Agata dei Goti and was consecrated in Rome, June 20, 1762. As a bishop he soon distinguished himself for his work of reform. He put a stop to abuses, restored churches, fought for the liturgy, reformed his seminary, visited his diocese, promoted missions and often took a personal part in them, and exercised charity toward all, especially during the great famine of 1763–64. He kept an eye on the government of his congregation, which at the general chapter of 1764 adopted the completed constitutions, and continued with his writing. He was stricken in 1768 with a painful illness that made the pastoral ministry difficult; he offered his resignation from his see, and it was accepted by Pius VI in 1775. He then retired to Pagani, where he devoted himself to the governing of his congregation. Troubles concerning the rule caused by authorities of the Kingdom of Naples saddened his last years. The future of the congregation seemed precarious after the suppression of the Jesuits. He negotiated through an intermediary with the government to obtain its approbation, but the rule approved by the king and imposed on the congregation— the regolamento —differed notably from the rule approved by Benedict XIV. The Holy See, in its struggle with the Kingdom of Naples, took their canonical status away from the houses in the kingdom and gave to the houses in the Papal States their own superior. Alphonsus died before the reunion of the two branches of his congregation, which subsequently expanded to the whole world. Beatified Sept. 15, 1816, by Pius VII, canonized May 26, 1839, by Gregory XVI, declared Doctor of the Church by Pius IX in 1871, Alphonsus was finally made patron of confessors and moralists by Pius XII, April 26, 1950.
The Man. Ardent and richly endowed by nature, of delicate sensibility, tenacious of will, and profoundly intelligent, Alphonsus was given more to practical thinking than to pure speculation. He had to a rare degree an awareness of the concrete, a sense of the practical. In his relationship with others he combined nobility of manner with affability and benevolence toward all, especially the poor, and smiling good humor: "a model of moderation and of gentleness" [B. Croce, Uomini e cose della vecchia Italia, v.21 (Bari 1927) 123].
The will of God, obeyed even in its most crucifying demands, was the only rule of his life. His prayer attained the summit of union with God, but it also expressed itself in apostolic action. He could in fact be described as a mystic of action. All his activity is explained by his determination to consecrate himself to the work of the Redemption and to the salvation of men. In this cause he employed all his artistic gifts. He was a talented musician and composed, in the style of the great Neapolitan school of the 18th century, a duetto of merit called Duetto tra l'anima e Gesù Cristo. He composed Tu scende dalle stelle, the lovely Christmas hymn that is still the most popular of Italian carols. In his Canzoncine spirituali he expressed in authentic poetry the sentiments of his mystical soul. An excellent picture of his psychology and intimate life can be gathered from the three volumes of his letters (Rome 1887–90).
Missions. Popular missions were for Alphonsus the means par excellence of procuring the salvation of souls. As a member of the Congregation of Apostolic Missions he took part in missionary work before he was a priest. His apostolate intensified with his ordination, and still more with the foundation of his congregation, which was dedicated in a special way to that work. It is estimated that he gave no fewer than 150 missions, and he himself once acknowledged that he had had 34 years of missionary experience. As a bishop he promoted missions in his diocese, and until his death he remained interested in the work. Alphonsus borrowed many of the elements of existing systems of conducting missions, but two features marked his own: (1) its concern that in the general structure of the mission and in the plan of the sermons there should be a continual adaptation to the concrete situation of the faithful; and (2) its effort to assure the perseverance of the participants by putting a major stress upon the love of God as the principal motive for conversion, and by calling for "renewals of the mission" to be preached some months after a mission, this last point being an original contribution to mission planning that won much acclaim.
Writing. No complete listing of the literary productions of St. Alphonsus is possible. Between 1728 and 1778 there appeared 111 works, and in addition to these there were posthumous publications. As to editions and translations, P. De Meulemeester in 1933 counted 4,110 editions of the original text (402 appeared before the death of Alphonsus) and 12,925 editions of translations into 61 languages. Since that time the number has continued to grow.
Works on Preaching. His principal work in this field was his Selva di materie predicabili … (1760), a complete treatise on sacerdotal perfection, the pastoral work of the missions, and the substance and form of preaching. In addition to this he published Lettera ad un religioso amico ove si tratta del modo di predicare (1761) in which he insisted on the necessity of preaching the gospel in a simple manner, without superfluous ornamentation, so that all, even the simplest of men, could understand the preacher. Mention should also be made of his sermons, and especially the Sermoni compendiati per tutte le domeniche del anno (1771), which were much admired by Newman.
Spiritual Works. These were markedly ascetical in character, but were solidly founded upon theology. They were the fruit of his interior life and of his preaching. The point of departure for his spirituality was the revelation of the love of God for man. Contrary to the teaching of the Jansenists, God offers to every man the possibility of salvation and of sanctification. This consists essentially in the loving response that man makes to the gift of God's love. To man turning toward God and detaching himself from creatures and the disordered impulses of concupiscence, Alphonsus presented the themes proposed by St. Ignatius in the First Week of the spiritual exercises: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Such was the subject of his Apparecchio alla morte (1758) and of the Via della salute (1766). But the supreme motive of the Christian's love for God is Christ, the perfect revelation of God's love for man. The spirituality of St. Alphonsus was resolutely Christocentric. In his works devoted to the mysteries of Christ—Santo Natale (1758), Riflessioni ed affetti sopra la passione di Gesù Cristo (1761), Riflessioni sulla passione di Gesù Cristo (1773), and Novena del Cuore di Gesù (1758)—it is always the love of Christ that is emphasized, a love that man must requite by loving Christ in return. The most perfect synthesis of this spirituality is to be found in the Pratica di amar Gesù Cristo (1768), written in the manner of a commentary on the hymn of charity of St. Paul (1 Corinthians ch. 13). The love of God is not authentic if it does not express itself—here one can recognize the characteristically Alphonsian propensity for concreteness—in doing the will of God in the state and condition to which one is called. Hence the importance of the choice of state. Alphonsus developed this doctrine for all the states of life in his little work Uniformità alla volontà di Dio (1755). A fortiori, this principle is applicable to particular vocations: sacerdotal, as in the above mentioned Selva; religious, as in Avvisi spettanti alla vocazione (1749), and La vera sposa di Gesù Cristo (1760–61), a complete treatise on religious perfection.
What means did God give to Christians to attain holiness? The Sacraments, first of all. Alphonsus insisted particularly upon Penance and the Eucharist. In his volume Del sagrificio di Gesù Cristo (1775) he studied the essence of the Mass and the means of participating in it fully. Against the Jansenists he recommended frequent Communion. Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament occupied a place of prime importance in his spirituality. His book Visita al SS. Sacramento (1745) became a best seller and went through 40 editions during his lifetime. It gave to the practice of the visit a form that thenceforth became classic and definitive, and by means of it generations of Christians have come to find the nourishment of their daily prayer in the Eucharistic presence.
Prayer has a place of central importance in the economy of salvation and sanctification. Alphonsus gave magisterial treatment to the topic in what was, from the theological point of view, his most important work, Del gran mezzo della preghiera (1759). The first, and ascetical, part shows the absolute necessity of prayer for salvation. The second, and theological, part is directed against the Jansenist teaching on salvation and predestination. God wills the salvation of all men; Christ died for all; God gives to all the grace necessary for salvation, and one will certainly be saved if he corresponds with it. Faced with Jansenism and the teaching of the different theological schools on the subject of grace, Alphonsus expounded his own understanding of it. On the one hand there is an efficacious grace necessary for salvation; normally this acts by a kind of moral movement, determining infallibly by its own intrinsic power the consent of man's will, but leaving his liberty intact. But there is also a sufficient grace, which is truly active and gives man the power to perform psychologically easy acts in the order of salvation, such as that of imperfect prayer. One who corresponds with this sufficient grace will necessarily obtain efficacious grace. But sufficient grace is fallibly active. Man can fail to correspond with it and so in effect deprive himself of it. How is this grace fallibly active? St. Alphonsus never pretended to resolve this question explicitly; it is a point upon which one is simply referred to the conclusions of the commentators. F. marin-sola, OP, and J. Maritain have proposed possible metaphysical extensions of the Alphonsian doctrine. As in other matters, St. Alphonsus was inspired by a number of authors and incorporated their teaching into his own view of the problem. But if, in fact, he often cited H. noris and Claude-Louis de Montaigne, the continuator of H. tournely, he went back beyond these and other immediate sources to the scholasticism of the 12th and 13th centuries and to St. Augustine. "Never did anyone bring together so compactly and so accurately the thought of St. Augustine on prayer and its necessity. The bishop of Sant' Agata was only an echo of the bishop of Hippo on this subject…. He had the genius to read with suprising clarity what the intellectual Jansenists had neglected in the writings of St. Augustine" [F. Cayré, Patrologie et histoire de la théologie v.3 (Paris 1944) 294].
The object of Christian prayer was first the love of God— i.e., the fulfillment of His will—then perseverance in that love, and finally the grace to pray always. Among the forms of prayer recommended by the saint was liturgical prayer (for which in 1774 he edited an Italian translation of the psalter Traduzione de' Salmi e Cantici ) and mental prayer. For him mental prayer was morally necessary to assure the effective practice of prayer and consequently for perseverance in the grace of God, progress in charity, and union with God. The extremely flexible and easy method of mental prayer described in a number of his works led to the little masterpiece Modo di conversare continuamente ed alla familiare con Dio (1753). He would not hesitate to lead a disciple who corresponded with the grace of God to the height of mystical union with God by means of infused prayer [see Pratica del confessore (1755)].
The Virgin Mary appears in all the spiritual works of Alphonsus. To her he devoted the most elaborate of his books, Le glorie di Maria (1750), which is one of the great works of Catholic Mariology. Replying to L. A. muratori's criticism of the deviation of Marian devotion, Alphonsus firmly established the role of Mary in the history of salvation and solidly based devotion to her on theology. By the grace of the Redeemer immaculate in her conception (by his argumentation Alphonsus helped prepare the way for the definition of this dogma by Pius IX), Mary directly cooperated in the redemption of the world effected by Jesus on Calvary; she is the Co-Redemptress and consequently the universal, but not exclusive, mediatrix of grace. Through her one obtains especially the grace of prayer, and thus prayer to Mary leads to Jesus. St. Alphonsus considered authentic devotion to Mary an assurance and sign of salvation. Le glorie di Maria had an enormous influence on the 19th century and contributed to the great development of Marian devotion at that time.
In the development of his spiritual teaching Alphonsus was inspired by the spiritual writers of the 16th to the 18th centuries and freely incorporated things gathered from them into his own writings. In the Biblioteche predicabili and the Prontuarii he drew abundantly from these writers, the authors most frequently cited being the Jesuits Alfonso rodriguez, G. B. scaramelli, and J. B. saint-jurÉ, who transmitted to him the spirituality of the Exercises of St. Ignatius, and the spiritual doctrine of SS. Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales, and, in lesser measure, that of John of the Cross.
Dogmatic Works. These, for the most part, were composed during his episcopate, and they are principally works of controversy. With a pastoral end in view, Alphonsus refuted the principal errors of his time and addressed himself to unbelievers for the purpose of showing them the truth of the Catholic religion. He resorted to psychological and moral as well as to intellectual arguments, wishing to reach the whole man. His Verità della fede (1767) is divided according to a threefold purpose, a structure not common in apologetical works of the time. For materialists he sought to prove, against the arguments of Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza, the existence of a personal God and the spirituality of the soul; for theists, he showed both the necessity of a revealed religion and the truth of the Christian religion; for Christians separated from the Church, he argued that the Catholic Church was the only Church of Christ authenticated by the signs of truth. He stressed the necessity of a supreme authority in the Church provided with the privilege of infallibility. This theme was developed in the Vindiciae pro suprema pontificis potestate contra Febronium, printed in 1768 under the pseudonym of Honorius de Honoriis. He brought decisive support to the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope, which Vatican Council I was to recognize. His Opera dommatica contro gli eretici pretesi riformati (1769) took the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent and expounded their theological import as opposed to Protestant doctrine. These studies show that Alphonsus was an excellent dogmatic theologian. In his Trionfo della Chiesa ossia istoria delle eresie colle loro confutazioni (1772) he traced the history of heresies and their refutation through the centuries from antiquity to Jansenius and Molinos. In his Condotta ammirabile della divina Providenza (1775) he expounded his views on the history of salvation and on the unity and perpetuity of the Church in the manner of the Discours sur l'histoire universelle of Bossuet, but in a manner that made his thought much more accessible to the generality of Christians.
Moral Works. A third of the writing of Alphonsus was devoted to moral theology, and this fitted smoothly into place in the ensemble of his pastoral and spiritual thought. Writing with an eye upon the daily pastoral necessities of the ministry, he elaborated his moral theology for the use of his religious and of priests engaged in pastoral work, especially that of the confessional. It complemented his spiritual doctrine inasmuch as it searched out the will of God in all the circumstances of life. His great work in the moral field was his Theologia moralis, which began as simple annotations on the Medulla theologiae moralis of H. busenbaum (1st ed., 1748); in the second edition (1753–55) it became more properly the work of Alphonsus himself, although it adhered to the plan of the Medulla and the Institutiones morales. With the appearance of the third edition (1757) the Theologia moralis in three volumes took on its definitive aspect. Alphonsus, however, labored unceasingly to perfect the successive editions (4th ed., 1760; 5th, 1763; 6th, 1767; 7th, 1772; 8th—which Alphonsus considered definitive—1779; 9th, 1785). From 1791 to 1905, the date of the critical edition by P. Gaude, there were 60 complete editions. In 1755 there appeared his Pratica del confessore per ben esercitare il suo ministero, which constituted the soul, so to speak, of his great work on moral theology. The Istruzione e pratica per un confessore (1757), translated into Latin under the title Homo apostolicus, was an original work, the most perfect, perhaps, of all the writings of the saint for its unity of tone and the firmness of its thought; it was intended as an example of what a manual of moral theology ought to be. Il confessore diretto per le confessioni della gente di compagna (1764) was written by the bishop of Sant' Agata for the priests of his diocese. A series of notes and "dissertations," 18 in all, devoted to probabilism and the exposition of his own system of morality, was published between 1749 and 1777. The most important of these was entitled Dell' uso moderato dell' opinione probabile (1765). Certain of these papers were written against the theories of Giovanni Vincenzo Patuzzi, OP, with whom Alphonsus engaged in vigorous controversy. The work of St. Alphonsus contained numerous citations, as did all the works of moral theology of the time. In the Theologia moralis more than 800 authors were cited, and the number of citations amounted to 70,000. All could not have been made at firsthand. No moralist after 1550 escaped Alphonsus' attention. His work, therefore, provides a complete panorama of the literature of moral theology of that time. His most immediate sources were St. Thomas Aquinas, Lessius, Sanchez, Castropalao, Lugo, Laymann, Bonacina, Croix, Roncaglia, Suarez, Soto, Collet, Concina, and most especially the Cursus moralis of the Salmanticenses.
Equiprobabilism. Alphonsus gave much time to the elaboration of his system, known as equiprobabilism, which sought to steer a middle course between probabilism and probabiliorism. Having used F. Genet (1640–1703), a probabiliorist, as his guide at the beginning of his missionary experience, Alphonsus was won over to ordinary probabilism in practice. But he was not satisfied with it. Beginning in 1749 he wrote a series of dissertations on the subject. His thought became definitively fixed between 1759 and 1765, during his controversy with Patuzzi, which proved to be a fruitful experience for Alphonsus and provided him with an occasion for the consolidation of his thought. From 1767 to 1778, when his literary activity came to an end, he was constrained to veil his thought somewhat because of the anti-Jesuit persecutions, but he did not modify it substantially. Equiprobabilism, opposed to either a lax or a rigorous moral position, was not a compromise between the two, but a higher equilibrium. In recognizing the obligation of the more probable opinion in favor of the law, Alphonsus recognized also the law as a moral value. Rejecting probabilism as a universally valid and mechanically applicable solution of cases of conscience, Alphonsus proclaimed the necessity of a personal decision of conscience. In the case in which two equiprobable opinions, one favoring the law and the other liberty, are presented, Alphonsus, in leaving a man free to make his own decision, affirmed at the same time the moral value of human liberty. Man, who is created to the image of God, imitates his Creator in doing good freely. In support of his system, St. Alphonsus appealed to E. amort and St. Thomas. A. G. Sertillanges has said of it: "Equiprobabilism, properly understood, can rightly pass for a Thomist solution" [La Morale de saint Thomas d'Aquin (Paris 1942) 401].
In Alphonsian moral theory the study of the concrete circumstances of action rules out the mechanical application of a system, however sound it may be. Always disposed to prefer reason to the authority of moralists, he resolved most of his cases in terms of intrinsic evidence and in the light of Christian charity and prudence. As a result of his labor the Christian world was presented with a compilation of truly sound moral opinion, equally removed from the extremities either of laxism or rigorism, scrupulously weighed by the conscience of a saint. This has been a brilliant service to the Church [M. Labourdette, Revue thomiste 50 (1950) 230].
Influence. The influence of St. Alphonsus on moral theology has proved durable, and the practical direction traced by him has been substantially adopted by the Church (Lanza-Palazzini). Among the major events in the history of the Church in the 19th century was the progressive rallying of moralists and of the clergy to the moral thinking of St. Alphonsus. In eliminating rigorism, in facilitating access to the Sacraments, he infused a new youth into Christianity. In France the penetration of Alphonsian thought was perhaps more rapid than elsewhere. Among its propagators in that country were Jean Marie de Lamennais; Bruno Lanteri, the apostle of Turin; and Cardinal Gousset, Archbishop of Reims, who evoked in 1831 the response of the Sacred Penitentiary favorable to Alphonsian moral theology. The Curé d'Ars mitigated his rigor after coming to know Liguorian principles. At the same time the Swiss, Belgians, Germans, and Spaniards welcomed this moral doctrine, the proclamation of St. Alphonsus as a Doctor of the Church lending encouragement to the movement. To the criticism of the system by A. Ballerini, SJ, the Redemptorists responded with a voluminous dossier, Vindiciae alfonsianae (1873). Among the manuals of moral theology written by Redemptorists were those of J. aertnys, C. Marc, and, in the U.S.A., konings. Many of the manuals used in the seminaries of Europe and America either adopt the Alphonsian system or are marked by its influence in their solutions of cases.
It can be said that the influence of St. Alphonsus on Catholicism in the 19th century was very generally and very deeply felt. What he had written contributed to the definition of the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and of the infallibility of the pope. He did much to shape the form that popular devotion took, especially the devotion toward the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary. His teaching on prayer reached even beyond the Church to thinkers such as Kierkegaard. He defended the Church against rationalism and enlightened despotism. Above all, he gave Jansenism in its practical form a blow from which it could not recover. His spirituality recalled the great message of the love of God for all men; his moral doctrine, inspired by the gospel, made it possible for Christians everywhere to deal with perplexities that had to be faced if they were to adjust successfully to the world in which they found themselves. "St. Alphonsus was more than a great personage of history. He is a symbol, and a very significant one" [H. X. Arquillière, Histoire illustrée de l'Eglise, v.2 (Geneva-Paris 1948) 196].
Feast: Aug. 2
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