By the turn of the year 1546, Martin Luther had been suffering decades of ill health, including vertigo, tinnitus, kidney and bladder stones, and, near the end, heart disease. Some scholars believe that his laundry list of internal complaints likely was exacerbated by the stress of disputes with the Vatican over his heresies and with other Reformers he believed were engaging in heresies.
Martin Luther was indeed a contentious man, so this theory makes some sense. Not mentioned as often, though, is that Luther was, first and foremost, a man at war with himself. His writings are overflowing with examples of his internal struggles with sin and grace, but let’s look at one relatively calm reflection he gave on his early religious life with the Augustinians:
I have seen many work themselves down to the bones in their hungry effort to obtain peace of conscience. But the harder they tried the more they worried. Especially in the presence of death they were so uneasy that I have seen murderers die with better grace and courage. . . .
When I was a monk I tried ever so hard to live up to the strict rules of my order. I used to make a list of my sins, and I was always on the way to confession, and whatever penances were enjoined upon me I performed religiously. In spite of it all, my conscience was always in a fever of doubt. The more I sought to help my poor stricken conscience the worse it got. The more I paid attention to the regulations the more I transgressed them.
Scrupulosity is a spiritual malady in which the afflicted person is tortured by thoughts of sin. He is often afraid that he has committed sin even when he has not and compulsively catalogues his sins and goes to confession frequently. The word comes from the Latin for a sharp stone, which acts as a weapon on the conscience. Some experts believe that scrupulosity may be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), in which sufferers are afflicted with obsessive thoughts and a compulsive need for rituals and checking.
Although scrupulosity was known in Luther’s time, its full effects weren’t well understood and modern treatment options for OCD weren’t available. Redemptorist priest and expert in the spiritual direction of people with scruples Fr. Thomas Santa writes that the emotional pain of scruples can cause physical illness because “emotional pain [finds] an outlet in the body. . . . [It doesn’t] always express itself in thought and word, but it [can] express itself through emotional and physical suffering.”
In Luther’s case, he ultimately tried to find relief for his scruples by denying the efficacy of confession, penance, and indulgences altogether, claiming that faith alone in Christ is all that is required for a Christian. It is no coincidence that his first attack on the Church was on the issue of indulgences, which are linked to confession. (One of the requirements to receive an indulgence is confession of sin.)
Luther’s scruples caused untold, lasting damage to the Church. If we add in the damage caused by the rationalist philosophies of the eighteenth-century—“reason alone” being a direct reaction to Luther and the Reformers’ assertion of “faith alone”—then his scruples could be said to have profoundly damaged Western civilization and the world as a whole.
Could this tragedy have been averted? Was there a form of treatment available even in Luther’s day that might have alleviated his moral agonies and spared the world the Protestant Reformation and all that followed it?
St. Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Redemptorists and the saint whose feast we celebrate today, knew well the effects of scrupulosity on the human soul. He suffered from scrupulosity his entire life—and its effects on his physical health too. According to Fr. Santa, Alphonsus was prone to bouts of exhaustion, one episode being severe enough that these days it would be called a nervous breakdown. He also suffered from insomnia and stomach problems.
Like Luther, Alphonsus found some comfort in faith. But, unlike Luther, Alphonsus didn’t rely on faith alone. He depended on the help provided by the Church, particularly confession and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.
Alphonsus had his own struggle with confession. Fr. Santa notes that “from Alphonsus’s own admission . . . he exhausted most of the confessors in Naples trying to come to a decision with certitude.” But the major difference for Alphonsus is that he trusted his confessors—and he urged those struggling with scrupulosity to do the same.
The suffering that affects scrupulous souls comes, not from the fact that they have a scruple about what they are doing, but from the fear that what they are doing might be sinful and that they are, in fact, committing sin. But they should realize that whoever obeys a competent and holy director does not, in fact, act in doubt but acts with the greatest certainty that one can have here on earth, namely, the certainty which comes from the divine word of Jesus Christ who declares that whoever listens to the instructions of his ministers listens to himself.
Luther, you’ll remember, talked about how he was “always on the way to confession, and whatever penances were enjoined upon me I performed religiously.” Evidently, though, he did not trust his confessors—either in the absolution given in the sacrament or the counsel offered regarding the sins he assumed he was committing. Had he listened to them, trusted that they were acting on Christ’s behalf, believed in the graces that flow from the sacrament, then perhaps the Reformation might never have happened.
Alphonsus Liguori’s story ended much differently. He was canonized a saint in 1839, named a patron of confessors and moral theologians, and ultimately became a Doctor of the Church. In his holy career, Alphonsus participated in the reform of the Church in his own way—one that did not seek to tear down the Church for its inability to soothe his troubled soul but rather kept faith in its divine mission to bring peace and salvation to all.
Image credit: Giuseppe Antonio Lomuscio