The History of the Heresies of St. Alphonsus published after 147 years

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After 147 years the History of the Heresy of Saint Alphonsus is published: the contents of the work and the review of the volume by Fr. Vincenzo La Mendola CSsR

SANT’ALFONSO MARIA DE LIGUORI, History of the Heresies with their refutations, edited by Alessio Celletti, Phronesis Editor, Palermo 2022, pp. 533, € 37.00.

It is positively surprising to notice in the window of a Catholic bookshop in Rome a work of St. Alphonsus, no longer reprinted since 1875: the History of the Heresies, a topic that is always current and investigated from various perspectives in Catholic historiography, up to the present day.

The Alphonsian work belongs to that genre, little known and to date less studied, which includes a rich section of the book production of the Founder of the Redemptorists: the theological-apologetic works. In this regard, the historian Francesco Chiovaro underlines: “the last quarter of the nineteenth century marks the end of the publishing success of this type of Alphonsian literature” (Synchronicity and diachrony in the tradition in S. Alfonso Maria de Liguori, in Proceedings of the International Conference for the Bicentenary of the saint’s death, Florence 1990, 139-160, pp. 147-148), which instead had a great resonance between the end of the eighteenth and beyond the first half of the nineteenth century, mainly in Italy.

That of 1875 is in fact the twenty-first edition, published by Marietti of Turin, which, on several occasions, had republished, in the course of the nineteenth century, all together (Opera omnia) and/or individually the works of the Holy Doctor. The edition referred to close the circle of the publication of his dogmatic-erudite works, as they are indicated according to a different classification. No publication of the work, to our knowledge, appears in the long twentieth century. It was 147 years before the triumph of the Church or History of the Heresies with their refutations – this is the original title – could have a contemporary edition.

Alphonsus drew up his History while he was in full maturity, as bishop of Sant’Agata de ‘Goti, completing it over a three-year period (1769-1771), as can be seen from his correspondence, to which we will refer to understand the genesis and the underlying motivations.

The first edition came out in Naples in 1772, from the printing house of Gianfrancesco Paci. To the author, as he himself reported in some of his letters, it had literally cost “blood”, “more years of toil” and “great regrets” (St. Alphonsus to Pietro Paolo Blasucci, 14 May 1772 and Giambattista Remondini, 15 June 1772). Loaded with ailments and at 77 years old, it had undergone a considerable effort: not only for the consultation of “so many books that I had to read to do this work of mine” (St. Alphonsus to Giambattista Remondini,12, July 1772), but due to the severe censorship to which it was subjected by the pro-Jansenist Giuseppe Simioli (1712-1779), theologian and Neapolitan canon: who “took away many things, but finally gave me the approval” (St. Alphonsus to Pietro Paolo Blasucci, 14 May 1772), and for the additions and corrections that he was forced to make to the text, in its second edition (in three volumes), made in 1773 in Bassano del Grappa.

He forced to a subsequent and demanding work of re-examination and filing of the text, from the height of his experience, affirmed with serene awareness “that the writer must escape clear and certain criticisms, because it is then impossible to escape all criticism and all the misunderstandings that can come to everyone’s head “(St. Alphonsus to a priest friend of his, August 1772). To facilitate its publication in the Kingdom, Alphonsus had devised a clever coup of hand: to dedicate the work to Bernardo Tanucci, Knight of the Royal Order of San Gennaro and first Secretary of State. With shrewd intuition he “boldly threw his work into the arms of the patron saint of censors, congratulating him above all for having fought bad books!” century of enlightenment, Città Nuova, Rome 1982, pp. 717-718).

The intent was not to rewrite the history of all heresies in an analytical form, but, “to show that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true one among all other churches” (p. 1) and to create “a ‘singular and desired work by all, not done by others before me “, as Alphonsus himself specified to his publisher, to whom, moreover, while still in the full phase of elaboration, he communicated the criteria adopted for the research and drafting of the text: “I will write in my concise style all the most memorable facts, taking them from the latest authors who wrote about them” (St. Alphonsus to Giambattista Remondini, January 19 and April 8, 1870).

With the foresight that was his own, Monsignor De Liguori had conceived it as “a summarized history” of all heresies (Letter of St. Alphonsus to Giambattista Remondini, 12, July 1772), “very useful not only for the clergy but for every class of people, especially speaking for history; while in this work of mine there is a short summary of what many ancient and modern authors say in many volumes. Here there is everything in brief, but not so short, as some little books do: here is in brief all the substance of the most famous facts; and this was my significant effort “(St. Alphonsus to Giambattista Remondini,15 June 1772). The idea of ​​conceiving such a specific apologetic work “for every class of people” was bold and absolutely modern, allowing the average reader of his time to enter a cultural sphere that until then had remained exclusively the prerogative of erudite clergymen and of a small class of intellectuals. Not secondary but consistent with its principles, in matters of books and recipients, the choice to write it entirely in the vernacular was revealed at the same time.

The courageous publishing initiative to re-enter the History of Heresies in the contemporary publishing circuit is by Phronesis Editor, connected to the Thomas International Center Italia, based in Palermo. The publisher wanted to place it at the beginning of the Christian Doctrine series, a choice that, in addition to denoting a new interest in “a historiographical work with a markedly apologetic character”, brings to the attention of today’s readers a classic of modern apologetics, almost ignored.

The work is edited by Alessio Celletti, under the supervision of Adriano Virgili, and reports the definitive text of Saint Alphonsus of 1773, which appeared in all subsequent editions. In the introduction, after having presented the intent of the Author, Celletti places the reader in the immediate historical context in which the book was compiled and published, helping him to understand the reasons that inspired its creation and providing the results of his analysis. Of the text, in a personal definition: “In all respects, therefore, the History of heresies can be identified as a taxonomic list of heretical ideas and the histories of movements associated with them, from the dawn of Christianity to the eighteenth century” (Introduction, I).

The author is presented as a “most fervent defender of Catholic doctrine and tradition”, an aspect that can best be traced in the second part of the work, consisting of the so-called refutations. In them “St. Alphonsus proceeds precisely to a very accurate and extremely diligent work of corroboration of Catholic theses and dismantling of heterodox theses, showing that he has a certain enviable confidence with the sources of doctrine” (Introduction, II). It is also noted that the overwhelming majority of the sources used by the Saint “are undoubtedly of the Catholic side”, but not only, since – highlights the curator – “The picture would be partial if it were not pointed out that St. Alphonsus in any case also uses the contribution of writers of ecclesiastical history on whom the suspicion of a not exactly mirrored intellectual conduct in the Catholic sense hovers “, an aspect that highlights the breadth of his cultural interests and the breadth of his readings on the subject, manifesting himself not only as an accredited apologist modern Catholic, but – an element of great relevance – as a writer of broad views, capable of intercepting among his own sources, authors not universally recognized by the severe Catholic criticism / censorship for their positions.

If the first part of the Work is rather compiling, due to a large amount of information, dates and characters that it places in chronological sequence, demonstrates the Author’s ability to grasp “the substance” of the facts and to render them in a harmonious and pleasant from a literary point of view, the second part reveals the rhetorical art used by Alphonsus – a former lawyer – in the construction of the refutation, and his “sharpness and meticulousness with which the text of the work is accompanied by bibliographic notes of the author himself: a sign of an incipient critical rigour that will find a progressive and inevitable affirmation in the historiographical practice of the following decades”( Introduction, III).

The text of the Work is reproduced in its entirety, maintaining the original form, with the sole addition of the notes, affixed by Saint Alphonsus, in the text and in brackets. The footnotes (723 in all!) Instead, are by the editor and report the translation of the Latin quotations, with attention to the scriptural ones, from the CEI version of the Bible (2008), which do not always correspond in the literal translation to the text of the Vulgate to which the Author referred to.

The volume in its last pages (pp. 528-533) is accompanied by a brief profile of St. Alphonsus, a panoramic presentation of his book production and a concluding reflection on the “broad and profound” influence of St. Alphonsus on European thought of his time and on 19th century Catholicism, permeating its spirituality and the practice of devotion.

The size of the volume (28 × 22 cm), the elegant editorial layout, the distribution of the text in the layout, and the choice of characters, make it pleasant to read and favour its study.

We hope that the present edition of the History of Heresies will be the first “prophetic” attempt to overcome the editorial oblivion, which for too long has affected the theological-apologetic works of St. Alphonsus, arousing new attention to this genre: a perspective so far little explored, from which it is possible to better understand the richness of the contribution that doctor Zelantissimus has brought to dogmatic theology and modern apologetics.

Vincenzo La Mendola C.Ss.R.

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