Casuistic Writings

Through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, many books of cases of conscience were published. The Summa Angelica (1480) and the Summa Sylvestrina (1516) were the most famous. However, these works were staid, unimaginative, and formalistic; many authors simply plagiarized from more celebrated authors. But casuistry properly speaking came into its own in the mid-sixteenth century. In 1556 a Spanish canonist, Martin Azpilcueta, published A Handbook for Confessors and Penitents, which revitalized the literature of cases of conscience. This book abandoned the practice of listing moral problems alphabetically and adopted a less frequently used device of organizing various sins under the Decalogue. This allowed for a more flexible and nuanced treatment and for comparison between various categories of moral behavior. Above all, it introduced the analysis of issues from the more clear and obvious to the more complex, a method that later casuists would exploit and that is described below as reasoning by paradigm and analogy.

Azpilcueta's style was widely copied. The Jesuit order, founded in 1534, was dedicated to the work of moral education and guidance of conscience, especially in sacramental confession. The Jesuits introduced Azpilcueta's approach into their own training of priests as ministers of the sacrament of penance. They published many volumes of cases of conscience. John Azor's Moral Instruction (1600) was the preeminent work. Jesuit casuistry was, in general, careful, scholarly, sensible, and practical. It was also comprehensive. While the general rubric of the Decalogue was used to organize materials, the duties of various occupations, the obligations of princes and bishops, and the moral dimensions of diplomacy, Jesuit casuistry also dealt with economics, warfare, and exploration. It has been suggested that the origins of modern economics, sociology, and political science lie in the work of the seventeenth-century casuists. Certainly, their advice was often sought by popes and kings in matters that we would today consider political or economic rather than moral. But in the seventeenth century, the moral questions on a king's or pope's conscience often concerned politics and finance.

The seventeenth-century casuists not only analyzed and resolved complex cases. They also elaborated speculative positions, writing treatises on topics such as justice, usually as prolegomena to their analyses of cases of government or trade. Among the central speculative questions was that of the degree of moral certitude required to act in good conscience, that is, how sure a person must be that a casuistic resolution of a moral problem is the correct one before acting upon it. A vigorous intellectual debate on this question took place in the last half of the seventeenth century between the Jesuits and their theological rivals, the Dominicans, and among the Jesuits themselves. From that debate, the position of the leading Jesuit theologians emerged as dominant. That position, probabilism, maintained that a person was entitled to act in good conscience if there were probable arguments in favor of the choice; probable arguments are those supported by solidly reasoned opinion and defended by respected authors. Probabilism, while defended with elegant argument and sanctioned by ecclesiastical authority, remained a contentious issue and led to the tarnishing of the casuists' reputation in the seventeenth century, since many critics accused them of being able to find any probable argument to justify their preferences.

The Jesuits were by no means the only authors of casuistry; many other Catholic theologians were so engaged. Anglican divines produced clear and sensible books of casuistry; and since most works of classical casuistry have not been translated from their original Latin, Anglican casuistical books offer the best access to casuistry for English readers (see Perkins). Lutherans were not well disposed toward casuistic analysis: Luther had cast into the flames the Summa Angelica, calling it "Summa Diabolica." Still, the Jesuits attained the reputation of being the premier casuists. Since they were deeply involved in the religious and secular politics of the era, they won enemies on every side and their casuistry appeared to many to serve their own interests rather than the good conscience of their penitents. In particular, the genius mathematician Blaise Pascal found distressing the Jesuits' opposition to Jansenism, a particularly rigoristic Catholic theology that he favored; and at the urging of other Jansenists, he set out to destroy the Jesuits' anti-Jansenist arguments.

Pascal's Provincial Letters (1656) was a brilliant and wittily written refutation of the Jesuit arguments against Jansenist theology and, in particular, of the casuistry that, he claimed, made a mockery of Christian moral beliefs. He gave numerous examples of Jesuit resolution of cases of conscience and found them tainted by a probabilism that bred moral laxity, intellectual sophistry, and disguised heresy. Despite the fact that Pascal took cases out of context and chose only those that suited his polemical purposes, his diatribe became immensely popular. At best, it can be said that his critique demolished not casuistry itself but the lax casuistry that was counted reprehensible even by the Jesuits whom he accused. It was not only Pascal's popular book that tarnished casuistry's reputation. Certain casuists, few of them Jesuits, did take the skill at case analysis to an extreme: Almost any argument could be presented plausibly and fine distinctions could be drawn to make, as Plato said of the Sophists, "the worse appear the better." Casuistry and sophistry became invidious synonyms, as did casuistry and Jesuitry. And casuistic argument, once quite liberal, became legalistic in tone and content, promoting a morality of observance rather than of conscience. Finally, casuistry was falling out of step with the prevailing intellectual progress. The interest in intellectual systems, seen in Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Baruch Spinoza, and Hugo Grotius, made the casuists' interest in particular cases appear disorderly and without solid foundation. By the end of the seventeenth century, casuistry was discredited in the European intellectual world. The word casuistry was invented as a term of abuse (earlier the word casista was used merely to describe a scholar who presented cases of conscience). Bayle's Dictionary (1697) defined casuistry as the "art of quibbling with God." At the close of the eighteenth century, Kant, who was familiar with traditional casuistry as a way of teaching ethics, found the only interesting question to be how to transform the limited and probable maxims of moral discourse into categorical certitude.

Casuistic writing continued through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries within the Roman Catholic tradition, particularly in the education of the clergy, but it was a desiccated casuistry, wary of innovative solutions and bound by ecclesiastical pronouncements on moral matters. The work of the French Jesuit J. Gury (1862) was representative of the fading tradition; a journal titled The Casuist, published for American Catholic clergy (1906-1917), shows the tradition at its nadir. Still, casuistry continued to serve the practice of sacramental penance for which it had been created. Outside this tradition, remnants of casuistry lingered in the teaching of ethics. The textbooks of the time included fragments of Aristotle and Cicero and many of the classical cases, loosely grouped around virtues and duties. In 1870, revolted by the untidy and incoherent presentations of these texts, Henry Sidgwick, professor of casuistical divinity at Cambridge University (he had his chair renamed "moral philosophy"), undertook to construct a systematic presentation of an ethical theory, utilitarianism, in which tenets were tightly argued, inconsistencies rectified, and opponents refuted. The progress of moral philosophy from Sidgwick's time until recently has been toward greater articulation of theory and away from analysis of cases of conscience.

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