Origins of Casuistry

The earliest discussions of morality in Western philosophy reveal the tension between general moral norms and particular decisions. The Sophists of fifth-century Greece maintained that since no universal truths could be affirmed in moral matters, right and wrong depended entirely on the circumstances: ethics consisted in the rhetorical ability to persuade persons about "opportune" action. Plato devoted his Republic to a vigorous refutation of this thesis, placing moral certitude only in universal moral truths: ethics consisted in transcending particularities and grasping permanent ideals from which right choice could be deduced. Aristotle proposed that in ethical deliberations, which deal with contingent matters, formal demonstration was not possible. Rather, plausible argument would support probable conclusions. Ethics belongs, he maintained, not in the realm of scientific knowledge but in the domain of practical wisdom (phronesis). Phronesis is a knowledge of particular facts and is the "object of perception rather than science" (Nicomachean Ethics, VI. viii. 1142a). Criticism, interpretation, and amplification of these theses constitutes much of the history of moral philosophy. The Aristotelian viewpoint, which places moral certitude in the domain of practical judgments about what ought to be done in the actual circumstances of a situation, is the remote philosophical ancestor of the casuistry that developed in Western culture.

The Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106—43 b.c.e.) designed an approach to moral problems that would powerfully influence the casuistic authors of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Cicero, although a philosophical eclectic, inclined to Stoic thought in ethics. Drawing from the Stoics Panaetius and Posidonius and inspired by the Roman passion for practicality, he held that to be a virtuous person one must become "a good calculator of one's duty in the circumstances, so that by adding and subtracting considerations, we may see where our duty lies" (On Duties, I, 59). This adding and subtracting was done by offering and evaluating "probable reasons." The primary moral problem was the continual conflict between duty and utility, a conflict resolved only by examining the circumstances of cases. In his On Duties, Cicero proposed a number of cases, some drawn from the Stoic philosophers and others from Roman history. Each case, representing an apparently insoluble conflict between duty and utility, was then analyzed to show how, if circumstances were taken into account, one could discern one's moral duty. Cicero also espoused the Stoic doctrine of natural law and often referred to its overarching precepts in his analyses of cases; but the problem, he affirmed, was how these precepts were to be interpreted in context. On Duties remained one of the most studied texts of antiquity through the subsequent centuries. By its organization of material and its methods of reasoning, On Duties powerfully influenced the way in which morality was conceived and taught in the Western world, and thus sanctioned subsequent casuistry.

While moral discourse always moves between the broad generalizations of principle and the particular decisions made in specific circumstances, religions that are monotheistic and moral in nature face a particular problem in moving from the general to the particular. The three "religions of the

Book"—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have in common a Scripture in which the word of God is recorded; that is, in which God speaks to believers in concrete and specific language. Also, the divine message contains imperatives that enjoin moral obligations, sometimes stated in broad terms and sometimes referring to specific forms of behavior. It becomes necessary for believers to understand how the broad general imperatives apply to the great variety of daily life, and to learn how specific commands expressed in the language and cultural setting of the past are to be followed in the circumstances of later times. Thus, each religion of the Book developed a moral teaching that begins with affirmations from the divine text, moves through traditional interpretations of that text by the saintly and the scholarly, and comes, finally, to the task of bringing text and interpretation to bear on particular circumstances of time and place. Each of these religions, then, has developed a casuistry or manner of working at the task of concrete application. The particular forms of Jewish and Islamic casuistry are discussed elsewhere; this entry will relate the development of casuistry in Western Christianity.

Christianity introduced a powerful and original morality into the Greco-Roman world. The thought of its founder, Jesus, both reflected the dedication of Jewish law to the sovereignty of God and refashioned it to include a demanding commitment to himself as Lord as well as self-sacrifice for one's neighbors, spelled out in strenuous, often paradoxical commands. His early disciples, seeking to follow these commands, preached an ascetic repudiation of "the ways of the world." This meant that the moderate virtues prized by the pagans among whom the early Christians lived were often deprecated and the vices of pagan life, which even pagan authors often criticized, were reviled. The morality of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Gospels, which condemned many attitudes and practices common in pagan culture and demanded adherence to self-discipline and altruism, posed profound difficulties to believers. How were they to live in a world that held different values? How were the "hard commandments" of the Gospels to be carried out in daily life? These problems perplexed Paul of Tarsus, the most influential of Jesus' first followers, whose efforts to answer them, especially in his First Letter to the Corinthians, adumbrated the work of later Christian casuists. In addition, early Christian thinkers were suspicious of the philosophical thought of the Greco-Roman world. However, by the third century, many Christian scholars had come to accept that Christian belief and "pagan" philosophy were compatible in important respects. The authors of the patristic era (second to sixth centuries) reflected on Christian moral problems with the help of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. The framework of virtues, natural law, and practical reasoning elucidated in these and other pagan authors were modified and incorporated by Christian authors and teachers. They sought, as did their pagan mentors, to understand the nature of the moral life but were concerned, above all, with providing practical advice about how the faithful should live a Christian life in a non-Christian world. Many Christian authors used Cicero's On Duties as a model for treatises on morality: St. Ambrose of Milan (339-397), friend and teacher of the great St. Augustine, also titled a book On Duties and, closely following Cicero, attempted to refashion the latter's thoughts within the perspective of Christian faith.

Christian teaching does not merely require belief; it strongly stresses the importance of morally correct behavior. While killing, deception, and adultery are condemned as sins, and charity, self-denial, and honesty are commanded, inevitably questions arise about what sorts of behavior belong in these general categories. Early Christians were intensely aware that failure to follow the rigorous commandments of their faith separated them from God and from their fellow believers. The practice of confession of one's sins before the community of believers and the imposition of penance that would once again reconcile the sinner to God and to the community became common in the early centuries. By the eighth century, private confession to a priest, who had the ecclesiastical authority to absolve the repentant sinner from guilt, had been introduced. This practice of sacramental confession and penance enhanced the need for clear descriptions of the moral dimensions of various behaviors and of the ways in which various circumstances excused or aggravated the seriousness of those behaviors. From the eighth to the twelfth centuries, educators of the clergy produced penitential books that presented systematic catalogs of sinful and virtuous actions under various typical circumstances (e.g., the killing of another out of vengeance, in fear, in ignorance, etc.). The motives, the consequences, and the social status of the agent were important considerations in evaluating the responsibility and seriousness of behavior. Appropriate penances were assigned in view of the gravity of the sin.

These penitential volumes, the earliest examples of which came from the Irish and Welsh churches, became widespread throughout Europe. In the course of four centuries, their content became more elaborate and their format more systematic. The first were collections of crudely described cases with simple distinctions, elaborated with biblical or patristic quotations. Later examples incorporated advancing biblical and theological scholarship and, above all, the work of the canon lawyers who, since the rediscovery of Roman law in the eleventh century, had exercised increasing influence over the formulation of church law as it touched the organization and practices of Christian life. The work of Peter the Chanter (d. 1197), Alain of Lille (d. c. 1203), and Thomas Chobham (c.1200) were filled with well-described cases of moral perplexity, analyzed with reference to biblical texts, maxims from the fathers of the church, and the growing body of church law. These books were not only for the education of the parish priest but also to guide the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the formulation of policy and the making of judicial decisions. Some of these books were written for the instruction of the laity in making a proper confession and leading a good life.

During the twelfth through fourteenth centuries, great theological scholars such as Abelard, Peter Lombard, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham elaborated systematic treatises or summas in which they attempted to present the full range of Christian belief and to support it with rational argument. In doing so, they placed the questions of morality within larger frameworks of interpretation and justification, drawing heavily on philosophers of antiquity. These treatises did not discuss cases, as did the penitential literature, but created theoretical foundations for the discussion of cases. The relevance of scriptural admonitions, natural law, custom, and civil and canon law to moral decisions was explored in great depth; the relevance of principle, motive, and circumstances was carefully examined. These theologians, while not casuists, greatly influenced the next generations of casuists.

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