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Casuistry

CASUISTRY.

From the Latin casūs (cases), casuistry is a method of practical reasoning that aims to identify the scope and force of moral obligations in the varied contexts of human action. While the golden era of casuistry belongs to the period 14501660, its origins as an intellectual outlook on moral decision-making can be traced back to ancient philosophy and to the legal traditions of medieval Europe. Aristotle, for instance, stressed the importance of an irreducibly practical method of moral reasoning that would be attentive to "the particulars" (ta kath' hekasta ) of cases. The Stoics also sought to provide detailed reasons as to how universal principles could be applied to particular cases. In addition to this, they bequeathed the idea of a natural law and a set of stock "casuistical examples," such as "Murderer at the Door" and "the Merchant of Rhodes," which would command the attention of European moralists for many centuries.

The development of a casuistical ethics would await the emergence of medieval canon law as set down by Gratian of Bologna (d. before 1159) and his interpreters, as well as the analysis by Scholastic theologians of the problems of human life as they affected the Christian conscience. Alongside canon lawyers, Scholastic thinkers considered cases of conscience (casūs conscientiae ) that required a sensitive analysis of their conflicting options. The casuistical tendencies inherent in medieval theology and law were further fortified by the stipulation of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) that all members of the faithful undergo auricular confession before a priest at least once a year. As a result of this development, medieval thought witnessed the advancement of a new genre of theological writing: the summa confessorum. These tracts were written for pastors hearing confession and contain detailed recommendations on the types of sin as well as their appropriate penitential tariffs. Well-known fifteenth-century manuals written by Angelo Carletti di Chivasso (14111495) and Sylvester Mazzolini (14601523) helped to condition the method adopted by later casuistical treatises.

Casuistry came of age in the sixteenth century. Building on the legacy of medieval moral thought, it sought to address the complexities of early modern life by means of restating the verities of the Christian tradition, while developing new theories of moral decision-making. There is a great diversity among the varieties of casuistical writing. On the one hand, there are speculative treatments of the practical problems of natural law and moral theology. An example of this tendency can be witnessed in the writings of Jesuit theologians Gabriel Vásquez (1549 or 15511604), Francisco Suárez (15481617), and Leonardus Lessius (15541623). This, however, might be said to contrast with other types of casuistical writing, where the intention of the author is wholly pastoral. Here the aim was to provide pithy and more accessible treatments of the basic problems of conscience, either for the benefit of those involved in the training of priestsa need that became pressing with the establishment of seminaries after the Council of Trent (15451563)or else for priests engaged in parochial work or missionary activity. Examples of this type of manual can be found in the writings of the Jesuits Franciscus Toletus (15341596) and Antonio Escobar y Mendoza (15891669).

Probabilism

A distinctive innovation of early modern casuistry was probabilism. Originally advanced by a Dominican theologian, Bartolomé de Medina (1527 or 15281580), the theory was later taken up by an assortment of Jesuit theologians. Put briefly, probabilism states that in a case of conscience, provided that both options for a course of action are "probable"that is, they can be justified by right reason, good argument, and sound authorityand that one alternative is more probable than the other, one is permitted to choose the "least probable" (minus probabilis ) alternative and is not required to act on the more probable option. Although upheld by many luminaries of early modern Scholastic theology, probabilism failed to convince the vast majority of sixteenth-and seventeenth-century thinkers that it could avoid laxism. Later confections of probabilism, especially those developed by the Cisterican Juan Caramuel Lobkowitz (16061682) and the Theatine cleric Antonino Diana (15861663), were held to be reprehensible theories that served to endow immoral acts with the token appearance of morality.

The close association of the Jesuit order with probabilism and a residual anti-Jesuit feeling in many quarters of Catholicism and Protestantism conspired to make the terms Jesuit, probabilist, and casuist synonymous in the European mind from the mid-seventeenth century onward. It was, however, powerful critiques of Jesuit moral theology that did most to alter the fortunes of casuistry and condemn it to years of decline. One of the best-known broadsides was advanced by Blaise Pascal (16231662), whose merciless Les lettres provinciales (16561657) dealt a near fatal blow to casuistry. Pascal's brilliant yet highly rhetorical tirade against the Jesuits sought to expose the putative inconsistencies and errors in their probabilistic method and its application to a wide range of moral questions.

Although Pascal's critique was largely judged to have been a success, it would be wrong to think that the production of works of casuistical ethics or an interest in its issues abruptly terminated after 1657. Even when attacked by an impressive array of detractors, ranging from Dominican supporters of "probabiliorism" (the view that one should always choose the more probable alternative in a case of conscience), Jansensist rigorists, and a hodgepodge of Anglican theologians and Puritan divines to secular moral philosophers, casuistry was still a noticeable feature of the eighteenth-century intellectual landscape, especially in Roman Catholic countries. During a time when European culture and philosophy were being changed as a result of the Enlightenment, the old casuistical methods were similarly refreshed and refashioned by thinkers such as St. Alfonso Maria de' Liguori (16961787), who sought to recast theories such as probabilism in order to take account of the preceding century of debate. Liguori's efforts ensured the continuation of vestiges of the casuistical tradition in Roman Catholic moral theology up to the Second Vatican Council (19621965).

Decline

While a case-method approach to moral theology can be found in some Anglican writers like Robert Sanderson (15871663) and Jeremy Taylor (16131667), it is noticeable that most philosophers and theologians in English-speaking countries eschewed probabilism and other theories of Roman Catholic casuistry. Their hostility to these ideas, however, did not prevent them from developing a Christian ethics that addressed its own understanding of cases of conscience. Puritan moralists like William Ames (15761633), William Perkins (15581602), and Richard Baxter (16151691) discussed the vagaries of conscience as they pertained to the practices of piety, while the aforementioned Anglicans, Sanderson and Taylor, and Joseph Hall (15741656), were at pains to stress the gulf that separated their treatment of the problems of morality from "papists" and other such undesirables. The effect of these developments was to sideline casuistical ethics within English-speaking moral theology for most of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the consequence that it had become invisible by the advent of the nineteenth.

The continuing decline of casuistry can also be witnessed in modern moral philosophy. As they began to express their independence from religion and theology, moral philosophers began to doubt the relevance of a theory of practical conduct indebted to religious values and principles. Further to this, the appeal to authority inherent in a theory like probabilism was now deemed to be authoritarian in an age smitten with ideas of individual autonomy and inalienable rights. For these reasons, traditional casuistry found little favor among philosophers. Thinkers such as Adam Smith (17231790) expressed their hostility with aplomb, while Immanuel Kant's (17241804) treatment of certain "Casuistical Questions" at the end of his Metaphysik der Sitten (1797) reveals the extent of the changes that had occurred within the discussion of casuistry from the mid-seventeenth century onward. For Kant, casuistry could only mean "applied ethics"; the method of the theologians had been debunked and abandoned.

This more neutral sense of casuistry as the "application of moral principles to particular cases" persisted up until the early 2000s, as can be witnessed in the isolated remarks on the subject by William Paley (17431805), Henry Sidgwick (18381900), and George Edward Moore (18731958). Apart from several historical studies that invariably upheld the critique of Pascal, twentieth-century thinkers were rarely inclined to study the claims of the casuistical tradition. This changed, however, with the publication in 1988 of the Abuse of Casuistry by Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin. They argued that, notwithstanding its colorful past, the old casuistical methods of the theologians could be transposed with great benefit to ongoing debates in bioethics. Jonsen and Toulmin offered a redescription of casuistry in terms of reasoning about "paradigm cases," a method that they deemed sufficient to fashion a viable notion of moral consensus. If not in moral philosophy, certainly in bioethics their work has been favorably received and continues to stimulate further work on a host of practical issues. Here, "casuistry" is deemed to be an important tool for making decisions of principle while respecting the requirements of particular cases. While Jonsen and Toulmin's portrayal of the casuistical tradition is controversialnot least in its eschewal of probabilism and readiness to concur with the basic ingredients of Pascal's questionable critiqueit is interesting that as a new century begins, the much maligned method of the theologians is enjoying something of a modest revival.

See also Philosophy, Moral ; Scholasticism .

bibliography

Jonsen, Albert, and Stephen Toulmin. The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Keenan, James F., and Thomas A. Shannon, eds. The Context of Casuistry. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1995.

Leites, Edmund, ed. Conscience and Casuistry in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Vallance, Edward, and Harald Braun, eds. Contexts of Conscience in Early Modern Europe, 15001700. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

M. W. F. Stone

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casuistry

casuistry (kăzh´yōōĬstrē) [Lat., casus=case], art of applying general moral law to particular cases. Although most often associated with theology (it has been utilized since the inception of Christianity), it is also used in law and psychology. The function of casuistry is to analyze motives so individual judgments can be made in accordance with an established moral code. The term is often used in a pejorative sense to indicate specious or equivocal reasoning.

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Casuistry

Casuistry. The art of applying principles of moral theology to particular instances (Lat., casus, ‘case’).

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