views updated May 29 2018



Casuistry , a term derived from the Latin word meaning "event, occasion, occurrence" and in later Latin, "case, " was coined in the seventeenth century to refer pejoratively to the practice described by contemporary Christian theologians as "cases of conscience" (casus conscientiae ). Today the word might be defined as the method of analyzing and resolving instances of moral perplexity by interpreting general moral rules in light of particular circumstances. This entry will relate the origins and development of casuistry in Western culture, its decline, and its revival as a method of ethical analysis, particularly in bioethics.

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.

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.

The Practical Need for Casuistry

Casuistry then almost disappeared from the formal academic disciplines that study moral discourse. However, in the 1960s, a number of important moral questions began to trouble the American conscience, and moral philosophers were spurred to attend to the practical application of their discipline. The war in Vietnam required many to examine their consciences concerning support of and participation in what they felt was an immoral war. At the same time, the civil rights movement stimulated consciences concerning discrimination and racial injustice. The analytic moral philosophy current in academic circles had little advice to offer. Even the widely accepted and elaborate utilitarian theory seemed to lead to no firm conclusions.

The emerging interest in the ethics of medical and healthcare also opened vistas for a new casuistry. Medical care is about cases: the illness and the treatment of particular persons with particular diseases. Philosophers and theologians who engaged in this work had initially tried to bring the standard ethical theories to the analysis of medical problems, but they found themselves discussing cases, not theories, and felt the need for an approach that would stay closer to the particulars of the case under discussion than did the standard theories. Above all, they realized that cases were being discussed not merely to elucidate the meaning of concepts but also to arrive at a resolution: physicians, nurses, and patients were interested in what moral philosophy had abandoned: answers to practical moral perplexity. By the late 1970s, talk of "case method" had become common in bioethics. At the same time, ethical issues in business, government, and journalism seemed to call for study of individual cases rather than flights into ethical theory. Also, influential moral philosophers were beginning to criticize the dominance of moral theory in practical ethics and to call for approaches that were more concrete than speculative.

Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin published The Abuse of Casuistry in 1988. Aware that many were interested in inventing a "case method" for ethics, they hoped to show that such a method had been invented long ago and that, although discredited and seemingly outmoded, classical casuistry had much to offer modern ethicists. Case method in ethics might be similar in many respects to the case method in Anglo-American common law, which had developed in parallel with classical casuistry. Both the common law, about which much research has been done, and casuistry, which has been invisible to the scholarly world for several centuries, need to be explored if a case method for ethics, of "morisprudence, " is to be re-created. These authors attempted to restore casuistry to intellectual respectability. After a historical survey of the rise and fall of casuistry, they contrast it with current approaches to moral philosophy and define it as follows:

[T]he analysis of moral issues, using procedures of reasoning based on paradigms and analogies, leading to the formulation of expert opinion about the existence and stringency of particular moral obligations, framed in terms of rules and maxims that are general but not universal or invariable, since they hold good with certainty only in the typical conditions of the agent and circumstances of the case. (p. 257)


The term methodology may be too formal a word to describe how casuistry works. The casuists of the past left almost no formal description of their way of working; the casuists of the present, pressed by their critics based in moral philosophy, are still asking themselves questions about methodology. Still, certain characteristics of the casuistic approach can be noted. These characteristics appear to have their origins in the classical discipline of rhetoric rather than in philosophy as such. The historical casuists had, like all educated persons of their time, been educated thoroughly in rhetoric. Aristotle and Cicero, the authors from whom they learned rhetoric, also taught them ethics. Classical rhetoric was defined as having a moral purpose: the persuasion of persons toward right and just action. Indeed, the classical books of rhetoric, because they were so rich in comments about and examples of moral behavior, were often used as texts in ethics. In the centuries during which casuistry flourished, moral philosophy was not a clearly defined discipline. Thus, it is not surprising to find the historical casuists implicitly using the techniques of rhetoric in their analysis of cases of conscience. Both rhetoric and casuistry had morally correct attitudes and action as their ultimate goal.

Two characteristics of rhetorical technique are particularly important for casuistry: topics and the comparison of paradigm and analogy. Rhetoricians taught that discourse in general could be divided into a set of common ideas, such as "causality, " "temporal sequence, " and so on, which they called "topics." Each of these topics had sets of definitions and forms of argumentation that were invariant. Also, each special realm of discourse, such as discourse about politics, art, or economics, has its own set of "special topics, " the features of the field that must be understood and discussed if an adequate argument is to be made about what should be done. A casuistic approach to an ethical problem, then, requires that the field of discourse be analyzed to designate the invariant features. For example, it has been suggested that the topics of clinical ethics are: (1) medical indications, (2) patient preferences, (3) quality of life, and (4) contextual features, such as costs of care and allocation of resources (Jonsen, Siegler, and Winslade). Each of these topics has certain definitions, maxims, and arguments that must be taken into account in discussion of any case. The particular circumstances of time, place, personal characteristics, various behaviors, and so on that are the details of any case are viewed in the light of these topics.

Once the particular case is described by its circumstances and topics, casuistical analysis seeks to place this case into a context of similar cases. The classical casuists were accustomed to line up cases of similar sorts, so that cases describing various sorts of homicide, for example, were aligned in order that the similarities and differences between cases would become clear. This enabled the casuist to see those cases in which the moral principles and maxims appeared to lead to an unambiguous resolution. Thus, the prohibition against killing another human being seemed most obviously to hold if the circumstances described a vicious, unprovoked attack on an unoffending person; the prohibition would allow an exception if the circumstances described a killing that resulted from that unoffending person's self-defense against a lethal attack. This technique of lining up cases, rather than seeing them in isolation, is the essence of casuistical analysis. It is called by some authors the technique of paradigm analogy: The paradigm case is the case in which circumstances allow moral maxims and principles to be seen as unambiguously relevant to the resolution of the case; the analogies are those cases in which particular circumstances justify exceptions and qualifications of the moral principles. A high degree of assurance, or moral certitude, pertains to the resolution of paradigm cases, while varying degrees of moral probability, or probabilism, attach to the resolution of analogous cases.

Finally, the resolution of each case depends on what Aristotle called phronesis, or moral wisdom: the perception of an experienced and prudent person that, in these circumstances and in light of these maxims, this is the best possible moral course. As one commentator on modern casuistry has written, "for casuistry, moral truth resides in the details … the meaning and scope of moral principles is determined contextually through the interpretation of factual situations in relation to paradigm cases" (Arras, p. 37).

Bioethics is the most prominent field in which casuistry is beginning to be reintroduced as a method for ethical analysis. This is not surprising, since a strong interest of bioethics is the clinical care of patients, and many cases that came to the early attention of bioethicists involved life-and-death decisions arising from the use of new medical technologies. Cases about whether life-supporting technologies should or should not be continued for particular patients lend themselves to casuistic analysis. The differing circumstances of individual patients, the topics (the significant categories into which a medical-ethical decision can be factored), and the maxims (such as "do no harm" or "respect the patient's informed choices") are each in their own way crucial to the resolution of any case. The placing of the case in a lineup of paradigm and analogy, from the most obvious— in which the patient is brain dead, or continued care is manifestly futile—to the problematic, in which diminished quality of life or unclear preferences are at issue, allows for discretionary judgment between cases (Jonsen). This sort of casuistry can also be applied to questions of healthcare policy, such as those surrounding the various programs proposed for allocation of resources, although relatively little of such analysis has been done.

Casuistry, then, keeps moral reflection close to cases. Neither classical nor modern casuistry repudiates principles: Casuistry is not merely another name for situationism or contextualism. Rather, principles are seen to be relevant to cases in varying degrees: In some cases, principles will rule unequivocally; in others, exceptions and qualifiers will be appropriate. Modern casuists dislike the description of casuistry as "applied ethics, " since they explicitly repudiate the notion that an ethical theory must be elaborated and then "applied to" the circumstances of the case. Still, the relationship between cases and ethical theory is unclear and poses the principal speculative problem that casuists and moral philosophers must ponder, just as the historical casuists pondered the problem of the certitude of practical judgment. On the one hand, casuistry is not simply applied ethical theory; on the other, it is not simply immersion in the factual circumstances of cases, which would reduce it to situationism. Casuistry is not tied to any single theory of ethics but can be comfortable with selected elements of multiple theories. For example, a casuistic argument might draw on utilitarian, deontological, and contractual justifications in a single case. Also, the designation of topics and the selection of paradigms have theoretical presuppositions. Finally, the normative nature of principles and maxims, which must be clarified in order to specify the obligatory nature of casuistic resolutions, requires reference to theory. Casuistry, then, is not "theory free" but is rather, as one commentator has suggested, "theory modest" (Arras, p. 41). Theories, for contemporary casuistry, are not mutually exclusive, a priori foundations for practical ethical discourse but limited and complementary perspectives that illuminate practical judgment. Much work remains to be done on the relationship between theory and practical judgment. Still, as suits the style of casuistry through its history, it can grapple effectively with difficult cases even though all speculative and theoretical questions about its methods and presuppositions have not yet been answered.

albert r. jonsen (1995)

SEE ALSO: Bioethics; Conscience; Conscience, Rights of; Ethics: Normative Ethical Theories; Narrative; Natural Law; Principlism; Responsibility


Arras, John D. 1991. "Getting Down to Cases: The Revival of Casuistry in Bioethics." Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 16: 29–51.

Carson, Ronald A. 1986. "Case Method." Journal of Medical Ethics 12(1): 36–39.

Gury, J. 1862. Casus conscientiae in Praecipuas Quaestiones, Theologiae Moralis, 1st edition. Lepuy: Marchesson.

Jonsen, Albert R. 1991. "Casuistry as Methodology in Clinical Ethics." Theoretical Medicine 12(4): 295–307.

Jonsen, Albert R.; Siegler, Mark; and Winslade, William. 1992. Clinical Ethics: A Practical Approach to Ethical Decisions in Clinical Medicine, 3rd edition. New York: Macmillan.

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

Juengst, Eric. 1989. "Casuistry and the Locus of Certainty in Ethics." Medical Humanities Review 3(1): 19–28.

Kirk, Kenneth. 1927. Conscience and Its Problems: An Introduction to Casuistry. London: Longman's Green.

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

Mahoney, John. 1987. The Making of Moral Theology: A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McHugh, John Ambrose, ed. 1906. The Casuist: A Collection of Cases in Moral and Pastoral Theology. New York: Joseph E. Wagner.

Pascal, Blaise. 1967. The Provincial Letters, ed. and tr. Alban Krailscheimer. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin.

Perkins, William. 1970. Works. Abingdon, Eng.: Sutton Courtenay Press.


views updated May 14 2018


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).


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).


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 .


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


views updated May 21 2018


CASUISTRY . Moral knowledge comprises general principles and propositions: for example, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," "Honest persons do not lie or steal," and so forth. However, moral knowledge also bears on choices to act in specific ways in unique situations. Thus, general principles must be transformed into particular choices: "I should not make this offensive remark about him because I would not want him to say such a thing about me in the hearing of those people," "I could not consider myself honest if I told her she was capable enough to deserve promotion," and so forth. Casuistry is concerned with the transition from general moral knowledge to particular moral choices. It can be defined as "the technique of reasoning whereby expert opinion is formulated concerning the existence and stringency of particular obligations in light of general moral maxims and under typical conditions of the agent and circumstances of the action."

Religious moralities that rest upon strong divine commands and prohibitions are fertile ground for a casuistry. Unless a divine imperative is couched in terms that direct a particular person to perform or refrain from a particular act at a particular time (e.g., "Moses, you must proclaim the Commandments to the people when you descend the mountain"), interpretation of the general statement of a divine command is necessary. Does, for example, the command "Thou shalt not kill" apply to David facing Goliath? However, it is not only divine commands and prohibitions that generate the need for casuistry. All statements of moral principle are expressed in universal terms; thus, any ethical system, if it is to take effect in the lives and actions of its adherents, must have its universal principles fitted to the various situations in which decisions are to be taken.

Casuistry in Non-Christian Contexts

In the three major ethical monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, certain persons have assumed the role of interpreting to the faithful the overarching moral injunctions of the Lord God. In Judaism, the written law, collected in the five books of the Torah, and the oral law, taught by Moses to the Israelites, were expounded by the scribes. These detailed interpretations of the law, collected in the two Talmuds, were themselves commented upon by the learned teachers of the people. This immense body of literature, as well as the intellectual tradition enshrined in it and continued by the rabbis in the life of the people of Israel, is called halakhah ("the way"). Concerned with fidelity to the law in every aspect of daily life, it is the casuistry of Judaism. However, within this tradition, a special form of reasoning, employing very sharp distinctions and clever logic, came to be called pilpul ("pepper"). Flourishing in the late Middle Ages, it was criticized by the great rabbi Eliyyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman (17201797) and others for twisting the plain truth "like shaping a wax nose." In this respect, pilpul resembles the Roman Catholic casuistry of the seventeenth century that gave rise to the pejorative connotation of the word.

Sharīʿah (lit., "the path toward water") designates the holy law of Islam revealed in the Qurʾān. More particularly, the word refers to forms of ritual and social behavior to be observed by the faithful. In the eighth and ninth centuries, schools of interpretation coalesced: they attempted to define precisely the exact content and stringency of the law. The teachers of Islam, muftī s, issued fatwā s, considered opinions for the guidance of the faithful, distinguishing moral acts as obligatory, recommended, permitted, reprehensible, or forbidden. Since God's will is inscrutable, it is permitted to find hiyal ("stratagems") to avoid the letter of the law in favor of the spirit. Again, it is this aspect of Muslim casuistry that recalls the reprehensible approach that gave casuistry its bad name.

In the Western philosophical and theological tradition, two sources of casuistry are manifest. Socrates suggested cases to test whether the general definitions of virtue proposed by his interlocutors were adequate (e.g., in Euthyphro, Laches ). Aristotle noted, as the premier methodological point of his Nicomachean Ethics that, while the nature of the human good and of virtue can be stated in general, "fine and just actions exhibit much variety and fluctuation" (Nicomachean Ethics 1.3). The Stoics proposed the most general precepts (e.g., "Follow nature"), and their opponents, particularly the Cynics, retorted with cases to show that rules of such generality could lead to no definite conclusions for action, or even to contradictory ones. Certain questions that become perennial first appear in this debate: for example, "Which of two shipwrecked men clinging to a spar has a right to it?" and "Should a merchant reveal defects of his merchandise?" Cicero recalls these questions and employs them to illustrate his theses regarding the priority of virtue over expedience. The third book of his On Duties is, in effect, the first book of casuistry in Western moral philosophy, even though it contains much material from authors of the Late Stoa.

Casuistry in the Christian Era

The teachings of Christ contain many "hard and impossible" commands: "If you will follow me, leave father and mother," "Turn the other cheek," "It is as hard for a rich man to enter heaven as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle." Those dedicated to following his ideals of love and mercy had to discern how these difficult and paradoxical commands were to be carried out in daily life. They also faced the problem of whether they and all converts from Judaism and paganism were bound by the law of the Jews. There is therefore some casuistry in the Gospels, in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the epistles of Paul, all of it employing reasoning of the type familiar to the rabbinical schools. In the early centuries of the church, many Christian writers faced the problem of how the Christian should live. In Can a Rich Man Be Saved? Clement of Alexandria advises that the severe words of Jesus do not condemn those who, while rich in goods, are poor in spirit. Augustine's On Lying is a premier work of casuistry in which appears the question analyzed centuries later by Kant: "Should a person lie to conceal an innocent person from persecutors?"

In the history of Christianity, casuistry was given its greatest impetus by the practice of confession of sins and absolution by a priest. When private confession first appeared, in the sixth to the eighth centuries, books of direction were written for priests advising them what penances to impose. These "penitential books," while lacking precise analysis of moral acts, show an incipient sense of discrimination regarding the moral seriousness of certain acts and the circumstances that modify or excuse. In the twelfth century the canon law of the church, working with the large corpus of ecclesiastical case law, as well as with rediscovered Roman law, provided distinctions and categories for a more refined casuistry, as did the speculative theology of the thirteenth century. The books for confessors published from the late thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries manifest this influence in careful but succinct delineations of the nature of conscience, of law, and of imputability. These later volumes were stimulated by a universal law of the church requiring that all confess at least yearly and that the confessor deal with penitents "as a prudent physician of the spirit" (Fourth Lateran Council, 1215). These books present innumerable cases involving marriage, commerce, feudal obligations, and justice. In each example the purpose is to assist the confessor in judging whether a particular act that appeared to violate a moral commandment of church law did in fact do so in the particular circumstances of its commission. Raymond Pennafort, Peter the Cantor, Alain of Lille, William of Chobham, and Peter of Poitiers were the principal authors of this genre. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, certain summae that presented material in alphabetical order (e.g., from Absolution to Uxoricide ) became immensely popular: the Summa Astesana, the Summa Sylvestrina, and the Summa Angelica.

During the Reformation, casuistry was stimulated by several circumstances. The Council of Trent (1551) required Roman Catholics to confess sins by kind and number, a reaction to Protestant rejection of confession to a priest. The Society of Jesus, founded in 1540, dedicated itself to propagating the proper use of the sacrament of penance and to the education of the Catholic laity and clergy. In the religious turmoil of the last half of the sixteenth century, many settled moral positions were upset. Catholics faced novel problems of personal relationship (e.g., how to deal with non-Catholics) and of public moment (e.g., how to continue to observe traditional prohibitions regarding money lending in the new mercantile economy, how to govern newly discovered lands, whether to give allegiance to rulers of newly formed national states). The Jesuits and other theologians undertook to analyze these problems, both in speculative treatises and in more practical case presentation. They produced a vast literature, known collectively as "cases of conscience." In the century between 1565 and 1665, over six hundred titles appeared, many of them in multiple editions.

In 1663 Blaise Pascal, the great mathematician and physicist who had taken the side of the Jansenists (a Catholic sect of extreme piety and rigor) against the Jesuits, published the Provincial Letters. In this brilliant satire, he attacked the Jesuit casuists, citing case after case in which ingenious analysis led to outrageous moral conclusions. The casuists, with their clever distinctions, seemed able and willing to dispense with all moral probity, allowing killing, adultery, and lying, if only the circumstances were right. The criticism, justified to some extent, was too far-reaching: it condemned the entire enterprise of casuistry for the faults of some of its authors and the weakness of some aspects of its methodology. From that time onward, casuistry has carried the opprobrious sense of moral sophistry.

Casuistry continued to be an integral part of Catholic moral theology. Alfonso Liguori (16961787), a most revered Catholic moralist, was a master casuist. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, casuistry had become sterile and was much criticized, within and without the church, for its failure to promote moral ideals and its dwelling on minimal obligation. Nevertheless, some fine casuistic analyses continued to appear: about the just war, the just wage, abortion, and so forth.

Protestant theology showed little interest in casuistryindeed showed early antipathy. (Luther cast the Summa Angelica into the flames, calling it the "Summa Diabolica.") Anglican theologians engaged in a vigorous casuistry in the seventeenth century, with Jeremy Taylor and William Perkins being the leading authors. In the twentieth century, Conscience and Its Problems (1927), one of the very few modern English works on casuistry, was written by an Anglican theologian, Kenneth E. Kirk.

In the 1970s, interest in medical ethics led to the revival of a sort of casuistry both within and without the theological context. The occurrence of many cases of note, such as that of Karen Ann Quinlan, brought theological and philosophical moralists to analyze the ethical issues. The National Commission for Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research (19741978) employed a method of case analysis to develop the ethics of research. In the 1980s, concern about nuclear armaments further stimulated casuistry, and a case analysis of various "scenarios" of defense was developed. The Church and the Bomb (1983), a publication of the Church of England, and the pastoral letter on nuclear warfare (1984) of the American Catholic bishops are both examples of sound casuistry.

Methodology of Casuistry

Casuistry differs from moral philosophy in a number of ways. The work of the casuist is discrimination; that of the moral philosopher, generalization. Casuists discuss moral problems; moral philosophers discuss moral reasoning. Casuists analyze the morality of choice in circumstances; moral philosophers analyze the meaning of moral principle in general. While the work of moral philosophers has been richly described and many methodologies have been proposed, the work of casuistsalthough we are all, in a sense, casuists in our personal moral deliberationsis hardly understood, and it has no accepted methodology. Even the casuists of the seventeenth century developed no overall method of resolution of moral problems. Inspection of their work, however, reveals the outline of their method.

Casuists developed positions by first stating a case in which the moral obligations entailed by a rule were most clear and then moving, step by step, to more complex cases. These steps were taken by adding various circumstances and weighing their relevance to the stringency of the rule. They assessed the degree of credence that various options deserved and the consequent weight of moral obligation. They aimed at resolving the case not by settling theoretical problems but by practical advice concerning how seriously a person involved in certain sorts of circumstances should consider himself bound by or excused from the moral principles generally incumbent. The strength of the casuists' method lay in an appreciation of exceptions and excuses generated by different circumstances; the weakness lay in the absence of any theoretically established boundaries of this appreciation. Casuistry at its best is vigorous moral common sense; at its worst, it is moral sleight of hand.

See Also

Christian Ethics.


Häring, Bernhard. The Law of Christ, vol. 1, General Moral Theology. Translated by Edwin G. Kaiser. Westminster, Md., 1961. See especially chapter 1.

Jonsen, Albert R., and Stephen Toulmin. The Abuse of Casuistry. Berkeley, 1988.

Kirk, Kenneth E. Conscience and Its Problems: An Introduction to Casuistry. London, 1927.

Long, Edward L. Conscience and Compromise: An Approach to Protestant Casuistry. Philadelphia, 1954.

New Sources

Gallagher, Lowell. Medusa's Gaze: Casuistry and Conscience in the Renaissance. Stanford, Calif., 1991.

Keenan, James F., and Thomas Shannon, eds. The Context of Casuistry. Washington, D.C., 1995.

Leites, Edmund, ed. Conscience and Casuistry in Early Modern Europe. New York, 1988.

Miller, Richard P. Casuistry and Modern Ethics: A Poetics of Practical Reasoning. Chicago, 1996.

Vallance, Edmund, and Harald Braun, eds. Conscience in the Early Modern World, 15001700. New York, 2003.

Albert R. Jonsen (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated Jun 11 2018


The term casuistry comes from the Latin casus, case. In general, casuistry denotes the method that applies the principles of a science to particular facts. Thus, there are casuistries proper to civil and canonical law (jurisprudence), to psychology (casework), to commerce (case system). In theology, casuistry signifies that part of moral theology, or that method, that treats of the application of moral principles to singular cases. In the past, some Protestant theologians incorrectly called the whole of Catholic moral theology by the name casuistry. In any event, since the issuance in 1993 of the encyclical letter veritatis splendor, the casuistry of the Schools, developed after the Council of Trent, no longer enjoyed standing in Catholic moral theology.

Basic Approach. The approach of Post-Tridentine casuistry is basically one which conceives the unity of the singular reality through a multiplicity of general and abstract ideas. While the moral laws are known with sufficient certitude in their abstract formulation, the concrete act, unique and singular, to which one would apply them, remains difficult to analyze because of its complexity. Casuistry allowed one to bridge the gap between the concrete action and the abstract norms. Thanks to it, conscience, which must base its judgments on an objective morality, had access to principles already particularized and more easily applicable to the singular. Nevertheless, despite their high degree of particularization, the enunciations of casuistry remained general, in the sense that they were of value, not just for a particular individual, but for every person placed in the same circumstances. They did not take into consideration, therefore, strictly personal factors that may be apposite in a case of conscience.

Necessity. Casuistry, essentially a science of application, was judged to be needed because of the imperfection itself of our knowledge. While casuistry exhibited limitations and dangers, it was thought to assist our human condition subject to sin and error. Even Aquinas, whose own moral theology centers on teleology and virtues not cases and consciences, was cited to support the need of casuistry. "Anyone who perfectly knew the principles according to all their virtualities," says St. Thomas, "would not need any conclusions proposed to him separately. But, because those who know principles do not know them so as to consider everything that is found virtually contained in them, it is necessary for them that, in the sciences, the conclusions be deduced from principles" S (umma Theologiae 2a2ae, 44.2).

Function. Casuistry served a double function: to illustrate principles (case casuistry found in the manuals of cases of conscience) and to study moral problems of concrete life (practical casuistry found in the various treatises on special moral theology).

Case Casuistry. Through means of typical examples, real or fictitious, future confessors and counselors were taught the correct way to handle moral principles. They were initiated into the prudent and judicious solution of cases of conscience. This scholastic exercise was deemed necessary for the formation of future priests.

Practical Casuistry. By the very logic of its development, moral theology should be perfected by some casuistic rules that bring it closer to the singular reality. Since it is a normative science, it demands not only a clarification of Christian principles, but also their application to contemporary life. It ought to "make real" the Christian ideal in the various spheres of individual, family, social, and professional life. Since it is the purpose and end of moral investigation, practical casuistry performs a "realizing" function in moral theology. It, therefore, presupposes in the moralist perspicacity, a decisive mind, and sure judgment. Even after Veritatis splendor, moral theologians are obliged to engage in some forms of practical casuistry.

Limitations. Casuistry was not intended to replace either conscience or prudence. It was not meant to free conscience from its responsibilities by giving it readymade answers that could be applied without personal reflection. Its role was to clarify conscience by showing why a particular solution is obligatory or better. It aided conscience to decide for itself. It was not able to foresee all possible cases. The better practitioners of moral theology understood that prudence must complete the work of casuistry. Especially when absolutely obligatory norms were not involved, prudence aided in weighing with care all the circumstances of the case.

Casuistry and the Moral Minimum. It was customary to distinguish between the casuistry as applied to an action already done and as applied to an action not yet performed. The first, known as the merciful casuistry of the confessional, was adapted to the judgment of a past action. It easily contented itself, as a result, with the formulation of a moral minimum. Taking its inspiration from the words of Jesus to the adulterous woman, "Neither will I condemn thee" (Jn 8.11), it was designed especially for the confessor who must make an objective yet merciful judgment of his penitent, and even hold him innocent, if possible, in doubtful cases. Casuistry even in its application to the future, in order to avoid rigorism, had also to indicate the lower limits of the love of God set forth in the commandments, i.e., the precise point where sin begins. By doing this, it inculcated respect and fidelity toward the law. Once the minimum was indicated, it should also have considered the opportunity, the utility, and even the comparative perfection of particular acts. If it sought to help the person resolve his cases of conscience in a Christian way, something of counsel and a certain evangelical plenitude was expected to have found a place in it.

History. Beginning with the Gospel, the morality of the New Testament focused on concrete life. It therefore may be considered as the beginning of Christian casuistry (Lk 20.2026; 6.7; Mk 2.2328). Applying the Christian ideal to a pagan surrounding quickly posed cases of conscience that had to be resolved. St. Paul solved several of them (eating sacrificial food, work, virginity).

Patristic Age. Casuistic elements are also found in the Fathers, particularly in Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and St. Augustine. These concerned, for example, military service, persecutions, lying, the Sabbath, and dress. It is therefore inaccurate to claim that casuistry invaded Christianity through the influence of Stoicism or the Jewish law. At the end of the patristic age, from the 6th to the 11th century, a casuistry of sin was formed, which was connected with the development of auricular confession. It is contained in the penitentials.

The Middle Ages (13th16th Century). The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) made annual confession and Communion obligatory. This accentuated the practical character of clerical studies and gave a new importance to casuistry. Clerics were initiated into cases of conscience by the Summae confessorum, which replaced the Penitentials. These works contained a résumé of morality from the practical and limited point of view of the confessor. They coexisted with the great commentaries on the Liber Sententiarum of P. Lombard.

16th17th Century. The significant contribution of this period was the Institutiones Theologiae Moralis. In the 16th century, a particular circumstance, the creation of a course in cases of conscience, gave a new spirit to casuistry and made it more scientific. Tridentine legislation insisted on the pastoral formation of clerics and on the obligation of the penitent to accuse himself of sins according to number and species. As a result there was instituted, along with the course in scholastic theology (destined for those who wished to obtain the title of doctor), a course in cases of conscience (destined first for those who took only two years of theology, then made obligatory for all clerics). As a manual for this course, the Institutiones Theologiae Moralis (Azor, Laymann) were created, as a sort of a compromise between the Summae Confessorum, which were henceforth considered to be insufficient, and the great commentaries (Summae ), which omitted the practical and pastoral aspect. These works, oriented especially toward practical morality, besides assuring all clerics a better pastoral preparation, enriched moral theology by giving it clarity, precision, and a high degree of accuracy in analysis.

This was the golden age of casuistry. Progress was interrupted in the middle of the 17th century by the quarrels concerning Jansenism and probabilism. Absorbed by these polemics, moralists neglected the deepening of principles so much that moral theology was reduced practically to the knowledge required of a confessor and was oriented toward a minimalist casuistry. It was forgotten that casuistry could not be perfectly autonomous and that it must rest on a solid moral system. It was sometimes cultivated for itself, like a mental puzzle, on the level of pure dialectic without any relation to concrete life. The most improbable hypotheses were imagined and discussed. By splitting hairs about how far one could go and where one must stop, certain authors fell into laxism. Casuistry, as a result, had to submit to the attacks of Pascal. Henceforth it had a bad name, which it never completely lost.

18th19th Century. If one excepts the beginning of reform at Tübingen, Germany, about the middle of the 18th century, one may say that at the beginning of the 18th century moral theology was contained almost exclusively in predominantly casuistic manuals. The Medulla of Busenbaum (d. 1668), commented upon by Lacroix (d.1714) and St. Alphonsus (d. 1787), left a profound mark upon moral theology and, through St. Alphonsus and J.P. Gury (d. 1866), exercised its influence up to the beginning of the 20th century.

20th Century. In the first half of the twentieth century, the adversaries of casuistry no longer, as they did in Pascal's day, accused it of laxism but reproached it rather for turning toward rigorism. Thus, certain partisans of situational morality sought to free moral theology from the subtleties and sophisms of the casuistic method. According to them the proper field of casuistry is law. When it is brought into morality, they contended, it brings with it an atmosphere that is too juridical. In short, the very legitimacy of this method for morality was called into question by these authors. The renewal that moral theology experienced after World War II brought casuistry back into fashion by emphasizing its value and utility, and by indicating its dangers and its limitations. But immediately following the Second Vatican Council, the sort of casuistry that had been practiced since the sixteenth century rapidly lost currency among Catholics.

Conclusion. According to a most favorable view, casuistry, when it is well used, remains indispensable; it is an art that demands flexibility and awareness of the concrete. But, while keeping to its method and its proper purposes, it must remain connected to the more elevated parts of moral theology. Conscious of its own limitations, it must allow itself to be complemented by prudence, not forgetting the other aids at the disposal of a Christian for finding the correct solution of his doubts of conscience, prayer, and docility to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. In the late 1960s, Servais Pinckaers began a strong critique of casuistry and its late-medieval antecedents. His subsequent work influenced the moral teaching of Veritatis splendor and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Bibliography: e. hamel, "Valeur et limites de la casuistique," Sciences ecclésiastiques 11 (1959) 147173. m. pribilla, "Klugheit und Kasuistik," Stimmen der Zeit 133 (1938) 205216. j. vialatoux, "Réflexions sur les idées de casuistique et de loi morale," Mémorial J. Chaine, ed. Faculté Catholique de Théologie (Lyon 1950). r. egenter, "Kasuistik als christliche Situationsethik," Münchener theologische Zeitschrift 1 (1950) 5465. m. reding, "Situationsethik, Kasuistik und Ethos der Nachfolge," Gloria Dei (1951) 290292. y. congar, "Die Kasuistik des heiligen Paulus," Verkündigung und Glaube: Festgabe für Franz X. Arnold, ed. t. filthaut and j. a. jungmann (Freiburg 1958). r. m. wenley, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings, 3:239247. k. goldammer et al., Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart. (3d ed. Tübingen 195763) 3:116671. r. brouillard, Catholicisme 2:630637. s. pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics (Washington 1995). r. cessario, Introduction to Moral Theology (Washington 2001).

[e. hamel/

r. cessario]


views updated May 23 2018

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