Morality, Systems of

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A system of morality or moral system is a method of forming one's conscience properly regarding the moral aspect of an action that is being contemplated with a view to performing or not performing it.

Purpose of a Moral System. The basic reason for a moral system is due to the fact that a person is frequently in doubt whether a certain course of action is good or evil. In such a case, if he performs the action while in practical doubt, he sins, for by doing what he thinks may be wrong, he shows that he is prepared to do evil. But a moral system will help himat least at timesto achieve a practical certainty that he is free to perform the action, so that if he does perform, it he will commit no formal sin (see doubt, moral).

A person could, indeed, be in doubt as to which of two good courses of action is more pleasing to God. But in the treatment of moral systems, the only dilemma considered is the uncertainty as to whether one is commanded under pain of sin to perform an action or may lawfully omit itlaw or liberty. This includes the doubt as to whether one is forbidden to do something or may lawfully do it.

Types of Certainty. From the fact that one who performs an action while in practical doubt as to its lawfulness commits a sin, it follows that before one may act in favor of liberty, he must have practical certainty that his action will not be sinful. This principle is corroborated by the words of St. Paul: "All that is not from faith is sin" (Rom 14.23). In this context, theologians under-stand the word "faith" to mean "certainty that one is doing right." However, this principle must be understood in the light of the fact that there are various types of certainty.

Philosophically, certainty, the assent of the intellect to a proposition as true, without fear of the opposite, is threefoldmetaphysical, physical, and moral (see certitude). In moral problems only the third type is possible, at least ordinarily. But moral certainty has various degrees. First, we distinguish direct and indirect (or reflex) certainty. Direct certainty is that which is derived from an investigation of the moral problem itself, without recourse to reflex principles.

Yet direct certainty can be twofolddirect certainty in the strict sense, and direct certainty in the broad sense. The former excludes all reasonable possibility that the opposite may be true. For example, on a Thursday I can have this type of certainty that I am allowed to eat meat. Again, I can have direct certainty in the strict sense that it would be a grave sin to kill a baby who is playing on the floor before me. There is no possibility for an intelligent person to have a doubt about such propositions.

Direct certainty in the broad sense excludes not the possibility but only the prudent probability that the opposite is true. For example, a young man about to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders must have direct certainty that he has been validly baptized. But if he procures a baptismal certificate, copied from a church register, testifying that he was baptized, nothing more is required to furnish direct certainty that he did validly receive Baptism. It is possible that the baptizing priest did not pronounce the essential words of the Sacrament or did not pour the water correctly, but there is no reasonable probability of such an occurrence. This direct certainty in the broad sense is all that the Church demands even for Sacraments so important as Baptism and Holy Orders.

Actually, this type of certainty is all that we can have, in many of our daily activities, that we are acting safely. We buy and use pills, confident that they will not harm us, though it is possible that they contain poison. A motorist drives his car through a street intersection with a sense of security when the green light assures him that he is safe; yet, it is possible that another driver will come through the red light. We could not go through life reasonably if we tried to eliminate all possibility of harm. We could not wait for a chemical analysis of a bottle of pills before taking them. Similarly, a priest about to celebrate Mass in a church where he is a visitor would act unreasonably if he called for an analysis of the wine, though it is possible that it is not true grape wine, and in that case the Consecration will be invalid. Evidently God, as well as the Church, does not require us to seek greater assurance than direct certainty in the wide sense that we are acting lawfully even when grave moral problems confront us.

Indirect certainty, on the other hand, does not exclude even the reasonable probability that the opposite is true; nevertheless, it can sometimes furnish a sufficient basis for acting in favor of liberty with the assurance that one is not committing formal sin. This takes place through the aid of reflex principles that can sometimes transform a probable opinion in favor of liberty into practical certainty that one is not bound by a law. (As is evident, in the dilemma we picture, between law and liberty, one may always follow the safer side, the opinion in favor of law, without fear of committing sin. But the chief purpose of a moral system is to inform us when we may lawfully follow the opinion in favor of liberty.)

Reflex Principles. A reflex principle is a general norm for the regulation of human conduct, applicable to problems of conscience for the purpose of determining when a person may act for liberty despite the probability of a law to the opposite. Probably he is bound by a law, but probably he is not bound. It is reasonable to presume that God does not always demand that there be direct certainty for liberty before one can consider himself free from a law. If God required this strict norm of conduct, human life would become well-nigh unbearable, since there are so many occasions when a person, even after he has studied a problem of conscience adequately, is unable to determine with certainty whether or not he is bound by some obligation. In other words, in His goodness and mercy God sometimes allows us to act for liberty, even when the arguments for liberty are only probable and there are also probable arguments in favor of law. When we say that an opinion is probable, we mean that the arguments in support of it carry some weight, though they are not fully convincing.

When the dilemma between liberty and law occurs, reflex principles may be applicable. Such principles would be: "A doubtful law does not bind," or "In a doubt the possessor is to be favored." When a reflex principle has been properly applied, the result is indirect or practical certainty.

In using a reflex principle in favor of liberty, we do not impugn the truth that one who acts for liberty with a practical doubt as to the lawlessness of his action commits sin. For, though the arguments for liberty still remain speculatively only probable, the opinion in favor of liberty has become indirectly but practically certain through the proper use of the reflex principles. Objectively the course for liberty may be forbidden; but in such an event there has been a prudent (though erroneous) judgment in favor of liberty, so that the action is only a material, not a formal, sin. (Below we shall see that when there is danger of another evil besides the material sin, the use of reflex principles is per se forbidden.) And we can safely presume that God permits such a material sin as long as there has been an adequate attempt to obtain direct certainty and a sincere and honest use of the reflex principles, so that men may be able to act with "the freedom of the glory of the sons of God" (Rom 8.21).

We have an example of the proper use of reflex principles in the case of a person who has been gravely tempted to sexual desires, and afterward doubts whether or not he gave consent and consequently whether or not he is bound to confess them as grave sins. If the arguments in favor of the opinion that he did not consent are sufficiently probable to render the opposite opinion truly doubtful, he need not confess these desires as serious sins. (The degree of probability required for this is disputed among theologians, as can be seen in the articles on the different systems.) For, in that case, the obligation to confess the desires is truly doubtful, and the reflex principle can be applied: "A doubtful law does not bind." If the person had actually yielded, he has an objective obligation to confess the sins, but his failure to do so in the case described is only a material sin for which God will not hold him responsible in conscience. In such an event, the sin of evil desire can be taken away by an act of perfect contrition or by the reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in which these sins are not told but the contrition of the penitent extends in a general way to all his mortal sins, or, in the opinion of many theologians, it is indirectly remitted in the reception of the Eucharist.

Another case of indirect certainty is that of the priest who is accustomed to mark the recitation of the canonical hours with the string in his breviary. One day he doubts whether or not he has recited Vespers, but finds the string at the beginning of Compline. He may prudently apply the reflex principle: "From what commonly occurs a prudent presumption can be drawn," and satisfy his obligation for the day by saying only Compline.

It must be noted that the first obligation of one confronted by a problem of conscience is to use adequate diligence to obtain direct certainty. It is only when he has attempted this, with an amount of effort proportionate to the importance of the matter, that he may seek indirect certainty through the use of reflex principles.

Exceptions to Use of Reflex Principles. The right to follow the course for liberty through the use of reflex principles does not apply to every case of doubtful conscience. For this reason it was stated above that indirect certainty can sometimes furnish a sufficient basis for acting in favor of liberty. Actually, this is per se permissible only when the sole evil that is to be feared is a material sin. For even a material sin is something evil, since it is objectively out of harmony with the order willed by God. Nevertheless, a material sin is immeasurably less evil than a formal sin, so that we can presume that God will sometimes tolerate the commission of a material sin in order to permit reasonable liberty to men, so often beset by doubts of conscience. But sometimes the use of a reflex principle in favor of liberty will entail the danger of another evil that cannot be averted by the use of the principle and that the agent is bound to avoid. For example, if a priest celebrates Mass with a liquid that is very probably (but not certainly) grape wine, on the score that a doubtful law does not bindin this case the law forbidding the use of any liquid but grape wine for Masshe does wrong. For if the liquid is not actually wine, the use of the reflex principle will not prevent an invalid Consecrationa grave evil that the priest is bound to avoid. In such a case, therefore, the opinion for law (the safer opinion, as it is called) even though less probable must per se be followed. In the case described, this means that the priest must abstain from celebrating Mass if he cannot get a liquid that is certainly wine. As was said above, such certainty can be direct certainty in the broad sense.

Theologians distinguish under three general headings the cases in which the use of reflex principles is per se forbidden in order to render practically certain a speculatively probable opinion in favor of liberty.

  1. When there is danger that by following the opinion in favor of liberty one may endanger the validity of a Sacrament. Thus, in addition to the case given above, one may not per se use for Baptism what is only probably true water. A priest may not per se use chrism or the oil of catechumens for the Anointing of the Sick, even though probably these oils would suffice for validity, but must use the oil of the sick. A confessor must per se have moral certainty that the penitent has true contrition before he can absolve him.
  2. When there is danger that some harm of body or of soul may come to oneself if a probable opinion for liberty is followed. Thus, a person commits a grave sin by playing "Russian roulette," pointing at his head a revolver with a cartridge in one of the six chambers and pulling the trigger. For, although there is only one chance in six that he will be killed, he may not take this chance, because a reflex principle will not help if the chamber with the cartridge happens to be under the hammer. Again, if a person goes into a proximate occasion of sin without a reason, he sins, even though there is some probability that he will not sin. (Theologians are not in agreement as to the degree of probability of sinning there must be in order to constitute the occasion a proximate occasion. However, all admit the principle.)
  3. When an action will probably inflict some harm on a fellow man, not avoidable by the use of a reflex principle. Thus, if a pharmacist has in stock 20 bottles bearing the label of a patent medicine but knows that one of them through some accident contains poison, he may not sell a bottle to a customer, even though much more probably this bottle does not contain the poison. Reflex principles will not help the customer if he happens to get the bottle with the poison. The pharmacist must destroy the whole lot or return the bottles to the wholesale dealer, explaining the situation. Again, a jury may not return a verdict of guilty against an accused man, even though very probably he committed the crime. They must have direct certainty of his guiltat least direct certainty in the broad sense.

We say that in the cases we have described one must per se follow the opinion for law, even though the opinion for liberty is much more probable, in order to avoid an evil that may ensue from the use of the opinion for liberty and that one is bound to avoid. But there can be instances in which one may per accidens follow the opinion for liberty, even though the evil will probably occur. Such is the case when the nonuse of the opinion for liberty may entail an even greater evil. For example, if an infant is dying and no liquid that is certainly water is available, one may use doubtful matter, such as weak tea, to confer Baptism conditionally (with the obligation to repeat the Sacrament afterward with certain matter if this is possible). For, although the danger of baptizing invalidly is an evil, the danger that the child may die without Baptism is a greater evil. Through a similar line of reasoning, it follows that a priest could anoint a dying person with chrism if he cannot get oil of the sick in time; a confessor could impart conditional absolution to a person who is doubtfully disposed, if there is reason to fear that he will not otherwise return to confession. Again, if a sick man is desperately in need of medicine and is likely to die without it, the pharmacist could take a chance and dispense to him a bottle from the consignment with one bottle of poison (previously giving a warning). The principle governing these cases is that at times one may choose the lesser of two evils. They are exceptions to the exceptions regarding the use of reflex principles.

History of Moral Systems. The scientific formulation of moral systems is comparatively new in the Church, though even from the early centuries we find indications of the use of a probable opinion as the basis of the formation of a practically certain conscience. Thus, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, in the 4th century, asserted against the severity of the Novatians that a second marriage is not forbidden since the prohibition of such a union is doubtful (In sancta lumina 19; Patrolgia Graeca [Paris 185766] 36:358). Apparently, in those early days, individual cases of conscience were solved reasonably with due regard to God's mercy and with proper respect for His law.

In medieval times, the common method of solving a doubtful conscience seems to have been a form of rigorism, to judge by the statements of some prominent writers. Thus, St. Bonaventure says: "If a person's conscience doubts with probability whether something is a mortal sin, he is obliged to abstain from it while the doubt remains" (In 4 Sent., 17.2.1 ad 4, ed. Quaracci, 4.458). And William of Auxerre asserts: "It is a rule that if anyone doubts whether something is a mortal sin and does it, he sins mortally" [Summa aurea, 2, tr. 29, c. 1,q. 3, (ed. Pigouchet, Paris 1500) fol. 92.5]. It can be doubted, however, whether in practice this rigoristic norm was used in its full literal sense to any great extent in the Middle Ages. According to Prümmer (Manuale theologiae moralis, I, n. 345), the prevalent usage in medieval times was rather probabiliorism according to which the opinion for liberty can be followed if it is clearly more probable than the opinion for law.

The fundamental principle of probabilism was first clearly enunciated by Bartholomew Medina, OP, who wrote in 1577: "It seems to me that if there is a probable opinion, it is lawful to follow it, even though the opposite is more probable" (Comment. in 1a, 2ae Summa Theologiae 19.6). Probabilism then became an accepted system, and was followed moderately by many theologians. Unfortunately, others, such as Sanchez, Diana, and Caramuel, made use of it to support excessively lenient views. As a result, 17th-century popes, Alexander VII and Innocent XI, found it necessary to condemn lengthy lists of propositions too favorable to liberty, including the basic principle of laxism, i.e., that even the slightest probability will justify one in acting for liberty (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum [Freiburg 1963] 202165; 210166). Moreover, in 1656, Alexander VII recommended to the general chapter of the Dominicans that they defend probabiliorism, and the members of this order were the chief exponents of this system for many years. The most outstanding exponent of probabiliorism, it would seem, was Charles Billuart, OP, in the 18th century (De conscientiae diss., 6).

The principal exponents of probabilism, as enunciated by Medina, continued to be the Jesuits. In 1680, Innocent XI commanded a letter to be sent to the superior general of the Jesuits, stating that the members of the society were free to teach and to write against the opinion that in the conflict of a less probable opinion with an opinion clearly more probable, it is lawful to follow the former. However, the pope did not oblige the Jesuits to give up probabilism.

Another development in the 17th century was the effort of the Jansenists to introduce the system of rigorism, the extreme opposite of laxism. The basic principle of this system, that it is not allowed to follow even the most probable opinion for liberty (but that direct certainty must always be had), was condemned, together with other Jansenist teachings, by Pope Alexander VIII in 1690 (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum [Freiburg 1963] 2363). A slight modification of rigorism, known as tutiorism, which permits only a most probable opinion for liberty to be followed, though not formally condemned, has found few followers since the Church's rejection of rigorism.

The 18th century witnessed the propagation of the system of equiprobabilism, especially because of the influence of St. Alphonsus Liguori, who was declared the patron of confessors and moralists by Pope Pius XII. Alphonsus was first a probabiliorist, then a probabilist, and finally in 1762 announced himself as a defender of equiprobabilism. This system steers a middle course between probabiliorism and probabilism. It differs from the former in that it holds that an opinion for liberty that is as probable as the opinion for law may be followed (at least when the doubt concerns the existence of the law). It disagrees with probabilism in that it holds that an opinion for liberty that is definitely less probable than the opinion for law may not be followed. St. Alphonsus was not the author of this system, though he is its best-known proponent. Indeed, a statement of Suárez could be quoted in support of equiprobabilism: "Greater probability is a kind of moral certainty, if the excess of probability is certain" (De legibus, 8.3.19).

In recent times, the system of compensationism has been advocated by some theologians. According to this system, the benefits of liberty in each particular case of doubt must be sufficient to compensate for the danger of violating the law; hence, the degree of probability required to justify the use of liberty varies from case to case.

Thus, in the course of time, seven moral systems have been proposed: rigorism, tutiorism, probabiliorism, compensationism, equiprobabilism, probabilism, and laxism. Today the great majority of moralists defend either equiprobabilism or probabilism; comparatively few adhere to probabiliorism or compensationism.

See Also: conscience; moral theology, history of; doubt, moral

Bibliography: j. m. harty, The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York 190714) 12:441446. t. deman, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique (Paris 190350) 13.1:417619. m. zalba, Theologiae moralis compendium, 2 v. (Madrid 1958) 1:671734. j. aertnys and c. a. damen, Theologia moralis, 2 v. (16th ed. Turin 1950) 1:79126. d. prÜmmer, Manuale theologiae moralis, 3 v. (10th ed. Barcelona 194546) 1:324352.

[f. j. connell]