1902 Encyclopedia > Casuistry


CASUISTRY is the application of general moral rules to particular cases, but the word is specially limited to the consideration of cases of possible dubiety, since it is only where difficulty exists that formal treatment is necessary. Any important development of casuistry can only take place under a government by laws expressed in definite precepts ; but the development may have its origin in either of two opposite causes, or in a combination of the two—in the desire, namely, to fulfil the laws, or in the desire to evade them, or in a conflict of these desires.

Of these principles a remarkable illustration is given by the Jews. Governed as they were by the written precepts of Moses, they were continually confronted by questions which did not clearly come under any one rule, but of which a solu-tion was required by their extreme reverence for the smallest dicta of their code. This worship of every jot and tittle of the law, which was the most remarkable character-istic of their conscientiousness, determined the nature of their casuistry. It was exact, detailed, unbending, and, though often wise and noble, often useless and merely external. Thus it forbade the wearing of a girdle on the Sabbath, decided to a yard how far one might walk on that day, and declared the consequences of an oath by the gift on the altar to be most serious, while an oath by the altar itself was perfectly safe. Its loosest requirements were those which concerned marriage, for it was practically possible to divorce a wife at will. Of these rules some may be found in the Apocrypha, but their great repository is the encyclopaedic Talmud, which entered into the minutiae of conduct with a detail which tended to prevent real obedience to great laws, and which was disastrous to individual freedom. It must, however, be remembered in considering the religious casuistry of the Jews that— as is also remarkably the case with the Mahometans—their religious code was intended to be at the same time their civil law, and that, consequently, part of their casuistry is comprised in our law-books. In fact, the task of our judges is to solve questions of legal casuistry, and tke precedents which they make are, so far, comparable to tin; traditions of the elders.

The early Greeks and the early Romans, in the bright joyousness or the laborious activity of objective life, fully occupied by the pleasures of art or the business of war and politics, with no minutely-detailed code or body of tradi-tions to guide them, troubled themselves little about such problems. When, however, the Greek philosophers and their Roman followers developed moral systems, attention began to be given to this department; at length, such questions as how far suicide is justifiable, or whether duty to the state is more important than duty to a friend, became favourite subjects of debate; and, during the first two centuries of the Christian era, elaborate treatises on the subject were produced by the famous Stoic philosophers Epictetus, Seneca, and M. Aurelius.

Christianity brought in a new method of settling casuis-tical questions—a method directly opposed to that of most of the Jewish scribes, in the midst of whom it had its origin, and consisting in an appeal to the true spirit of great principles. Naturally this method would have left particular cases to the decision of each man's conscience; but the extreme recoil from reckless self-indulgence which gave birth to the monastic ascetic system produced a new kind of casuistical literature. It found its first great representative in Tertullian, a contemporary of M. Aurelius, with whom nearly all sin was mortal, one repentance at most being possible after baptism. The same type of casuistry was taught by others of the fathers, but with the greatest acuteness and power by Augustine, who laid special stress upon the subjective or spiritual side of Chris-tian ethics, insisting upon the principle that the moral worth of action depends upon the disposition of the agent as much as upon the objective nature of the act.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the practice of confession gave rise to a system of casuistry, expressed in the Libri Pcenitentiales, which were intended to guide the confessor as to the imposition of penance and the giving of advice. Among the most important of these are the Summce of Raimund of Pennaforti, Angelus, Antonius Augustinus, Pacificus, and Prierias, the work of the last (who was a vigorous opponent of Luther) being an alphabetical com-pilation from those of his predecessors. Later examples are Amort's Dictionarium casuum conscientice (1784), and Sobiech's Compendium theologicce moralis pro utilitate confessariorum (1824). Indeed, throughout the Middle Ages, the doctrines of the church being universally accepted as the supreme rules of conduct, the casuistical was the department of moral science which was best developed. In Petrus Lombardus, in Alexander of Hales, and in Aquinas's famous treatise, the Secunda Secundce, we find the uncompromising strictness of the ancient fathers but slightly modified, Abelard, though earlier, took a more indulgent view, but his teaching was condemned by the church, in the synod of Sens (1140).

One of the most favourable conditions for the growth of a system of casuistry is that in which a people, having lost its reverence for the law it once held supreme, and ceased to find obedience tolerable, does not yet dare to deny its authority. Such was the condition in which, during the 16th century, there took place the worst development of casuistry which the world has seen. Men no longer were willing that their liberty should be repressed by the dead rules of a corrupt church, and the Jesuits, animated by the single object of adding to the power of their order, were always ready to make concessions and to soften disagreeable requirements. The most remarkable doctrine which they promulgated-—a doctrine which it is hard to believe that any one ever ventured to assert—is that of " Probabilism," according to which any opinion which has been expressed by a " grave doctor " may be looked upon as possessing a fair amount of probability, and may, therefore, be safely followed, even though one's conscience may insist upon the opposite course. With principles so liberal it was hard if one could not find an authority to his mind among Escobar, Suarez, Sanchez, Velasquez, Molina, Bauny, Busenbaum, Toletus, Filiutius, Less, Ponce, and an innumerable host of other " grave " and, as a rule, obliging doctors. Such was the popularity of some of their works that Busenbaum's Medulla casuum con-scientice (1645) ran through fifty-two editions, and Escobar's Theologia Moralis (1646) through forty. One of the most amusing of their ruses was that by which they avoided the condemnation of usury. That " money should breed money " was regarded universally in those days as unnatural; but borrowing was necessary, and no one could be expected to lend without being paid for his risk, and for the use of his capital. The remedy for the Jesuit was easy. There is no sin if you only call the payment not interest but " fair profit; " or if you look upon it as a grateful return by the borrower for the favour done him ; or, thirdly, if you prefer it, you can avoid the least appearance of evil by making a " Mohatra" bargain, that is, you sell to the person who wants money a quantity of goods, which he at once sells to you again at a lower rate. For these devices, however, the Jesuits are to be judged the less hardly, since almost all moralists found it necessary to evade the mis-taken law. It was mainly by their teaching on the fundamental question of the duty of veracity that they made themselves a by-word and a reproach among men. To settle the limits of this duty is, indeed, one of the most difficult problems in practical ethics; but the Jesuits removed it entirely from the category of obligation. Thus Filiutius and others, from the principle that it is the intention which determines the quality of the action, argue that lying can be avoided by mental reservation, by equivocation, or by introducing words sotto voce, and that promises are not binding when the promiser in making them had no intention to bind himself. Equally notorious were their views on murder, which was authorized in revenge for a box on the ear, or to prevent the loss of a trifling sum ; and with regard to some other questions, they entered into such prurient details that their bitterest enemies would not quote their words even for the purpose of con-demning them. In short, virtue, according to Father Le Moine's Devotion, made Easy, is not at all the " cross-tempered dame " men represent her as being. The rites and requirements of the church also were modified to suit the taste of the people. For example, if a whole mass be found wearisome, greater expedition can be obtained by having different parts performed simultaneously ; and in his Paradise opened to Philagio in One Hundred Devotions to the Mother of God, easily practised, Father Bauny shows how easily the heart of the Virgin may be won ; a prayer once a day, or even the wearing of an amulet, is enough; nor is it necessary, or, indeed, becoming, that the favoured worshipper should give his heart—"that poor little slave "—to his benefactress as a token of his grati-tude It was impossible that absurdities such as these could fail to bring upon their authors the severest punish-ment. War was declared against them by the great Jansenist, Antoine Arnauld ; and in 1656 and 1657 Pascal attacked them with an incisive wit, the edge of which none of their attempts could turn. The order became a jest; the clergy were aroused to examine the ponderous folios which contained its casuistry, and to condemn them in a general assembly. The attack was afterwards followed up by the polished satire of Boileau, and by a second exposure of the Morale des Jesuites by Nicole Perrault (1667) ; and the influence of the Provincial Letters was at once spread far and wide by means of their immediate translation into Latin, Italian, German, Spanish, and English. It was in vain that the Pope condemned them (September 1657); the attempts of Pirot and other Jesuits to justify the base maxims they exposed, only increased the disgrace of the order; and Father Daniel's endeavour to prove them inaccurate was a complete failure. The chief Roman Catholic casuists since that time are St Ignatio (who produced a complete treatise in 1707, and an Fthiea Amorism 1709), Stattler (1782), Lambertini (1766-1794), and Amort and Sobiech, who have been already mentioned.

The casuistry of the Reformers was similar, in origin, to that of the early fathers; and, with the marked exception of the question of celibacy, the two systems greatly resemble one another in their severity. This strictness was most extreme in the Calvinistic Church, as is displayed in the stern rules of its founder, and in the works of the German Danseus (who, in fact, usually follows Augustine), of the English Perkins, and the Dutch Amesius. A more genial spirit prevailed in the Lutheran Church, which produced the Consilia of Melanchthon, and the treatises of Baldwin of Wittenberg, Olearus, Osiander, and Spener. In the Pia Desideria of the last we find the commencement of a more ascetic but specially subjective casuistry, founded upon the pietism of Thomas a Kempis. During the 17th century, several other Protestant works on casuistry appeared in England. Those of Bishops Hall and Barlow are not marked by much power. Perkins's Cases of Conscience (1606), starting from a discussion of the authority of Scripture and the nature of the Godhead, of repentance and the sacraments, arrives at conclusions which often display vigorous sense, and always a straightforward and even stern honesty. Thus he declares that a promise, though extorted under compulsion or by means of deceit, is binding so long as the loss to be sustained is merely temporary and private ; and he condemns the striving for more riches than is necessary for the health of the body, the culture of the mind, and the satisfaction of one's obli-gations to one's family and to others. His most fanciful argument is that in which he founds the validity of an oath by a creature on the curious ground that " God is seen " (i.e., manifests himself) " in the creature." The still more famous Latin treatise De Obligatione conscientice (1660) —of which the best known section, the De Juramenti Obligatione appeared separately in 1647—by Sanderson, professor of theology at Oxford, is distinguished by an equal directness of moral aim, and by much learning and vigour. But the most renowned of all, Jeremy Taylor's Ductor Dubitantium (1660) has not the merit of similar clearness; as guides of conscience he mixes up the laws of revelation and nature, the laws ecclesiastical and civil of princes and governors, and " the fame or the public reputation of things, expressed by proverbs, &c," while the place of careful original thought is often taken by profuse quotations.

During the last two centuries, the study of morals has developed itself in a totally different direction. Free discussion being opened up as to the fundamental questions of religion and morality, modern writers on ethics more generally content themselves with the treatment of great principles, without laying down specific rules for their practical application. (T. M. W.)

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries