Image: Antonio Escobar y Mendoza, a prominent casuist of the 17th century.
One might think casuistry is dead and buried, that the controversies of the 17th century should be over once and for all.
Rarely do any of our contemporaries still read the Lettres Provinciales (Provincial Letters) and the authors whom Pascal (1623-1662) attacks therein. These authors are casuists – that is to say, moralists who seek to resolve matters of conscience without succumbing to rigorism. On rereading the famous Lettres, we were struck by the similarity emerging between a controversial document written in the 17th century and the positions today defended by pastors and theologians aspiring to effect radical changes in the Church’s pastoral teaching and doctrine.
The recent Synod on the Family (October 2014-October 2015) has revealed a reforming pugnacity of which the Lettres Provinciales give us a better understanding today. Hence, Pascal comes to be known in an unexpected light.
The treasure of the Church
The Synod on the Family revealed a profound malaise in the Church – a crisis of growth without doubt, but also recurrent debates on the question of “remarried” divorced persons, “models” for the family, the role of women, birth control, surrogate motherhood, homosexuality, and euthanasia. It is futile to close our eyes: the Church is challenged in its very foundations. These are to be found in the entirety of the Holy Scriptures, in the teaching of Jesus, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, in the announcement of the Gospel by the Apostles, in an ever finer understanding of Revelation, in the assent of faith by the community of believers. The Church has been entrusted by Jesus with the mission of receiving these truths, casting light on their coherence, commemorating them.
The Church has not been given by the Lord either a mission to modify these truths or a mission to rewrite the Credo. The Church is the guardian of this treasure. The Church should study these truths, clarify them, deepen man’s understanding of them, and invite all men to adhere to them through faith. There are even discussions – on marriage, for example – that were brought to a close by the Lord himself. It was specifically to conceal these historical truths that descendants of the Pharisees have denied the historicity of the Gospels (cf. Mark 10:11).
The teaching of the Lord has an exacting moral dimension. This teaching certainly urges us to a rational adherence to the Golden Rule, on which mankind’s great sages have meditated for centuries. Jesus brings this rule to its perfection. But the Church’s tradition has its own precepts of conduct, prime among which are love of God and neighbor. “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). This double-commandment is the fundamental benchmark for the actions of the Christian. The Christian is called to be open to the inspiration of the Spirit, which is love, and to respond to this inspiration through faith, which acts through love (Gal. 5:6). Between the one, love, and the other, faith, the link is indissoluble.
If, in the teaching of the Church, this link is broken, Christian morality sinks into various forms of relativism or skepticism, to the point of contentment with subjective and fluctuating opinions. There is no longer any reference to the truth, nor to the authority that guarantees it. Transgression is ultimately abolished, because the moral reference points imparted by God to man are rejected. Man, it will even be suggested, no longer needs to love God in order to achieve salvation or to believe in His love. Morality is fatally split, and the door is open wide to legalism, agnosticism and secularisation.
In his teaching, Saint Paul urges us to avoid the snares of a morality devoid of roots in revelation. This is how he exhorts Christians:
You must not fall in with the manners of this world. There must be inward change, a remaking of your minds, so that you can satisfy yourselves what is God’s will, the good thing, the desirable thing, the perfect thing. (Rom. 12:2).
And this is my prayer for you: may your love grow richer and richer yet, in the fullness of its knowledge and the depth of its perception, so that you may learn to prize what is of value.” (Phil. 1:9 s.; cf. 1 Thess. 5:19-22)
The return of casuistry
Here one perceives the return of casuistry, believed to allow moralists to examine and resolve matters of conscience. Certain moralists intend to offer solutions that please those who have recourse to their superior knowledge. Among the casuists of yesterday and today, the fundamental principles of morality are eclipsed by the (frequently divergent) opinions pronounced by these grave spiritual advisers. The disinterest with which fundamental morality is now viewed leaves the way open for the introduction of a positive law, which removes standards of conduct from any remaining reference to the fundamental rules of morality.
The casuist, or neo-casuist, has become legislator and judge. He cultivates the art of confusing the faithful. Concern for the truth, revealed and accessible to reason, is now of no interest. Ultimately, the only interest will be in “probable” positions. Through probabilism, one proposition is open to contradictory interpretations.
Probabilism will make it possible to blow first hot, then cold, for and against. Forgotten is the teaching of Jesus: “Let your word be ‘yes’ or ‘no’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37, James 5:12; cf. 2 Col. 1:20). However, each neo-casuist will go with his own interpretation. The tendency is toward a confusion of propositions, duplicity, double- or triple-truth, an avalanche of interpretations. The casuist has a divided heart but intends to be a friend to the world (James 4:4-8).
Progressively, the rules of behavior proceeding from the will of the Lord and handed down by the Magisterium of the Church are languishing in decline. The moral assessment of acts can therefore be modified. Not content with toning down this assessment, the casuists wish to transform the moral law itself. This will be the task of casuists – confessors; spiritual advisers; and, on occasion, bishops. All must have a concern to please. They must in consequence resort to compromise and accommodate their arguments to the satisfaction of human passions: no person must be rebuffed. The moral assessment of an act no longer depends on whether it conforms to the will of God, as made known to us by revelation. This depends on the intention of the moral agent, and this intention can be modulated and molded by the spiritual adviser who “supports” his followers. In order to please, the spiritual adviser will have to soften the rigor of the doctrine handed down by tradition. The pastor will have to adapt his words to the nature of man, whose passions are naturally led into sin. Hence the progressive relegation of references to original sin and grace.
The influence of Pelagius (a monk of British origin) is evident: man must save himself and take his destiny into his own hands. Telling the truth forms no part of the role of the casuist, who must captivate, present an engaging line of argument, curry favor, make salvation easy, and delight those who aspire to “have itching ears” (2 Tim. 4:3).
In short, the eclipse of the decisive contribution of revelation to morality is paving the way for the investiture of the casuist and creating a space favorable to the installation of a government of consciences. Space is shrinking for religious liberty, as offered in Scripture to the children of God and inseparable from adherence to faith in the Lord.
Let us turn to an analysis of examples of areas in which the actions of the neo-casuists of today emerge clearly.
The government of consciences
With the arrival, in the Church, of governors of conscience, we perceive the proximity of the casuist notion of government of the city, with the notion to be found, for example, in Machiavelli, Boétie, and Hobbes. Without asserting or making themselves accountable for this, the neo-casuists are certainly heirs of these masters in the art of governing slaves. A mortal God, the Leviathan defines what is just and what is good; he decides what men should think and wish for. It is he, the Leviathan, who governs the consciences, thoughts, and actions of all his subjects. He is accountable to no one.
With the three authors cited above, we can see that the neo-casuists have aligned themselves with the theoreticians of tyranny and totalitarianism. Does not the ABC of totalitarian power consist, first of all, in the subjugation, the alienation, of conscience? By this means, the casuists offer a robust guarantee to all who wish to establish a single civil religion that is easily controllable and laws discriminating against citizens.
To adapt the sacraments?
In order to please everyone, it is necessary “to adapt” the sacraments. Let us take the case of the sacrament of Penance. The disinterest with which this sacrament is today viewed can be understood through the “rigorism” demonstrated by confessors in the times of the elders. At least, so we are assured by the casuists. Today, the confessor should learn to make this sacrament please penitents. However, in toning down the severity attributed to this sacrament, the casuist separates the penitent from the grace offered by God. The neo-casuist of today distances the sinner from the divine source of mercy, yet it is to this source that the sinner must return.
The consequences of this deliberate deviation are paradoxical and dramatic. The new morality leads the Christian to render the sacrament of Penance, and hence the Cross of Christ and His resurrection, futile (1 Col. 1:17). If this sacrament is no longer received as one of the major manifestations of the merciful love of God for us, if it is no longer perceived as necessary to salvation, it will soon cease to be necessary to instruct bishops and priests in offering absolution to sinners. The rarity and, ultimately, the disappearance of the sacramental offer of pardon by the priest will lead, and in reality has already led, to other estrangements, including that of the ordained priesthood and the Eucharist. And so on for the sacraments of Christian initiation (Baptism and Confirmation) and the sacrament of the sick, not to speak of the liturgy in general.
At any rate, for the neo-casuists, there is in fact no longer a revelation to be received or a tradition to be handed down. As has already been remarked, “the truth is the new!” The new is the new seal of the truth. This new casuistry is leading Christians to make a clean break with the past. Finally, the obsession with compromise is pushing the new casuists toward a return to nature, as before original sin.
The question of “re-marriage”
The teaching of the neo-casuists calls to mind the spirit of compromise demonstrated to a considerable extent by the English bishops vis-à-vis Henry VIII. This question has relevance today, although the mode of compromise is different. Who are the clerics from all orders who seek to please the powerful in this world? Are they swearers or refusers? How great is the number of pastors of all ranks who wish to make allegiance to the powerful of this world, albeit easily and without the need to swear publicly fidelity to the new “values” of the world today? In pushing to facilitate “re-marriage,” the neo-casuists are giving their backing to all those political players undermining respect for life and the family. With their assistance, declarations of nullity will be easy to obtain, as will be flexible or repeated “marriages.”
The neo-casuists show great interest in cases of divorced persons who are “remarried.” As in other cases, the different stages of their approach provide a good illustration of salami tactics (a phrase coined by Matyas Rákosi), according to which what one would never concede as a whole is conceded slice by slice.
So let us follow the process. First slice: At the point of departure, we find references to the teaching in Scripture on marriage and the Church’s doctrine on this question. Second slice: Emphasis is placed on the difficulties in “receiving” this teaching. Third slice, in the form of a question: Are “remarried” divorced persons in a state of grave sin? The fourth slice consists of the entry on the scene of the spiritual adviser, who will help “remarried” divorced persons to “discern” – that is, to choose whatever suits them in their situation. The spiritual adviser must show himself to be understanding and indulgent. He must demonstrate compassion, but what compassion?
For the casuist, in effect, when one undertakes a moral assessment of an act, concern for compassion must take precedence over the assessment of actions that are objectively wrong. The adviser must be lenient, adapt to circumstances.
With the fifth slice of salami, each individual will be able to discern, personally and with full freedom of thought, what suits him best. In effect, along the way, the word discernment has become equivocal, ambiguous. It is not to be interpreted in the Pauline sense recalled in the scriptural references cited above. It is a matter not of seeking the will of God, but of discerning the right choice, the choice that will maximize the “itching of the ears.”
Homicide is another matter that merits our attention. We are now going to focus on a matter of deviation of intention. According to the classic casuistry of the 17th century, homicide could proceed from a desire for vengeance, which is a crime. To avoid this criminal definition, it was necessary to deviate from this criminal intention, the intention to avenge oneself, and assign to the homicide a different, morally permitted, intention. Rather than invoke vengeance as a motive, the casuist invoked, for example, a desire to defend one’s honor, considered morally permissible.
We will now see how this deviation of intention is applicable to a modern matter. The argument runs as follows: Mrs. X wishes to abort the baby she is expecting; the baby is not wanted. Yet abortion is a morally inadmissible crime. The intention is then deviated from, with the result that the initial intention is erased. Not with the intention of freeing oneself from an unwanted baby! Instead of this initial intention, it will be argued that, under certain circumstances, abortion is morally admissible because, for example, its purpose is to save the lives of persons who are ill, by providing physicians with anatomical parts in good condition and to which a price is attached. The intention defines the moral quality of the gift. Hence, it is possible to please a broad spectrum of beneficiaries, whose “generosity” and “freedom of spirit” the casuists lose no opportunity in flattering.
The teachings of the Church on abortion are well known. As soon as the reality of a human being is established, the Church teaches that the life and dignity of that being should be respected. The doctrine of the Church on this question is constant and attested to throughout tradition.
This situation troubles some neo-casuists. They have therefore coined a new expression: humanization of the embryo. There is no – they say – humanization of the embryo unless a community wishes to welcome that embryo. It is society that humanizes the embryo. If society refuses to humanize the embryo, there can be no homicide, given that the human reality of this embryo is not recognized.
In the examples we cite here, salami tactics come to the aid of the neo-casuists. Initially, abortion is clandestine, then presented as exceptional, then rare, then facilitated, then legalized, then habitual. Those who oppose abortion are denigrated, threatened, ostracized, condemned. This is how the political institutions and the law are unpicked.
Let us note that thanks to the casuists, abortion is first facilitated in the Church, and from there in the State. The same now applies to “re-marriage.” Positive law is taking over from the new morality. It finds its inspiration in the neo-casuists. This was observable, in France, during the debates on legislation on abortion. This is a scenario that could spread throughout the world. With the impetus of the neo-casuists, abortion could be declared a new “human right” on a universal scale.
The question of euthanasia also merits discussion. This practice is becoming more and more extensive in traditionally Christian Western countries. Demographers regularly draw attention to the aging population in these regions of the world. Life expectancy at birth is rising almost everywhere. In principle, aging in itself is good news. For centuries, throughout the world, men have struggled against early death. At the beginning of the 19th century, life expectancy at birth was often thirty years of age. Today, life expectancy is about eighty.
However, this situation will generate problems of all kinds. Let us mention one: who will pay the pensions? To euthanize burdensome and onerous elderly people would certainly make it possible to achieve better economies. It will then be said that it is necessary to help costly elderly people “die in dignity.” Because it is politically difficult to defer the pension age, life expectancy will be lowered. The process has already begun in certain regions of Europe – hence a reduction in health care; pharmaceutical products; and, above all, a reduction in the pension bill. Because politically correct right-thinking people balk at a program so austere, the intention must be modified to be able to pass a law legalizing euthanasia.
How to proceed? By developing a pitiable argument on compassion. It is necessary to please all categories of persons affected by this program. These persons must be persuaded to subscribe to a plan whose objective is to give death “under good conditions” and “in dignity.” Death given in dignity would be the high point in quality of life! Rather than recommend palliative treatment and surround the ill person with affection, his fragility will be abused; he will be misled as to the fatal treatment to be inflicted.
Vigilant neo-casuists will be on hand to verify that the homicidal act “authorizing” the gift of death is in compliance with positive law. The cooperation of carefully primed chaplains will be especially appreciated to authenticate the compassion manifested in death given as a gift.
The party of the casuists
Discussions during the Synod on the Family revealed the determination with which a group of pastors and theologians do not hesitate to undermine the Church’s doctrinal cohesion. This group functions in the manner of a powerful, international, well heeled, organized, and disciplined party. The active members of this party have ready access to the media; they frequently appear unmasked. They operate with backing from some of the highest authorities in the Church. The main target of these activists is Christian morality, criticized for having a severity incompatible with the “values” of our time. We must find ways that lead the Church to please, by reconciling its moral teaching with human passions.
The solution proposed by the neo-casuists starts by calling into question fundamental morality, then obscuring the natural light of reason. The original meaning of the references to Christian morality revealed in Scripture and the teaching of Jesus is distorted. The precepts of reason are regarded as indefinitely debatable – probabilism prevails. Primacy should be accorded to the will of those who are powerful enough to impose their will. Disparate partnerships with unbelievers will be formed without hesitation (cf. 2 Col. 6:14).
This voluntarist morality will have a free hand in placing itself at the service of political power, the State, and also the market, high finance, the law, etc. In concrete terms, it will be necessary to please corrupt political heads, champions of tax fraud and usury, abortionists, manufacturers who deal in pills, lawyers willing to defend the least defensible causes, agronomists enriched by transgenic products, etc. The new morality will hence insidiously penetrate the media, families, schools, universities, hospitals, and courts.
This has led to the formation of a social body that refuses to accord primacy of place to the search for the truth yet is highly active where there are consciences to govern, assassins to reassure, malefactors to free, wealthy citizens with whom to curry favor. Through this network, the neo-casuists will be able to hold sway over the wheels of the Church, influence the choice of candidates for high office, and forge alliances that imperil the Church’s very existence.
Toward a religion of compromise?
The text here produced is not intended to expound an essay on the Synod devoted to the Family. It aims to draw attention to the rift between dogmatic and moral, to the confusion between truth and novelty, between morality and positive law, between truth and action, and to equivocal statements troubling discernment.
What is most troubling with regard to the casuists is their disinterest in the truth. In them, we find a relativism, indeed a skepticism, which means that in terms of morality, one should act in accordance with the most probable standard. One should choose the standard that, in a given circumstance, is regarded as most pleasing to a given person, a given spiritual follower, a given public. This applies to the City as it does to men. Everyone has to make his choice – not in terms of the truth, but in terms of circumstances. The laws of the City also have their origin in circumstances. The best laws are those that please the most and please the greatest number. Hence, we are witnessing the expansion of a religion of compromise, indeed individualist utilitarianism, since the concern to please others does not extinguish the concern to please oneself.
In order to please, casuists must be up to date with current developments, attentive to things new. The Fathers of the Church of previous generations and the great theologians of the past, even the recent past, are presented as not adapted to the current situation in the Church; they are regarded as outmoded. For the casuists, the Church’s tradition needs to be filtered and fundamentally called into question. As we are gravely assured by the neo-casuists, we know what the Church should do today to please everyone (cf. John 9). The desire to please is aimed at the winners in particular. The new social and political morality should handle such people with care. They have a lifestyle to be protected and even improved; they have to maintain their rank. So much the worse for the poor, who do not have the same worldly constraints! Certainly, one must also please the poor, but it must be acknowledged that they are less “interesting” than the people with influence. Not everyone can be a winner!
The morality of the casuists ultimately resembles a gnosis distilled in select circles, a knowledge one might call esoteric, targeted at a minority of people who experience no need to be saved by the Cross of Jesus. Pelagianism has rarely flourished so much.
The traditional morality of the Church has always recognized that there are acts that are objectively wrong. This same moral theology also recognizes, and has long done so, the importance of circumstances. This means that, in the assessment of an act, account must be taken of the circumstances in which the act has been committed and the levels of responsibility; this is what the moralists call accountability. The casuists of today proceed in the same way as their founders: they minimize the importance of traditional morality and overemphasize the role of circumstances. Along the way, conscience is led into self-deceit because it allows itself to be distorted by the desire to please.
Hence, one perceives in the media that casuists are frequently transfixed by a world destined to disappear. Too often, they forget that, with Jesus, a new world has already begun. We recall this central point in human history: “The old world has passed, now a new reality is here” (Apoc. 21:5). We turn again to Saint Paul:
There must be a renewal in the inner life of your minds; you must be clothed in the new self, which is created in God’s image, justified and sanctified through the truth. (Eph. 4:2-3 s.)
The actions of casuists today affect not only the Church’s moral teaching, but also the entirety of dogmatic theology, in particular the question of the Magisterium. This point is frequently insufficiently emphasized. The unity of the Church is in peril where there are suggestions of biased, at times demagogic, proposals for decentralization, largely inspired by Lutheran reform. Better to be answerable to the princes of this world than to affirm unity around the Good Shepherd!
The sanctity of the Church is in peril where casuists exploit man’s weakness and preach a devotion that is easy and neglectful of the Cross. Catholicity is in peril where the Church ventures onto the path of Babel and undervalues the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the gift of languages. Is it not He, the Spirit, who brings together the diversity of those who share the same faith in Jesus, the Son of God? The apostolicity of the Church is in peril where, in the name of exemption, poorly understood, a community, a “party” is exempted from the jurisdiction of the bishop and considered to be answerable directly to the pope.
Many neo-casuists are exempt. How can it be doubted that this exemption weakens the Episcopal body as a whole?
Cariou, Pierre, Pascal et la casuistique, an essential work, Paris, PUF, Collection Questions, 1993.
Jean-Paul II, Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Vatican City, 1993.
Nouveau Testament, TOB, several editions.
Pascal, Les Provinciales, edited by Jacques Chevalier, Paris, La Pléiade, 1954.
Pascal, Les Provinciales, edited by Jean Steinmann, Paris, Armand Colin, 1962.
Pascal, Les Provinciales, Preface by Robert Kanters, Lausanne, Ed. Rencontre, 1967.
Wikipedia: excellent articles on Pascal, Casuistry, Provinciales.
Printed with permission from the author.
Michel Schooyans is professor emeritus of the Catholic University of Louvain, where he taught political philosophy, modern ideologies, and the ethics of political demography. A former member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and the Pontifical Academy for Life, he is also a member of the Fides et Ratio Academy (Rio de Janeiro) and of the Mexican Academy of Bioethics (Mexico).