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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The word casuistry (literally “concern with individual
cases”) has been used in three different, if connected
meanings. In its widest sense, it has described a men-
tality which pays closer attention to the concrete in-
stance than to abstract generalities. In a narrower
sense, it has been employed to characterize legal sys-
tems like those of the Anglo-Saxon countries under
which all-inclusive norms are derived from judgments
in particular lawsuits, instead of being laid down
beforehand in rationally elaborated codes. In its nar-
rowest sense, it refers to the use of subtle definitional
distinctions in the handling of ethico-legal or purely
ethical problems with the aim of drawing fine dividing
lines between what is permissible and what is not. As
this technique has at times been applied in order to
excuse crimes and sins and to exculpate criminals and
sinners, this last usage of the term (at present the most
widespread) has contracted a definitely pejorative

In its best sense casuistry is opposed to inflexible,
literal, or legalistic interpretation of moral rules; in-
deed casuistry rejects any attitude which absolutizes
a general and abstract norm and insists on its all-round
unyielding and quasi-mechanical application, while at
the same time denying any abatement or adjustment
to changing contingencies.

The historical appearance of casuistry has always
been dependent on the existence of its opposite—
ethico-legal or purely legal absolutism. It is in its nature
a movement with the aim, first, of bridging the gap
between the abstract and the concrete, the general
norm and the individual case, and, second, of mitigat-
ing the rigor of the laws which must produce hardness
and hardships if they are not made somewhat elastic
in their application to particular problems. It was


because legalism was well-nigh lacking in Greece that
casuistry, too, was largely unknown. A sharp distinction
between the Is and the Ought was alien to the ethos
of the Greeks; the grand aim of education was to
inculcate the moral rule, or rather a moral character,
in the heart of the individual; correspondingly, there
was no formulation of moral codes which would con-
front man from the outside, as something essentially
alien to him; and therefore there was no desire to
wriggle out of the clutches of a law, be it law in the
narrower sense of the word or moral law. Everything
was, so to speak, elastic. In an atmosphere of this kind,
casuistry does not unfold; there is just no call for it.

Everything was radically different in the orbit of
Judaism. Here it was part of the unconscious meta-
physic of the nation to assume that there was a sharp
and thoroughgoing opposition between the Is and the
Ought, and that therefore the Ought must confront the
Is as something superior and demanding, indeed, as
something absolute and unyielding, for (it was thought)
it was only in this way that the required minimum
of law-abidingness could be secured. The doctrine of
original sin was the starting point, and the pro-
mulgation of the Torah or Sacred Law was the answer
to it. The Law, as laid down in the Pentateuch, was
both too abstract to be immediately applicable in most
cases, and, especially in its ceremonial regulations, too
minute and too full of perplexities not to generate a
desire to make it, on occasions, less stiff and burden-
some. Both facts stimulated the evolution of casuistical
thinking, even in the earlier stages of Hebrew history.
Later on, both legalism and its unavoidable adjunct
and opposite, casuistry, received new impetus. When
the Jews lost their freedom for a time during their
Babylonian captivity, and when they forfeited it finally
under Titus, the Law became the very Palladium of
national existence. To let go of it, would have meant
to lose everything. Therefore the dominance of the
Law was greatly enhanced. It became inflexible and
formal, and the result was that life, in an under-
standable counterstroke, fashioned casuistry as its
logical and political complement and corrective. The
development of Muhammadanism was somewhat simi-
lar. The Koran embodied law which claimed to be
divine, i.e., of a validity beyond doubt and discussion.
Yet it was too simple not to need specification, and
when its rule was extended over larger areas, it was
not easily applied to all the circumstances which it
encountered. Law schools appeared, and had to appear,
which prepared the universal imperatives for local use,
and in the process they added a very rich and varied
case law to the original revelation. The science which
they founded and greatly developed was thoroughly

Under the Christian dispensation, the area in which
casuistry first made its appearance, was, not surpris-
ingly, the activity of the Church which comes closest
to the function and the practice of the law—the exer-
cise of discipline, more concretely, the punishment of
sins and sinners. From the third century onward, a
certain casuistical content is increasingly characteristic
of Christian literature. Writers like Gregorius Thau-
maturgus and Cyprian give information about the
penances which it is meet and right to impose where
definite faults have been committed, and from these
beginnings sprang the penitential books of later times.
Irish and Anglo-Saxon texts spread far and wide and
predominated between the sixth and tenth centuries.
These early Christian casuistical publications aroused
far fewer misgivings than their later—late medieval
and early modern—pendants. The reason for this lies
not only in a greater willingness to accept and to
undergo the rigors of a stern law, but also in the fact
that the ecclesiastical tribunals were, in every essential
detail, very much like the secular ones. The bishop's
sentence was seen as parallel to the judge's; in fact,
he was the judge in his diocese. His activity in dealing
with penitents was plainly legal. But in the application
of laws casuistical practices and procedures were, and
were seen to be, entirely justified, indeed, unavoidable.
Everybody knew and realized that, as the Roman law-
yers had taught, the salient act of the man on the bench
was subsumptio, i.e., the subsumption of a concrete
case under a general rule. Cases therefore had to be
carefully distinguished; before subsumptio, there had
to be constructio, an identification of their distin-
guishing marks. It must be remembered here that the
old penitential procedure was public and formal. That
alone made it similar to the state's jurisdiction and
covered its methods with the mantle of legitimacy.

Much changed when the locus of penance shifted
and the forum externum was replaced by the forum
i.e., when the treatment of sinners became
more private and less formal. When auricular confes-
sion developed, the main function of the father con-
fessor was no longer to sentence the sinner, though
an element of this quasi-legal action unavoidably re-
mained; it was rather to win him over to more moral
modes of thought and action, to educate him. The
emphasis was less on the past, the deeds done, than
on the future, the conduct to be expected. This alone
tended to soften the Church's penitential practice, and
to make it more flexible, understanding, and patient.
Furthermore, in many genuine penitents, an unreason-
ing fear of hell was found to be present which produced
a psychological condition of great discouragement with
consequences which were far from good in any sense
of the word. This pushed the confessional practice


further in the direction of what is sometimes called
laxity. We can see how and why the word casuistry
received the particular coloring with which it is now
connected. But a further factor intervened. The father
confessor was also a spiritual director. The laity had
recourse to him, not only after a sin had been com-
mitted and had to be counterbalanced and atoned for
by an apposite penance, but even before certain mor-
ally difficult decisions, for instance, when one of the
faithful found himself puzzled as to what the correct
action would be in the given circumstances. The con-
flict of different duties, to give but one example, would
send a man to church to ask guidance of the priest.
These were the famous “cases of conscience” whose
discussion fills the later literature. Many of them, owing
to the complexity of the human condition, were very
knotty indeed. The dog-Latin word casus cnusus for
a besetting problem which seems insoluble and yet has
to be solved was coined to describe such torturing
problems. Thus there arose all that was needed to give
birth to a whole science, the science of casuistry: a
social need, a group of men who had to fulfil it (the
confession-hearing and guidance-giving clergy), and a
host of questions difficult enough to arouse lively inter-
est and to demand sustained ratiocination. We find its
precipitate in the great Summae casuum or Summulae
which were written after the Fourth
Lateran Council of 1215 had decreed that every Chris-
tian was in duty bound to go to confession at least
once a year. The Summa de vitiis of the Dominican
Guielmus Peraldus, was one of the first; Raimundus de
Pennaforte's Summa de poenitentia et matrimonio,
another Dominican work, of similar date (before 1238),
came to join it, and the Franciscan Astexanus d'Asti
added his Summa de casibus conscientiae around the
year 1317. The matter was abstruse enough in itself,
but the well-known Scholastic passion for distinc-
tion-making made it much more so. The busy priests
needed commodious handbooks for quick information
rather than learned tomes, and such a one was provided
when the Summa Silvestrina of the Dominican Sil-
vester Prierias (ca. 1515)—a work arranged according
to alphabetical headings—was put on the shelves next
to the Summa Raimundiana and the Summa Astesana
which had been the main standbys before and remained
so for a considerable time.

In the hands of these writers the old legal casuistry
of the primitive Church changed into a moral casuistry
which offered a rather different face to the world.
While the casuistical method is, as we have pointed
out, impeccable in the field of law, it appears, in ethics,
easily as an illicit bending of general principles, if not
indeed as a playing fast and loose with sacred impera-
tives. This must be so especially if “accommo
dation”—the adjustment of a firm law to the needs of
an individual law-breaker, a “tempering of the wind
to the shorn lamb,” to use a common phrase—becomes
in practice the guiding principle. The basic problem
lies in the fact that the confessional is a tribunal of
love as well as a tribunal of law. The end pursued in
it is less the conviction and the condemnation of the
sinner than his reclamation and reconciliation. To con-
front him with the letter of the law and to refuse to
make allowances in his personal, perhaps attenuating,
circumstances would always mean to discourage and
often to lose him. On the other hand, to give way to
special pleading, to set aside obligations and command-
ments which must needs be binding on all men, would
lead to a catastrophic undermining of human discipline
and morality. The casuists tried to do their job without
falling either into excessive hardness (legalism in the
bad sense of the word) or into excessive softness
(casuistry in the bad sense of the word). Hence the
ambiguous, problematical reputation which is theirs.
Love and law can never be totally reconciled in their
conflicting claims. A synthesis must be attempted in
every age without ever being achieved or even achiev-
able. The classical casuistic literature of the later Mid-
dle Ages was one attempt in this direction.

The permanent character as well as the further
development of casuistry was deeply influenced by the
ethical doctrines of Saint Thomas Aquinas which are
set out in the second part of his Summa theologica.
His moral system, deeply influenced as it is by Plato
and Aristotle, centers on the concept of “right rela-
tions,” of a justitia generalis, the realization of which
would bring human society into an ordered and satis-
fying (even morally satisfactory) condition. According
to Aquinas, all virtues can, in a manner, be reduced
to the basic virtue of righteousness and/or justice.
These two key words—righteousness and justice—
suggest a legal, if not, indeed, a legalistic turn of mind,
and there can be no doubt that in one sense all human
relationships, insofar as they approach the ideal, are
conceived as norm-informed and norm-determined. Yet
there is another aspect which must not be missed. Right
and just relationships are not only right and just in the
minimal sense, in the cold sense, so to speak, they are
also right and just in the full, the maximal sense, the
sense of closeness and warmth, indeed, of love. If this
is not always obvious on the face of the texts, because
Thomas sports a sober mode of expression, it is yet
the inner substance of his social and moral philosophy.
Law is for him the form, while love is the appropriate
content. De facto relations which fully coincide with
the relations which are expected and demanded de jure,
will spontaneously generate a spirit of caritas, for there
is, for Thomas as for Aristotle, a drift in reality which,


by its own power, leads upward towards the summit
of perfection. All tends towards God. God is indeed
the source of all law, but He is also the source of all
love. Law appears therefore in the last analysis as
essentially a means to an end, and the end is the vision
of, and the union with, God, the Value of Values. The
practice of the confessional, from which casuistry
sprang, and which it, in turn, shaped, was in line with
these conceptions. The quasi-legal and casuistical side
of the priest's dealings with the penitent, the con-
of his failings and their subsumptio under the
appropriate norms, was merely a preparation for the
prodigal's reconciliation with his outraged father, i.e.,
the reestablishment of a condition of love.

It is only if it is seen within this framework, that
the essence of casuistry can be recognized and the
whole phenomenon duly appreciated. Nothing but
error can result if it is considered in isolation. The
inclusive system of moral philosophy which emerged
in and through the great Summae was bipolar. It con-
sisted of Ascetics on the one hand, and of Casuistics
on the other, and the two belonged together like light
and shadow, or like the two sides of a coin, each being
meaningless without the other. The ascetic element
loomed less large in the bulk of the literature, but not
because it was considered of minor importance; the
reason was rather that, with its simple and lapidary
pronouncements, it did not need so much space as its
casuistical opposite whose fine-spun and detailed dis-
tinctions needed a lot of room for their due display.
Ascetic morality represented a kind of classics, having
come down from the Old Testament (the Ten Com-
mandments) and the early rigorists such as Tertullian
or Saint Augustine, whereas casuistical morality re-
garded itself as its modern, developmental completion.
The discipline of Ascetics represented a striving for
moral perfection; it formulated the moral maximum,
as it were; Casuistics, for its part, showed in contrast
a search for the moral minimum; it tried to draw the
lowest acceptable line between ethical and nonethical,
e.g., egotistical conduct, for instance, in economic or
market dealings. Ascetics formulated its concepts and
commands in terminis, whereas Casuistics was, and had
to be, much more tentative and vague. One reason for
this difference was that Ascetics, in majestic isolation
from reality, issued absolute propositions which time
and space would not, should not, and could not modify,
whereas Casuistics was in the closest contact with
reality, with the everyday dealings of human beings
with each other, and tried to cope as best it might
(often greatly hampered by the ascetic tradition with
which it was yoked together) with the myriads of
situations and incidents which were encountered from
day to day. Because of its whole nature, the ascetic
tendency excluded from its statements and develop-
ments every trace of sentiment; it tended to be ration-
alistic; it conceived its doctrines to be truth in the same
sense as mathematical propositions are the truth. Be-
tween Is and Ought it saw the same difference as
between black and white. It was not in these terms
that the casuistical authors speculated. They saw a
world of grey hues, some rather dark in complexion,
others rather light, and they believed in the possibility
of diminishing the black ingredient in the mixture and
increasing the white. This was to be achieved by a
clever strategy, by elasticity, understanding, forebear-
ance, patience, and all similar tactics, but also (this
must in fairness be emphasized) by persistence and
perseverance. If the ascetic moralist was a quasi-
mathematician, the casuist was a kind of medical man.
He aimed at providing the right treatment which, by
slow improvements, would nurse a sickening soul back
to robust health so that it could feed again on the hard
fare of ascetic morality.

Considered in this fashion, the system of the Summae
represented a microcosm of all ethical philosophizing.
Max Weber, for instance, divided moral philosophy
into the ethics of principle, absolutizing ethics ( Gesin-
as he called it—Kant's categorical impera-
tive as archetype), and the ethics of accommodation,
relativizing ethics (Erfolgsethik—Bentham's utilitarian-
ism as archetype). The former embraced the maxim
“Let justice prevail though the world perish” (fiat
justitia, pereat mundus
); it was pure and august and
majestic, but it was essentially divine rather than hu-
man, a manifestation of the noumenal world, with the
result that it would be denied what its weaker and
less impressive other self secured, namely success in
practical affairs. The latter rejected the formula “all
or nothing” and was satisfied with a little step here
and again a little step there; it was of the phenomenal
world in which we live, afflicted with its impurities,
by no means endowed with a grandiose and distant
impressiveness, but a workable technique securing ever
anew petty improvements. In a word, the latter variety
of ethics based on consequences (Erfolgsethik) was a
kind of moral Machiavellism, and this is precisely what
casuistry was in the framework of the Catholic doc-
trinal system. We can describe it so, provided of course
we remember that the ultimate aim of the Florentine
was also the moral regeneration of his city and country.

To the Catholic thinkers themselves, the contrast
which we are trying to draw and within which alone
the essence and the historical achievement of casuistry
can be fairly assessed, presented itself in other, though
parallel, terms. Their thought was theological. God
could either be conceived as king or judge, or he could
be conceived as father or friend. To the one conception


he was distant, stern, even unapproachable, to the
other near, loving, and easy to approach. Corre-
spondingly there were two basic psychological condi-
tions with regard to the human attitude to the divinity,
fear of God on the one hand and love of God on the
other. This love of God was not necessarily destroyed,
though it was unavoidably affected, if a sin was com-
mitted, especially a relatively harmless or “venial”
sin. (The distinction between venial or mortal sins was
therefore a constant preoccupation of Catholic moral
theology in general and the casuistical morality which
formed an integral part of it in particular.) The soul
besmirched by sin had to be cleansed, and that cleans-
ing was the task of the confessional. In the confessional,
Ascetics was not of so much use as Casuistics was, as
Gesinnungsethik was not of so much use in the outer,
wider world as was Erfolgsethik. The ascetic approach
threatened, at least in all probability, to shake, abash,
and frighten the sinner and thereby to inhibit the
striving towards the good which he might still bear
within him. The casuistical treatment, however, prom-
ised, or at least raised the hope, that he would be
soothed, comforted, encouraged, and elevated, and
thereby given the energy for a new and more successful
effort towards reintegration in the society of the right-
eous and just. To these differences in basic attitude
corresponded a contrast of more practical importance.
The priest's formal absolution of the sinner was con-
ditional on his repentance, but in the framework of
ascetical absolutism repentance for the love of God
(contritio) was demanded, whereas in the context of
casuistical strategy and education repentance for the
fear of God (attritio) was deemed sufficient. We have
here a curious, but entirely logical, crossing of the lines
of thought. Contrition, the more perfect form of re-
pentance, sees sin as an offense against the loving God,
the father and friend; here Ascetics works with a con-
cept in other ways more congenial to Casuistics; attri-
tion, however, the less perfect form of repentance, with
which the “laxist” casuists were invariably satisfied, was
inclined to define sin as an insult to the highest lord,
the legislator and judge of the world—it borrowed the
theological core-conception of Ascetics. This proves
again that the two halves of the theology and morality
of the Summae form a whole which cannot be severed
without destroying both.

The close systematic connection between ascetic and
casuistic moral theology would seem to demand,
ideally, an equally close and systematic cooperation.
In principle, the practical counsels of casuistry should
be derived, by a process of logical deduction, from the
theoretical propositions of Ascetics. There should, in
other words, be a flawless and faultless descent from
the universal to the specific. If this had been so, casu
istry could never have broken away from its ascetic
corrective. On the other side, the firsthand experiences
of the practitioners of casuistry should have been re-
ported, for the purposes of reconciliation with, and
incorporation into, the canons of absolute morality, to
the representatives of dogmatic ethics who would then
have avoided all possible estrangement from ongoing
reality. There would thus have been an ever-renewed
ascent from the specific to the universal. As it was,
this highly desirable cooperation of the two branches
was only very partially achieved, and the looseness of
their coherence and coordination brought many and
serious evils in its train. The ascetic, absolutistic, theo-
retical part of the system was not sufficiently enriched
and refined by experience, the casuistical, relativistic,
practical part was not sufficiently kept in contact with
the direction-giving, standard-ensuring securities of
ultimate principles. In the end there appeared a real
danger in the domain of casuistry—the possibility that,
in its hands, the specification and specialized appli-
cation of general rules essential to social control and
the moralization of everyday life would turn into their
dissolution—differently expressed, that casuistry which
up to then had been a relativized absolutism would
degenerate into an absolute relativism. The trouble was
partly due to the social factor. Ascetics, in other words,
moral theory, was mainly cultivated by men more or
less divorced from the world, by monks at first, by
professors later on. Casuistics was in the hands of others
who were perhaps too much in contact with the world,
the parish clergy, who under the pressure of the needs
of their care and cure of souls might easily drift away
from the high canons which they had learned in the
seminaries during their youth. This would not have
been too serious, if the world had been and remained
static. As it was, the pace of development was greatly
speeded up during the fifteenth century and so the two
branches, which should never have lost the closest
contact, tended to be divided by a gap ever increasing
in width and depth. It was especially economic and
industrial development which created a kind of no-
man's-land between the two: partnership agreements
and the dissolution of partnerships in trade, the division
of profits and inheritances, problems arising from the
complexities of the slowly forming insurance business,
with all its uncertainties and temptations and the like,
required serious theoretical thinking through and
equally serious practical solutions. As it was, the tradi-
tional science of Ascetics had become too hard and
set in its thought ways, too enclosed in its inherited
questions and answers, to move with alacrity and
effectiveness into this new and broadening field. There
were notable exceptions. The Dominican Saint
Antoninus of Florence, for instance, who died in 1459,


showed a deep understanding of the new realities in
his writings. But, on the whole, the area was left to
the casuists for cultivation, with the result that the
voice of the Church became somewhat uncertain, and
rigorists raised increasingly sharp criticisms which
contributed their mite to the impending Reformation

It is certainly a very significant historical fact that
Martin Luther, when he burnt the papal bull of ex-
communication directed against him, also threw a
current casuistical text, a copy of the so-called Summa
(1486) of Angelus de Clavasio, into the flames.
In its first stages (though, as we shall see, only in its
first stages), the Reformation was decidedly anti-
casuistical. In this respect, the attitude of Calvin far
outdistanced that of Luther. With his associated doc-
trines of the total perversion of man and the incom-
prehensible majesty of God, he banned, and had to ban,
all ideas of a possible accommodation of God's com-
mands to the needs of man: man was simply too low
and mean, too near to zero in value and importance
to deserve consideration, while God was too high up
and too far away to concede it. Thus Calvinism became
thoroughly, indeed passionately, rigorist in moral the-
ory and practice. This had the understandable and
unavoidable consequence of driving Catholicism in the
opposite direction. In the great competition of the
confessional groups for the adherence of men which
ensued, Calvinism tried to impress by the sternness of
its moral code, the extremity of its disciplinary com-
mands, while Catholicism strove to attract by the
mercifulness of its methods, by its willingness to build
golden bridges for the repentant sinner and keep the
Church's doors ever open for him. In the realm of social
education, nothing is more characteristic of the con-
trast between the two variants of Christianity than the
fact that Calvinism returned to open confession and
open condemnation (the stool on which the culprit had
to stand to hear his failings discussed before and by
the congregation became almost symbolical), whereas
Catholicism made confession ever more easy and ever
more private (the confessional box with its division
between priest and penitent who communicated in
darkness through a grille was now introduced). While
the Church of Rome as a whole thus moved away under
external pressures from the rigorist toward the laxist,
casuistical pole in moral theology, developments took
place within her own house which further strengthened
this tendency and created in the Jesuit Order a power-
ful internal vanguard of an even more extreme laxist
and casuistical movement. Calvinism, with its harking
back to the stark ascetical conceptions of Saint Augus-
tine, aroused an echo in parts of the Catholic camp,
and the community known to history as the Jansenists
came into being. One of them, Antoine Arnauld, pub
lished a treatise on the Morale pratique des Jésuites
(Vol. I, 1669, Vol. II, 1683) strongly upholding the
rigorist point of view; another Jansenist and even
greater writer, Blaise Pascal, launched in his famed
Lettres provinciales (1656-57) a blistering attack on the
Jesuits and on all casuistry. But this attack failed. Such
works as Hermann Busenbaum's Medulla theologiae
(1645) and Antonio Escobar y Mendoza's Liber
theologiae moralis
(1644) did much more than merely
maintain themselves in the market: they became
widely predominant, not to say dominant, handbooks
of Catholic moral guidance. The former ran through
twenty-three editions during Busenbaum's lifetime
(1600-68), the latter through forty. Busenbaum's text
reached in the end more than two hundred printings!
The two treatises mark the earlier climax of casuistry
in the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile the rigorism of the Protestant theologians
was undergoing very considerable modifications. At
first, rid of the need to hear confessions and to give
absolution, Luther and the Lutherans could easily
maintain their original attitude of “no truce with sin.”
But this changed as soon as some of them became
advisers to princes and thus found themselves in the
same positions, or rather the same quandaries, as their
Catholic counterparts. When Luther himself had to
help Philipp von Hessen in his marital complications,
he fell back on a typical casuistical device, the making
of fine distinctions: he counselled that the Landgraf
should not publicly announce his second clandestine
marriage, for there was, he argued, a difference be-
tween a public “yes” and a confidential one. Indeed,
he moved even deeper into casuistry. In the parochial
sermons there is a passage where he goes so far as to
turn the tables on the Catholics. The monks, he pro-
nounces, describe all lying as sinful, but there are cases,
such as those of Nutzlüge and Lieblüge (lying for the
sake of a good cause or for the sake of love), which
are not to be subsumed under the concept of sinning,
if they spring from a good heart. In due course, there
appeared a fairly substantial Lutheran literature on
casuistry which paralleled the works of Busenbaum and
Escobar y Mendoza in most things, even laxity. We
might mention Johann Friedrich König's Theologia
positiva acroamatica
(1664) and Johannes Olearius'
Introductio Brevis in theologiam casuisticam (1694) as
prime examples. Even in the Calvinist fold, something
like a casuistical approach made its appearance.
Somewhat stricter, more penitential in tone and more
edificational in design, it is yet a proof of how wide-
spread casuistical moralizing was in the age, and how
real the need for some such bridging of the gap be-
tween the simplicity of abstract rules and the multi-
plicity of concrete needs is in any age. Three English
works, all by William Perkins, illustrate Calvinist


casuistry: A Case of Conscience (1592), A Discourse
of Conscience
(1597), and The Whole Treatise of the
Cases of Conscience
(1606). Perkins' disciple, William
Ames, wrote De conscientia et eius jure vel casibus
(1630) which could serve as a manual and enjoyed for
a time considerable circulation.

prima facie, one would expect that the transition
from the age of faith to the age of reason would have
diminished the relish for casuistical disquisitions, but
on closer inspection the opposite is seen to be the case.
The reason for the survival, nay continuing vigor, of
casuistry lies in the cause which has ever produced
casuistry as its effect: the formulation and propagation
of a strongly absolutist, ascetical system of morals. The
conquering rationalism of the eighteenth century
tended to bring forth precisely such a system and in
Immanuel Kant we find it perfected and classically
expressed. The imperative on which his ethics rests as
on a rocher de bronze is a categorical, not a hypo-
thetical, imperative. True, even Kant, though his con-
tact with life was tenuous, had at least on one occasion
to fall back, under the pressure of circumstances, on
a technique, the practice of which was a standing
reproach to casuists: the use of somewhat less than
univocal statements in order to defend higher values.
When, after his conflict with the Prussian government,
he promised to abstain “for the future” (fernerhin)
“totally” (gänzlich) from lecturing on religion, he
cleverly addressed this declaration to “your royal maj-
esty” (Ew. Königlichen Majestät), in the intention that
the restrictions he had thus taken upon himself would,
by the form of words chosen, be confined to the lifetime
of King Friedrich Wilhelm II. Absolutist in ethics
though he was, he employed here the current casu-
istical distinction between a government which re-
mains within its legitimate rights and thus can demand
absolute candor of its subjects, and one which goes
beyond them and may under certain circumstances be
treated differently.

The vogue of Protestant and later secularized ra-
tionalism and the often underestimated spread of
Jansenist rationalism, which took in rulers like Joseph
II of Austria, but other formally Catholic princes and
princelings as well, evoked in the eighteenth century
a new and last flowering of casuistry in the person of
Saint Alphonsus of Liguori. Alphonsus, the founder of
the worldwide Redemptorist Order, can best be under-
stood as a representative of the pre-romantic move-
ment which protested against the prevalence of ra-
tionalism in thought and human relationships and
called for a “religion of the heart” to replace the
“head-religion” which controlled orthodoxy and led to
a progressive drying-up of the spiritual life, especially
prayer-life, but which also affected the handling of sin
and sinners in the confessional. The parallel between
him and the Wesleys is obvious. As a moral theologian,
Alphonsus strove to transmute cold justice into warm
charity. He had, however, been trained as a lawyer
and tried to carry out his grand design, not by pushing
aside the laws which were in force, but by softening
them up, so to speak, from within by introducing into
their practice principles and policies of love and ac-
commodation, with the result that a highly profiled
system of casuistry flowed from his pen. The slogan
of the later so-called sociological school of law was
also his: through the law, always through the law, but
beyond it! Formally, his system, as laid down, for
instance, in his Theologia moralis (1756), was a mod-
ernized version of Busenbaum's Medulla; in substance
it was both richer and deeper. As Busenbaum had been
the chief target of Protestant polemics, so Alphonsus
of Liguori became that of the Enlightenment. He was
said to have no principles at all, but to be prepared
to use any sophistry to transmute unacceptable into
acceptable, unethical into ethically innocuous actions.
A cooler assessment of his work, however, shows that
his casuistry, as all casuistry, was in the last resort still
rooted in ascetical thinking. To give but one example:
he allowed, in certain desperate cases, the use of am-
biguous statements. We may think, for instance, of a
political prisoner under interrogation by a secret police
in the shadow of rack and rope. Most moralists, indeed,
most upright men, would, in these circumstances, per-
mit even downright lying. Not so Alphonsus. The use
of ambiguous statements was precisely meant to obvi-
ate the need to lie. The victim was advised, not to
deceive, but to allow the persecutor (who, morally, had
no right to torture or perhaps even to question a fel-
low-man) to deceive himself. Respect for truth was in
a manner preserved by such a stratagem. It is obvious
from this illustration how the casuistics of Saint Al-
phonsus strove to help in the individual case without
hurting general law.

With Alphonsus of Liguori, whose Theologia moralis
was declared unexceptionable by the Congregation of
Rites in 1803, who was canonized in 1839 and pro-
nounced a Doctor Ecclesiae in 1871, and who thus
marks the later climax of casuistry in the Catholic
Church, the main history of this variant of moral the-
ology comes to a close. Casuistical works continued
to appear throughout the nineteenth century, but con-
fessional practice, while still applying the insights of
the casuists, moved more and more into the middle
of the stream of moral philosophy, trying to avoid at
the same time the Scylla of a loveless rigorism and
the Charybdis of an overindulgent laxity.

In this century, in recent decades, casuistry has re-
gained some interest. It was, implicitly and explicitly,
subjected to a new kind of criticism. If it was, in the
past, accused of betraying the abstract and general in


the interest of the concrete and individual, it was now
said to be itself far too abstract and generalizing in
attitude. A leading case is, after all, a kind of genus.
What the casuists did was (though on a lower level
of generalization) exactly what the legalists did,
namely, to subsume an individual instance under a
universal, or near-universal, at least potentially univer-
sal, concept. But, it was argued, moral philosophy is,
or should be, concerned with the absolutely unique,
for not only is every human soul unique, but every
situation in which a soul finds itself when it encounters
a moral quandary is, in principle, unique also. Moral
solutions to moral problems, so “situational ethics”
pleaded, must spring from the unrepeatable decisions
of unrepeatable personalities in unrepeatable situa-
tions. The problem of this new movement in theoretical
ethics would seem to be largely identical with that with
which the classical casuists tried to grapple: how to
extricate men from the clutches of a law which is, and
must be, alien to them, if for no other reason, then
simply because it is a law meant for all and thus not
understanding enough for the needs of any one. As for
casuistry in the traditional sense of the word, the new
discussion has shown up one of its distinguishing marks,
namely to be—in spite of the fact that it is, in such
thinkers as Saint Alphonsus of Liguori, an attempt to
introduce kindness, and indeed emotionalism, into the
legal sphere—itself to some extent a form of legalism
and rationalism.


Joseph Mausbach, Catholic Moral Teaching and its An-
trans. A. M. Buchanan, from the 6th revised and
augmented German ed. (New York, 1914). Joseph Klein,
“Ursprung und Grenze der Kasuistik,” Aus Theologie und
Festschrift für Fritz Tillmann (Düsseldorf,
1950), pp. 229-45. Richard Egenter, “Kasuistik als Christ-
liche Situationsethik,” Münchner Theologische Zeitschrift,
1 (1950), 54-65. Paul Ramsey, Deeds and Rules in Christian
(New York, 1967).


[See also Education; Equity; God; Justice; Law; Love;
Rationality; Reformation; Right and Good; Sin and Salva-