JMC : Catholic Moral Teaching / by Joseph Mausbach

Part I: The Position of Casuistry in Catholic Morals

Chapter I: Teaching and Teachers

OUR recent antagonists for the most part take as the basis of their attacks the assumption that the whole moral teaching of the Church, and the character of her moral science, may be adequately described as "probabilistic casuistry"; i.e., as a system of deciding cases of conscience according to the method of Probabilism. During the last century, and especially since St. Alphonsus Liguori was declared to be a doctor of the Church, Protestants have believed Probabilism to be the dominating element in the Church and the true exponent of her spirit. Herrmann remarks that the Church herself has "by an irrevocable decision concluded an alliance with profound depravity. This took place when Pius IX proclaimed Liguori, who had already been canonized, to be a Doctor Ecclesiae, thus committing the Church to Probablism." Any change of policy is almost impossible "in face of a decree, issued not many years ago by a Pope who had become infallible" (p. 45, etc.). "It is a very remarkable phenomenon that a Church professing to have been founded by Jesus Christ, one that honours His name in every conceivable way, should come to such an end" (I) (p. 30, etc.).

Harnack, following Döllinger and Reusch, draws a terrifying picture of the morality of the Jesuits and of St. Alphonsus, and remarks that the Church, by honouring the latter, has set him up in place of St. Augustine and has restored complete ethical scepticism in morals and, indirectly, in dogma. "Whatever remained of St. Augustine's teaching in the nineteenth century has been thrust aside by Liguori. Casuistic morals, together with the doctrine of attrition, have forced all dogmatic teaching into the background. It has been torn to shreds by Probabilism and Papalism. It is at the present time a legal system either rigid or elastic as circumstances demand."{1}

We certainly have no desire to diminish the importance of the Pope's utterances regarding St. Alphonsus, but we cannot understand the assertion that he and his casuistic morality should have thrust the whole dogmatic teaching of the Church into the background, nor that St. Augustine has been cast out of his position in Catholicism. Casuistic morality is not simply the Summa moralis of Catholicism; far less is it the Summa theologica. Moreover, St. Alphonsus was not declared to be the model teacher of morality in Pius IX's brief of July 7, 1871, there is express mention of alii ecclesiae doctores; and he is certainly not set up as the Augustine of our own times. It is only necessary to open any book on Catholic dogma to see that St. Alphonsus practically plays no part at all in it, whilst St. Augustine is cited as one of the chief authorities on every topic. The highest authority in the Church emphatically desires modern theologians to follow St. Thomas Aquinas; this fact is patent to every one, and Harnack himself says that St. Thomas and the Dominican Order endeavoured to bring back St. Augustine's theology to its pristine condition. How, then, is it possible to speak of St. Augustine as being ousted at the present time by St. Liguori? Harnack is greatly mistaken if he supposes that the dogmatic works still being written have only a fictitious value for Catholicism now actually dominated by casuistic scepticism. Theologians nowadays devote more attention to dogma and the history of dogma than to morals, and we may say of casuistic writers, St. Alphonsus included, that their works appeal only to a limited number of readers, and even for these they do not occupy a prominent position in their intellectual life.

Protestant scholars have recommended Scheeben's "Die Mysterien des Christentums" as a dogmatic work, useful because it enables the reader to appreciate the religious meaning of the old dogmas and to understand the connection between modern Catholic feeling and that of the primitive Church.{2} Harnack himself acknowledges with regard to the practice of the Catholic religion that "to the present time the interior vital piety and its outward expression are still essentially those of St. Augustine."{3} But the pious people who feel and act thus have been brought up to this sentiment and speech by the Church's teaching on the subjects of faith and morals, and they regard auricular confession as a means of imparting fresh life to their piety. How would it be possible for them to have anything of St. Augustine's spirit if Catholic priests were trained in a manner antagonistic to this spirit, and if they learnt how to hear confession as others learn "the art of gambling on the stock exchange"? If Harnack possessed a better knowledge of penance as practised by the Church, he would perceive that the "painful yet happy sensation" that he calls "the hopeful relief from the misery of sin," and declares to be a special feature of St. Augustine's piety, is most intimately connected with the sacrament of penance, as dispensed at the present day.

Non-Catholic writers, in discussing any development within the Church, are inclined to discover contrasts that appear to be such only because the universal or Catholic character of the Church is not understood. The promotion of St. Alphonsus to be a doctor of the Church was not intended to diminish the prestige of other, earlier doctors; St. Alphonsus in his modesty certainly never dreamed of stirring up discord in the Sacred College of Doctores Ecclesiae, or of wishing to push the Doctor gratiae into the background! The Church does not identify herself with any one doctor; they all labour, in their own departments and each in his particular historical and personal manner, at the task of throwing more light upon the depth and manifold aspects of Christian truth as a whole. The Pope who gave to St. Alphonsus the title of doctor of the Church conferred the same dignity upon St. Hilary of Poitiers and St. Francis of Sales, a proof that, besides morals, dogma also receives recognition, and that within the scope of morals there is to be room for spiritual and devotional asceticism as well as for casuistry, if we choose to regard St. Alphonsus as the representative of the last named exclusively.

If any one wants to know what the Church herself teaches about the essence and form of morality, let him examine the decisions of the various councils and the ex cathedra utterances of the Popes regarding moral principles and questions. He will find that ever since the time of the Montanists, Gnostics, and Pelagians, the teaching authority of the Church has defended the law of Christian morality, against mystical distortion and rationalistic shallowness no less than against mistaken rigorism, In the controversies of modern times not only have rigoristic theses been condemned, but by far a greater number of propositions that appear to be excrescences of an extreme kind of Probabilism have been censured.

Of far greater importance to the present discussion is what the Church, in the ordinary course of her instruction, sets forth to the faithful throughout the world as being Christian morality. This ordinarium et universale magisterium is also an authentic source of faith, equivalent to solemn decisions.{4} On difficult points of dogma this source is of course less important, for such questions have no place in ordinary instruction and are certainly not presented as truths of Christianity that we are bound to believe. But with regard to the teaching of morals and of the duties belonging to a Christian life, it is clear that these things occupy a prominent position in sermons and instructions to the laity, and that they are to be accepted practically and not merely intellectually. Let any Protestant examine the catechisms of the various dioceses, even of the whole world, -- for they contain the quintessence of teaching in general, -- and I have no doubt that he will acknowledge Catholic morality, as set forth in the Catechism, to be on almost all points that of the Gospel. How, then, can it be possible that the Catholic Church, which is otherwise admitted to know her own mind and to adhere to her principles, has at the same time concluded an irrevocable alliance with "profound depravity"?

Another prominent source of information on the subject of the life pulsating in the Church is her liturgy. According to St. Augustine, up to his time the doctrine of grace was expressed more clearly in the prayers than in the teaching of the Church, The same is true to some extent also of the moral spirit that the Church calls her own. Some one has said that a mother shows how she regards the task of educating her children, not only in the form in which she speaks to them of God, but also in the manner in which she speaks of them to God. This remark applies also to the Mater Ecclesia. How many misunderstandings of the spirit pervading Catholic worship and life might be removed by a study of the treasure of liturgical prayers contained in the Missal alone! What unction, fervour, and vigour, what intimate union of the history of our Redemption with morality, appear in the plain but pithy prayers of the Missal!

Leo XIII, as well as other Popes, has been held responsible for the "degeneration" of Catholic morality, because he followed his predecessors' example in praising St. Alphonsus. The brief dated August 28, 1879, to which many refer, was called forth by the publication of a translation, made by two French Redemptorists, of the saint's dogmatic and ascetic works. It is characteristic of this kind of controversy to claim that such letters of thanks for books received are ex cathedra and infallible decisions.{5} Would it not have been better to study the Pope's numerous and varied encyclicals on religious, social, and moral subjects in order to estimate the moral influence of the Papacy at the present time? They are the solemn official pronouncements of the Head of the Church, though not directly ex cathedra decisions. We find in them nothing about Probabilism, or Attritionism, or any other things inspiring such terror, and they give the impression of being inspired by an enlightened wisdom, surveying life, in all its aspects, with the deep moral purpose of repairing the evils of modern civilization and with an enthusiasm for Christ that does not only "heap honours upon His name," but strives to make His words and His spirit leaven the whole of human existence. Besides St. Thomas Aquinas, the Bible is there designated as the source of Christian science as well as of morality;{6} their due value from the point of view of morality is ascribed not only to the Church and the ascetic life, but also to the state and to secular education; the freedom of men is defended and stimulated to action, at the same time the Holy Ghost is invoked and stress is laid upon the importance of prayer; on both the ruling and the labouring classes their rights and duties are impressed; the Christian family is to regain its sanctity, and the Church, the family of the nations, its unity. The close of the century gave occasion to an impressive and glorious act of homage to Christ as the centre of faith and love, as Via, Veritas, et Vita. And yet, whilst the Church is displaying such activity, Herrmann is troubled because he does not see how she is ever "to find her way out of her moral quagmire and return to Christ"!

Let us now consider more closely how matters really stand with regard to an infallible approbation of St. Alphonsus and his teaching on morals. Our handbooks on dogma discuss in detail the manner and form of the ex cathedra decisions of the teaching Church, but nowhere do we find that the proclamation of a doctor ecclesiae is included amongst them. With regard to the title itself, it is scarcely possible to connect it with truth or error; it is primarily a title of honour, conferred by the Pope in recognition of the activity displayed by some saint in writing or preaching; it is a general testimony on the part of the teaching authority of the Church to his exalted merits and the trustworthiness and accuracy of his teachings; but it is no proof that all his opinions are correct or that his methods are in every respect perfect and better than those of other doctors of the Church. As praise of the same or similar nature is given to various doctors of the Church, differing in talents, in ways of thought and opinions, it follows that this interpretation of the title is the only possible one, and it has long been so accepted by Catholic authors.{7}

Von Hoensbroech{8} exaggerates in a fantastic manner the responsibility of the Church and the Papacy for everything that has been taught and is being taught on the subject of morals by theologians and by theological schools. At all times there have been in theology various schools of thought, sharply antagonistic to one another; and even when the Popes have favoured one rather than another, they have as a rule expressly forbidden any one to consider the other heretical. They have left many disputed points unsettled for centuries, in order to allow scope for the natural development of thought and for the general enlightenment of Christian principles. Even in the case of opinions which might have involved danger to faith or morals, toleration was possible as long as their injurious effects were practically averted by other factors. Every one knows that there are pronouncements of the teaching authority in the Church that make known the spirit of the Church in no ambiguous terms, and any one who, like Hoensbroech, tries to deduce dogmas from silence on the part of the Church must soon bring down ridicule upon himself. In reply to Herrmann's statement already quoted, to the effect that in St. Alphonsus Probabilism had become, so to say, a dogma of the Church, Ter Haar, a Redemptorist, remarks that his Order, like St. Alphonsus, does not accept Probabilism in the narrower sense, and that the AEquiprobabilism, really taught by St. Alphonsus, has not been made binding upon the Church. He also maintains that theologians are free to reject St. Alphonsus' individual opinions, and that it is the duty of every Christian honestly to seek the truth and to follow in practice what he perceives to be true.{9} St. Alphonsus{10} himself says of Probabilism, in its usual form, that it prevailed almost universally in the seventeenth century, and yet he rejects it as lax -- a proof that he was far from regarding toleration by the Church as equivalent to decided approval.{11}

With regard to St. Alphonsus himself, we cannot too strongly condemn the disdainful and even contemptuous way in which so-called Old-Catholics and Protestants criticise him, but at the same time we need not assent to all that Catholic admirers of the saint have said in praise of his learning.{12} Because a man deserves credit as a teacher, the eminens doctrina of Patrologists does not mean that he must have been a creative genius or a profound scholar cutting new paths in our sense of the words; the expression is justified if he displayed remarkable energy in one or other department of teaching, and if his activity was beneficial to the age in which he lived. Who could for a moment compare St. Isidore of Seville with St. Athanasius or St. Augustine on the ground of intellectual originality? Yet it was Benedict XIV, a very learned Pope, who raised him to the dignity of a doctor ecclesiae, and with full justification, if we consider the man's historical importance. We can read much theology without coming across the name of St. Peter Damian; he earned the title of doctor of the Church by his vigorous words and writings against the vices and the ecclesiastical troubles in his day. St. Francis of Sales did not do much to further learning, but used his own knowledge in throwing light upon the circumstances of life through the principles of faith, and so his writings became models of devotional works adapted to modern conditions. We need not, therefore, expect of St. Alphonsus that he possess the depth and powers of thought of St. Augustine, or the universality and philosophical spirit of St. Thomas, or the historical erudition and critical acumen of the Maurists.

In the brief conferring upon him the title of doctor, reference is made to his works on morals, as serviceable in the practical direction of souls, to his popular writings on apologetics, and to his merits in raising the standard of piety. His works intended for the instruction of the people are very valuable from the ecclesiastical point of view. They warded off the assaults of unbelief and served the same purpose as the Order which he founded, primarily to increase the religious knowledge and morality of the lower classes. His ascetic writings, the "Practice of the Love of Christ," "Visits to the Blessed Sacrament," "Instructions on the Religious State," and others, soon became the common property of the Catholic world, and thus St. Alphonsus "has comforted and helped innumerable people in the hours of temptation and trial."{13} In his more learned, dogmatic treatises he does not display any extraordinary critical faculty, but rather a considerable knowledge and an accurate sense of the true meaning of the Church's traditional teaching, and he does his best to reconcile differing views on matters of theology. His Moral Theology displays a similar conciliatory tendency; on the one hand it was intended to check the spread of Jansenistic rigorism, and on the other to assign narrower boundaries to probabilistic "freedom." Adherents of Jansenism were then as now not friendly to St. Alphonsus, for he remarked that Jansenism understood how to assume a semblance of the piety and the spirit pervading the early Church. The actual results of Jansenism in the guidance of souls in France show plainly that St. Alphonsus' attitude was highly beneficial and necessary to the life of the Church.

The papal briefs commend this conciliatory tendency in St. Alphonsus, and also his tact in deciding particular questions. Not even his most ardent admirers interpret this as meaning that his opinions are accepted in all cases as true, or as even probable. In some points of Canon Law the Roman congregations have declared Liguori to be wrong,{14} and thus the attitude adopted by the ecclesiastical authorities, as well as the light thrown by science upon questions of morality, and finally an individual discovery that the saint was mistaken in one of his solutions, destroy the probability based upon his prestige and forbid the observance of a precept which has been recognized as erroneous.{15}

Ballerini's criticism has undeniably succeeded in proving St. Alphonsus to have been deficient in scientific acumen on many points and in logical consistency on others. There is no need to apologize for these defects; they are due to the burden of anxiety and official labour that weighed him down at the time when he was writing the works in question. His views regarding the lawfulness of ambiguous expressions have been sharply criticised by Catholics as well as by Protestants.{16} I shall recur later on to this question of casuistic morality and discuss it from a more general point of view.

How far St. Alphonsus was from possessing any ambition to be regarded as an authority on the higher or scientific side of morals appears from the fact that he chose Busenbaum's "Medulla," a compendium of casuistry, as the foundation for his chief work. It is misleading to conclude from the Church's commendation that his teaching constitutes the moral teaching of the Church; the commendation can obviously refer only to that department of morals with which St. Alphonsus really dealt. He wrote nothing at all comparable to St. Thomas' wonderful investigations into the nature and object of morality, the moral faculties of man, and the subjects of law and virtue contained in the second part of the "Summa." Who could deny that the moral theological works of Suarez, Molina, Vasquez far excel those of St. Alphonsus in penetrating power of thought, in expansiveness of view, and historical conception? Any one would be treating St. Aiphonsus himself and his literary labours unfairly who did not estimate his importance within the limits that the saint himself assigned to his work.

A study of the personality of the saint, based especially upon his letters, reveals him to us as a man with an ardent zeal for souls, of a very lovable nature and noble popularity, who aimed at reviving religion and at sanctifying the men of his own time, and not at all at investigating past ages or abstract theories. To a great extent his own modesty and devoted attention to the task of caring for souls prevented him from developing more fully his great intellectual powers. He welcomed all kinds of scientific progress; he advocated the use of modern books on natural science and philosophy in the schools belonging to his Order, rather than the usual Aristotelian works. His ascetic severity towards himself and all those under his spiritual direction was the outcome not of narrow-mindedness, but of his enthusiastic love of the crucified Saviour. The religious songs that he composed and set to music reveal the childlike nature and the depth of his piety.{17} He requires all sentimentality, all feeble dependence upon human consolation, to be sacrificed to respect for God's will. Far from holding that "each conscience can find rest only in the absolute authority of a confessor"{18} he tries to keep the dependence of the conscience upon spiritual direction within due bounds; and in writing to a religious he says: "Jesus Christ is our true consolation, our true brother, the true director of our souls and their true and only love." {19}

If the personality and life work of St. Alphonsus be kept in view, it becomes impossible to reproach him with laxity or with a petty conception of morality. No one who judges him with due reference to the demands of the time in which he lived, or the ends for which he laboured, will think that the Church has paid him too much honour.{20}

The more recent development of moral theology proves, moreover, that this branch of study did not end with St. Alphonsus, nor did it lose the impulse to advance independently of him. The German works on morals by Sailer, Hirscher, Propst, Werner, Simar, Pruner, Schwane, Linsenmann, Göpfert, Koch, Schindler, and others differ considerably from the casuistic treatises on morals, not only in their design and method, but also by laying greater stress upon what is positive and based on principle. There are also Latin works which, whilst adhering more closely to tradition, nevertheless show progress with regard to their matter and methods. We owe to the contact with modern scientific and practical requirements a number of monographs on moral philosophy, apologetics, political economy, and asceticism. Nor does Probabilism reign supreme in matters of conscience; it is criticised by many theologians,{21} and there are two views regarding its real meaning, one more strict than the other. A certain amount of Probabilism is accepted by all Catholic theologians, as by all other reasonable people, -- a conviction, namely, that in moral practice there is a difference between what is distinctly demanded by morality and what is merely an opinion, against which cogent arguments may be adduced. In the case of doubtful demands of the law or disciplinary regulations even our opponents grant that an assertion of freedom on the basis of probability is justified, and yet the laws laid down by state and Church discipline are binding upon the conscience of Christians. How far Probabilism may be applied to the rest of morality is a question that we shall have to discuss thoroughly further on. I will only remark here that reference to external authorities, e.g., to St. Alphonsus, has more force when we are speaking of positive rules of a liturgical and canonical nature than when we are dealing with the subject of morality itself. When questions of the latter kind occur, a Catholic knows generally how to think the matter out for himself, without consulting authorities and books.

{1} Dogmengeschichte, 4th ed. III, p. 755, seq.

{2} Titius, Theol. Rundschau, 1901, p. 251.

{3} Das Wesen des Christentums, Leipzig, 1900, p. 161.

{4} Vatic., sess. 3, cap. 3.

{5} Grassmann, p. 6.

{6} Encycl. Providentissimus, p. 15. The italicized words are allusions to Well-known encycicals issued by the Holy Father.

{7} Bouquillon, Theol. Moral. Fundam., Burgis., 1890, n. 66; Chr. Perch, Theol. Zeitfragen, II, Freib., 1901, 104, etc. What Perch says in this passage (note I) of the style adopted by the Oriental Councils and of their "pompous panegyrics" may in some degree be applied to the stilus curiae and to Latin panegyrics in general. They affect more vigorous expressions than we use nowadays in scientific appreciation of the merits of individuals.

{8} Die ultramontane Moral, pp. 2, 7, 576.

{9} Das Dekret des P. Innozenz XI. über den Probabilismus, 1904, pp. 169, 185.

{10} Homo apost., I, 1, 31.

{11} The decision of the court at Nuremberg, confirmed by the Imperial Court, in 1901 declared, with reference to Grassmann's affair, that "Liguori's moral theology is devoid of any dogmatic character, so that its contents are not doctrines of the Church, The decrees raising Liguori to the dignity of a doctor of the Church and recommending his moral teaching are seen from their whole contents not to have been ex cathedra decisions of the Popes Pius IX and Leo XIII. Therefore it is impossible to say that the Church can be made responsible for Liguori's moral theology."

{12} Cf. Bouquillon, n. 71.

{13} Meffert, Der hl. Alphons,. Liguori, 1901, p. 267.

{14} Cf. Bouquillon, I. c.

{15} Vindiciae Alphonsianae, 2d. ed., ParIs, 1874, I, LXXXVII, ss.; Aertnys, Theol. moral., Paderb., 1890, I, 45. Certain opinions held by St. Alphonus on matters of morals, as well as on points of Canon Law, are now universally abandoned (cf., e.g., Alphonsus, Theol. mor., II, 76, and Aertnys, I, 104). St. Alphonsus himself stated repeatedly that theories, even though widely accepted, must give place to clear, scientific convictions: "Omnes docent auctoritatem extrinsecum sapientum magni non posse esse ponderis, ubi INTRINSECA ratio certa videtur et convincens" (Theol. moral., I, 79).

{16} Cf. Cardinal Newman's words in his Apologia, 1902, p. 279: "I plainly and positively state, and without any reserve, that I do not at all follow this holy and charitable man in this portion of his teaching. There are various schools of opinion allowed in the Church, and on this point I follow others."

{17} Meffert, p. 2; Stimmen aus M. Laach, XLIX, pp. 441, seq.

{18} Harnack, Dogmengeschichte, 4th ed., III, p. 755.

{19} Histor.-Polit. Bl., CXVI. 325.

{20} Cardinal Capecelatro says of St. Alphonsus Liguori and St. Francis of Sales that their teaching is less exalted, less speculative, and less clearly defined than that of their predecessors. It appeals more to the heart of man, to remedy his ills and to lead him to penance, and to give him a helping hand in all circumstances of life (Hist.-Pol. BI., CXVI, 422; cf. A. Weiss, Apologie, 3d ed., V, 855; Berthe, S. Alphonse de Liguori, Paris, 1900).

{21} Dieckhoff, Martin, Linsenmann, etc.; cf. Bouquillon, n. 288.

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