Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hey kids! Free casuistry!

Some time back I posted a set of links to some older works in Scholastic philosophy and theology available online via  Fans of Scholastic moral theology will be interested to know that five volumes of The Casuist: A Collection of Cases in Moral and Pastoral Theology, a very useful series published about a century ago, are also available online.  Here are the links: Volume 1; Volume 2; Volume 3; Volume 4; Volume 5.

Also available at the same site is Fr. Thomas Slater's similar work Questions of Moral Theology.

Among the many articles of interest you’ll find within these resources, some readers might find especially interesting “Is It Ever Permitted to Tell a Lie?”, at pp. 44-49 of Volume 3 of The Casuist.  This is an issue that I have addressed in a number of earlier posts (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).  As my longtime readers know, I endorse the traditional view that (a) lying is deliberately speaking contrary to one’s true thoughts and that this is always and intrinsically wrong, even if not always gravely so, but that (b) broad mental reservation, even when it is hoped that that its use will deceive one’s listener, does not count as lying.  A minority view within the tradition holds that a deliberate falsehood counts as lying only when the listener has a right to the truth.  In an earlier post I firmly rejected this latter view, but I also emphasized that it has had defenders in the tradition and that it would be unjust to accuse those who hold it of somehow dissenting from Catholic orthodoxy.  The article from The Casuist gives a good idea of how seriously this matter was debated by earlier generations of Catholic moral theologians.


Alan Aversa said...

Wow, this post is like opening up Christmas presents. Thanks

Kiel said...

I'm not lying when I say this:

Best. Blog. Post. Image. Ever.

Immunophilosopher said...

Whilst (hopefully) not straying too far from the topic of Scholastic resources, I was wondering if anyone could direct me to the answer to a question that's been bugging me for some time since reading Dr Feser's Aquinas:

For context, as a non-religious philosophical Theist, I have always been fascinated by the concept of Angels. My metaphysical commitments lead me to concede that such beings are possible, although pending further investigation I believe it prudent to suspend judgement on their actual existence. Perhaps you could call me an "Angel agnostic".

What I'm really curious to know, though, is whether, on the Thomistic view, Angels are considered to be natural?

I ask this because (from my admittedly unacquainted perspective) they appear to have some features which could be taken to be supernatural (taking God to be the examplar of that concept), such as immateriality, and yet despite this, they also seem to be part of the created order, as their existence is contingent upon the will of God.

I'd be really curious to see some answers to this question, if anyone can point me to them.

Best Wishes,


Anonymous said...

I also have had some questions about Angels. I do think it's perfectly rational to believe in God, but Angels? What sufficient purpose is there for their existence? Was there an "Angel judgment" where the "good" angels were allowd to serve God and the "bad" angels were purged/confined, before the evolution of man?

Brian said...

I am very interested in moral theology, but I have come to doubt the usefulness of older texts on moral theology on some issues. They just seem dated. For example, is "steady company-keeping" between a dating couple really a... SIN? Maybe it is, but it just does not seem like it to this 21st-century young person. And then these moral theologians tend to be very against consuming entertainment that they think is inappropriate.

Am I correct in thinking that these texts are dated on some issues?

Frank said...

Thanks Doc, Questions of Moral Theology looks excellent.

@ Immunophilosopher, I'm a novice but let me have a stab at that. Angels are not, I don't think, natural in the same sense as material objects; they differ from all other everyday objects of our experience in that they are pure form, devoid of matter, and thus supernatural in the sense that they are outwith the boundaries of our normal sense experience.

I suppose if you equivocate on the term 'natural' and use it to denote the entire created order, material and immaterial, then angels would be natural.

From what I've read, I think Aquinas would be with you, were it not for his assent to revealed truth through the Church and scripture, in being agnostic about the actual existence of angels. On purely logical grounds he saw there existence as being incredibly likely given the gradual ascension in actuality, and attendant reduction in potentiality, as you go up the hierarchy of being; a gap between humans and God with no intermediate intelligence would be a very large gap indeed.

rank sophist said...


I agree that some of this stuff is dated, but, even on minor issues like "steady company-keeping", that doesn't mean that the Catholic church has abandoned it. I've seen some pretty absurd regulations like that in the past--stuff that isn't from the Bible, or from natural theology, or from philosophy, or from most of the Church Fathers. Officially sanctioned innovations, in a sense. But you also have to remember that the material in these books is all pre-Vatican II, so some of it won't be meaningful anymore.

Joshua said...

Brian, where are you looking?

I have read quite a few moral theologians from the past. Dating/company keeping is generally considered a "necessary occasion of sin" not a sin itself. That is, any such close bonding with another of the opposite sex presents a risk that should be guarded against, but it is necessary (within reason and morally) to keep such company/courtship/dating. I know some theologians, e.g. Liguori, were fairly strict that one should beware long courtships and engagements, but as with most things this is a matter of prudence.

If you are referring to the company keeping question in the 1st volume, you are referring to a case of a recidivist fornicator. He is asking whether he may continue nocturnal visits to a girl in the privacy of her room, with whom he has repeatedly sinned. Since his last confession he hasn't had sex with her, and intends to no longer fornicate, but wants to continue the alone, nocturnal, in her room visiting, though only keeping company as he would with a sister.

As there is no intention of marriage, it would be sinful to keep company keeping up any long. Granted, the time this was written hanging together with a girl would be seen as have a relationship (not uncommon assumption even today), and so some minor aspects of the question may change, as circumstances change. But really, do you think the answer would have changed? Were it my daughter, the man might enter the room to see a shotgun pointing the way back out

daytex said...

Even though this question isn't directly related to this post, it's still about moral theology, so I thought I'd toss it out here.
I'm quite curious about the "doctrine of double effect." This post may be a little long, but I think I need some background to show which parts I do understand of it. Keep in mind, I bring these questions up not to criticize the doctrine, but to better understand it. It's normally credited to Aquinas (perhaps unfairly), from his passage on self-defense (which is actually kind of the origin of my confusion):

"Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above (43, 3; I-II, 12, 1). Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one's life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one's intention is to save one's own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in "being," as far as possible." Summa Theologica (II-II, Qu. 64, Art.7)

From there, it was developed and eventually made into a sort of element test. From the Catholic Encyclopedia:

1. The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.

2. The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.

3. The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.

4. The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect“

What's confusing to me is exactly how it operates (especially the first and third elements). What's more confusing is its origin. Aquinas Seems to be arguing that one can kill someone else if he doesn't intend for that person to die. This is incredibly strange to me, especially as far as the normal understanding of self-defense goes. We normally "shoot to kill" when we exercise self-defense. We absolutely intend the death of the attacker as a Means of stopping his advance. Would that be prohibited? I imagine it certainly would not, and it seems to press against common sense. I just don't think this is what Aquinas is saying here, even though that's how DDE is normally employed. To be fair, I often thing people (myself included) completely misunderstand what Aquinas is talking about because we read into his words what isn’t actually there.

Also, the first element seems to be entirely question-begging. What does it mean for an act to be “morally good or at least indifferent?” I thought that’s what we were trying to determine With DDE in the first place. I imagine that element was implemented because otherwise you could justify any action so long as you had noble goals, a kind of intention-based utilitarianism. For example, I could rob a store with the intention of feeding my family, with the mere side effect of the store losing money. I could kill my neighbor with the intention of stopping him from making too much noise when I’m trying to sleep, Not to deprive him of his life. The problem here, though, is how exactly self-defense fulfills the first requirement. That is, taking this strange understanding of self-defense, that when I shoot at a home invader, I am intending to save my life while also Not intending the death of the invader. But here’s where I get confused: why isn’t intentionally shooting another human being morally “bad.” Or, how is it at least “morally indifferent?”


daytex said...


You might say that shooting an Innocent human being is wrong, but shooting a human being with murderous intent is Not wrong. I can accept this, I think, but it doesn’t explain those strange situations where a person is “innocent” but still acting in a way that will kill you. For example, imagine a bomb strapped to a very young child that detonates on touch. The child is running at you (like little kids do), and there’s no way to get the child to stop except by shooting the child. Or imagine the crazy homeless man or drug addict who lunges at you trying to kill you because, in his insanity, he incorrectly thinks you’re an aggressive animal that is attacking Him. Or imagine the little boy who likes playing cowboys and Indians but accidentally got a hold of a real gun and is pointing it at you. It seems like in all these cases it Would be morally permissible to kill the people. But it would be almost impossible (or at least very difficult) to say that these unfortunate people are not Innocent in the usual sense of the word.

I think (and I believe I am getting this from Anscombe) “innocent” might mean not “morally innocent” or “not guilty” or anything like that, but merely that the person or thing that is not aggressing toward you. This is why intentionally killing civilians who are helping with the war effort is not morally permissible, but intentionally killing Soldiers (whose job it is is to Attack you) would be. I think this distinction is actually helpful (assuming we take it for granted that it is “morally good or neutral” to kill non-innocent people), but it leads me to one major problem. What of the case of the mother who will die if her child is not aborted? Is the child growing inside of the mother an “aggressor” in the same sense as the child unknowingly pointing a real gun at you? There’s no doubt that both children are surely Morally innocent (they’re doing nothing morally wrong at all, especially the unborn child), but it can obviously be argued that both are “aggressing” on you in a fatal sense. I think there is a difference in that the child with the gun is actually Doing something, and the child in a womb is doing Nothing except existing, but I’m not sure if that’s enough for me to hang my hat on. I have always found abortion morally reprehensible, even before converting to Catholicism, and I do feel there is a nuanced difference here that I am simply not seeing.


daytex said...


Finally, it is very difficult for me to separate the intended act from the unintended act (which I think goes to element 3). For example (and this is from Philippa Foot, I think), imagine you and a party of five are stuck in a cave and a fat man has blocked the exit. He got stuck, and he does not want to be stuck in there, but no matter how hard anyone tries, he cannot get out (you can even imagine someone placed him there, like in some weird Saw movie). Now, you can’t wait for him to lose weight so he can get out because water is rising behind you. But you have some dynamite. Is it permissible to blow him up with the intention of freeing yourself and not the intention of killing him? Even if you don’t place the dynamite on him, imagine you place it next to him. You have no desire to blow him up; you’re just trying to make a hole right next to him. But you know he’s done for when it goes off. Is his death merely a “side effect” of your intention to blow up the rock? Or imagine another cave situation where the only way to get out is to roll a bolder out of the way. But also imagine where you need to roll the bolder to, a man is stuck. If you roll the bolder, you crush him, and he dies. Not, obviously you don’t want him to die, but you have to get out of the cave, or you and your whole party dies. Is his death really just an unintended side effect of rolling the bolder? Can you really separate the two things in a meaningful way?

DDE is obviously intuitively very helpful and obvious. I mean, there’s clearly something different about a person who targets civilians to win a war as compared to a person who targets supply depots that have the unfortunate (and totally unintended) side effect of killing civilians. And it’s not just the number of civilians either. If 50 died in the first case and 500 died in the second, we’d never be like “oh, it’s alright to murder 50 people for your goals; you’re the morally superior person.” Something is up here, and I want to understand it better. If anyone can either point me to a helpful discussion on these topics (ESPECIALLY as it relates to abortion and self-defense) or if you just want to respond here, I’d really appreciate it. I know there are some very bright people around here, and I would really love the help. Thanks guys.

Brian said...

rank sophist,

All of the books Feser has recommended were written before the Second Vatican Council, but why does that mere fact alone make any difference? As I said, I have a difficult time accepting what seems to be the advice of these authors on some issues, but if I am to disagree with them, I would like to do so on more principled grounds. Or maybe their pre-Vatican II authorship really does make a difference?

I have become very suspicious of what seems to be the moral consensus among many orthodox Catholics on the internet. Catholic Answers Forum has a moral theology subforum, and many of the posters there confidently answer moral questions without any exposition of moral argument. It is just obvious to them that their particular answers to the moral questions being posed are, in fact, the Catholic answers. They may link to some related article or refer to some passage in Scripture, but without making a rational case for their moral conclusions, it is simply not good enough. How many times have Catholics been badgered by Protestants with similar arguments? The First Commandment obviously convicts against Catholic images and icons, right?

Perhaps I am more of the world than I would like to admit, but this consensus seems to me to be very severe on many moral issues. Who knew merely exclaiming "Oh, my God!" was grave matter! I have also heard Tim Staples on Catholic Answers Live say that "french-kissing" (at least between the non-married) is wrong! Woa! This is a lot to take in for, again, a young person living in the 21st-century. I do not know if what I am encountering is authentic Catholicism or what a group of people is merely claiming is authentic Catholicism

Anonymous said...

So if lying is immoral does that mean its immoral to prevent a killer from murdering someone if the only way to stop it is by lying? Wouldn't the moral thing be to tell the truth and let the killer murder? LOL! Theistic morality is so fucked up. Lying is on the same plane as murder, we should oppose abortion but support the death penalty, rapists and genocidal psychopaths go to heaven if they're Christian but everyone is tortured forever no matter how good they are just because they don't believe in a rerarded fairy tale...You guys are fucking batshit insane, you're literally beyond delusional.

Anonymous said...

And you believe in Angels and other magical creatures. Fucking hell. How your minds convince you that angels are real but unicorns aren't is truly amazing.

marycatelli said...

The book I recommend for the question of whether angels are natural is C. S. Lewis's Studies in Words. It has an entire chapter discussing "nature", and there are senses in which angels are natural, and those where it's not.

Anonymous said...

"How your minds convince you that angels are real but unicorns aren't is truly amazing."

Implying that "minds" and "you" are different things. Smells like dualism.

And is "beyond delusional" even possible?

Tony said...

I have also heard Tim Staples on Catholic Answers Live say that "french-kissing" (at least between the non-married) is wrong! Woa! This is a lot to take in for, again, a young person living in the 21st-century.

Brian, the criterion to measure against can't be "how far off from common, generally accepted behavior in today's society," because some societies are _much worse_ than others, morally speaking. So, it is readily possible that a common attitude within OUR social milieu is a badly mistaken attitude. Compare to Christ saying that to even to look on a woman with lust is morally like having adultery in your heart, and the apostles responding "then who can be saved?" The fact is, as a society we are *very badly* distorted in sexual attitude, and the godly, righteous attitude is vastly different.

That said, I agree with you that there are some things that some of the older moralists say that seem to be more culturally conditioned and thus less applicable to our 21st century. You will find compendia from the 1920s telling women that they must not bare their ankles or wear short-sleeve tops. Culture does actually condition the specifics of how virtue gets expressed, and it is no longer the case that women who wear short sleeves are being immodest. But at the same time, the only way our culture changed in that respect is by some women challenging the bounds of modesty and insisting on wearing short sleeves even when it was in fact immodest, and thus eventually altered the sensibilities of those around them so that they could grow used to seeing that. A mere 15 years ago, it was the norm for women to wear button-down shirts with only the top button (right at the throat) unbuttoned. Over the past 15 years, it has become typical for most women to leave *at least* the next button undone, and often a third - so much so that many shirts now don't have buttons there. This process happened, again, by women choosing to defy the norm and leave undone a lower button, in order to be more provocative. That "in order to be more provocative" was, precisely, immodest behavior.

Brian said...

Hey, Joshua. Thanks for the helpful explanation. I do not remember where I read up on "steady company-keeping" - I only remember how surprised I was that it was even an issue. You seem well-read on this issue - I hope you post more.

Of course, Tony, I agree with you. I am very careful to say that what some of what these moralists say only seems wrong to me. Who knows, they might be right, but there's no denying what I feel and that I hope they're wrong. I don't want to be the person that can't listen to jazz or rock or rap, or whatever. I do not want to be stuck up.

Joshua said...


I understand the frustration with internet answers. I think I stopped posting on CAF shortly after it started, because, well, for all the zeal, I am guessing not one of them read about the vice of curiosity in all that old teaching! People like answers to a specific question, they often do not understand that there needs to be principles, and sometimes quite a bit of study into them, before one can really start to reason out conclusions in complicated matters. As Aristotle said, the certainty in ethics is not like in mathematics.

I hope you accept my apology, I assumed you were referring to the particular question on company keeping in the Casuist that was linked too. Reading again, I realize that was a bit hasty for me to do!

These volumes are interesting, and at least give some reasoning (some I have seen merely list authorities), though it presumes general familiarity with much of moral theology. One of the problems reading them now is that some questions touch upon matters of discipline, custom and law that have changed. E.g. singing at a Protestant service. Formerly, we were forbidden to say or sing any prayer with protestants publicly (though private prayer, as long as it was not against the Faith, e.g. grace, was fine), but if we had a good reason to attend, we were to be passive, materially present and no more. In these volumes they simply speak of the matter as one simple thing, formal or material cooperation in heretical worship.

But current discipline is laxer, allowing even certain public acts, such as singing unobjectionable hymns at a protestant service. Other authors (I know even Fr. Jone does) distinguish between what is of divine law and what is ecclesiastical law, stating that prayers/acts that profess heresy or schism are against divine law, but other acts merely against Church law. At the time a mostly academic distinction and so not always mentioned, but now it is a real distinction as Church law changed. That is just one example that comes to mind, and something to be aware of with these old books.

There is also, of course, cultural attitudes. Acts that would be liable to cause scandal or bad repute in former days, are taken for granted now.

But I do admire the attitude of not assuming they are wrong, even if it repels you a bit! I remember reading Augustine on make-up and dying hair in a class, and people were rejecting it as ridiculous. It struck me that they spoke and acted the same way my high school buddies did with my condemning contraception. Now, I don't agree with Augustine (St. Thomas doesn't either, taking a more moderate view), but it is good not to assume he is wrong. Just as they had certain prejudices that may have been wrong, or at least not timeless, so do we.

Brandon said...


I think part of the problem is confusion about what casuistics is; casuistics deals with prudential matters. While this doesn't mean that anything goes, it does mean that everything in it is subordinated to the development of one's own prudence. Casuistics is, in other words, systematic and principled moral advice, with methods of handling the possibility of conflicting moral advice. As with any other advice, it will date, but that doesn't mean it can't be a model for later advice. (It all presupposes more rigorously established moral principles, but these will usually be quite general and leave open all sorts of questions about how to apply them to particular circumstances.) Casuistics, like any other rational field, advances and has to adapt to new situations; and, since it deals specifically with moral complications caused by circumstances, it is much more heavily affected by changing circumstances than most fields are. (This is not merely a matter of dating; circumstances across very different cultures at the same time, or between radically different positions within one culture can be just as significant.)

The advisory character of casuistics tends to get lost on the internet, which is not a great place for nuance. But I think it's also important to recognize that precisely one of the key points of casuistic is seeing the full spread of moral advice, preferably from well-trusted sources, of course, advice is advice. Some of it will be just plain wrong, of course; and some of it will be more subtly wrong. But even there it is worthwhile to know how people are going wrong in making these kinds of judgment. And casuistic matters are not like general principles of natural law: they do not admit of rigorous argument, but merely rough approximations achieved by combining one's general sense of what's important in the circumstances with an understanding of general principles. In many of the cases you are noting, people are simply being overcautious -- sometimes way over cautious. This just means that they are giving moral safety a high priority; we know (due to the condemnation of tutiorism) that taking moral safety alone as a guide is not itself morally safe, since morality does not require taking the most morally safe road, and sometimes it is better not to do so; but it's still useful to get an idea of what people are advising as morally safe. In some cases actions that are far more morally risky than those safe-points will be entirely permissible. But at the same time we cannot ignore the question of what the morally safe thing is, in part for the sorts of reason noted by Tony.

Brandon said...

I see Joshua made some of the same points in a different way while I was still writing my comment up.

I thought I'd add that with these older texts it is important always to keep in mind the particular kind of occasion for which they were written, since this can affect how they should be understood. A lot of the really great older texts were actually writen for confessors. This means that they're really great for understanding essential issues, but it does mean that they weren't written for guiding people's lives in general, but for handling issues in the confessional, and this has to be taken into account. (It's also part of the response to the old Anglican view of Catholic casuistics as making everything a sin but somehow saying it's all OK nonetheless. Well, of course if you're hearing confessions, any number of things can come up in the confessional as genuine problem issues -- including things that aren't problem issues for most people or in general -- but it's also true that if people are confessing them they are already on the road to improving the situation, even setting aside the fact of the sacrament.) I think some people with good intentions dive in without using a bit of good judgment about the differences between what the author is doing and what they might be doing, or what kind of question the author is considering and what kind of question they are answering. It's not at all the most harmful thing that could be done, but, of course, it can put them in strange territory.

Anonymous said...

So if lying is immoral does that mean its immoral to prevent a killer from murdering someone if the only way to stop it is by lying? Wouldn't the moral thing be to tell the truth and let the killer murder? LOL! Theistic morality is so fucked up. Lying is on the same plane as murder, we should oppose abortion but support the death penalty, rapists and genocidal psychopaths go to heaven if they're Christian but everyone is tortured forever no matter how good they are just because they don't believe in a rerarded fairy tale...You guys are fucking batshit insane, you're literally beyond delusional.

As someone who does not adhere to church dogmatic or the "morality of the church", I will tell you this...

If you think the church has murder on the same level as lying then you are beyond ignorant. Given that the sanctity of life is obviously the highest of all values pertaining to the world of human morals then it would be just fine to lie to save someone.

No serious thinker will ever tell you that a vile human being will simply be saved just by claiming to be a Christian. That just nonsense coming out of the mind of a simpleton (that would be you in case you're too stupid to follow).

The whole abortion/capital punishment think is very much a live debate in America but Christians outside the country do not get polarized over such issues. So you're simply generalizing a cultural phenomenon and projecting it on an entire religion/philosophy of life.

As far as fairytales are concerned... How is your worthless, pathetic"god" of chance treating you this day? How is this idea of a world comprised of mindless-matter any less delusional than believing in magical billiard balls? How on earth is morality even possible in an atheistic world?

PS. Don't forget to say hello to your imaginary friend the multiverse for me... I think its grazing next to that pink unicorn... ;-)

Two can play this game, the only difference is, what I'm saying is valid while what you're saying is facile.

Daniel Smith said...

So I'm reading a book on the life of Martin Luther and I am currently at a point where the author is discussing Luther's views on ethics and morality. For him, ethics and morality are all tied up in the concept of justification - which got me thinking...

Is the Catholic preoccupation (if that's a correct term for it) with morality also based on the Catholic view that our actions are part of our justification?

Because I just don't see these kinds of debates amongst Protestants.

Anonymous said...

Yes, this kind of debate does happen among Protestants, but often about different things.