Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!

Casuistry
by [?]

[1839.]

PART I.

It is remarkable, in the sense of being noticeable and interesting, but not in the sense of being surprising, that Casuistry has fallen into disrepute throughout all Protestant lands. This disrepute is a result partly due to the upright morality which usually follows in the train of the Protestant faith. So far it is honorable, and an evidence of superior illumination. But, in the excess to which it has been pushed, we may trace also a blind and somewhat bigoted reaction of the horror inspired by the abuses of the Popish Confessional. Unfortunately for the interests of scientific ethics, the first cultivators of casuistry had been those who kept in view the professional service of auricular confession. Their purpose was–to assist the reverend confessor in appraising the quality of doubtful actions, in order that he might properly adjust his scale of counsel, of warning, of reproof, and of penance. Some, therefore, in pure simplicity and conscientious discharge of the duty they had assumed, but others, from lubricity of morals or the irritations of curiosity, pushed their investigations into unhallowed paths of speculation. They held aloft a torch for exploring guilty recesses-of human life, which it is far better for us all to leave in their original darkness. Crimes that were often all but imaginary, extravagances of erring passion that would never have been known as possibilities to the young and the innocent, were thus published in their most odious details. At first, it is true, the decent draperies of a dead language were suspended before these abominations: but sooner or later some knave was found, on mercenary motives, to tear away this partial veil; and thus the vernacular literature of most nations in Southern Europe, was gradually polluted with revelations that had been originally made in the avowed service of religion. Indeed, there was one aspect of such books which proved even more extensively disgusting. Speculations pointed to monstrous offences, bore upon their very face and frontispiece the intimation that they related to cases rare and anomalous. But sometimes casuistry pressed into the most hallowed recesses of common domestic life. The delicacy of youthful wives, for example, was often not less grievously shocked than the manliness of husbands, by refinements of monkish subtlety applied to cases never meant for religious cognisance–but far better left to the decision of good feeling, of nature, and of pure household morality. Even this revolting use of casuistry, however, did less to injure its name and pretensions than a persuasion, pretty generally diffused, that the main purpose and drift of this science was a sort of hair-splitting process, by which doubts might be applied to the plainest duties of life, or questions raised on the extent of their obligations, for the single benefit of those who sought to evade them. A casuist was viewed, in short, as a kind of lawyer or special pleader in morals, such as those who, in London, are known as Old Bailey practitioners, called in to manage desperate cases–to suggest all available advantages–to raise doubts or distinctions where simple morality saw no room for either–and generally to teach the art, in nautical phrase, of sailing as near the wind as possible, without fear of absolutely foundering.

Meantime it is certain that casuistry, when soberly applied, is not only a beneficial as well as a very interesting study; but that, by whatever title, it is absolutely indispensable to the practical treatment of morals. We may reject the name; the thing we cannot reject. And accordingly the custom has been, in all English treatises on ethics, to introduce a good deal of casuistry under the idea of special illustration, but without any reference to casuistry as a formal branch of research. Indeed, as society grows complex, the uses of casuistry become more urgent. Even Cicero could not pursue his theme through such barren generalizations as entirely to evade all notice of special cases: and Paley has given the chief interest to his very loose investigations of morality, by scattering a selection of such cases over the whole field of his discussion.