This massive book is a collection of two hundred responses to personal inquiries about particular moral dilemmas written by one of the most important—and most controversial—Catholic moral theologians at work today. The responsa of Germain Grisez selected for presentation here cover virtually all areas of moral life of concern to contemporary Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
For Catholics, they present the point of view of a theologian of extraordinary learning in the tradition of the Church, a thinker whose even more extraordinary rational power makes compelling arguments for whatever position he takes in each respective case. Furthermore, it seems that John Paul II, especially in his encyclical on moral theology Veritatis Splendor, has indicated that he prefers Grisez’s type of moral theology to that of his principal rival moral theologians, most notably Father Richard McCormick (whose advocacy of “proportionalism” has been the object of Grisez’s sustained critique for many years now).
For non-Catholic Christians, Grisez’s work deals with moral questions that face any Christian and that cannot be avoided on the assumption that they are of real concern only to conservative Roman Catholics like Grisez’s followers. For Jews like this reviewer, it is notable that Grisez’s moral theology, being authentically Christian, is primarily rooted in the Hebrew Bible; that being the case, even the questions that pertain to specific Church issues of doctrine and ritual (as distinct from universal issues like abortion or euthanasia) have recognizable parallels in our own tradition. And, finally, for persons who are still convinced that morality is a matter of truth and thus not an arbitrary construction, Grisez is one of the most important ethicists at work today, one who should not be ignored even by those unable to agree with some or most of what he has to say.
Since Grisez has already laid out the principles of his moral theology with architectonic precision in the first two volumes of this proposed four-volume series, one might suppose that readers-whether or not they agree with him on the level of principle-could assume that all his answers to specific questions in this volume are predictable from what he has already said. Reading his responsa would thus be like reading an article whose title and the name of whose author already give away its conclusion. But that is not the case, because Grisez is here attempting to use his principles to apply what he thinks the Church either teaches or could teach. Since he accepts the magisterial authority of the Church to be wholly true, he readily admits that what he has either ruled or advised in this volume could be wrong by the final authority of what he calls “the better judgment of the Catholic Church.” In other words, he uses his own system of ethics to interpret the teaching of the Church, not to insist that the teaching of the Church conform to his own system. For this reason, his references to his own work are few and suggestive, whereas his references to the Catholic tradition are many and determinative. Moreover, he has to be a true “casuist” in these responsa, that is, he has to employ a variety of sources to come to his conclusion rather than simply subsuming the case at hand under one specific rule, itself part of a larger general category. That was the method of the old moral manuals, a method that after Vatican Council II, with its call for a renewal of moral theology, virtually all Catholic ethicists have explicitly eschewed.
Ultimately, anything Grisez advocates has to be appropriated by the consciences of those who choose to listen to him. Grisez is quite aware that he is walking a tightrope here between those who think the formation of conscience is a matter of individual responsibility alone and those who think that conscience should be formed by an authoritative application of what the Church teaches. To the first group, Grisez has an answer honed for years by his philosophical training and teaching: if morality is a matter of truth that can be articulated, it is thereby a matter of public discourse. That being so, people need guidance from others wiser than themselves in the formation of their consciences. To deny such guidance is to deny our status as social and moral beings, which we are simply insofar as we are discursive beings. (For Jews and Christians, even acts not directly involving other human persons still involve God, with whom we are involved in a covenanted community.) To miss this point is to fall into the error of “situationalism” (another object of sustained critique by Grisez over the years).
At the same time, Grisez is intent on avoiding “legalism,” even though most of his more liberal Catholic critics (let alone most Protestant ethicists) often accuse him of it. Legalism would be an application of the moral teaching of the Church that primarily stresses its authority, appealing only to persons whose primary moral concern is being told by someone else what to do (what many philosophers have quite pejoratively called “heteronomy”). Here is where Grisez the philosopher steps in: “A sound alternative to legalism is to assume that people who ask moral questions are capable of moral reflection and judgment.”
In the various responsa he delivers on this promise by leading his questioners in a process of moral reasoning. He tries to persuade them to accept a certain moral alternative by rational means, appealing to both universal and Christian truths, using criteria of coherence and sufficient evidence to make his points. This book is of special value to Catholics, who need to learn what their Church teaches and be persuaded by it whether or not they themselves are personally faced with any of the particular questions under discussion.
Since Grisez deals with two hundred difficult moral questions, it is impossible to do more than mention a few. There is, for example, the question raised by a couple whose teenage son has been sexually seduced by “Father Jack,” their parish priest. They ask Grisez whether or not they should report this priest to the police. Here Grisez knows that he must carefully distinguish between the Church per se, which as a theologian faithful to her he regards as infallible, and the Church as a community of sinful human beings. Thus, with the usual courage of his convictions, he bluntly states, “The real problems presented and revealed by the conducts of priests like Father Jack have hardly been acknowledged by bishops, including yours, and . . . thus far they have developed no adequate policy or procedure for dealing with those problems.”
Grisez’s criticism of many of the bishops is that they have tended to treat the sexual misconduct of priests in their charge simply as a matter of psychological illness. Such priests are taken to be emotionally disturbed and must be regarded as objects of compassion, for whom therapy (with its supposition of confidentiality) is the appropriate response. Even though Grisez does not dispute the need for therapy, he rightly emphasizes that priests like Father Jack are capable of free choice and thus morally responsible for their crimes. And in the case at hand, the crime has had a victim, namely, the questioners’ teenage son, “Frank.” Grisez wisely notes that even if this priest’s sexual behavior is psychologically compulsive, he was still “gravely responsible for failing to get the help he needed to forestall . . . betraying Frank’s trust and abusing his body.” What Grisez is also saying is that attempts of Church officials to deny the moral nature of this type of situation has been a source of scandal, leading both Catholics and non-Catholics to conclude that the Church, in effect, exempts priests from ordinary moral responsibility instead of holding them to Christian standards, which include and go beyond ordinary morality.
Finally, Grisez also courageously notes that Frank was not raped but seduced by Father Jack. Therefore, his own complicity (not having been a morally innocent child) in these illicit sexual acts must be dealt with. It is thus the task of his parents and a more responsible priest to enable Frank to repent and be spiritually healed. In our age of “victimology,” this might sound cruel, but anyone who appreciates religious morality can see its authentically religious compassion. Indeed, Frank’s psychological healing will be greatly aided by his being able to realize his own moral powers and come to see how their proper exercise can be strengthened by overcoming their improper exercise. Following the view of many psychologists today that emotional problems be seen in a larger interpersonal communal context, one can see Grisez’s counsel as truly enabling Frank to be reintegrated into the Church as his primary communion. That reintegration is his experience of true forgiveness from God through the Church, something that can be given only to a morally responsible human person.
In these responsa, Grisez on the whole has been a good casuist, that is, he has directed his full attention to the moral case [casus] at hand and has avoided the temptation of the theorist to see a particular question as a mere illustration of a larger point. There are some lapses, however, especially regarding abortion, where Grisez’s occasional hyperbole weakens his otherwise sound arguments. Although abortion is not just a “Catholic” issue (and, fortunately, there is now powerful Jewish, Protestant, and Orthodox opposition to it), it has become for conservative Catholics like Grisez the central moral issue. I don’t dispute the gravity of the issue, even its centrality, living as we do in a “culture of death,” as Pope John Paul II has memorably put it. Nevertheless, Grisez engages in overkill when, in responding to a question about pro-life political activity, he states that abortion is “in some ways comparable to those crimes [those of Hitler and Stalin] and in other ways even worse.”
To be sure, the taking of innocent human life is horrendous wherever it occurs and whatever the number of victims involved. Yet there is an essential difference between a state like Nazi Germany or Communist Russia that engages in mass murder as positive, official policy, and a state like the United States or Canada that no longer extends the full protection of the law to all human life. It is essential to understand the different political meaning abortion as a type of killing has in constitutional democracies as opposed to the meaning of the killing that occurs in totalitarian regimes.
In a state where humans are arbitrarily killed as a matter of official policy, the communal sin of commission is so ghastly that one can definitely advocate either overthrowing or fleeing such a regime as soon as possible. In constitutional democracies that permit (but do not command) individuals to practice abortion, there is a lesser-though genuine-communal sin of omission. (As far as I know, only in China are women forced to undergo abortions as a matter of current state policy.) In democratic regimes, judicial and legislative means are still officially available to rectify the moral lack (hence some of the political successes, heretofore modest to be sure, of the pro-life movement). Furthermore, unlike Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, where citizens were really prisoners of the state, those who judge a constitutional democracy incorrigibly corrupt always have the legal option of relocating, thus avoiding violent revolution with all its dangers, political and moral. The pro-life cause is not at all helped by even the hint that its advocates have something in common with various anarchist fanatics in our society who advocate violent revolution and often act accordingly.
I think Grisez is right to counsel the moral duty of everyone (and not just Catholics) to stop abortions, but I think he has given imprudent advice on the theoretical level by giving an incorrect reason. And that leads him to assume that the only reason for not killing abortionists is because of bad political consequences rather than bad political reasons per se, reasons which for a natural law theorist cannot be separated from morality. The reason it is wrong to kill an abortionist is because he or she has not been convicted through due process of law. Here it seems that we have an instance of Grisez’s moral passion getting the better of his moral reason.
Fortunately, this is quite rare. In the book as a whole, Germain Grisez has once again shown how faith seeking understanding, when done by someone of great faith and great understanding, is the most impressive of all human efforts.
David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. He wrote his doctoral dissertation in philosophical ethics at Georgetown University under the mentorship of Germain Grisez.