February 1, 2018 marked the passing of Germain Gabriel Grisez, a man of the Church and one of the greatest thinkers of our age.
I met Grisez in 1999, during my sophomore year at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg. John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et ratio had been promulgated in the fall of my freshman year, and as a sophomore I found myself seeking answers to life-orienting questions, some of which were still only inchoately formed. I had learned of Germain Grisez from the discussion of miracles in Bill Portier’s Tradition and Incarnation, and I was impressed by the copies of The Way of the Lord Jesus I had seen on display in the college bookstore. Each morning, I saw Grisez and his wife, Jeannette, faithfully take their usual seats at daily Mass in the college chapel. When enrollment opened for Grisez’s course in Vatican II Documents, I signed up. Though I could not have imagined it then, the professor about whom I had read, and whom I encountered in the chapel and the classroom, would become a friend who changed my life forever.
Grisez’s courses were electrifying. His manner of presentation was neither dynamic nor theatrical, but it didn’t need to be. The depth and clarity of the content he related were enough to hold one’s attention for the uninterrupted two-and-a-half hour duration of each class. Grisez implemented the axiom that knowledge is according to the mode of the knower. He was able to see things through your eyes, come right to where you were, and lead you from that place to the more remote and difficult position from which he was working.
Though he was not effusive, it occasionally became apparent how deeply moved he was by some point of the Church’s teaching. He harbored a profound love for Jesus, the Church, her great thinkers, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, and the human persons created in God’s image and likeness, especially the weak and marginalized. He had an equally intense response when the Church, her liturgy, or her teaching were violated in any way.
Grisez was generous with his time, despite the never-ending stream of his own projects. I often took him up on his syllabus offer to answer questions outside of class. I would call him on the telephone, which would usually result in a walk to his office. Grisez would stop whatever he was doing to answer whatever questions I had, frequently in a discussion that would last an hour or two, if not more.
The Way of the Lord Jesus is Grisez’s multivolume magnum opus, spanning nearly 4,000 concise pages. Grisez’s project in The Way of the Lord Jesus was to respond to the Second Vatican Council’s call for renewal in moral theology. These volumes elaborate a fresh moral theology deeply informed by Scripture. Though developed in response to the perceived legalism of the neo-scholastic manuals, Grisez’s moral theology is unswervingly committed to the truths of the faith, firm in its affirmation of moral absolutes, and normatively robust. But Grisez’s greatest concern here is to demonstrate the centrality to Christian life of the Incarnation and the universal call to holiness, and to explain how the theological virtues, prayer, and the sacraments are the organizing principles of Christian living. The Way of the Lord Jesus is a truly theological moral theology. I was inspired by the rich account of personal vocation Grisez unpacks therein when I first encountered it in college. I believe that Grisez’s teaching on personal vocation will prove to be one of his most significant and lasting contributions to the Church.
Through his many works, Grisez contributed greatly to our understanding of practical reason, human action, and the ultimate end of human persons; he also reflected on numerous issues in applied ethics. A metaphysician at heart, Grisez’s significant contributions to such cognate fields as the philosophy of God, anthropology, dogmatic theology, and spirituality remain to be fully appreciated. Grisez is perhaps best known for his collaborative and original development, from St. Thomas Aquinas, of the “Basic Human Goods Theory” of natural law. Formulated to transcend the various forms of consequentialism that had gained traction throughout the Christian world in the wake of the Second World War, BHG Theory was a recovery of the natural law tradition capable of responding to the questions of the day—especially issues in sexual ethics, and beginning- and end-of-life issues—which had strained neo-scholastic formulations of natural law.
Grisez’s basic position was first set forth in his seminal 1965 article, “The First Principle of Practical Reason.” It was elaborated in “Practical Principles, Moral Truth and Ultimate Ends” (1987), “Natural Law, God, Religion and Human Fulfillment” (2001), and “The True Ultimate End of Human Beings” (2008). This series of essays, spanning Grisez’s career, remains perhaps the best introduction to the BHG Theory of natural law.
Germain Grisez was a man of true grit. He grew up during the Great Depression in a large family of modest means. He worked for years to put himself through school and support his family, often working odd jobs full-time on the night shift. While he was in graduate school at the University of Chicago, he and Jeannette lived in one of the city’s first desegregated housing projects. He lived simply and kept a special place in his heart for the poor. His compassion was born of personal experience as well as the gospel. He did whatever good he could for those around him, even at great personal cost, such as when he was physically assaulted by a homeless man whom he tried to feed one night in the Chicago housing projects.
Grisez was thick-skinned and demanding of himself and others. Sparing with praise, he could also be encouraging. Though bracingly frank and sometimes unrelenting in his criticism, he was always respectful and never dismissive. He treated his opponents with a seriousness and equanimity that was not always returned. He was intellectually agile and would not criticize a position without owning it. He would follow an argument wherever it led, even if doing so entailed the loneliness that discouraged others from drawing the same conclusion. Grisez valued truth more than his own opinion, and he taught others to do so as well. He was for me a living example of a scholar profoundly detached from his own ideas.
Grisez did not generally like to discuss matters other than philosophy and theology, aside from occasional talk about family. With allowance for prayer and modest recreation, thinking was the occupation he liked best. His mental focus was laser-like. I recall one evening, after Jeannette had died, sitting in his living room talking shop. The sun went down, and Grisez went on talking even as the room darkened and gradually became pitch black. Jeannette would never have let that happen. In the weeks leading up to his death, Grisez’s life became extremely painful as a result of the cancer that had metastasized to his bones. In our last conversation, Grisez indicated that it was consoling for him, almost therapeutic, to talk shop with his friends, because as he became absorbed in a question, focused thought would allow him to disregard the pain of his cancer. Grisez understood the consolation of philosophy, down to his bones.
Grisez was a man of enormous speculative capacity, with an ability to strip away conventional presuppositions and propose solutions that were logically consistent, profound in explanatory power, yet elegant in their simplicity. It was a marvel to watch him at work. He was a rigorous thinker, whose attention to detail was sometimes mistaken for idiosyncrasy. His mind would not readily close gaps, and he pressed contrasts and distinctions that others would elide. Acutely perceptive, he could spot implications for miles down the road. He would not let you get away with anything.
All this translated into an unsurpassed level of quality in his work. Grisez was a methodical writer whose notes and detailed outlines were virtual drafts, and whose drafted chapters were sometimes so expansive as to be virtual monographs. He was famous among those who knew him for his iterative process of self-initiated peer review and revision prior to submitting his work to a publisher. A single essay was often years in the making. Despite his impressive record of publication, Grisez was not hasty and never self-promoting. Everything he published was substantive, held back until it was ready, and published for the sake of truth and the good of the Church.
Grisez’s work will take years—even generations—for the Church to evaluate and appropriate. He defied classification. Neither a liberal nor a conservative; a systematic thinker, yet not given to love of system; formed in neo-scholasticism, yet unbound by any traditional school; a maverick who was loyal to the Church and whose foundational theoretical work was heavily collaborative; a speculative mind driven by a practical concern for the evangelical mission of the Church; an intellectual genius with a simple, childlike faith: Above all, Germain Grisez was a Catholic theologian.
Grisez was not optimistic about the going getting easier between now and the coming of the Kingdom, but he was a hopeful realist. Reflecting on his life’s work in light of this, I think that he would enjoin us today to remain connected to Jesus through living faith, ecclesial communion, and the sacraments, and to abide in Christ’s love by seeking first the kingdom, striving in hope to integrate every aspect of our lives with the faith that we hold, keep, and hand on.
I recall one winter morning when Grisez unexpectedly went up to the ambo after the end of daily Mass. This caught the seminarians and collegians who were present by surprise, since they were still making their thanksgiving, and the microphone was even inadvertently cut while Germain spoke. It was January 28, the memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas, and Grisez had come to an insight on the antiphon from Lauds, which he felt moved to share. The antiphon read, “Blessed be the Lord; for love of him, St. Thomas Aquinas spent long hours in prayer, study, and writing.” The antiphon is, of course, true so far as it goes. But Grisez was moved to make explicit that it was also for love of neighbor that St. Thomas spent long hours in prayer, study, and writing. And this insight is surely reflective of Grisez’s own experience. Over the span of seven decades, Grisez prayed, studied and wrote, tirelessly, for love of God and of us.
Thank you, Dr. Grisez.
R. J. Matava is associate professor and dean of the Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College in Alexandria, VA.