"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Jesuits and Casuists: A Note on Understanding Amoris Laetitia

I was on a panel last spring with Matthew Ashley of Notre Dame talking about Francis's methods as pope, and alluded in passing to a book that very much bears mentioning now in light of this endlessly jejune furor in the Catholic Church over Amoris Laetitia. It is a book I read twenty years ago now in a graduate class on the history of ethics, and has remained with me both as a wonderfully written and deeply fascinating work of history, but also as a clear reminder of the importance of treating cases on their own terms, something which the Catholic tradition used to pride itself on doing. I went back to it for my lecture last spring, and found that it described, in often uncanny ways, the approach of Pope Francis to moral questions in the aforementioned exhortation and elsewhere.

Published in 1990 by the University of California Press, this book remains very timely in the Catholic Church today. I submit you cannot understand how and why Pope Francis operates as he does until you read Stephen Toulmin and Albert Jonsen in The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning.

Equally I submit you cannot understand why his opponents (including authors of that "filial correction") are driven to apoplexy by the man until you realize, thanks again to Jonsen and Toulmin, that this pope is not content with abstract denunciations or universal declarations that fail to discern their particular applications in the context of individual lives. As the authors note of the early Jesuit leaders, "they prepared their charges to meet problems of conscience with 'discernment'--a favourite Jesuit word." Anyone who has read and listened to Pope Francis knows that 'discernment' remains if not his favourite word then certainly one of his most frequently uttered. He is a Jesuit casuist of the old school. Understand that and you understand something fundamental about the man.

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