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ESSAY ON CASUISTRY ROMANS XIV. - Benjamin Jowett, Essays on The Epistles of St. Paul 
The Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, Galatians and Romans. Vol. 2 Essays and Dissertations by the late Benjamin Jowett, M.A. (3rd edition, edited and condensed by Lewis Campbell) (London: John Murray, 1894). Vol. 2.
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ESSAY ON CASUISTRY
Religion and morality seem often to become entangled in circumstances. The truth which came, not ‘to bring peace upon earth, but a sword,’ could not but give rise to many new and conflicting obligations. The kingdom of God had to adjust itself with the kingdoms of this world; though ‘the children were free,’ they could not escape the fulfilment of duties to their Jewish or Roman governors; in the bosom of a family there were duties too; in society there were many points of contact with the heathen. A new element of complexity had been introduced in all the relations between man and man, giving rise to many new questions, which might be termed, in the phraseology of modern times, ‘cases of conscience.’
Of these the one which most frequently recurs in the Epistles of St. Paul, is the question respecting meats and drinks, which appears to have agitated both the Roman and Corinthian Churches, as well as those of Jerusalem and Antioch, and probably, in a greater or less degree, every other Christian community in the days of the Apostle. The scruple which gave birth to it was not confined to Christianity; it was Eastern rather than Christian, and originated in a feeling into which entered, not only Oriental notions of physical purity and impurity, but also those of caste and of race. With other Eastern influences it spread towards the West, in the flux of all religions, exercising a peculiar power on the susceptible temper of mankind.
The same tendency exhibited itself in various forms. In one form it was the scruple of those who ate herbs, while others ‘had faith’ to eat anything. The Essenes and Therapeutae among the Jews, and the Pythagoreans in the heathen world, had a similar feeling respecting the use of animal food. It was a natural association which led to such an abstinence. In the East, ever ready to connect, or rather incapable of separating, ideas of moral and physical impurity—where the heat of the climate rendered animal food unnecessary, if not positively unhealthful; where corruption rapidly infected dead organized matter; where, lastly, ancient tradition and ceremonies told of the sacredness of animals and the mysteriousness of animal life—nature and religion alike seemed to teach the same lesson, it was safer to abstain. It was the manner of such a scruple to propagate itself. He who revolted at animal food could not quietly sit by and see his neighbour partake of it. The ceremonialism of the age was the tradition of thousands of years, and passed by a sort of contagion from one race to another, from Paganism or Judaism to Christianity. How to deal with this ‘second nature’ was a practical difficulty among the first Christians. The Gospel was not a gospel according to the Essenes, and the church could not exclude those who held the scruples, neither could it be narrowed to them; it would not pass judgement on them at all. Hence the force of the Apostle’s words: ‘Him that is weak in the faith receive, not to the decision of his doubts.’
There was another point in reference to which the same spirit of ceremonialism propagated itself, viz. meats offered to idols. Even if meat in general were innocent and a creature of God, it could hardly be a matter of indifference to partake of that which had been ‘sacrificed to devils;’ least of all, to sit at meat in the idol’s temple. True, the idol was ‘nothing in the world’—a block of stone, to which the words good or evil were misapplied; ‘a graven image’ which the workman made, ‘putting his hand to the hammer,’ as the old prophets described in their irony. And such is the Apostle’s own feeling (1 Cor. viii. 4; x. 19). But he has also the other feeling which he himself regards as not less true (1 Cor. x. 20), and which was more natural to the mind of the first believers. When they saw the worshippers of the idol revelling in impurity, they could not but suppose that a spirit of some kind was there. Their warfare, as the Apostle had told them, was not ‘against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world.’ Evil angels were among them; where would they more naturally take up their abode than around the altars and in the temples of the heathen? And if they had been completely free from superstition, and could have regarded the heathen religions which they saw enthroned over the world simply with contempt, still the question would have arisen, What connexion were they to have with them and with their worshippers? a question not easy to be answered in the bustle of Rome and Corinth, where every circumstance of daily life, every amusement, every political and legal right, was in some way bound up with the heathen religions. Were they to go out of the world? if not, what was to be their relation to those without?
A third instance of the same ceremonialism so natural to that age, and to ourselves so strange and unmeaning, is illustrated by the words of the Jerusalem Christians to the Apostle—‘Thou wentest in unto men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them;’ a scruple so strong that, probably, St. Peter himself was never entirely free from it, and at any rate yielded to the fear of it in others when withstood by St. Paul at Antioch. This scruple may be said in one sense to be hardly capable of an explanation, and in another not to need one. For, probably, nothing can give our minds any conception of the nature of the feeling, the intense hold which it exercised, the concentration which it was of every national and religious prejudice, the constraint which was required to get rid of it as a sort of horror naturalis in the minds of Jews; while, on the other hand, feelings at the present day not very dissimilar exist, not only in Eastern countries, but among ourselves. There is nothing strange in human nature being liable to them, or in their long lingering and often returning, even when reason and charity alike condemn them. We ourselves are not insensible to differences of race and colour, and may therefore be able partially to comprehend (allowing for the difference of East and West) what was the feeling of Jews and Jewish Christians towards men uncircumcised.
On the last point St. Paul maintains but one language:—‘In Christ Jesus there is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision.’ No compromise could be allowed here, without destroying the Gospel that he preached. But the other question of meats and drinks, when separated from that of circumcision, admitted of various answers and points of view. Accordingly there is an appearance of inconsistency in the modes in which the Apostle resolves it. All these modes have a use and interest for ourselves; though our difficulties are not the same as those of the early Christians, the words speak to us, so long as prudence, and faith, and charity are the guides of Christian life. It is characteristic of the Apostle that his answers run into one another, as though each of them to different individuals, and all in their turn, might present the solution of the difficulty.
We may begin with 1 Cor. x. 25, which may be termed the rule of Christian prudence: ‘Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake.’ That is to say: ‘Buy food as other men do; perhaps what you purchase has come from the idol’s temple, perhaps not. Do not encourage your conscience in raising scruples, life will become impossible if you do. One question involves another and another and another without end. The manly and the Christian way is to cut them short; both as tending to weaken the character and as inconsistent with the very nature of spiritual religion.’
So we may venture to amplify the Apostle’s precept, which breathes the same spirit of moderation as his decisions respecting celibacy and marriage. Among ourselves the remark is often made that ‘extremes are practically untrue.’ This is another way of putting the same lesson:—If I may not sit in the idol’s temple, it may be plausibly argued, neither may I eat meats offered to idols; and if I may not eat meats offered to idols, then it logically follows that I ought not to go into the market where idols’ meat is sold. The Apostle snaps the chain of this misapplied logic: there must be a limit somewhere; we must not push consistency where it is practically impossible. A trifling scruple is raised to the level of a religious duty, and another and another, until religion is made up of scruples, and the light of life fades, and the ways of life narrow themselves.
It is not hard to translate the Apostle’s precept into the language of our time. Instances occur in politics, in theology, in our ordinary occupations, in which beyond a certain point consistency is impossible. Take for example the following: A person feels that he would be wrong in carrying on his business, or going to public amusements, on a Sunday. He says: If it be wrong for me to work, it is wrong to make the servants in my house work; or if it be wrong to go to public amusements, it is wrong to enjoy the recreation of walking on a Sunday. So it may be argued that, because slavery is wrong, therefore it is not right to purchase the produce of slavery, or that of which the produce of slavery is a part, and so on without end, until we are forced out of the world from a remote fear of contagion with evil. Or I am engaged in a business which may be in some degree deleterious to the health or injurious to the morals of those employed in it, or I trade in some articles of commerce which are unwholesome or dangerous, or I let a house or a ship to another whose employment is of this description. Numberless questions of the same kind relating to the profession of a clergyman, an advocate, or a soldier, have been pursued into endless consequences. Is the mind of any person so nicely balanced that ‘every one of six hundred disputed propositions’ is the representative of his exact belief? or can every word in a set form of prayer at all times reflect the feeling of those who read or follow it? There is no society to which we can belong, no common act of business or worship in which two or three are joined together, in which such difficulties are not liable to arise. Three editors conduct a newspaper, can it express equally the conviction of all the three? Three lawyers sign an opinion in common, is it the judgement of all or of one or two of them? High-minded men have often got themselves into a false position by regarding these questions in too abstract a way. The words of the Apostle are a practical answer to them which may be paraphrased thus: ‘Do as other men do in a Christian country,’ Conscience will say, ‘He who is guilty of the least, is guilty of all.’ In the Apostle’s language it then becomes ‘the strength of sin,’ encouraging us to despair of all, because in that mixed condition of life in which God has placed us we cannot fulfil all.
In accordance with the spirit of the same principle of doing as other men do, the Apostle further implies that believers are to accept the hospitality of the heathen (1 Cor. x. 27). But here a modification comes in, which may be termed the law of Christian charity or courtesy:—Avoid giving offence, or, as we might say, ‘Do not defy opinion.’ Eat what is set before you; but if a person sitting at meat pointedly says to you, ‘This was offered to idols,’ do not eat. ‘All things are lawful, but all things are not expedient,’ and this is one of the not-expedient class. There appears to be a sort of inconsistency in this advice, as there must always be inconsistency in the rules of practical life which are relative to circumstances. It might be said: ‘We cannot do one thing at one time, and another thing at another; now be guided by another man’s conscience, now by our own.’ It might be retorted, ‘Is not this the dissimulation which you blame in St. Peter?’ To which it may be answered in turn: ‘But a man may do one thing at one time, another thing at another time, “becoming to the Jews a Jew,” if he do it in such a manner as to avoid the risk of misconstruction.’ And this again admits of a retort: ‘Is it possible to avoid misconstruction? Is it not better to dare to be ourselves, to act like ourselves, to speak like ourselves, to think like ourselves?’ We seem to have lighted unawares on two varieties of human disposition; the one harmonizing and adapting itself to the perplexities of life, the other rebelling against them, and seeking to disentangle itself from them. Which side of this argument shall we take; neither or both? The Apostle appears to take both sides; for in the abrupt transition that follows, he immediately adds, ‘Why is my liberty to be judged of another man’s conscience? what right has another man to attack me for what I do in the innocency of my heart?’ It is good advice to say, ‘Regard the opinions of others;’ and equally good advice to say, ‘Do not regard the opinions of others.’ We must balance between the two; and over all, adjusting the scales, is the law of Christian love.
Both in 1 Cor. viii. and Rom. xiv. the Apostle adds another principle, which may be termed the law of individual conscience, which we must listen to in ourselves and regard in others. ‘He that doubteth is damned; whatsoever is not of faith is sin.’ All things are lawful to him who feels them to be lawful, but the conscience may be polluted by the most indifferent things. When we eat, we should remember that the consequence of following our example may be serious to others. For not only may our brother be offended at us, but also by our example be drawn into sin; that is, to do what, though indifferent in itself, is sin to him. And so the weak brother, for whom Christ died, may perish through our fault; that is, he may lose his peace and harmony of soul and conscience void of offence, and all through our heedlessness in doing some unnecessary thing, which were far better left undone.
Cases may be readily imagined, in which, like the preceding, the rule of conduct here laid down by the Apostle would involve dissimulation. So many thousand scruples and opinions as there are in the world, we should have ‘to go out of the world’ to fulfil it honestly. All reserve, it may be argued, tends to break up the confidence between man and man; and there are times in which concealment of our opinions, even respecting things indifferent, would be treacherous and mischievous; there are times, too, in which things cease to be indifferent, and it is our duty to speak out respecting the false importance which they have acquired. But, after all qualifications of this kind have been made, the secondary duty yet remains, of consideration for others, which should form an element in our conduct. If truth is the first principle of our speech and action, the good of others should, at any rate, be the second. ‘If any man (not see thee who hast knowledge sitting in the idol’s temple, but) hear thee discoursing rashly of the Scriptures and the doctrines of the Church, shall not the faith of thy younger brother become confused? and his conscience being weak shall cease to discern between good and evil. And so thy weak brother shall perish for whom Christ died.’
The Apostle adds a fourth principle, which may be termed the law of Christian freedom, as the last solution of the difficulty: ‘Therefore, whether ye eat or drink, do all to the glory of God.’ From the perplexities of casuistry, and the conflicting rights of a man’s own conscience and that of another, he falls back on the simple rule, ‘Whatever you do, sanctify the act.’ It cannot be said that all contradictory obligations vanish the moment we try to act with simplicity and truth; we cannot change the current of life and its circumstances by a wish or an intention; we cannot dispel that which is without, though we may clear that which is within. But we have taken the first step, and are in the way to solve the riddle. The insane scruple, the fixed idea, the ever-increasing doubt begins to pass away; the spirit of the child returns to us; the mind is again free, and the road of life open. ‘Whether ye eat or drink, do all to the glory of God;’ that is, determine to seek only the will of God, and you may have a larger measure of Christian liberty allowed to you; things, perhaps wrong in others, may be right for you.
Questions of meats and drinks, of eating with washen or unwashen hands, and the like, have passed from the stage of religious ordinances to that of proprieties and decencies of life. The purifications of the law of Moses are no longer binding upon Christians. Nature herself teaches all things necessary for health and comfort. But the spirit of casuistry in every age finds fresh materials to employ itself upon, laying hold of some question of a new moon or a sabbath, some fragment of antiquity, some inconsistency of custom, some subtlety of thought, some nicety of morality, analyzing and dividing the actions of daily life; separating the letter from the spirit, and words from things; winding its toils around the infirmities of the weak, and linking itself to the sensibility of the intellect.
Out of this labyrinth of the soul the believer finds his way, by keeping his eye fixed on that landmark which the Apostle himself has set up: ‘In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.’
There is no one probably, of any religious experience, who has not at times felt the power of a scrupulous conscience. In speaking of a scrupulous conscience, the sense of remorse for greater offences is not intended to be included. These may press more or less heavily on the soul; and the remembrance of them may ingrain itself, with different degrees of depth, on different temperaments; but whether deep or shallow, the sorrow for them cannot be brought under the head of scruples of conscience. There are ‘many things in which we offend all,’ about which there can be no mistake, the impression of which on our minds it would be fatal to weaken or do away. Nor is it to be denied that there may be customs almost universal among us which are so plainly repugnant to morality, that we can never be justified in acquiescing in them; or that individuals of clear head and strong will have been led on by feelings which other men would deride as conscientious scruples into an heroic struggle against evil. But quite independently of real sorrows for sin, or real protests against evil, most religious persons in the course of their lives have felt unreal scruples or difficulties, or exaggerated real but slight ones; they have abridged their Christian freedom, and thereby their means of doing good; they have cherished imaginary obligations, and artificially hedged themselves in a particular course of action. Honour and truth have seemed to be at stake about trifles light as air, or conscience has become a burden too heavy for them to bear in some doubtful matter of conduct. Scruples of this kind are ever liable to increase; as one vanishes, another appears; the circumstances of the world and of the Church, and the complication of modern society, have a tendency to create them. The very form in which they come is of itself sufficient to put us on our guard against them; for we can give no account of them to ourselves; they are seldom affected by the opinion of others; they are more often put down by the exercise of authority than by reasoning or judgement. They gain hold on the weaker sort of men, or on those not naturally weak, in moments of weakness. They often run counter to our wish or interest, and for this very reason acquire a kind of tenacity. They seem innocent, mistakes, at worst, on the safe side, characteristic of the ingenuousness of youth, or indicative of a heart uncorrupted by the world. But this is not so. Creatures as we are of circumstances, we cannot safely afford to give up things indifferent, means of usefulness, instruments of happiness to ourselves, which may affect our lives and those of our children to the latest posterity. There are few greater dangers in religion than the indulgence of such scruples, the consequences of which can rarely be seen until too late, and which affect the moral character of a man at least as much as his temporal interests.
Strange as it may appear, it is nevertheless true, that scruples about lesser matters almost always involve some dereliction of duty in greater or more obvious ones. A tender conscience is a conscience unequal to the struggles of life. At first sight it seems as if, when lesser duties were cared for, the greater would take care of themselves. But this is not the lesson which experience teaches. In our moral as in our physical nature, we are finite beings, capable only of a certain degree of tension, ever liable to suffer disorder and derangement, to be over-exercised in one part and weakened in another. No one can fix his mind intently on a trifling scruple or become absorbed in an eccentric fancy, without finding the great principles of truth and justice insensibly depart from him. He has been looking through a microscope at life, and cannot take in its general scope. The moral proportions of things are lost to him; the question of a new moon or a Sabbath has taken the place of diligence or of honesty. There is no limit to the illusions which he may practise on himself. There are those, all whose interests and prejudices at once take the form of duties and scruples, partly from dishonesty, but also from weakness, and because that is the form in which they can with the best grace maintain them against other men, and conceal their true nature from themselves.
Scruples are dangerous in another way, as they tend to drive men into a corner in which the performance of our duty becomes so difficult as to be almost impossible. A virtuous and religious life does not consist merely in abstaining from evil, but in doing what is good. It has to find opportunities and occasions for itself, without which it languishes. A man has a scruple about the choice of a profession; as a Christian, he believes war to be unlawful; in familiar language, he has doubts respecting orders, difficulties about the law. Even the ordinary ways of conducting trade appear deficient to his nicer sense of honesty; or perhaps he has already entered on one of these lines of life, and finds it necessary to quit it. At last, there comes the difficulty of ‘how he is to live.’ There cannot be a greater mistake than to suppose that a good resolution is sufficient in such a case to carry a man through a long life.
But even if we suppose the case of one who is endowed with every earthly good and instrument of prosperity, who can afford, as is sometimes said, to trifle with the opportunitles of life, still the mental consequences will be hardly less injurious to him. For he who feels scruples about the ordinary enjoyments and occupations of his fellows, does so far cut himself off from his common nature. He is an isolated being, incapable of acting with his fellow-men. There are plants which, though the sun shine upon them, and the dews water them, peak and pine from some internal disorder, and appear to have no sympathy with the influences around them. So is the mind corroded by scruples of conscience. It cannot expand to sun or shower; it belongs not to the world of light; it has no intelligence of or harmony with mankind around. It is insensible to the great truth, that though we may not do evil that good may come, yet that good and evil, truth and falsehood, are bound together on earth, and that we cannot separate ourselves from them.
It is one of the peculiar dangers of scruples of conscience, that the consequence of giving way to them is never felt at the time that they press upon us. When the mind is worried by a thought secretly working in it, and its trial becomes greater than it can bear, it is eager to take the plunge in life that may put it out of its misery; to throw aside a profession it may be, or to enter a new religious communion. We shall not be wrong in promising ourselves a few weeks of peace and placid enjoyment. The years that are to follow we are incapable of realizing; whether the weary spirit will require some fresh pasture, will invent for itself some new doubt; whether its change is a return to nature or not, it is impossible for us to anticipate. Whether it has in itself that hidden strength which, under every change of circumstances, is capable of bearing up, is a question which we are the least able to determine for ourselves. In general we may observe, that the weakest minds, and those least capable of enduring such consequences, are the most likely to indulge the scruples. We know beforehand the passionate character, hidden often under the mask of reserve, the active yet half-reasoning intellect, which falls under the power of such illusions.
In the Apostolic Church ‘cases of conscience’ arose out of religious traditions, and what may be termed the ceremonial cast of the age; in modern times the most frequent source of them may be said to be the desire of logical or practical consistency, such as is irreconcilable with the mixed state of human affairs and the feebleness of the human intellect. There is no lever like the argument from consistency, with which to bring men over to our opinions. A particular system or view, Calvinism perhaps, or Catholicism, has taken possession of the mind. Shall we stop short of pushing its premises to their conclusions? Shall we stand in the midway, where we are liable to be overridden by the combatants on either side in the struggle? Shall we place ourselves between our reason and our affections; between our practical duties and our intellectual convictions? Logic would have us go forward, and take our stand at the most advanced point—we are there already, it is urged, if we were true to ourselves—but feeling, and habit, and common sense bid us stay where we are, unable to give an account of ourselves, yet convinced that we are right. We may listen to the one voice, we may listen also to the other. The true way of guiding either is to acknowledge both; to use them for a time against each other, until experience of life and of ourselves has taught us to harmonize them in a single principle.
So, again, in daily life cases often occur, in which we must do as other men do, and act upon a general understanding, even though unable to reconcile a particular practice to the letter of truthfulness or even to our individual conscience. It is hard in such cases to lay down a definite rule. But in general we should be suspicious of any conscientious scruples in which other good men do not share. We shall do right to make a large allowance for the perplexities and entanglements of human things; we shall observe that persons of strong mind and will brush away our scruples; we shall consider that not he who has most, but he who has fewest scruples approaches most nearly the true Christian. The man whom we emphatically call ‘honest,’ ‘able,’ ‘upright,’ who is a religious as well as a sensible man, seems to have no room for them; from which we are led to infer that such scruples are seldom in the nature of things themselves, but arise out of some peculiarity or eccentricity in those who indulge them. That they are often akin to madness, is an observation not without instruction even to those whom God has blest with the full use of reason.
So far we arrive at a general conclusion like St. Paul’s:—‘Whether ye eat or drink, do all to the glory of God;’ and, ‘Blessed is he who condemneth not himself in that which he alloweth.’ ‘Have the Spirit of truth, and the truth shall make you free;’ and the entanglements of words and the perplexities of action will disappear. But there is another way in which such difficulties have been resolved, which meets them in detail; viz., the practice of confession and the rules of casuistry, which are the guides of the confessor. When the spirit is disordered within us, it may be urged that we ought to go out of ourselves, and confess our sins one to another. But he who leads, and he who is led, alike require some rules for the examination of conscience, to quicken or moderate the sense of sin, to assist experience, to show men to themselves as they really are, neither better nor worse. Hence the necessity for casuistry.
It is remarkable, that what is in idea so excellent that it may be almost described in St. Paul’s language as ‘holy, just, and good,’ should have become a byword among mankind for hypocrisy and dishonesty. In popular estimation, no one is supposed to resort to casuistry, but with the view of evading a duty. The moral instincts of the world have risen up and condemned it. It is fairly put down by the universal voice, and shut up in the darkness of the tomes of the casuists. A kind of rude justice has been done upon the system, as in most cases of popular indignation, probably with some degree of injustice to the individuals who were its authors. Yet, hated as casuistry has deservedly been, it is fair also to admit that it has an element of truth which was the source of its influence. This element of truth is the acknowledgement of the difficulties which arise in the relations of a professing Christian world to the Church and to Christianity. How, without lowering the Gospel, to place it on a level with daily life is a hard question. It will be proper for us to consider the system from both sides—in its origin and in its perversion. Why it existed, and why it has failed, furnish a lesson in the history of the human mind of great interest and importance.
The unseen power by which the systems of the casuists were brought into being, was the necessity of the Roman Catholic Church. Like the allegorical interpretation of Scripture, they formed a link between the present and the past. At the time of the Reformation the doctrines of the ancient, no less than of the Reformed, faith awakened into life. But they required to be put in a new form, to reconcile them to the moral sense of mankind. Luther ended the work of self-examination by casting all his sins on Christ. But the casuists could not thus meet the awakening of men’s consciences and the fearful looking for of judgement. They had to deal with an altered world, in which nevertheless the spectres of the past, purgatory, penance, mortal sin, were again rising up; hallowed as they were by authority and antiquity they could not be cast aside; the preacher of the Counter-reformation could only explain them away. If he had placed distinctly before men’s eyes, that for some one act of immorality or dishonesty they were in a state of mortal sin, the heart true to itself would have recoiled from such a doctrine, and the connexion between the Church and the world would have been for ever severed. And yet the doctrine was a part of ecclesiastical tradition; it could not be held, it could not be given up. The Jesuits escaped the dilemma by holding and evading it.
So far it would not be untrue to say that casuistry had originated in an effort to reconcile the Roman Catholic faith with nature and experience. The Roman system was, if strictly carried out, horrible and impossible; a doctrine not, as it has been sometimes described, of salvation made easy, but of universal condemnation. From these fearful conclusions of logic the subtilty of the human intellect was now to save it. The analogy of law, as worked out by jurists and canonists, supplied the means. What was repugnant to human justice could not be agreeable to Divine. The scholastic philosophy, which had begun to die out and fade away before the light of classical learning, was to revive in a new form, no longer hovering between heaven and earth, out of the reach of experience, yet below the region of spiritual truth, but, as it seemed, firmly based in the life and actions of mankind. It was the same sort of wisdom which defined the numbers and order of the celestial hierarchy, which was now to be adapted to the infinite modifications of which the actions of men are capable.
It is obvious that there are endless points of view in which the simplest duties may be regarded. Common sense says—‘A man is to be judged by his acts,’ ‘there can be no mistake about a lie,’ and so on. The casuists proceed by a different road. Fixing the mind, not on the simplicity, but on the intricacy of human action, they study every point of view, and introduce every conceivable distinction. A first most obvious distinction is that of the intention and the act: ought the one to be separated from the other? The law itself seems to teach that this may hardly be; rather the intention is held to be that which gives form and colour to the act. Then the act by itself is nothing, and the intention by itself almost innocent. As we play between the two different points of view, the act and the intention together evanesce. But, secondly, as we consider the intention, must we not also consider the circumstances of the agent? For plainly a being deprived of free will cannot be responsible for his actions. Place the murderer in thought under the conditions of a necessary agent, and his actions are innocent; or under an imperfect necessity, and he loses half his guilt. Or suppose a man ignorant, or partly ignorant, of what is the teaching of the Church, or the law of the land—here another abstract point of view arises, leading us out of the region of common sense to difficult and equitable considerations, which may be determined fairly, but which we have the greatest motive to decide in favour of ourselves. Or again, try to conceive an act without reference to its consequences, or in reference to some single consequence, without regarding it as a violation of morality or of nature, or in reference solely to the individual conscience. Or imagine the will half consenting to, half withdrawing from its act; or acting by another, or in obedience to another, or with some good object, or under the influence of some imperfect obligation, or of opposite obligations. Even conscience itself may be at last played off against the plainest truths.
By the aid of such distinctions the simplest principles of morality multiply to infinity. An instrument has been introduced of such subtilty and elasticity that it can accommodate the canons of the Church to any consciences, to any state of the world. Sin need no longer be confined to the dreadful distinction of moral and venial sin; it has lost its infinite and mysterious character; it has become a thing of degrees, to be aggravated or mitigated in idea, according to the expediency of the case or the pliability of the confessor. It seems difficult to perpetrate a perfect sin. No man need die of despair; in some page of the writings of the casuists will be found a difference suited to his case. And this without in any degree interfering with a single doctrine of the Church, or withdrawing one of its anathemas against heresy.
The system of casuistry, destined to work such great results, in reconciling the Church to the world and to human nature, like a torn web needing to be knit together, may be regarded as a science or profession. It is a classification of human actions, made in one sense without any reference to practice. For nothing was further from the mind of the casuist than to inquire whether a particular distinction would have a good or bad effect, was liable to perversion or not. His object was only to make such distinctions as the human mind was capable of perceiving and acknowledging. As to the physiologist objects in themselves loathsome and disgusting may be of the deepest interest, so to the casuist the foulest and most loathsome vices of mankind are not matters of abhorrence, but of science, to be arranged and classified, just like any other varieties of human action. It is true that the study of the teacher was not supposed to be also open to the penitent. But it inevitably followed that the spirit of the teacher communicated itself to the taught. He could impart no high or exalted idea of morality or religion, who was measuring it out by inches, not deepening men’s idea of sin, but attenuating it; ‘mincing into nonsense’ the first principles of right and wrong.
The science was further complicated by the ‘doctrine of probability,’ which consisted in making anything approved or approvable that was confirmed by authority; even, as was said by some, of a single casuist. That could not be very wrong which a wise and good man had once thought to be right—a better than ourselves perhaps, surveying the circumstances calmly and impartially. Who would wish that the rule of his daily life should go beyond that of a saint and doctor of the Church? Who would require such a rule to be observed by another? Who would refuse another such an escape out of the labyrinth of human difficulties and perplexities? As in all the Jesuit distinctions, there was a kind of reasonableness in the theory of this; it did but go on the principle of cutting short scruples by the rule of common sense.
And yet, what a door was here opened for the dishonesty of mankind! The science itself had dissected moral action until nothing of life or meaning remained in it. It had thrown aside, at the same time, the natural restraint which the moral sense itself exercises in determining such questions. And now for the application of this system, so difficult and complicated in itself, so incapable of receiving any check from the opinions of mankind, the authority not of the Church, but of individuals, was to be added as a new lever to overthrow the last remains of natural religion and morality.
The marvels of this science are not yet ended. For the same changes admit of being rung upon speech as well as upon action, until truth and falsehood become alike impossible. Language itself dissolves before the decomposing power; oaths, like actions, vanish into air when separated from the intention of the speaker; the shield of custom protects falsehood. It would be a curious though needless task to follow the subject into further details. He who has read one page of the casuists has read all. There is nothing that is not right in some particular point of view—nothing that is not true under some previous supposition.
Such a system may be left to refute itself. Those who have strayed so far away from truth and virtue are self-condemned. Yet it is not without interest to trace by what false lights of philosophy or religion good men, revolting themselves at the commission of evil, were led step by step to the unnatural result. We should expect to find that such a result originated not in any settled determination to corrupt the morals of mankind, but in an intellectual error; and it is suggestive of strange thoughts respecting our moral nature, that an intellectual error should have had the power to produce such consequences. Such appears to have been the fact. The conception of moral action on which the system depends, is as erroneous and imperfect as that of the scholastic philosophy respecting the nature of ideas. The immediate reduction of the error to practice through the agency of an order made the evil greater than that of other intellectual errors on moral and religious subjects, which, springing up in the brain of an individual, are often corrected and purified in the course of nature before they find their way into the common mind.
1. Casuistry ignores the difference between thought and action. Actions are necessarily external. The spoken word constitutes the lie; the outward performance the crime. The Highest Wisdom, it is true, has identified the two: ‘He that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ But this is not the rule by which we are to judge our past actions, but to guard our future ones. He who has thoughts of lust or passion is not innocent in the sight of God, and is liable to be carried on to perform the act on which he suffers himself to dwell. And, in looking forward, he will do well to remember this caution of Christ: but in looking backward, in thinking of others, in endeavouring to estimate the actual amount of guilt or trespass, if he begins by placing thought on the level of action, he will end by placing action on the level of thought. It would be a monstrous state of mind in which we regarded mere imagination of evil as the same with action; hatred as the same with murder; thoughts of impurity as the same with adultery. It is not so that we must learn Christ. Actions are one thing and thoughts another in the eye of conscience, no less than of the law of the land; of God as well as man. However important it may be to remember that the all-seeing eye of God tries the reins, it is no less important to remember also that morality consists in definite acts, capable of being seen and judged of by our fellow-creatures, impossible to escape ourselves.
2. What may be termed the frame of casuistry was supplied by law, while the spirit is that of the scholastic philosophy. Neither afforded any general principle which might correct extravagancies in detail, or banish subtilties, or negative remote and unsafe inferences. But the application of the analogy of law to subjects of morality and religion was itself a figment which, at every step, led deeper into error. The object was to realize and define, in every possible stage, acts which did not admit of legal definition, either because they were not external, but only thoughts or suggestions of the mind, or because the external part of the action was not allowed to be regarded separately from the motives of the agent. The motive or intention which law takes no account of, except as indicating the nature of the act, becomes the principal subject of the casuist’s art. Casuistry may be said to begin where law ends. It goes where law refuses to follow with legal rules and distinctions into the domain of morality. It weighs in the balance of precedent and authority the impalpable acts of a spiritual being. Law is a real science which has its roots in history, which grasps fact; seeking, in idea, to rest justice on truth only, and to reconcile the rights of individuals with the well-being of the whole. But casuistry is but the ghost or ape of a science; it has no history and no facts corresponding to it; it came into the world by the ingenuity of man; its object is to produce an artificial disposition of human affairs, at which nature rebels.
3. The distinctions of the casuist are far from equalling the subtilty of human life, or the diversity of its conditions. It is quite true that actions the same in name are, in the scale of right and wrong, as different as can be imagined; varying with the age, temperament, education, circumstances of each individual. The casuist is not in fault for maintaining this difference, but for supposing that he can classify or distinguish them so as to give any conception of their innumerable shades and gradations. All his folios are but the weary effort to abstract or make a brief of the individuality of man. The very actions which he classifies change their meaning as he writes them down, like the words of a sentence torn away from their context. He is ever idealizing and creating distinctions, splitting straws, dividing hairs; yet any one who reflects on himself will idealize and distinguish further still, and think of his whole life in all its circumstances, with its sequence of thoughts and motives, and, withal, many excuses. But no one can extend this sort of idealism beyond himself; no insight of the confessor can make him clairvoyant of the penitent’s soul. Know ourselves we sometimes truly may, but we cannot know others, and no other can know us. No other can know or understand us in the same wonderful or mysterious way; no other can be conscious of the spirit in which we have lived; no other can see us as a whole or get within. God has placed a veil of flesh between ourselves and other men, to screen the nakedness of our soul. Into the secret chamber He does not require that we should admit any other judge or counsellor but himself. Two eyes only are upon us—the eye of our own soul—the eye of God, and the one is the light of the other. That is the true light, on the which if a man look he will have a knowledge of himself, different in kind from that which the confessor extracts from the books of the casuists.
4. There are many cases in which our first thoughts, or, to speak more correctly, our instinctive perceptions, are true and right; in which it is not too much to say, that he who deliberates is lost. The very act of turning to a book, or referring to another, enfeebles our power of action. Works of art are produced we know not how, by some simultaneous movement of hand and thought, which seem to lend to each other force and meaning. So in moral action, the true view does not separate the intention from the act, or the act from the circumstances which surround it, but regards them as one and absolutely indivisible. In the performance of the act and in the judgement of it, the will and the execution, the hand and the thought are to be considered as one. Those who act most energetically, who in difficult circumstances judge the most truly, do not separately pass in review the rules, and principles, and counter principles of action, but grasp them at once, in a single instant. Those who act most truthfully, honestly, firmly, manfully, consistently, take least time to deliberate. Such should be the attitude of our minds in all questions of right and wrong, truth and falsehood: we may not inquire, but act.
5. Casuistry not only renders us independent of our own convictions, it renders us independent also of the opinion of mankind in general. It puts the confessor in the place of ourselves, and in the place of the world. By making the actions of men matters of science, it cuts away the supports and safeguards which public opinion gives to morality; the confessor in the silence of the closet easily introduces principles from which the common sense or conscience of mankind would have shrunk back. Especially in matters of truth and falsehood, in the nice sense of honour shown in the unwillingness to get others within our power, his standard will probably fall short of that of the world at large. Public opinion, it is true, drives men’s vices inwards; it teaches them to conceal their faults from others, and if possible from themselves, and this very concealment may sink them in despair, or cover them with self-deceit. And the soul—whose ‘house is its castle’—has an enemy within, the strength of which may be often increased by communications from without. Yet the good of this privacy is on the whole greater than the evil. Not only is the outward aspect of society more decorous, and the confidence between man and man less liable to be impaired; the mere fact of men’s sins being known to themselves and God only, and the support afforded even by the undeserved opinion of their fellows, are of themselves great helps to a moral and religious life. Many a one by being thought better than he was has become better; by being thought as bad or worse has become worse. To communicate our sins to those who have no claim to know them is of itself a diminution of our moral strength. It throws upon others what we ought to do for ourselves; it leads us to seek in the sympathy of others a strength which no sympathy can give. It is a greater trust than is right for us commonly to repose in our fellow-creatures; it places us in their power; it may make us their tools.
To conclude, the errors and evils of casuistry may be summed up as follows:—It makes that abstract which is concrete, scientific which is contingent, artificial which is natural, positive which is moral, theoretical which is intuitive and immediate. It puts the parts in the place of the whole, exceptions in the place of rules, system in the place of experience, dependence in the place of responsibility, reflection in the place of conscience. It lowers the heavenly to the earthly, the principles of men to their practice, the tone of the preacher to the standard of ordinary life. It sends us to another for that which can only be found in ourselves. It leaves the highway of public opinion to wander in the labyrinths of an imaginary science; the light of the world for the darkness of the closet. It is to human nature what anatomy is to our bodily frame; instead of a moral and spiritual being, preserving only ‘a body of death.’