Academic journal article Theological Studies

Jean Pierre Gury's Sources: A Missing Chapter in the History of Double Effect

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Jean Pierre Gury's Sources: A Missing Chapter in the History of Double Effect

Article excerpt

MORE THAN A CENTURY AFTER Catholic ethicists first began to debate its effectiveness, the principle of double effect continues to be a bone of contention in moral theology, with periodic discussions of its utility, scope of application, and historical pedigree. (1) While methodological controversies are hardly unusual in Christian ethics, arguments over the principle (in its various formulations) have an unusual locus--its foundation, rather than its sufficiency for the assessment of human acts. Unlike many tools of moral analysis, the principle of double effect has not roused controversy because of what it is presumed to justify. Instead, its basic character is uncertain. What do its criteria reveal about an action, and why is their presence or absence morally significant? Paradoxically, this "method" often seems simpler to apply than to explain. (2)

While historical research cannot settle every issue regarding the principle of double effect, it can at least help clarify why its nature is so elusive. (3) One important clue emerges from the sources cited by the Jesuit Jean Pierre Gury, in his classic 19th-century formulation of the principle. (4) At first glance, the trajectory of Gury's sources seems straightforward, suggesting that the principle of double effect emerged from the need to clarify an earlier set of criteria for assessing the imputability of indirect actions. However, Gury's text also provides evidence for two critical detours on the road to the principle, each involving a change in the meaning or in the significance of classifying an action as indirect. That the terminology remained the same, while the understanding of the term did not, created a deceptive appearance of continuity between the historical phases of the principle's emergence.

To understand these developments, it will be helpful to begin by identifying Gury's importance for the history of the principle of double effect, the context of his discussion, and the sources he acknowledges. Consideration of Gury's predecessors introduces the first detour on the road to double effect: the shift in meaning associated with the indirect voluntary that separates Aquinas from the rest of Gury's sources, and from Gury himself. Next, I will examine Gury's two principia governing the voluntariurn indirectum and their antecedents, with special attention to the contributions of Charles Billuart and Joseph Carriere. Extended analysis of Gury's second principium--which we know today as the principle of double effect--leads me to the second detour: the distinction between Gury's understanding of its operations and our own, grounded again in differing presuppositions regarding the voluntarium indirectum. In light of the historical discontinuities camouflaged by terminological repetition, the conundrum at the heart of the principle of double effect becomes more understandable.


Scholars have long acknowledged Jean Pierre Gury's role in both systematizing and popularizing the principle of double effect for Catholic ethics. (5) In his influential study of the history of double effect, Joseph Mangan argued: "It is only beginning with the various editions of Gury's admirable and repeatedly reedited Compendium Theologiae Moralis in the nineteenth century that the moral theologians universally give an adequate, thorough explanation of the principle of the double effect as a general principle applicable to the whole field of moral theology." (6) The popularity of Gury's manual, which, according to Charles Curran, "went through forty-three editions between 1850 and 1890," ensured the principle's widespread dissemination as well. (7)

Given historical moral theology's longstanding interest in the origins of double effect--a debate that emerged from the seminal analyses and counterarguments of Alonso, Mangan, and Ghoos--it is interesting that Gury's sources have received relatively little attention. …

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