Academic journal article Theological Studies

Applying the Seventeenth-Century Casuistry of Accommodation to HIV Prevention

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Applying the Seventeenth-Century Casuistry of Accommodation to HIV Prevention

Article excerpt

EVERYONE LOVES CASES. Television worldwide offers us not general debates about major moral issues but police, legal, and hospital dramas dealing with cases. Through programs such as ER, Homicide, and NYPD Blue, the networks tease viewers by combining a narrative and a moral quandary, thereby making the ethical entertaining.

Catholics too love cases, as is clear when they get together to talk about birth control, homosexual unions, sterilizations, or physician-assisted suicide. Because they have a set of moral teachings that claim to be absolutely exceptionless, Catholics enjoy coming up with the exceptions. Thirty years ago, for instance, several moral theologians did not believe that the encyclical Humanae vitae was right in its claim that every instance of artificial birth control was wrong. Not having to prove that every instance was right, many were only interested in challenging the claim that birth control was always wrong. They proposed therefore the case of a mother of eight, whose heart condition threatened her survival and who would not live through another pregnancy. Her failure to use birth control was itself life-threatening. Added to the case was the circumstance that abstinence was not an alternative; her careless husband scorned abstinence. In the event of her likely death, her eight children plus the newborn would be left motherless; and given the carelessness of the father, the children would not be in good hands. The case was compelling, and the theologians made their point: not every instance of artificial birth control was necessarily wrong.

Of course, Jesus too loved cases. By using parables, Jesus presented new insights. He answered the famous question "Who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10: 29-37) with the case of the Good Samaritan. When faced with the charge that he ate with sinners, he gave the case of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 2, 11-32). Jesus used cases not only to teach but to persuade us. Cases are, after all, particular tools or instruments in the repertory of rhetorical arguments.(1)

The many proclivities to casuistry have one thing in common: they all trust in the function of the case method, where cases are brief narratives or stories that we use to consider anew what we may have missed when making other claims. Cases bring to our attention a new claim that needs to be engaged.


The study of cases is called casuistry. Casuistry comes from the Latin word casus, meaning "something that has happened."(2) Recently in moral theology, Christian ethics, and moral philosophy, scholars have begun looking back in history to understand better how casuistry functioned. In their ground-breaking work, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning, Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin located the beginning of high casuistry in the mid-16th-century European world bent on expansionism. That expansionism prompted a doubt about the utility and validity of existing principles.(3)

For instance, maritime insurance had been condemned since the 13th century as a form of usury; in the 13th century the logic of the condemnation was simple. Following the principle that all usury was wrong, Pope Gregory IX declared in 1237 that maritime insurance was a form of usury and therefore sinful. But a prohibition against maritime insurance three centuries later at the dawn of the "Age of Discovery" did not seem reasonable. Spanish merchants in Flanders asked John Mair and other professors at the University of Paris to reexamine the earlier prohibition. Mair and his associates returned a decision that the case of a maritime insurance agent was like the case of the captain of a ship: they both performed a similar task, they both worked to assure a merchant that his cargo (or its worth) would arrive safely on the other shore. The prohibition against insurance was abandoned and an analogous case was offered as a guideline: the work of a maritime insurance agent was sufficiently analogous to a ship's captain to warrant the former's moral legitimacy. …

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