Monday, 17 January 2011

Casus Conscientiae - A forgotten genre

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The subject of this post is the largely forgotten science of casuistry and the specialist textbooks that it spawned.

The origins of casuistry can be traced back to Aristotle, but it is most closely associated with the Catholic Church, and with the Jesuit order in particular.  It is defined by the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia as "[t]he application of general principles of morality to definite and concrete cases of human activity, for the purpose, primarily, of determining what one ought to do, or ought not to do".  In essence, it deals with hypothetical cases of wrongdoing or apparent wrongdoing, and analyses whether the protagonist has acted wrongly and what s/he ought to do.

In this post, I want to disinter some of the dilemmas posed in the classical textbooks of casuistry, the Casus Conscientiae or Cases of Conscience.  Like modern exam questions, these cases often mix plausible situations and behaviour with deliberately contrived elements that point up the ethical issues at stake.  I find it interesting to read them, and I hope that you will too.  I haven't quoted the answers to the cases, since those tend to be of interest only to people with a penchant for the obscure byways of Catholic moral theology.

(Needless to say, the classical Casus Conscientiae were written in Latin.  What follows are my free, and occasionally edited, translations.)


Benjamin Elbel (Augsburg, 1744)

Titius got Gaia pregnant.  In order to escape the stigma that threatened him as a result, and to avoid financial loss, he spread the rumour around that she had been made pregnant by another man, a certain Sempronius.  He knew that he was seriously slandering not only Gaia but Sempronius too, and that he had not fulfilled his obligations in relation to the maintenance of the child.


Augustin Lehmkuhl (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1902)

Luke, a teenager, often attends public shows with his parents.  He also attends musical performances with them, and frequents their neighbours' house, where a lot of families are accustomed to gather.  On all these occasions, however, he has often fallen into sinful desires, when he hears and sees things and styles of dress that are scarcely modest.  His parents, not realising the danger, want their son to gain some knowledge of the
world so that in time he can choose his state of life more easily.

On the day before he is to be ordained as a subdeacon [i.e. two steps away from the priesthood], Evaristus is tormented by a severe inner struggle.  He was induced to enter holy orders only because his parents pleaded with him insistently to do so.  He cannot believe that he is psychologically capable of remaining celibate.  If he withdraws now, however, he will provoke a terrible argument with his parents, and he dares not incur their enmity.  So he goes along with the others and receives ordination as a subdeacon.  Subsequently, he is ordained as a deacon and as a priest.  After a few years, he tells his confessor that he is unhappy with his state of life, that he is struggling with a depraved habit, and that he is continually committing sacrileges [by celebrating the sacraments while in a state of sin].

Amelia, a maidservant, has frequently been seduced by her master.  She is instructed by her confessor to leave her post.  When he learns of this, her master begs her not to go through with this: if she does, his wife will inevitably learn what he has been doing and their marital harmony will be gone for ever.  When Amelia persists, he goes to the same confessor himself and asks him to allow the servant girl to remain in her post.  He promises that in the future he will not commit or attempt to commit any sin with Amelia.

Lambert often goes to the pub.  He gradually finds that he is habitually getting drunk there.  He gets involved in foolery, and he both causes harm to his family life and frequently blurts out blasphemies.  His confessor tells him that he must stop going to that pub completely.  He replies that this is not possible, and that he has to do business there in order to provide food for himself and his family.

Getulis is passionately in love with Anna and wants to marry her, but his parents are opposed to the marriage.  Nonetheless, he hopes that their opposition will fall away with time, and he continues to court Anna.  He often visits her in order to ensure that she remains faithful to him, but does not do so openly for fear of offending his parents.  He confesses that he has sometimes tried to take their relationship to a more intimate level, but the girl has consistently refused.  He says that he has only done this because he plans to force his parents to agree to the marriage, as it will turn out to be necessary for them to get married and his parents will realise that.


Johann Reuter (Cologne, 1753)

James and Anna are married and have three daughters.  Their daughters have been brought up rather indulgently, and are attached to the vain things of the world rather than to the worship of God.  Their parents see that they have reached the age of marriage, and they allow them to mix with young men and to go to dances, games and nighttime gatherings of young people of both sexes.  In the course of this, the eldest daughter, Agatha, is overcome by the flattering attentions of a man who has a low-ranking job in the army, a man of socially inferior status.  Lovestruck, she promises to marry him, but her family, being of noble blood, oppose the marriage.  Both her mother and her father object, but in vain.  The man succeeds in sleeping with the daughter and gets her pregnant.  She marries the man before a military chaplain.  Her family are indignant at this, and refuse to let Agatha visit or see them.  After a year, however, they relent, and treat her like a member of the family again.  Her mother, however, does not allow herself to be moved by Agatha's entreaties, tears or humble pleas to forgive her wrongdoing.  She resolves that she will never let Agatha see her again.

Damasus attended a dinner with Damian, whom he thought was a good Catholic.  He steered the conversation onto the subject of religion and discovered that he was a heretic.  Damian said that it was enough for a man to be saved that he believed in God and Christ, and that very many Protestants had good morals.

Fr. Alban has been sitting all day in the confessional and listening to a series of penitents.  He found one of them to be quite rough and ready: he did not know how to make his act of contrition [a prayer said in confession], and he had also sinned through ignorance in matters of chastity and certain other things.  Another penitent made reference to various sins that he had committed in the course of his past life, and confessed, amongst other things, that he had committed sins of the flesh with his wife's sister before his marriage.  Fr. Alban realised that this had raised a canonical impediment to the marriage, but said nothing.  A third peintent similarly confessed to committing sins of the flesh with his wife's mother before his marriage.  From the circumstances, Fr. Alban was doubtful whether it had been a fully-fledged act of fornication, capable of conceiving offspring, so he said nothing about this either.

Fr. Menolphus is a priest who leads a very sinful life.  He has been sleeping with his maidservant for many years in the manner of a live-in girlfriend, albeit persuading her that this is not a sin.  He is seized by an illness - not a dangerous one, to be sure, but a lengthy one.  While he is sick, the thought enters his mind of the eternal punishment that awaits the ungodly in hell, so he calls a fellow priest and makes his confession to him.  The priest is worried and hesitates to give Fr. Menolphus absolution unless he dismisses the maidservant.  Fr. Menolphus assures him by swearing an oath that he will dismiss her on the next possible occasion.  The confessor is persuaded by this promise, and, having questioned him in detail about his sins, grants him absolution.  A month later, Fr. Menolphus is on the brink of death.  The same confessor is summoned again and finds that the maidservant has not yet been dismissed from service.

Fr. German is a priest who leads an admirable life.  He prefers to hear the confessions of peasants and other lower-class people rather than those of gentlemen.  This is because he can deal with them without using circumlocutions and ambiguities, and he can question them, reprimand them and prescribe remedial measures for them.  Gentlemen are not infrequently offended by such an approach.  They gossip about it afterwards with others and denigrate the confessor.


Jean-Pierre Gury (Regensburg, 1865)

Dafrosa was married at a young age, and she was soon given a lesson in the fragility of human affairs.  Her husband suddenly fell ill, and she realised that he was rapidly approaching death.  She wept and howled and filled the air with groans and cries.  "My life is wretched!" she said, "What am I going to do?  I wish that I could be taken away together with my beloved husband."  Getulius, a friend of the family, heard her saying this.  He had once been intimately involved with Dafrosa.  He said to her, in a friendly manner: "What's the matter?  If you lose one husband, surely you'll quickly find another one?  Do you want to marry me if your husband dies?"  She smiled slightly and willingly agreed.  When the husband died, however, another suitor immediately appeared, a man called Fidelinus.  He claimed that Dafrosa ought to marry him and not the other man because she had promised to marry him before she had married her deceased husband.

Ernest is a servant.  He is often surly when he speaks to his master.  He mocks him, he offends him by criticising him, and he neglects his instructions.  When his master is away, he has very often neglected his work.  Now, after his master has docked some of his pay because he was off sick for an unusual length of time, he has secretly taken the money for himself.

Titius is a man who does not care about his own salvation and has no concern for the morals of his servants.  He does not keep an eye on them at all.  Members of his household of both sexes have inappropriately close relations with each other and with people from outside.  They miss going to church and hearing Mass on Sunday.  They never go to confession or receive communion at Eastertide.  Titius sees all this and says nothing.


Éduard Génicot and Joseph Salsmans (Brussels, 1947)

Demetrius, a doctor, discovers a lotion which is very effective in preventing and curing sexually transmitted diseases.  However, he asks his confessor's advice as to whether he can publicise this medicine, since he is afraid that lustful men might be tempted to commit sins with a greater sense of security.