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March 12, 2005


ita o'byrne

The thing that jumped out at me is how Saletan who has written on the abortion issue extensively and knows the role of the church in the abortion still seems amazed that the Catholics he met (particularly)not only know what they're talking about but are experts in the field. As if the Roman Catholic Church was relying on archaic dogmas in it's approach to stem-cells or else don't know what they're talking about.

I bet if Saletan talked about "blastocysts" and "IGF receptors" to Senator John "the bishops are wrong about stem cells" Kerry or Senator John "if Kerry is elected people will walk again" Edwards, they would have no idea what they're talking about. I don't think any politican does. They assume the Church doesn't have facts and then throw billions at the bio-tech industry.


Saletan didn't seem particularly respectful of the Catholic approach to me. If anything, he seemed to be saying the same old thing: that Catholics think they have all the answers and that any reasonable person would know that can't be so.
What was Krauthammer doing at this conference? I know he is a non-practicing psychiatrist, which makes him a medical doctor, but what are his qualifications in this field or in ethics?


The dessert arrives, and Ruse asks me mischievously, "Do you know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" I stare at him blankly. "This is the great thing about the Catholic church," he says with a smile. "There is an answer." And then he reveals it: All of them.

Jigga what?

My understanding, from professors that have their main areas of study in medieval and scholastic philosophy/theology, is that no scholastic theologians, let alone any serious and respected scholastic theologians like Aquinas, Bonaventure, etc., ever really asked this question. In fact, I was given the strict impression that they would have ignored it if it had been asked asked, since angels are immaterial. Rather, it was a later slander used to mock the scholastics. But I am, of course, open to correction.

Tom Kelty

Blog in good health for many happy years to come.


At CUA in the 70's, by Wippel {"the world's leading Thomist"}, et al., hard-core Aristotelian Scholaticists, recommended by Ratzinger himself, etc, etc, I was taught, not only, all Of them, but -- and with all of the space left over, too.


I hope it's consolation to know that I've had almost two years trouble-free with a Toshiba laptop. The battery monitor is now wearing a little thin, but nothing an extended warranty can't take care of. I hope your laptop makes your writing life more enjoyable.

Christopher Rake

Krauthammer is (still is? I guess) on the President's bioethics council though I don't know exactly what he did to get there.

p.s. hooray for the new computer!


Of course, Will Saletan's construal of the "Catholic-Jewish question" needs a lot more nuance. But, perhaps his contrast - "The Catholics were clear about what was moral and what wasn't. The Jews were fuzzy" - might prove rather instructive for us. In an article in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Mark Levin and Ira Birnbaum outlined a "Jewish Bioethics." They first write about Jewish ethics more generally:

"Traditional Judaism is a covenantal system of laws and customs based upon the Divine Will as revealed at Mount Sinai to the Children of Israel and as interpreted by recognized authorities in subsequent periods. It is legalistic and particularistic; that is to say, its precepts are couched in legalistic form and are binding only on the parties to the convenant, namely, the Children of Israel and their descendants and converts. The particular parameters of behavior are determined by the religious law which regulates all aspects of life, including ritual, ethics, civil relations, theology, and others. It is thus more all-encompassing than Western legal systems. This case/rule-based law, also known as 'Halachah,' is based on precedent filtered through Talmudic literature and its commentaries as well as discussions of specific cases from the past, the responsa literature. Ultimate authority derives from oral tradition and or Biblical text sources. To the uninitiated this approach may appear casuistic. As noted by Jonsen, classical casuistry did not apply principles in a deductive or inferential fashion but, in common with the classic discipline of rhetoric, drew eclectically from the vast storehouse of classical writings and focused an argument on cause and effect, before and after, possible and impossible, greater or less and the specific circumstances of a case. Those unfamiliar with the structure of a Talmudic argument may perceive it similarly. In essence however as we will demonstrate the latter draws essentially and and substantially on clarification and distillation of principles from the mass of precedent and text."

They clarify what they mean:

"Halachic deliberation is largely case-based, especially in the responsa literature, and is directed toward securing a legal decision in the particular case under discussion and establishing rules of begavior in subsequnt similar cases. To aid this process, principles are abstracted. Inference of general principles from the mass of precedent and text and examination of their interrelationships and conflicts is methodologically very important insofar as principles are useful in refining the rules for behavior in a particular situation. Principles are, however, only provisional. In theory, a reanalysis of the textual evidence or uncovering of new texts can provide a reinterpretation of underlying principles and a shift in practice, though this becomes less likely as these principles become more entrenched with time. Where precedent is scant, as in many new bioethical issues, there is more room for creativity in interpretation and novel principles are more likely to emerge. There are also guidelines for resolution of conflicts and establishment of a hierarchy between various rules and principles. Where an impasse is reached, an appeal to textual and precedent sources and their reevaluation usually provides clearer definition of principles and their limiting circumstances. The definition, redefinition and subdefinition of subordinate principles for each particular case allows greater flexibility and serves to revolve conflict between principles. Because the goal of analysis is to affect practice this case-based approach therefore couches principles in practical legal terms rather than in abstract philosophical terms. This provides for flexibility as well as integrity and reproducibility within the Halachic framework, but also makes comparison with contemporary philosophical principles more difficult. To put it simply, the subtances of Halachic discussion is rational and philosophic but the language and method of deliberation is legal and its methodology can be esoteric and off-putting to the uninitiated. A paradoxical conclusion emerges from the preceding analysis. It is quite possible to derive divergent conclusions from the same sources when dealing with a particular case even while agreeing in principle. This phenomenon in itself is quite familiar to any ethicist, attorney, physician or Talmudic scholar."

So, maybe we can say:

1. If Jewish ethical reasoning is case-based in approach, and "couches principles in practical legal terms rather than in abstract philosophical terms," it will generally seem "fuzzier" than present day Catholic ethics.

2. The Jewish case-based approach with its attention to the concrete instance, might helpfully remind us of now-forgotten traditions of casuistry in Catholic ethical thought - particularly the moral theology of St Alphonsus Liguori, which was focused on the very practical terms of the confessional. Some "fuzziness" might be a good thing.




With all due respect, what a bunch of hogwash.
"Principles are, however, only provisional." Very telling, that.
"Where precedent is scant, as in many new bioethical issues, there is more room for creativity in interpretation and novel principles are more likely to emerge." If you have a "principle", an ideal, a standard then you don't need "precedent". And why wouldn't any system worth its salt already have a position on what constitutes "life", and on the exploitation of human life for the possible benefit of another? It's not like this question just arose in the last few months.


If it looks like casuistry (subtle but evasive reasoning in questions of duty:Webster's), sounds like casuistry, smells like casuistry, it's casuistry. Although it depends on what the meaning of "is" is, of course.


Dear Liam,

1. Levin and Birnbaum give a concrete example of their description of principle, precedent, and provisionality. It should show the possibility of a rational deliberation that is not simply a matter of "deducing principles from an overarching moral theory," but rather a sophisticated process of "precedental analogy" and textual exegesis. It has to do, oddly enough, with Shylock's contract with Antonio in the Merchant of Venice:

"Rabbi Zevin discusses the case of a man who requested that another person strike him. While codified as being prohibited, a reexamination of Talmudic discussion of a related topic (He who says: 'blind me and I hold you blameless - the one who says it is culpable') appears to produce an opposite conclusion (Bava Kama 72a). The explanation that the Talmud and its commentaries offer for that law is that no man would truly consent to such injury, implying absence of general prohibition to cause injury as long as there is consent of the injured party. Rabbi Zevin goes on to cite the ruling that a son can perform bloodletting on a parent 'because it is for healing' (Sanhedrin 84b), proving that a parent's consent to be injured is not adequate in and of itself. He then proceeds to quote several authorities who harmonize the conflicting sources by particularizing one or the other or by drawing distinctions between an injury to a stranger and an injury to a parent. For Rabbi Zevin, the deciding evidence is inferred from the wording of Maimonides Mishne Torah (Laws of Murderer, 1,4) ('the life of this one does not belong to ... but to the Holy One ...') and by a rereading of a Talmudic passage that obligates that a suicide must be rescued against his wishes (Sanhedrin 73a). This analysis typifies the constant reexamination of principles by each generation of scholars and Halachists in the context of specific cases, even of codified principles hallowed by times and general acceptance. For Rabbi Zevin, the conclusion is that the principle has been proven and reinforced; in another setting and to another mind it may have just as easily been modified, particularized or restricted to a specific situation. The fact that the discussion takes place in the context of particular circumstances of a specific case serves to conserve the accepteed practice and ensures that change accrues in an evolutionary and additive rather than in a revolutionary manner."

2. While, obviously, Jewish ethics will differ from Catholic ethics, a similar analysis of principle, precedent, and provisionality is necessary to make sense of the historical development of the Catholic moral tradition. Certain principles that we regularly take into account when judging the morality of an act - double effect, cooperation, toleration, lesser evil, and totality - were initially developed and continue to be clarified on a case by case basis (for instance, see Joseph Mangan's "An Historical Analysis of the Principle of Double Effect," Theological Studies 10 [1949]). A recent example of the resulting casuistry of accommodation in bioethics - here involving the principle of totality - would be the CDF's allowance of homologous artificial insemination within marriage if "the technical means facilitates the conjugal act or helps it to reach its natural objectives" (Domun Vitae). We can surely think of other examples of the use of casuistry regarding artificial hydration and nutrition, just war theory, capital punishment, condoms and AIDS, and so on.

3. Catholic "clarity" and Jewish "fuzziness" should prove to be blessings to one another as we continue to deliberate the morality of using Hurlbut's "artifacts" and other difficult issues related to stem cell research.

Thank you for your kind reply.



Dear Joe,

Obviously, there are forms of casuistry that are intentionally evasive. But we really must distinguish between different sorts of casuistry. We must further distinguish, as my original excerpt maintained, between casuistry and Halachic reasoning, which has its own distinct methodology, but which can still helpfully alert us to a need for the focus on concrete cases which is characteristic of casuistry.

If you would like to learn more about casuistry in the Catholic tradition (and are restricted to online sources), I can recommend Werner Stark's lengthy contribution to the Dictionary of the History of Ideas:


Thank you.



Defending casuistry is a challenge, one I wonder why you voluntarily undertook. You introduced it.
Casuistry is recognizing the law or principle and then trying to find the loophole that will let you evade adhering to it while still feeling virtuous. That is what it is.
This is an approach that is alien to historical Catholic argument, philosophy and theology.
How "Catholic 'clarity' and Jewish 'fuzziness' should prove to be blessings to one another", as you assert, is more than a bit puzzling.


"But we really must distinguish between different sorts of casuistry." There you go, a typical casuistic response. Case closed.
Neil, let's see some long cuts and pastes from Fulton Sheen.


"Being merely a science of application, casuistry must be based on the principles and established conclusions of moral theology and ethics. These normative sciences it presupposes; to them it is ancillary; and strictly speaking it is distinct from them. It does not define objective morality, nor the objective circumstances that modify morality, nor the psychological conditions that fix motive and consent; but, borrowing from the moralist the principles that determine these elements of a volitional act, its inquiry regards the extent of their presence or absence in a given case. Neither does it establish the existence of moral obligation; but, assuming the precepts of morality as already established, its only office is to determine the subjective morality of an individual act. In subordination to the sciences which it subserves, its sphere comprises the whole range of man's free activity. The decisions of the casuist are right or wrong, therefore, in so far as they are or are not in accord with a science of morality, which is itself a right interpretation of the natural or positive laws promulgated by the Supreme Legislator of the Universe. They are of no worth, when based on an arbitrary or purely self-sanctioned autonomous philosophy of conduct."

Cath. Encyclopedia

Sandra Miesel

"How many angels can dance on the head of a pin" comes from Rabelais but St. Bonaventure did consider the issues involved. He concluded that an angel can occupy the smallest place imaginable (but not a mathematical point, because that has no dimension)and angels must occupy separate spaces.


My last post will be a very basic one. What is casuistry? Hopefully, my answer will implicitly show how casuistry might be helpful regarding bioethics. I will also note that nobody has questioned my statement, "Certain principles that we regularly take into account when judging the morality of an act - double effect, cooperation, toleration, lesser evil, and totality - were initially developed and continue to be clarified on a case by case basis."

So, what is casuistry? Well, St Thomas writes, "A thing taken in its primary consideration may be good or bad; yet when additional considerations are taken into account it may be changed to the contrary. Thus that a man should live is good; and that a man should be killed is evil, absolutely considered. But if in a particular case we add that a man is a murderer or dangerous to society, to kill him is a good; that he live is an evil." (ST I.19.6.ad 1). We can already see that St Paul mitigates general principles to establish the "Pauline principle" regading marriage (1 Cor 7:10-16); the Apostle will also revise his permission of the purchasing of meat from pagan temples when the "appearance of impropriety" exists (1 Cor 8:1-13).

St Thomas will clearly say that "human actions are good or evil according to circumstances":

"In natural things, it is to be noted that the whole fulness of perfection due to a thing, is not from the mere substantial form, that gives it its species; since a thing derives much from supervening accidents, as man does from shape, color, and the like; and if any one of these accidents be out of due proportion, evil is the result. So it is with action. For the plenitude of its goodness does not consist wholly in its species, but also in certain additions which accrue to it by reason of certain accidents: and such are its due circumstances. Wherefore if something be wanting that is requisite as a due circumstance the action will be evil" (ST I-II.18.3.resp).

Casuistry is a form of deliberation that takes into account relevant "additional considerations." So, as the Dictionary of the History of Ideas tells us:

"In its widest sense, [casuistry] has described a mentality which pays closer attention to the concrete instance than to abstract generalities. In a narrower sense, it has been employed to characterize legal systems like those of the Anglo-Saxon countries under which all-inclusive norms are derived from judgments in particular lawsuits, instead of being laid down beforehand in rationally elaborated codes. In its narrowest sense, it refers to the use of subtle definitional distinctions in the handling of ethico-legal or purely ethical problems with the aim of drawing fine dividing
lines between what is permissible and what is not."

Obviously, the "narrowest sense" might lead to evasiveness, but "fine dividing lines" are quite necessary when deciding on the permissibility, say, of a particular form of homologous artificial insemination (again, see Donum Vitae). The belief that we can simply rest confidently on "abstract generalities" can only be purchased at the price of historical amnesia and a willful isolation from concrete moral practice. As Gaudium et Spes tells us:

"The Church guards the heritage of God's word and draws from it moral and religious principles without always having at hand the solution to particular problems. As such she desires to add the light of revealed truth to mankind's store of experience. so that the path which humanity has taken in recent times will not be a dark one."

Humanity's path will indeed be dark if we eliminate "mankind's store of experience" from moral consideration - casuistry, through its attention to specific cases, can help us readmit it; Jewish forms of reasoning can draw out attention back to the practice of casuistry in the Catholic moral tradition.




I don't think there is a paralell.

Casuistry has as its third principle the natural, teleological order of nature.

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