Pope Francis has made it plain on numerous occasions that he doesn’t like “casuistry”—the case-based method of moral reasoning that has been a hallmark of Catholic teaching for centuries now. What is casuistry, anyway? And why doesn’t the pope like it?
Within the Catholic tradition, casuistry has its roots in the sacramental practice of confession. Confession has always been important for Catholics. But after the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), many Catholics were required to “make their Easter duty”—to take Communion during the Easter season. Since it was forbidden to receive Communion in a state of mortal sin, fulfilling that duty required Catholics to go to confession. Once there, they were required to confess to a priest each individual sin they committed, as well as the number of times they committed it. So the demand for good confessors increased exponentially. The priest hearing the confession was required to listen to the sins, evaluate their seriousness, and administer a penance designed both to punish and heal.
But how was the priest to know what to do or say in response? How was he to know whether an act confessed by a penitent was indeed a sin, and if so, how serious a violation of God’s law it was? To provide guidance, a genre of literature known as the “manuals of moral theology” developed, which provided a taxonomy of sinful actions, usually under the rubric of the Ten Commandments. They considered the range of possible sins in great detail.
The manuals were a type of professional literature written by priests for priests, not for laypeople. They were composed in Latin, not the vernacular, well into the twentieth century. (Even after the switch to the vernacular, some manuals kept the parts about sexual sins in Latin.) They were focused on what not to do on pain of mortal or venial sin, not what to do in order to grow in virtue. The manuals were no more designed to provide a broadly accessible and inviting view of Catholic life than the federal penal code was designed to inspire patriotic commitment to American life. They had a narrow purpose. At the same time, it is fair to say that they had a disproportionate—and distorted—effect on the moral imagination of the hierarchy as well as that of ordinary Catholics.
Pope Francis’s recent criticisms of casuistry, in my view, helpfully point to these distortions. Many of his most trenchant remarks have been given as part of his reflections during Mass at his residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae in Rome.
In 2014, the pope suggested that casuistry is inimical to faith. According to a L’Osservatore Romano summary of one of his morning meditations, he claimed that
“Casuistry is precisely the place to which all those people go who believe they have faith” but only have a knowledge of its content. Thus, “when we find a Christian” who only asks “if it is licit to do this and if the Church could do that,” it either means “that they do not have faith, or that it is too weak.”
Here, the pope seems to be calling out Christians who place their faith in the law rather than in Jesus Christ himself. They assume that following (their interpretation of) the law is sufficient to respond to all difficult situations, rather than relying on trust in God’s mercy and a tender, creative response to human suffering. One of the cases he cites, for example, is the leaders who asked whether “a woman was widowed, poor thing, who according to the law had to marry the seven brothers of her husband in order to have a child.” Casuistry, in this sense, focuses on the moral dilemma, rather than the child of God who is suffering within it. It does not interpret the law in light of the merciful intentions of the divine lawgiver.