After the conclusion of the reform Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Roman Catholic Church turned to reforms in a number of areas of Church life, including the sacrament f Penance and, specifically for our purposes today, moral theology. Although Pope Innocent III had decreed in the early thirteenth century that every Catholic must confess sins annually, it is hard to say how seriously this mandate was taken over the next three centuries. It is generally accepted that the training of priests in this era was skeletal, and that many clerics did not know precisely what acts were in fact sinful, the gravity of the confessed sin, and the proper counsel and penitential reparation.
Our theological inspiration for today, James F. Keenan, (A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century, 2010) makes another interesting point about the era of Trent. The expanding wealth of knowledge of the Renaissance era, which included the geographical expansion into the western hemisphere and the Far East, demanded more critical moral analysis as more information and more complex challenges came into being. The Church had taught from earliest times that charging interest on a loan, or usury, was sinful. But once the Portuguese and the Spanish began seafaring exploration in the late 1400’s, and particularly when Spain began shipping large amounts of gold and other precious goods back to Europe, the necessity of insurance became pressing.
In 1530 Spanish merchants asked the University of Paris for an overhaul of the morality of certain commercial practices; they were not seeking to reject the Catholic moral teaching authority, but rather, they were facing situations that Church morality had never faced before and essentially were asking the Paris scholars to sketch out the morality of banking for the new cashed-based economies of the western world. Thus began the Catholic juridical science of case law or casuistry, which would become nearly synonymous with the term “moral theology.”
After the Council of Trent, moral theology books took on the form of case law books. Scholars collected all the known sins—from both the Old and New Testaments, the Church Fathers, decrees of councils and popes, and even everyday experience--with every sin catalogued in a particular way. Moralists no longer resembled philosophers or spiritual directors; rather, the discipline became an extremely legal one, and today’s Canon Lawyer can trace roots to this era. The methodology of assessing sin and guilt became known as casuistry (from the root word “case”) and among its first and most famous practitioners were Jesuits, who were the most exacting in protecting original principles and not particularly lenient in granting exceptions of conscience. In fact, the lengths to which they would go to maintain moral order by complicated legal reasoning has led to the terms “casuistry” and “jesuitical” passing into English as derogatory terms.
The period from 1600 through at least 1960 is known in Church history as the “Manualist Era,” a reference to both the books themselves, the confessional practices of the times, and the debates among moral doctors of the time. The content of the list of sins was modestly affected—interest and slavery, to be sure—but the meat of moral debate was the subjective guilt of the sinner, and whether his particular moral dilemma was sinful or not given the circumstances of the casus or case. There was a dialectic among moralists between rigorous interpretation and generous. After a century or so of Jesuit precision, the eighteenth century saw a drift to a broader interpretation of law, and moral theology of the post-Tridentine Era produced its first saint and doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Ligouri.
Ligouri was much more than a technical moralist. He himself was an extraordinarily pious man who founded the Redemptorist Order and has left us a rich tradition of Catholic publishing in today’s Ligouri publications. His confessional approach we would probably recognize as pastoral and understanding. As a moralist he is considered in the Probablist tradition, meaning that if a penitent’s choice of action can find support from competent moralists on both sides of a question, the penitent could choose the option based upon his prayer and conscience.
Something that needs clarification about the Manualist Era is its emphasis upon the Sacrament of Penance and the subjective state of the penitent. It is true, as noted above, that some acts came to be regarded as sinful (slavery) while others were adjusted to new circumstances (charging interest, so long as it did not degenerate into loan sharking.) The greater concern, though, was the subjective state of the soul in determining how life circumstances influenced moral choice. For this reason, it is critical to recognize that there was and is a hierarchy of sorts regarding sin. The recognition of direct abortion as grave sin is part and parcel of Catholic morality for all of the Church’s history. Claiming a wide-screen TV as a tax deduction (unless you happen to make your living as a TV critic, poor soul) is cheating our duty to support the upkeep of society, and it is probably sinful, but we do not generally think of these two acts—abortion and tax evasion—as two peas from the same pod, so to speak.
There is another feature of the Manualist Era that drew criticism, particularly in the early twentieth century. The moral life embraces more than juridical correctness; it begins with baptismal rebirth and a positive commitment to live constantly in the imitation of Christ. The manuals were very useful for identifying dangerous life paths, but they had little to say about the Gospel teachings of Jesus. Jesus taught, “Blessed are the merciful.” When can one say, with juridical certainty, that he or she has been “merciful enough?” Or cared for the poor enough? Or worked for justice enough?
In the twentieth century thoughtful Catholic and Protestant scholars began to ask this question with greater intensity, and this quest would have profound impact upon our personal and communal spirituality today.