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Chapter 12: Moral Judgment in Problematic Situations

Question D: How is the position taken in the preceding question related to probabilism?

1. The way of resolving doubts about rules of positive law proposed above is what has been called “equiprobabilism.” If the preponderance of expert opinion is that one is bound by a rule of positive law, one is bound. But if there is no discernible preponderance of opinion that one is bound—that is, if opinion seems equal on both sides of the question or if the preponderance of opinion is that one is not bound—one is not bound.

2. The way of resolving doubts about moral norms, proposed in question C, is analogous to what has been called “probabiliorism,” but it also differs significantly from the probabiliorism of classical moral theology.1 To see why, one must understand probabilism in its context.

3. As was explained (in 1‑D), in the legalistic perspective of classical moral theology, moral norms were regarded as if they were rules of positive law rather than normative truths. The magisterium of the Church was thought of as a governmental authority setting outer limits to the liberty of the faithful. Where the magisterium set no clear and definite boundary, both confessors and penitents often were perplexed when confronted with diverse theological opinions. It became urgent to determine how one in doubt about what the moral law requires should select an opinion to follow. Different systems were proposed in the latter part of the seventeenth century.

4. According to one view, “laxism,” a person might consistently adopt the most permissive and least well-grounded theological opinions. The Holy See rejected this approach in 1679 (see DS 2101–67/1151–1216). The next year the Holy See allowed two widely supported views to stand without definitely embracing either (see DS 2175–77/1219). According to one, called “probabilism,” a solidly probable permissive theological opinion could be followed in practice; according to the other, called “probabiliorism,” only a permissive opinion more likely to be true than a more restrictive alternative might safely be followed. Another view, called “tutiorism” or “rigorism,” held that the strictest opinion was the only safe one to follow; it was rejected by the Holy See in 1690 (see DS 2303/1293).

It is important to keep in mind the conditions under which probabilism and probabiliorism were approved. Moral theologians were regarded as if they were appellate courts, and their opinions as if they were legal decisions. But no moral opinion had the slightest ground at all if it conflicted with a clear decision made by the supreme authority—the Holy See.

This view of moral teaching and this role for the moral theologian did not exist before the impact of rationalism. In St. Thomas, for example, one finds a much less legalistic conception of moral judgment.2

5. This entire debate presupposed a legalistic focus on the possible conflict between the obligatory demands of law and the desire of those subject to law to enjoy the liberty to do as they please. Proponents of various positions often treated doubts about positive law and doubts about moral norms without distinction, as if they presented the same problem. Obligation was thought to characterize isolated acts in virtue of their falling under norms. The acts were considered one by one, in abstraction from reflection upon a person’s overall responsibility to live a good life.

6. Probabilism eventually became the dominant method in classical moral theology. The probabilists defined “probable” in such a way that incompatible opinions could both be probable—that is, plausible and competently defended. Probabilism was applied indiscriminately to settling doubts about rules of positive law and norms of morality alike. A familiar slogan sums up the probabilists’ legalistic view: A doubtful law does not bind.

7. The way of resolving doubts about moral norms (proposed in C) is analogous to probabiliorism in three respects. First, the impact on theological opinion is the same, insofar as both approaches set aside theological opinions which articulate norms unless there is a definite teaching of the Church or a solid theological consensus in favor of one position. Second, both probabiliorism and the present approach discourage the arbitrary multiplication of supposed obligations which might well not be true moral responsibilities. This was especially important in a legalistic context, when many Catholics simply trusted their confessors to define their moral responsibilities. It kept people from being completely smothered by paternalism and so left them room to mature in Christian responsibility. Third, both probabiliorism and the present approach differ from probabilism by using the likelihood of truth as a criterion for resolving doubts of conscience.

8. Still, the position proposed here differs fundamentally from probabiliorism. In the present view, seeking the minimal limits of strict obligation—reflected in such a question as, “How far can I go without committing a mortal sin?”—is not the appropriate context for resolving doubts of conscience. Instead, the correct context is the effort to discern moral truth as a guide for whatever choice one will make.

9. A person with doubts of conscience should consider the possibilities available for choice in the light of his or her existing commitments and an overall orientation toward the basic human goods. The question is not, “Am I bound by a law or free to do as I please?” but, “What, all things considered, is the right way for me to act?” If one norm does not determine conscience, some other will. If there is no adequate reason for thinking oneself subject to one responsibility, it remains to take account of other responsibilities—at least, the general responsibility to seek and pursue human good in ways consistent with integral human fulfillment.

10. Hence, people with doubtful consciences should not proceed on the legalistic assumption that a doubtful law leaves one free to do as one pleases. Rather, they should proceed on the nonlegalistic assumption that one ought to act in pursuit of human goods in ways which seem appropriate, even though one is aware of possible contrary responsibilities whose reality cannot be ascertained.

11. Thus, persons who resolve a doubt by concluding that a possible moral norm need not prevail are not left free simply to do as they please. Rather, they find themselves directed by some other norm to choose as they had feared it might be wrong to do. For example, having rightly set aside the possibility that it would be wrong to accept a certain job, one accepts it—as a way of fulfilling the responsibility to support oneself and others, as a way of doing something worthwhile in itself, or for some other upright reason.

Probabilism has value in that it is the more reasonable solution to the precise question it addresses. One who confronts a just legal system and wishes to obey it must try to find out what it requires; one must submit when its requirements are clear, but one cannot submit when it sets out no clear and definite requirement. In practice, as long as the Church’s moral teaching was generally regarded as if it were a system of law—and for those who continue to regard it as such, to the extent that and for as long as they do—probabilism offers a lifesaving limit to moral obligation.

If the Church had not allowed probabilism, the faithful would either have been paralyzed by irresolvable doubts of conscience whenever unsettled moral issues arose or would have been more and more suffocated by restrictive norms proposed by theologians. For without probabilism, whenever there was a good reason for supposing oneself obligated, one would be obligated, and there is good reason for supposing oneself to be obligated whenever some expert thinks so. Probabilism allowed one to take the less restrictive alternative: Expert opinions do not of themselves generate obligations unless they are opposed by no solidly probable opinion in favor of liberty.

The limits of probabilism are in its underlying assumption that morality is simply a system of law. True laws are necessary, and there are moral grounds for obeying them. But morality itself can be identified with law only by being limited to the social-convention level of the development of conscience.

In reality, the Church did not restrict morality to the legalistic system. Although “moral” was restricted to the narrow boundaries of the minimal, common requirements of Christian life, the Church continued to propose the fullness of Christian morality without calling it “moral”; instead it was called “ascetical,” “spiritual,” and so on. Limiting the legalistic moral system left room for souls who satisfied minimum requirements to proceed toward Christian perfection without a straitjacket of law.

The problem of resolving doubts of conscience takes on a different character when one begins to think about it outside a legalistic framework—in other words, on the level of moral truth rather than social convention. On the level of moral truth, one wants to live in the truth and toward fulfillment; the committed Christian wishes to live toward God and to share in the redemptive work of Jesus. Hence, when one’s conscience is unsettled, one asks which judgment is more likely true.

This position is not merely a stricter alternative to probabilism. What is more likely true is determined by an honest appraisal of the available sources of moral knowledge; the judgment more likely true sometimes will seem more restrictive, sometimes less so. However, for the mature, good person there is no free (that is, nonmoral) area; every act of one’s life is morally significant. One’s act of faith is a responsible commitment. Personal vocational commitments are made to carry out faith in one’s life. Fresh questions of commitment are settled by how well a new commitment comports with one’s already-articulated personal vocation. Finally, all particular questions are settled by reference to one’s personal vocational commitments.

Even so, doubts of conscience still arise. If one cannot think them through for oneself in the light of faith, one seeks counsel. But one looks to one’s pastors for enlightenment about the way of Jesus, not for legal norms at the level of social convention. Concretely, one is interested in finding the implications of divinely revealed truth and human wisdom for one’s life. Therefore, one would like intrinsic grounds for considering one’s judgment correct. If one cannot understand the intrinsic grounds, one nevertheless trusts the Church’s teaching authority because it is endowed with an unfailing gift of truth, not as if it had legislative authority in moral matters.

1. A clear statement of the problem of conscience and the moral systems as understood by the classical moralists: Henry Davis, S.J., Moral and Pastoral Theology, vol. 1, Human Acts, Law, Sin, and Virtue, ed. L. W. Geddes, S.J., 7th ed. (London: Sheed and Ward, 1958), 64–115.

2. See Thomas Deman, O.P., La prudence, in S. Thomas d’Aquin, Somme theologique: 2a–2ae, Questions 47–56, 2d ed. (Paris: Desclée, 1949), 478–523.