Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fr. Pinckaers on St. Thomas and St. Alphonsus Liguori

"Dominican Moral Theology in the 20th Century," The Pinckaers Reader, 77-8.

Father Deman, who succeeded Father Ramirez from 1945 to 1954, is of special interest to us because of his lengthy and excellent article on probabilism, which appeared in 1936.(1) There he makes a penetrating critical and systematic study of moral casuistry. He describes the controversy which had centered on probabilism since the seventeenth century in response to the problem of a doubtful conscience in the application of the law, and which ended in the recommendation of the teachings of St. Alphonsus Liguori. The latter became the patron saint of moral theologians because of his balance, which avoids the laxity of the casuists and the rigor of the Jansenists. However, Father Deman concludes his study on St. Alphonsus and on the concept of moral theology, of which he is the eminent representative, in these words:

Between St. Alphonsus and St. Thomas there remains the lack of harmony of two irreconcilable systems. Every attempt at reconciliation is doomed to concordism, that is to say, to artifice, that is to say, to failure. The historical reality of their misunderstanding cannot be denied.(2)
This judgement seems to me entirely justified. Between St. Thomas and St. Alphonsus and the authors of the manuals, even when they follow the Thomistic school, it is certainly possible to find some partial agreements, but there is always a fundamental lack of harmony at the level of systematization, all the more difficult to resolve when it is not perceived. In St. Thomas we are dealing with a morality of beatitude and the virtues, centering around charity and prudence, and with our modern moralists, with commandments and legal obligations, focusing on conscience and sins.

1. "Probabilisme," Dictionnaire de la theologie catholique, vol. 13 (1936), col. 417-619.
2. Ibid., col. 590.

Can the two systems of moral theology be harmonized? Not fully, according to Fr. Pinckaers. The precepts of the modern moralists, the casuistry and development of conscience, might be able to be integrated into a more "classical" system of moral theology, but its foundations or presuppositions about the Christian moral life cannot be.

Conscience, as it is understood by moderns, is not the same as prudence, and it cannot replace prudence, but is it a "part" of prudence? Does the development of conscience in accordance with the modern manuals truncate the development of prudence, and by extension, the Christian spiritual life? It seems to me that Fr. Pinckaers would agree with this conclusion, though I have to read what he writes about "modern" conscience.

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