Defending Probabilism

Defending Probabilism: The Moral Theology of Juan Caramuel

Julia A. Fleming
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Defending Probabilism
    Book Description:

    Through the centuries, at the heart of Catholic moral theology is a fundamental question: How do we behave responsibly in the face of moral uncertainty? Attempts to resolve problems of everyday life led to the growth of a variety of moral systems, one of which emerged in the early 17th century and was known as "probabilism." This method of solving difficult moral cases allowed the believer to rely upon a view that was judged defensible in terms of its arguments or the authorities behind it, even if the opposite opinion was supported by stronger arguments or more authorities. The theologian Juan Caramuel, a Spanish Cistercian monk whom Alphonso Liguori famously characterized as "the prince of laxists," has been regarded as one of the more extreme—and notorious—proponents of probabilism. As the only full-length English study of Caramuel's theological method, Defending Probabilism seeks to reappraise Caramuel's legacy, claiming that his model of moral thinking, if better understood, can actually be of help to the Church today. Considered one of the most erudite theologians of his age, a scientist and scholar who published works on everything from astronomy and architecture to printing and Gregorian chant, Caramuel strove throughout his life to understand probabilism's theological and philosophical foundations as part of his broader analysis of the nature of human knowledge. In applying Caramuel's legacy to our own time, Defending Probabilism calls for a reconsideration of the value of provisional moral knowledge. Fleming's study shows that history matters, and that to attain any position on moral certitude is a difficult and painstaking process.

    eISBN: 978-1-58901-307-0
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-ix)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. x-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    Charles E. Curran

    Why do we study and read history? History has a value and, importance in itself. The pursuit of knowledge is a good in itself. History has become a very significant academic discipline in our world and history touches all aspects of our existence. Countries are proud of their histories; institutions want their histories written; historical figures play a significant role in the memories and lives of people. But history also has a more utilitarian role for all of us. We can and should learn from history. We can learn not to repeat the errors of the past and at the...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxiii-xxiv)
  6. CHAPTER ONE Situating Probabilism: The Ethical Theory and Its Significance for Caramuel
    (pp. 1-25)

    Because today neither probabilism nor Caramuel himself is likely to be a popular topic of conversation, it would be a mistake to wade into an analysis of his moral theory without clarifying its concepts and outlining its historical context. Answers to the following questions can make sense of a discussion that might otherwise prove unintelligible: What were the characteristics of Roman Catholic moral theology in the seventeenth century? What was probabilism? Who was Caramuel? How did his understanding of the search for ethical knowledge affect his approach to probabilism? Finally, why is he such an important resource for interpreting the...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Advocating Probabilism: Caramuel’s Early Writings and the Proof-Texts They Provided for His Critics
    (pp. 26-48)

    In the Apologema, Caramuel explains his early literary involvement in the discussion of probable opinion by referring to his experiences at Louvain, when Libert Froidmont attempted to promote certain theses: “The use of probabilities is new. He who leaves behind the safe path and relies on probable opinion must be condemned before God. Opinions that are said to be or are probable for us will not be probable for God.”¹ Noting that upright and learned men opposed Froidmont, Caramuel adds: “I opposed him in the Theologia Regularis, which I published in Brussels in 1639 … and more copiously and more...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Using Probabilism: Avoiding Improbable Warfare and Making Peace with Protestants
    (pp. 49-72)

    Many of Caramuel’s critics objected not only to his theories about probable opinion but also to his use of those theories in resolving particular cases. Thus, in order to understand his approach to probabilism, it is helpful to consider the applications as well as the method itself. What moral conclusions does Caramuel draw on the basis of probable opinion? What is the practical significance of his ethical method?

    A logical place to begin would be with the cases that became notorious—the examples cited by Caramuel’s critics to demonstrate the depths to which probabilism could descend. We have already examined...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Protecting Probabilism: The Apologema as an Answer to Probabilism’s Critics
    (pp. 73-94)

    In the Pax Licita, Caramuel took the risk of telling Church leaders what he felt they needed, but may not have wanted, to hear. Fifteen years later, he took the same risk in defense of his moral theory. This time, probabilism itself was under attack, from critics too influential to be ignored. Although Bartolomé de Medina’s thesis was becoming increasingly controversial by the 1660s, the immediate catalyst for Caramuel’s apology was the publication of Prospero Fagnani’s tract on probable opinion.

    For much of the seventeenth century, Prospero Fagnani was one of the most influential canonists in the Roman Curia, particularly...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Explaining Probabilism: The Apologema’s Project of Education
    (pp. 95-117)

    The reader of the Apologema will quickly recognize that Prospero Fagnani’s arguments have left Caramuel worried, angry, and amused, yet also clearly puzzled by his critic’s inability to accept what he regards as obvious conclusions. Why (one can imagine Caramuel asking himself) were Fagnani, Julius Mercorus, and others so blind to the truth? What if Church authorities shared their conclusions? What other arguments might be necessary to demonstrate probabilism’s virtues and values?

    By the time Caramuel published the Apologema, he had clearly become aware that some criticisms of his method arose from what he regarded as misconceptions about its origins,...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Redefining Probabilism: The Dialexis de Non-Certitudine
    (pp. 118-140)

    Logic suggests that the Apologema should have been Bishop Caramuel’s last major analysis of probable opinion. He had explained probabilism to the authorities of his Church with passion and an enormous sense of urgency. Yet the rebuff from those Church leaders, especially the pope who had once been his patron, could not have been more evident. For Caramuel, who took ecclesiastical censures seriously, the consignment of the Apologema to the Index of Forbidden Books must have been incredibly distressing. Given his broad range of interests, it would not have been surprising if the bishop had abandoned theological probability and devoted...

  12. Afterword Remembering Probabilism: The Contemporary Significance of Caramuel’s Legacy
    (pp. 141-152)

    In the twenty-first century, it is good for moral theologians to read Caramuel, if for no other reason than to recognize how much the presuppositions of ethical theory have changed since he labored over the Theologia Moralia Fundamentalis. The triumph of the Thomist assumption that actions are commanded because they are good and forbidden because they are evil becomes evident when one confronts an advocate of the opposite view, which today is almost exotic in its unfamiliarity. For the students of those who have struggled to redefine the Christian life in terms of a metaphor other than law, Caramuel’s complete...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 153-194)
  14. Index
    (pp. 195-201)