Remembering a champion of Natural Law

By: OSV Newsweekly

Germain Grisez was a towering figure in contemporary Catholic theological and philosophical reflection on morality. As a co-founder, with John Finnis of Oxford and Notre Dame, of the school of thought called the New Natural Law Theory, Grisez, who died Feb. 1 at the age of 88, was not only influential in his lifetime but leaves a legacy that will shape thinking in ethics and moral theology far into the future.

As a scholar he was a model of intellectual integrity. As a Christian he was a faithful son of the Church, a devoted family man and a loyal friend. I was privileged to know him, work with him, and learn from him for more than half a century.

The contraception fight

Born in Cleveland September 30, 1929, he attended Catholic schools, becoming an intellectual disciple of St. Thomas Aquinas, the great 13th-century Catholic philosopher and theologian, and received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Chicago. Although he had looked forward to an academic career at a non-Catholic school, his first teaching job was at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Back then, Grisez had no special interest in moral theory, but he was assigned to teach a graduate course in ethics, and it was then that the New Natural Law Theory began to take shape.

The ethics of Thomas Aquinas was “sound as far as it goes,” he concluded, and was better than anything that came after it, but today something beyond what Thomas provided was needed.

At that time, too, the debate over contraception was heating up in Catholic circles, and having thought it over, Grisez saw that the Church’s teaching was correct.

The two things — the need for a better conceptual framework for the moral teaching of the Church and the birth control controversy — came together in 1965 in his first book, “Contraception and the Natural Law.” There he not only upheld the Catholic teaching but set out and argued an innovative ethical theory focused on basic human goods.

In highly oversimplified terms, the argument as applied to contraception was that the choice to contracept is a choice against the human good of procreation. But it is never right to turn one’s will against a good of the person, not even for the sake of realizing some other good, and so the choice to contracept can never be justified.

Alert readers recognized a new and potentially important voice here. “Grisez’s work is the first philosophical attempt I have seen which makes a substantial, constructive contribution to an understanding of the Church’s natural-law position,” a reviewer wrote.

But Grisez had no wish to become overly identified with the contraception issue, since it was clear that defending the Church’s teaching was at that time a no-win career tactic in academia, including the Catholic university world.

In 1968 Blessed Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae, his encyclical upholding the Church’s teaching on birth control, and an organized chorus of theological dissent broke out. In Washington, Cardinal Patrick A. O’Boyle sought Grisez’s help in replying to that and dealing with the situation of some of his priests who had become public dissenters. Grisez took a leave of absence from teaching to help.

Renewing moral theology

When that episode finally ended, he returned to Georgetown. But in 1972 he pulled up stakes and went to teach in the quieter environment of Campion College, a Catholic institution within the framework of the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada.

The decade that followed brought a stream of books, including major studies on abortion and euthanasia, as well as “Beyond the New Morality,” a popular text which I coauthored with him and which presents his ethical theory in clear, simple terms. The book has been widely used in college ethics courses since it first appeared in 1974.

As time passed and the crisis of dissent in the Church persisted, spreading to other issues besides contraception, Grisez became convinced that the Church badly needed a comprehensive presentation of moral theology, faithful to Catholic teaching but avoiding the mistakes of the old “manual” theology, reflecting the Second Vatican Council, and written for men preparing to be priests. When no one else stepped forward, he concluded that it was up to him.

To get it done, he reasoned, he needed to test his ideas and his approach on real, live seminarians. This led to another move — to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, an interdiocesan institution close to where St. Elizabeth Ann Seton founded the American Sisters of Charity and established one of the first Catholic schools in the United States. Grisez taught at Mount St. Mary’s from 1979-2009.

These years saw the writing of the three volumes of “The Way of the Lord Jesus,” his monumental magnum opus and the work which ensures his lasting place in the history of moral reflection. Totaling nearly 3,000 pages, its three volumes are “Christian Moral Principles” (1983), “Living a Christian Life” (1993), and “Difficult Moral Questions” (1997). As a text for seminarians the work has had mixed success, but it has had — and very likely will continue to have — a profound influence on serious thinkers in moral theology and ethics.

Model of family life

No account of the life and work of Germain Grisez would be complete without a word about his late wife. A simple but shrewd woman with a large endowment of common sense, Jeannette Grisez was intensely devoted to him, as he was to her, and made a significant contribution to his work by her secretarial skills and her feedback to his ideas, as well as by being an uncommonly good cook. Together the Grisezs raised four sons, three of whom are still living.

Some years ago, at the end of a day of being interviewed for a profile in a book about his work, Grisez shared his view of the world, the Church and the place of his own thinking in both. In part it went like this:

“An awful lot of people who think they believe in God really don’t believe in anything, because it doesn’t have any practical effect. Whereas faith is telling you, ‘You’re cooperating with God, but you hardly know what his plan is.’ And you’ve got to do his will without seeing the good results — not killing the baby, not contracepting, sticking to a marriage when it seems impossible. It’s terribly difficult. ...

“If Christianity is going to survive at all, it’s going to survive among people who are very tough and very clear-headed.”

Very tough and very clear-headed: He could have been describing himself.



This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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