Germain Grisez’s Defense of Orthodox Faith

Germain Gabriel Grisez, 88, died February 1, 2018. Philosophy and Catholic theology in the United States lost a giant in his passing.

After Karol Wojtyła, I probably owe my greatest intellectual debt to Germain Grisez and the late William May and their work in ethics/moral theology. Their work in defense of Catholic teaching on sexual ethics was immense, and done mostly at a time when the Catholic academy had little use for it. Of its permanent value, I have no doubt; people will be reading Grisez when contemporary moral theologians who were influential in our day have long vanished. Even now, I can cite names that were commonplace during my graduate studies in the early 1980s that Grisez has already eclipsed.

Grisez’s Contraception and Natural Law, published in 1964, was groundbreaking. He put forward a fresh argument: he defended the conclusions of Church teaching on artificial contraception, but maintained that the arguments upon which it rested had flaws. He wanted to avoid too simplistic a resort to “argument by faculty”—eyes are for seeing, ears are for hearing, genitals are for generating, and whatever interferes with those faculties is wrong. Under so simple an approach, are earmuffs forbidden?

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Now I am not completely against the faculties argument, but modern philosophy has warned against the “naturalistic fallacy,” i.e., too easy a transition from “is” to “ought.” There is a need for a rational understanding of why “is” sometimes is related to “ought.” We need more than a “that’s just how it is.”

Grisez sought to put the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception on more solid ground, even when many other philosophers and theologians of the early 1960s were looking for ways to jettison it. Grisez helped John Ford, S.J., who served on the Papal Birth Control Commission, which Pope John XXIII created and Pope Paul VI continued. Ford was among the theologians who urged the Church to maintain its teaching on contraception, the position Pope Paul VI eventually reaffirmed fifty years ago in Humanae vitae. Grisez’s reflections on the work of the Commission are interesting reading.

Grisez returned to the Archdiocese of Washington at a time when the local Church was roiled in the post-promulgation controversy over Humanae vitae: Father Charles Curran had organized a rebellion against the encyclical at The Catholic University of America, one in which he was eventually joined by a number of Archdiocesan clergy (and numerous theologians); incumbent Archbishop Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle tried to discipline the rebels; and the larger Church, often more accommodating to episcopal virtue of “peace and quiet” over true charity for souls based on truth, eventually defused the situation without letting O’Boyle prevail. It would take until 1986 when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, finally declared that what Charles Curran was teaching was not Catholic theology, which led to Washington Archbishop James Hickey denying Curran the mandatum and Curran’s eventually being dislodged from The Catholic University of America.

Reading the signs of the times, Grisez recognized that bioethical issues were growing in importance for the Church and American society. In response, Grisez produced two major scholarly tomes on the two most neuralgic issues of the day, abortion and euthanasia. Abortion: The Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments (1970) and Life and Death with Liberty and Justice: A Contribution to the Euthanasia Debate (with Joseph Boyle, 1979) remain comprehensive treatments of the central ethical issues posed by those two moral controversies.

Grisez’s Contraception first expressed his argument as to why contraception was wrong. In the period of the 1960s, before Humanae vitae, those Catholic theologians who wanted to justify birth control (I have the Belgian Louis Janssens particularly in mind) tried to use traditional Catholic moral argumentation—admittedly in strained and often distorted ways—to approve the Pill. By 1968, and especially after Humanae vitae, it was increasingly apparent that principles of Catholic moral theology could not be reconciled with the use of contraceptives. Catholic theologians now faced a choice: either admit that the Pill was incompatible with Catholic moral theology, or accept the Pill and change Catholic moral theology to accommodate it. In the post-1968 environment, dissident theologians chose the latter option, which is why moral theology began increasingly to reject Catholic teaching. It took another ethicist in the papacy, St. John Paul II, to put the brakes on that growing chasm. While that fissure has been addressed (or at least papered over) on some seminary faculties, it remains as gaping as ever in how “Catholic moral theology” is taught at most “Catholic” universities in the United States.

Because the desire to approve contraception resulted in a push to redesign such basic principles of Catholic fundamental moral theology as “what makes an act wrong,” Grisez also saw the need to rearticulate the basic principles of ethics. His “theory of basic goods” seeks to explain how it is morally wrong to choose deliberately against a basic good. Grisez joined forces with Joseph Boyle to spell out this approach to basic ethical theory in their book, Free Choice; he joined with Russell Shaw to spell out the theory in a book I regularly used for undergraduates, Beyond the New Morality.

Starting in 1983, Grisez began spelling out the whole of his ethical theory in his masterful three volume work, The Way of the Lord Jesus. One thing I always admired about Grisez’s writing: he is comprehensive, well-documented, and considers every aspect of a question. Given that this three volume set alone exceeds 2,700 pages, no reader could ever say he doesn’t get his money’s worth in a Grisez book.

Some personal reflections:

I had always had an interest in moral issues. Roe v. Wade was decided when I was 13, and I began devouring whatever I could on abortion, not just as a political but also a moral issue, which led me into the larger area of bioethics, which was just then emerging on the intellectual horizon.

I studied ethics as an undergraduate at St. Mary’s College in Orchard Lake, Michigan. Our teacher was Fr. Anthony Kosnik, who had just gained notoriety in the Catholic Church for his Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought (1977), a book whose approach to Catholic sexual ethics was so off key that it managed—in the late 1970s!—to get not only Rome’s but even the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ disapproval. As a Polish American Catholic kid, claiming an ancestral affinity to a country that had proudly remained faithful to the Church for a thousand years, I thought we could do a lot better than that.

The election of Karol Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II in 1978 was an inspiration, because here was a Polish Catholic ethicist that was clearly faithful to the tradition of the Church. When I began my graduate studies in theology at Fordham in 1981, the thought struck me that it would be worthwhile getting to know Wojtyła’s thought better. My first semester’s classes included a “Seminar in Catholic Sexual Ethics” with Father Robert Gleason, S.J. John Paul had just started his “theology of the body” Wednesday audiences, and I began to read them. I was struck by a paradox: what Wojtyła was saying about sexuality at a very sophisticated and intellectually rigorous level agreed in practice with what I was told in much plainer language by my Polish American Catholic mother at home. I was also struck that while the “mainstream” writers in Catholic theology in the United States at the time were all bemoaning the “physicalism” and “lack of personalism” in Humanae vitae, Karol Wojtyła—for whom personalism was a key focus—agreed completely with what Humanae vitae taught. How could that be?

I began to delve into Wojtyła more deeply. I admit it was hard: it took work to figure out what he was saying and why, but when I did, I found the effort most rewarding. Wojtyła’s writings as a way to justify the central teaching of Humanae vitae became my eventual dissertation.

But most academics don’t want to be alone: you want others to share your perspective and, in the early 1980s, the number of Catholic writers defending Humanae vitae (especially by explaining its arguments, rather than just repeating that it was Church teaching) were few and far between. I knew that Bill May at The Catholic University of America had done some writing on the subject; a teacher who eventually was my dissertation advisor, Richard Sherlock, introduced me to Grisez. I owe him.

Grisez and May were also an inspiration to me because—like me—they were laymen. It always struck me that the most vocal proponents of contraception among American “Catholic” theologians were priests like Charles Curran and Richard McCormick, S.J., while married men with kids (like May and Grisez) recognized its immorality.

I also know they paid a price for their fidelity. When I first started reading May systematically, in the early 1980s, it was frankly hard to find his books: they were usually published by small Catholic publishers in out-of-the-way places. Although it somewhat improved, one has to admit that Grisez and May often had to depend on less-well-known publishers, and Grisez finished his academic life at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, a solid institution but hardly likely to come to the lips of most people when they think of prominent Catholic colleges and universities. Ecclesiastical fidelity is not always gratefully acknowledged, even by the Church.

Yet Grisez’s theory of basic goods has certainly laid some influential roots. John Finnis of Oxford has fleshed out its relevance to legal ethics (see his Natural Law and Natural Rights). Finnis’s influence is apparent in the book that grew out of the dissertation of his student, Neil Gorsuch (now an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court): The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia. Grisez’s influence also complements the ethical writings of the British philosopher G.E.M. (Elisabeth) Anscombe, especially her works on intention.

There are, of course, critics who claim that Grisez was not so much a development of Thomistic philosophy as a break with it. I defer to other scholars to tackle that question.

Germain Gabriel Grisez: well done, good and faithful servant! I hope that some young Catholic thinkers today will not just engage with, but carry forward, the intellectual work and example Grisez provided. I also pray that, in this jubilee year of the promulgation of Humanae vitae, that the Lord and Giver of Life may give Germain Grisez a seat of honor at the nuptial feast of the Lamb.

(Photo credit: Youtube/St. Martha Video)


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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