Rigorism,Tutiorism and Probabilism

I wrote this article in the defunct English Catholic blog. At the time, I was concerned for matters which are of no relevance today. Simply, I thought it would be of interest in light of the fact we have a Jesuit Pope. Tutiorism and probabilism are two attitudes about the application of law, moral principles and punishment. They are categories that can equally be applied to canon law and moral theology.

These old theological discussions enable us to understand what some have for or against the Jesuits along with the old disputes between Jesuits or Franciscans and Dominicans. The former places the will (the heart – emotion or the spiritual being) over the intellect. This will be seen to be the most significant difference between Benedict XVI the intellectual and champion of reason informed by faith (fides quaerens intellectum) and the Franciscan / Ignatian position exemplified in the line in The Name of the Rose:

Goodbye, dear child. Try not to learn too many bad examples from your master. He thinks too much. Relying always on the deductions of his head. Instead of trusting in the prophetic capacities of his heart. Learn to mortify your intelligence. Weep over the wounds of our Lord. Oh, and do throw away those books!

There is a side of Ubertino that I truly envy.

I have seen simple faith in places like Lourdes and Fatima – so edifying and moving – yet so fragile…

* * *

I give you a short commentary on this subject, in an educative and not a polemical perspective.

Essentially, tutiorism is a position in moral theology which holds that when there is a conflict of two opinions, one in favour of the law, the other in favour of liberty, the law must always be observed, even if the opinion in favour of liberty is the more probable or very probable one as compared with its opposite.

Rigorism is found in many periods of the Church’s history, especially in the seventeenth century with the Jansenists. Jansenism kept people away from the Sacraments, especially in France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What was termed as absolute rigorism (or tutiorism, the safer course) was condemned by Pope Alexander VIII on 7th December 1690. A most instructive book about this general tendency, beginning with the Montanists (Tertullian was their champion), is Enthusiasm by Monsignor Ronald Knox. He went into the history of Jansenism in great detail, and Knox’s treatment of the subject is admirable. Here is an excellent introduction to the opposite of tutiorism, which is Probabilism. It is a way to approach difficult matters of conscience (and canon law by extension) allowing some flexibility if the “solution” can be found to be based on the teaching of the Fathers of the Church. An extreme form of probabilism was advanced by the Spanish theologian Bartolomé de Medina (1527–1581) and defended by many Jesuits such as Luis Molina (1528–1581). It was heavily criticised by Blaise Pascal in his Provincial Letters as leading to moral laxity.

Probabilism is perceived by some to be the beginning of a slippery slope into laxism and “anything goes” to the scandal of principled Christians. Tutiorists stress that the only way to preserve Catholic morality or canonical discipline is to reject any form of probabilism and apply the rigour of the law to all without distinction. Burn them all and God will recognise his own! That is a particularly extreme form of Dominican tutiorism in the hands of the Inquisition. Here is a much more “advanced” and detailed explanation of both probabilism and its nemesis tutiorism.

There is no easy solution to any moral or canonical difficulty, and the key is invariably prayer and discernment in the Holy Spirit. There it is, the core of a problem we have been discussing, and we remember that Christ showed no signs in the Gospel of a tutiorist attitude, which, for example, would have condemned Mary Magdalene to be stoned as prescribed in the Mosaic Law. There would have been no healings on the Sabbath. Need I say more?

I think there are better ways of discerning right and wrong than by such complicated remnants of Scholasticism.

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3 Responses to Rigorism,Tutiorism and Probabilism

  1. ed pacht says:

    I see no conflict between the two views, any more than I see conflict between grace/works, predestination/freewill, or, for that matter, trinity/unity, or any of the many other polar “opposites” in Christian theological tradition. Apparent “opposites” such as these must BOTH be believed and affirmed and allowed to work together in ways human logic does not find comfortable. to go all the way to either extreme is to abandon half of truth and thus to enter heresy.

  2. Fr. David Marriott SSC says:

    I wonder if you have read Mortimer: Elements of Moral Theology (R C Mortimer: pub. Adam & Charles Black, 1953)? Perhaps this gives an Anglican interpretation of these very questions: especially in chapter 5, “Conscience”. And perhaps this is one more vindication of the late Fr. Peter Toon’s work on the Anglican Way – the ‘Via Media Anglicana’?

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