Defending Probabilism

The Moral Theology of Juan Caramuel

Julia Fleming
Foreword by Charles E. Curran

"This meticulous study of an obscure (but in his time notorious) moral theologian sheds light on a very modern problem, the certitude with which we can affirm our moral beliefs."
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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.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Charles E. Curran

1. Situating Probabilism: The Ethical Theory and Its Significance for Caramuel

2. Advocating Probabilism: Caramuel's Early Writings and the Proof—Texts They Provided for His Critics

3. Using Probabilism: Avoiding Improbable Warfare and Making Peace with Protestants

4. Protecting Probabilism: The Apologema as an Answer to Probabilism's Critics

5. Explaining Probabilism: The Apologema's Project of Education

6. Redefining Probabilism: The Dialexis de Non-Certitudine

Remembring Probabilism: The Contemporary Significance of Caramuel's Legacy




"A valuable contribution to the library, or at least the reading list, of any Catholic moral theologian. . . . A valuable insight into a period in the history of moral theology that is too little appreciated today. . . . I would strongly recommend this text to every student or moral theology, but especially to candidate priest-confessors."—Joseph. A. Selling, LOUVAIN STUDIES

"Fleming's careful research and probing analysis of Caramuel's defense of probabalism demonstrates that his reputation as the prince of laxists is entirely without foundation. Her work is also an excellent example of how the study of the history of moral theology can shed light upon and raise relevant questions for thefield of moral theology today."—Dennis J. Billy, CSsR, Ordinary Professor of the History of Moral Theology and Christian Spirituality, The Alphonsian Academy of The Pontifical Lateran University, Rome

"This meticulous study of an obscure (but in his time notorious) moral theologian sheds light on a very modern problem, the certitude with which we can affirm our moral beliefs."—Albert Jonsen, professor emeritus of ethics in medicine, University of Washington

"It is rare to find a book on an obscure theologian that forces one to rethink standard assumptions. Julia Fleming's book is such a one. The colorful life and complex thinking of Juan Caramuel are reconstructed with research of primary sources that is detailed and convincing. More importantly, she illustrates how the history of modern moral theology needs to be reassessed."—Raphael Gallagher, CSsR, professor of systematic moral theology, The Alphonsian Academy of The Pontifical Lateran University, Rome

"Julia Fleming has written an important and intriguing piece of history and theology, uncovering and exploring the largely forgotten probabilist controversy that dominated 17th century Catholic moral theology, and introducing us to a casuist (Juan Caramuel) who was no mere laxist, but a pastoral theologian committed to providing moral guidance and compassion to pilgrims and disciples seeking the truth through a glass darkly."—Patrick T. McCormick, professor of Christian ethics, Gonzaga University


Supplemental Materials


About the Author

Julia Fleming is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University.

224 pp., 5.5 x 8.5

ISBN: 978-1-58901-113-7
Nov 2006

224 pp., 5.5 x 8.5

Nov 2006

224 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-58901-307-0
Nov 2006

Moral Traditions series
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