Catholic Philosopher Germain Grisez Dies

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by Stephen Wynne  •  •  February 2, 2018   

Professor a key defender of Church teaching on contracpetion

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EMMITSBURG, Md. ( - A leading Catholic thinker, distinguished by his support for fidelity to Church teaching on contraception, has died. 

Philosopher Germain Grisez, professor of Christian Ethics at Maryland's Mount St. Mary's University, passed away Thursday.

Grisez is best known for crafting a new philosophical defense of the Catholic position on birth control. 

Early in his career, the young philosopher hadn't much considered the issue of contraception. But as the issue came to the fore of Catholic thought after the introduction of the Pill in 1960, Grisez began studying Pope Pius XI's 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii ("Of Chaste Wedlock"), which condemned contraception in no uncertain terms.

He realized the Church's teaching on contraception was "cast in concrete" and responded with obedience.  

By 1964, the question of the moral permissibility of contraception had reached the front lines of Church debate. 

Taking stock of the intellectual landscape, Grisez found few Catholic philosophers willing to back Church teaching. 

Germain Grisez

He decided to develop his own thinking on contraception and publish his conclusions in an article. The article soon ballooned into a book — Contraception and the Natural Law — which was published in January 1965.

In "The Making of a Moral Theologian," a 1996 article on Grisez and his work, author Russell Shaw explained Grisez's essential argument: "The choice to contracept is a choice against the human good of procreation and as such can never be justified, since it is never morally right to turn one's will against a good of the person, not even for the sake of some other good." 

Grisez developed his arguments methodically. His case included a revolutionary critique of earlier arguments based in natural law against contraception and criticism of the arguments of liberal Catholic philosophers supporting contraception — particularly the Pill which at the time was sometimes presumed to be "morally distinguishable from older forms of contraception."

Contraception and the Natural Law put Grisez on the radar of many leading Churchmen. In June, he began working with Fr. John C. Ford, SJ, a member of the Commission for the Study of Problems of the Family, Population and Birth Rate (or as it was more popularly known the Birth Control Commission) on the issue of contraception. 

Grisez had concluded that, just as contraception had triumphed in secular society, so, practically speaking, it also would triumph —indeed, already was well on its way to triumphing — among Catholics, regardless of what the pope finally said.

At that time, Grisez was shocked to learn that roughly one-third of the commission's theologians believed Catholic teaching on contraception had to be changed, while another one-third felt it was "subject to change." Just one in three commission members were holding fast to the established position of the Church.  

Together with Fr. Ford, Grisez went on to develop "a rebuttal of the document that in time would be called the commission's 'majority report' favoring change" in Church teaching on contraception. 

But despite the soundness of the philosophical and theological arguments against contraception, he saw rebellion looming.

Pope Paul VI

"Long before the publication of Humanae Vitae," Shaw noted, "Grisez had concluded that, just as contraception had triumphed in secular society, so, practically speaking, it also would triumph —indeed, already was well on its way to triumphing — among Catholics, regardless of what the pope finally said."

During that period, Grisez attended a conference on abortion at Belgium's University of Louvain. There, he "found the groundwork for theological dissent in the event of such an outcome already laid in Europe. It quickly became clear that dissent in the United States also would be widespread and fierce." He left Louvain "deeply discouraged by the evidence of dissent he had found among Catholic intellectuals there, not only on birth control but even, to some extent, on abortion."

On July 29, 1968, Pope Paul VI released Humanae Vitae, reiterating Catholic teaching that contraception is intrinsically evil, and the revolt exploded across the Catholic world. 

In the half century after Humanae Vitae, Grisez continued to hold firm to Church teaching, but grew increasingly pessimistic about the state of the Church, noting that the crisis in moral theology is particularly grave. In "The Making of a Moral Theologian," Shaw explained: 

Conditions in Catholicism worldwide, he believes, are very bad, with a kind of "artificial unity" masking confusion and dissent not only on moral questions but on fundamental dogmas like Jesus' bodily resurrection and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The problem extends not just to the simple faithful and the theologians but to people in authority. Much depends on the next pope.

In his final years, Grisez was increasingly concerned over the confusion flowing from Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. In late 2016, he and fellow philosopher John Finnis issued an open letter to the Pontiff identifying eight positions "contrary to Catholic faith."

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