Catholic Probabilism - Status of The Question

Status of The Question

Rigorism, or as it is frequently called, tutiorism, held that the less safe opinion should be most probable, if not absolutely certain, before it could be lawfully put into practice; while laxism maintained that if the less safe opinion were slightly probable it could be followed with a safe conscience. These two views never received serious support from Catholic theologians, and were formally condemned by the Holy See. At one time or another in the history of the Church three other opinions gained many adherents: Probabiliorism, Æquiprobabilism, and traditional Catholic probabilism.

According to Catholic probabilism, whenever a prohibiting law is certain, the subjects of the law are bound to abstain from performing the action which the law forbids, unless they are excused by one of the ordinary exempting causes. On the other hand, when it is certain that no law forbids an action, there is no obligation to abstain from performing it, under this doctrine. Between these two extremes there can be varying degrees of uncertainty about the existence or cessation of a prohibiting law. There is doubt in the strict sense when the intellect neither assents nor dissents, because either there are no positive arguments for and against the law, or the arguments for and against the law are equal in strength. The opinion which favours the law, and which is technically called the safe opinion, can be more probable (in the specialized sense being discussed) than the opinion which favours liberty and which still retains solid (objective) probability.

In estimating the degree which is required and which suffices for solid probability, moralists lay down the general principle that an opinion is solidly probable which by reason of intrinsic or extrinsic arguments is able to gain the assent of many prudent men. Adherents to Catholic probabilism hold that extrinsic authority can have sufficient weight to make an opinion solidly probable; but there is divergence of view in estimating what number of experts is able to give an opinion this solid probability. The prevailing theory holds that if five or six theologians, notable for prudence and learning, independently adhere to an opinion their view is highly probable, if it has not been set aside by authoritative decisions or by intrinsic arguments which they have failed to solve. Even one theologian that is regarded as highly authoritative, such as St. Alphonsus Liguori, is able to make an opinion probable in this sense. Under this view, no justification in terms of reason is sufficient to give an opinion solid probability, nor does the support of theologians who merely repeat the opinions of others.

If one opinion is not only less safe (in that it goes against the law) but also speculatively uncertain, then it is prohibited by Catholic Probablism, until all reasonable effort has been made to remove the uncertainty, by considering the arguments on both sides and by consulting available authorities. One question at issue between different moral systems concerns the way in which the speculative uncertainty is changed into practical certainty; each system has what is called a reflex principle of its own, by which practical certainty can be obtained.

Some theologians, who put forward the system known as Probabiliorism, hold that the less safe opinion can be lawfully followed only when it is more probable than the safe opinion.

Others, upholding Æquiprobabilism, maintain that, when the uncertainty concerns the existence of a law, following the less safe opinion is allowed when it has equal or almost equal probability with the safe opinion, but that, when there is question of the cessation of a law, the less safe opinion must not be followed unless it is more probable than the safe view.

Catholic probabilists believe that, whether there is question of the existence or of the cessation of a law, it is lawful to act on the less safe opinion if it is solidly probable, even though the safe view is certainly more probable.

Around 1900 a system known as Compensationism tried to reconcile these three opinions by holding that not only the degree of probability attaching to various opinions must be taken into account, but also the importance of the law and the degree of utility attaching to the performance of the action whose morality is in question. According to this system, the more important the law, and the smaller the degree of probability attaching to the less safe opinion, the greater must be the compensating utility which will permit the performance of the action of which the lawfulness is uncertain.

These various moral systems come into play only when the question concerns the lawfulness of an action. If the uncertainty concerns the validity of an action which must certainly be valid, it is not enough to act on mere probability unless, indeed, this is of such a nature as to make the Church certainly supply what is needed for the validity of the act. Thus, apart from necessity, these systems do not allow one to act on mere probability when the validity of the sacraments is in question. Additionally, they do not allow one to act on mere probability when there is question of gaining an end which is obligatory, since certain means must be employed to gain a certainly required end. Hence, when eternal salvation is at stake, these systems demand more than uncertain means as justification. Moreover, their conception of justice demands equality, and as such excludes the use of probability when the established rights of another are concerned. Consequently, if a certain debt has not been certainly paid, at least a payment pro rata dubii is required according to the prevailing view.

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... A moral system, to be of any use, must be certain, since an uncertain reflex principle cannot give practical certainty ... But probabilism is not certain, because it is rejected by all those theologians who upheld one or another of the opposing views ...

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