In Memoriam: Germain Grisez, Great Defender of Humanae Vitae (1929-2018)

The Christian ethics professor, called ‘a towering figure in contemporary Catholic thinking about morality,’ died Feb. 1 at the age of 88.

Germain Grisez
Germain Grisez (photo: YouTube/St. Martha Video)

Germain Grisez, professor emeritus of Christian ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University and one of the most articulate defenders of the Church’s teachings against contraception and in defense of natural law, died Thursday morning after a bout of cancer. He was 88.

Grisez served as professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, from 1979 to 2009. He wrote dozens of books and articles in philosophy and moral theology and became one of the most revered Catholic theologians for his defense of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth), which upheld the Church’s teachings on contraception at a time of great confusion and open dissent in Catholic universities.

He also left a lasting legacy in the area of natural law, while his magnum opus, the three-volume The Way of the Lord Jesus, became one of the main texts in the study of moral theology, especially its eloquent explanation of Catholic teaching on such key topics as abortion, contraception and chastity.

Russell Shaw, who was a longtime friend and collaborator with Grisez, including co-authorship of an ethics textbook, Beyond the New Morality: The Responsibilities of Freedom, told the Register, “Germain Grisez was a towering figure in contemporary Catholic thinking about morality. As a co-founder of the school known as the ‘New Natural-Law Theory,’ he was highly influential in his lifetime and has left a legacy that will shape reflection in the fields of ethics and moral theology far into the future.”

“As a scholar, he was a model of intellectual integrity,” Shaw added. “As a Christian, he was a faithful son of the Church and a devoted family man and friend. I was privileged to know and sometimes collaborate with Germain for well over half a century. He will indeed be greatly missed.”


Discovering Aquinas

Grisez’s journey to international fame as a moral philosopher proved both an unlikely and unusual one. He was born Sept. 30, 1929 — one month before the stock market crash and the start of the Great Depression — and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in a large Catholic family that traced itself to French forebears who had journeyed to Ohio in the middle of the 19th century.

His mother, Mary Catherine Lindesmith Grisez, loved great Catholic writers and introduced her children to the giants, including Newman, Belloc and Chesterton, while Germain attended a parochial school and Cathedral Latin School.

In 1947, he began college at the Jesuit-run John Carroll University in Cleveland. There, while deciding his major in journalism or law, he was first introduced to the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

He had a turning point on Christmas morning 1949, while he was sitting quietly in the family living room reading Thomas’ Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. He was so moved by Aquinas’ writings on heaven that he resolved to devote himself to philosophy.

His academic pursuit took him to the Dominican College of St. Thomas Aquinas, River Forest, Illinois, where he was in the unusual position of being a layman in a class of seminarians. He earned a master of philosophy degree June 9, 1951, amazingly, a few days before he was granted his bachelor’s degree from John Carroll. In September of that year, he was also awarded a licentiate in philosophy by the Dominicans.

Grisez then went on to the University of Chicago, where he studied with the noted medieval scholar Richard McKeon and earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1959. By that point, he was already married to his beloved wife, Jeannette (Selby), and he accepted the post of assistant professor at Georgetown University. The couple had four sons. Jeannette died in 2005.

Once he earned his doctorate, he took the only available graduate teaching post at Georgetown, in ethical theory, even as he began gravitating increasingly toward moral theology.


The Controversy of Contraception

By the early 1960s, the issue of contraception was convulsing much of the academic discussions in Catholic universities, and Grisez discovered that Georgetown was no exception.

Alarmed, and even angered, by the open revolt against Church teaching that was taking place among his fellow academics, he decided to write a thorough study on the subject, even though it meant he was standing against a growing tide of dissent.

The result was Contraception and the Natural Law, released by the Bruce Publishing Co. in 1965. In its 250 pages and eight chapters, he not only defended the Church’s teachings, but engaged vigorously with the arguments both for and against contraception like the sound philosopher he was.

In the end, he demonstrated that contraception is always morally wrong. Mark Latkovic, a professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, noted in his celebration of the 50th anniversary of Grisez’s book in 2015:

“Grisez’s book is a thorough philosophical treatment of the issue. The central thesis it defends (in Ch. 4) is this: ‘For one who engages in sexual intercourse directly to will any positive deed by which conception is thought to be prevented, or even rendered less probable, is intrinsically and seriously immoral’ (p. 12). Those were ‘fighting words’ back then, as they are today. In essence, Grisez’s Contraception would first refute ethical theories that would justify contraception based on the consequences of one’s actions, and then develop an argument against contraception that would demonstrate that the intrinsic evil of contraception was not to be found largely in the fact that contraception violated the physical integrity of the act, as some traditionalists held, but that it was an act directed against the ‘procreative good.’”

His bold project brought him to the attention of the famed moral theologian Jesuit Father John Ford, who was then teaching at The Catholic University of America. The two became close collaborators over the next years as Grisez assisted Father Ford and his work in Rome as a member of the papal commission on birth control. The commission had been charged with studying the issue by Popes St. John XXIII and then Blessed Paul VI.

Once Pope Paul promulgated Humanae Vitae July 25, 1968, Grisez found himself in the heart of dissent from the encyclical in Washington, as many theologians and priests of the archdiocese publicly rejected the Pope’s teaching. He devoted the intervening decades to upholding the Church’s decisive position. In a 2003 interview with Zenit, he declared, “With Humanae Vitae, Paul VI reaffirmed the constant and very firm teaching of the Church excluding contraception. I believe and have argued that teaching had already been proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium — that is, by the morally unanimous agreement of the bishops of the whole world in communion with the popes.”


The Way of the Lord Jesus

Even as he spoke and wrote in defense of the Church, he continued to develop the influential ethical theory first used to great effect in his refutation of contraception that came to be termed the “New Natural-Law Theory” or the “Basic Human-Goods Theory” of natural law. He influenced many moral philosophers and ethicists, including such prominent philosophers as Robert George, John Finnis and Joseph Boyle.

George told the Register, “Germain Grisez made an astonishing number of important and lasting contributions to moral philosophy and theology. Perhaps his most fundamental contribution was his recovery of Aquinas’ understanding of the way in which the intellect grasps and applies the first or primary principles of practical reason (which are the most basic precepts of natural law).”

Grisez resigned from Georgetown in 1972 and spent the next seven years as a professor of philosophy at Campion College, a Catholic college in Saskatchewan, Canada. In 1979, he began teaching at Mount St. Mary’s University, where he remained for the next 30 years.

While there, he wrote the famed work in moral theology, The Way of the Lord Jesus, that included the collaborations of other giants in the field, including the late William May. “The Way of the Lord Jesus,” said Dominican Father Thomas Petri, the dean of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., and a moral theologian, “was required reading for many priests when they were in seminary and is still referenced today.”

The Way of the Lord Jesus was a response to the call of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) for a renewal of moral theology that is centered on Jesus Christ, nourished by Scripture and faithful to the truths of Catholic faith. As Grisez described the work, “The new approach was to integrate two ways of viewing Christian life — as a calling to divine intimacy, with its fulfillment in God’s coming kingdom, and as a service of love for the life of this world, even during the present age.”

Grisez’s other notable works in moral theology and philosophy include Beyond the New Morality; Abortion: The Myths, the Realities and the Arguments; God? Philosophical Preface to Faith; Life and Death With Liberty and Justice; and Beyond the New Theism.

Latkovic noted to the Register, “He dedicated his entire life to using it to explain and defend the Catholic Church’s moral teaching, especially the norm of Humanae Vitae and other ‘absolute norms.’ He was, arguably, one of the finest and most important moral theologians of the modern era. He showed, however rare it may be, that one can be a creative theologian while at the same time fully orthodox.”


Facing New Controversies

The task of explaining and defending the truth of morality continued even into his last years.

In 2004, Grisez waded into the controversy over the willingness of Catholic politicians to support the public funding of abortion. In an article for America magazine on public funding for abortion, he wrote that “legislators who support abortion funding ipso facto intend that abortions be done. … As a general rule, Catholic politicians who support abortion funding as well as some other measures consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 abortion decisions intend to promote the killing of the innocent.”

And in 2016, he and longtime friend and collaborator Finnis issued a public letter to Pope Francis warning about the possible misuse of the Pope’s hotly contested apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).

In the letter, they asked Pope Francis “to condemn eight positions against the Catholic faith that are being supported, or likely will be, by the misuse of his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. We ask all bishops to join in this request and to issue their own condemnations of the erroneous positions we identify, while reaffirming the Catholic teachings these positions contradict.”

It was a classically fearless step for a theologian and philosopher willing to be outspoken in what he saw as the defense of Church teaching in an age of confusion and dissent.

Father Petri told the Register, “With the passing of Germain Grisez, the Church in the United States has lost one of its amazing scholars and moral philosophers.”

“Although his passing means we’ve lost yet another one of the great defenders of Humanae Vitae, fortunately he leaves behind a legacy not only of his published writings, but of colleagues and former students who continue to advance Grisez’s life’s work,” Father Petri added. “After a well-spent life in the service of the Lord and the Church, may he now find rest and peace with all the saints.”

Matthew Bunson is a Register senior editor.