About Germain Grisez
28 July 2014
For thirty years—from 1 July 1979 to 30 June 2009—Germain Grisez was the Most Rev. Harry J. Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Founded in 1808, the Mount is a unique combination of a seminary that trains men for the Catholic priesthood and a four-year, co-educational, undergraduate college (with a few graduate programs). The college is the second oldest Catholic college in the United States and the seminary is the second oldest Catholic seminary. The seminary also is one of the largest Catholic seminaries in the United States and is widely regarded as one of the best.
Grisez’s main work at the Mount has been researching and writing The Way of the Lord Jesus; his teaching contributed to that work. Now that he is Professor Emeritus, his schedule is no longer ruled by deadlines and responsibilities that must be fulfilled at specified times. Rather than retiring, however, Grisez continues working. He still resides on campus and receives ongoing support: office space, an expense account, computer support, and the use of University facilities.
Grisez’s great-grandfather, François Xavier Grisez, was born in Plancher-Bas, Canton de Lure, France, in 1797. In 1833, he sold his farm and, along with other families, moved to northeastern Ohio, where they eventually established a farming township, Maximo. His youngest son’s youngest son was Germain’s father, William Joseph Grisez, who was born on the farm in 1883. He studied bookkeeping in Alliance, Ohio.
9 January 1905
There he met Germain’s mother, Mary Catherine Lindesmith (born in Alliance in 1885). Her mother’s parents had been English and Irish Catholics. Her father, a Catholic descendant of a mostly Lutheran, Swiss-German family, was killed in an accident while working as a railroad switchman when Mary Catherine Lindesmith was fourteen. She and William Joseph Grisez married on 9 January 1905. He was the first member of the French community around Maximo to marry someone outside it, and she was the last Catholic member of her family who would have children and hand on her faith to them.
Handing on the faith was something she did with both enthusiasm and wisdom. During the next quarter-century, William and Mary Grisez had nine children, the last of them Germain, who was born 30 September 1929. Two of his brothers and one of his sisters became members of institutes of religious life and devoted their lives to Catholic education. Mary Grisez hoped one of her sons would become a priest, and Germain was the last to disappoint her, though eventually she was pleased that he committed himself to the apostolate of Catholic intellectual life as a layman.
Grisez did his undergraduate studies at John Carroll University, University Heights, Ohio (1947–50). As a freshman in 1947, he thought he might become a lawyer—to seek justice for victims of injustice—or perhaps a Catholic journalist.
In 1948–49, however, a young and enthusiastic philosophy instructor, Marshall Boarman, who was just beginning his career by teaching a required course in logic to four large sections of mostly reluctant students, brought together a small group of the more promising students, including Grisez, in an informal seminar that spent an evening a week reading and discussing the beginning of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologiae. That thirteenth-century book is among the greatest philosophical and theological works. Beginning to read widely on his own in the Summa and Thomas’s other works, Grisez decided in the fall of 1949 to major in philosophy.
While reading Thomas’s treatment of heaven after midnight Mass on Christmas morning, 1949, Grisez discerned that he was called to serve the truth God revealed in Jesus by becoming a professional philosopher. His task, he supposed, would be to explain and defend the existence of God, the human ability to make free choices, and other truths that are necessary presuppositions of a reasonable commitment of faith. Aware that Christian students in secular universities seldom encounter the work of St. Thomas, Grisez thought he should pursue a doctorate in a leading secular philosophy department with a view to becoming a professor in a secular college or university.
At John Carroll, Grisez had received a full scholarship during his freshman year, and was allowed to accelerate his studies after the first semester. He completed his work for the A.B. in three years, with a major in philosophy and minors in English and history, and formally received his Bachelor of Arts degree, magna cum laude, on 11 June 1951—two days after he received his M.A.
How did that happen? To prepare for graduate study in a secular university, Grisez spent the year 1950–51 obtaining a stronger foundation in the work of Thomas by carrying out an individualized program of studies at the Dominican College of St. Thomas Aquinas, River Forest, Illinois. His classmates were seminarians, but Grisez, already engaged to be married, was enrolled as a layman on a full scholarship. On 9 June 1951, he received the Master of Arts degree.
On the same day, he and Jeannette Eunice Selby married. (To learn about her contributions to his life and work, please click on Jeannette Grisez in the column to the right.) For his work with the Dominicans, Grisez also received a Licentiate in Philosophy which was awarded summa cum laude on 7 September 1951. (A Licentiate roughly corresponds to a Masters degree, and is awarded only by institutes chartered by the Holy See.)
In the summer of 1951, Grisez began six years of study for a doctorate in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. In those years, the senior professors in that Department differed radically among themselves in both their methodologies and views, and engaged in constant and very lively debate. As a fortunate consequence, their standards for evaluating a student’s work did not require the students to agree with any professor, and able students, including Catholics, were challenged to develop their gifts and become equipped for creative work in philosophy.
As a graduate student at Chicago, Grisez was an Asher Fellow (1953–54), a University Fellow (1954–55), a University Scholar (1955–56), and a Charles E. Merrill Fellow (1956–57). During four and one-half of those years of graduate study, Grisez also worked full time at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and during three-quarters of another year he worked there half time. By August of 1957, he had met nearly all the requirements for the Ph.D. and began teaching that fall, but completing his dissertation delayed reception of the degree until 28 August 1959.
When Grisez went job hunting in late 1956, no secular university would hire him. An official at one university explicitly told him that, despite his academic qualifications, he was unaccaptable due to his faith commitment. Reluctantly applying to Catholic universities, Grisez received many offers and accepted Georgetown University’s offer to begin teaching as an assistant professor in the fall of 1957.
To meet a need in the philosophy program at Georgetown, he began working on ethical theory and teaching ethics as soon as he received his Ph.D. in 1959. Although teaching full time at Georgetown, Grisez also taught a two-semester course on medieval philosophy during 1961–62 at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. In 1963–64, with the help of a Lilly Foundation Post-doctoral Fellowship in Religion, Grisez had a full-year’s sabbatical. That year, too, Georgetown granted him tenure and promoted him to associate professor.
During 1963, a controversy over contraception broke out among Catholics. Earlier Grisez had doubted the Church’s teaching that contraception is always wrong, but he never thought it safe to act on that doubt or appropriate to mention it to anyone. Nevertheless, it had led him to examine arguments similar to those used in 1963 to justify contraception. Finding them wanting, he had become convinced that the teaching was true and could not change.
Expecting Pope Paul VI soon to reaffirm the teaching, Grisez nevertheless also thought that existing explanations of contraception’s wrongness were unsound and believed he could provide a better account. He also expected his career to suffer if he came out against contraception. During the week after Easter 1964 he outlined an article on the subject while prayerfully pondering what to do. With the outline finished, he discerned that he had to proceed and in two months wrote, not an article, but his first book, Contraception and the Natural Law.
That book was published early in 1965. The Bruce Publishing editor who accepted the book and saw it through the press was William E. May. Soon after the book was published, a national Catholic weekly, Our Sunday Visitor, asked Grisez for a brief, easily understandable summary. He needed help to popularize his argument, and a friend suggested Russell Shaw, a young and able writer with NC News service. Grisez contacted Shaw, who produced a summary of the book in the form of an interview, which was published in four parts and later as a pamphlet. Both Bill May and Russ Shaw became lifelong friends of Grisez and important collaborators in his later work. (For more about them, please click on their names in the column to the right.)
Before submitting the manuscript of the contraception book for publication, Grisez had enlisted the Rev. John C. Ford, S.J., a very able moral theologian who had worked on marriage questions, to check it out. Soon after he did so, Ford was asked by Pope Paul VI to serve on the Pontifical Commission for Population, Family, and Birthrate—the so-called birth control commission. Grisez helped Ford with that work from the spring of 1965 until early July 1966.
During the final month of that period, the two worked together full time in Rome as the Commission completed its agenda and they then prepared a commentary on its final report at the request of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (For more about Grisez’s work with Father Ford and about Ford himself, please click on his name in the column to the right.)
In 1966–67, Grisez grew increasingly concerned that the widespread acceptance of contraception, including methods that bring about early abortion, would lead to the legalization of abortion. The false premises and sophistries characteristic of arguments for legalization made it clear that a carefully researched and argued treatment of the subject was necessary, and Grisez began working on that project in the spring of 1967.
In July 1968, Pope Paul VI finally reaffirmed the constant and very firm teaching of the Catholic Church regarding contraception, sterilization, and abortion in his encyclical, Humanae vitae. Around the world, some Catholics openly dissented from the reaffirmed teaching, and some theologians at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., promoted public dissent.
A group of priests in the Archdiocese of Washington publicly undertook to apply the dissenting opinion in pastoral practice. To help deal with that situation, Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle, Archbishop of Washington, employed Grisez, obtained a leave of absence for him from Georgetown during 1968–69, and kept him very busy for five months. He then gave him time off to complete his book on abortion.
That book was published in 1970: Abortion: The Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments. Also during 1970, without additional leave from Georgetown, Grisez again worked for Cardinal O’Boyle, this time preparing a book-length report for the Holy See’s Congregation for the Clergy regarding the Cardinal’s disciplining of his dissenting priests. In 1972, Pope Paul VI honored both Germain Grisez and his wife, Jeannette, with Pro ecclesia et pontifice medals in recognition of their service to the Church.
Georgetown University promoted Grisez to full professor in 1971 and offered him a sabbatical during 1972–73. Early in 1972, however, Grisez gave notice that he would quit at the end of that year’s summer session. During his fifteen years at Georgetown, Grisez taught both undergraduate and graduate students. Among the latter, the best was Joseph Boyle, who became a lifelong collaborator. (For more about Boyle, please click on his name in the column to the right.)
During those years, Grisez also gave many public lectures, and besides the books on contraception and abortion, he published many scholarly articles, including seminal ones in the ethical theory he was articulating. In support of his research and writing, he received several grants from the Medora A. Feehan Charitable and Educational Trust.
When Grisez resigned from Georgetown in 1972, he had accepted an invitation to become a professor of philosophy at Campion College, a Catholic college that is an integral part of the mostly secular University of Regina, in Saskatchewan, Canada. Campion was striving to carry on collegially an apostolate along the lines Grisez had hoped to undertake individually. His new job would also free him from many burdensome responsibilities and leave him more time for research and writing.
Grisez was with Campion for seven years—from 1 July 1972 to 30 June 1979. During the first six of those years, he not only carried a normal teaching load but published several books and articles. In collaboration with Russell Shaw, he published an ethics textbook, Beyond the New Morality: The Responsibilities of Freedom, which provided a non-technical summary of his ethical theory. Grisez collaborated with Joseph Boyle and Olaf Tollefsen—whose Georgetown doctoral dissertations he had mentored—on Free Choice: A Self-Referential Argument, which employed Boyle’s groundbreaking work on self-referential argumentation.
By himself, Grisez preesented many elements of an original metaphysics in Beyond the New Theism: A Philosophy of Religion. With Boyle’s help, Grisez complemented his work on abortion with Life and Death with Liberty and Justice: A Contribution to the Euthanasia Debate. And he also encouraged and helped several Campion colleagues to complete and publish manuscripts on which they had been working.
During 1974–75, Grisez was one of seventeen co-authors who worked on The Teaching of Christ: A Catholic Catechism for Adults. Having read Grisez’s early books, John Finnis, a Fellow of University College, Oxford, had begun using the ethical theory set out in them. When the editors of The Teaching of Christ invited Finnis and Grisez to prepare two chapters each on morals, they agreed to collaborate on all four chapters. Finnis did most of the work on the four chapters, while Grisez contributed to the catechism project mainly by making extensive comments on the whole first draft. (For more about John Finnis, please click on his name in the column to the right.)
In preparing those comments, Grisez for the first time carefully studied some of the documents of Vatican II and in a passage of the one on the Church, Lumen gentium, 25, discovered the basis for more cogently formulating an argument that Fr. John Ford and he had offered in 1966. So, in 1976–77, Ford and Grisez used that passage to show that the Church’s day-to-day catechesis over many centuries had already infallibly affirmed that choosing to contracept is always gravely wrong. The article appeared in the June 1978 issue of Theological Studies: “Contraception and the Infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium.”
In the 1970s, Grisez also often contributed to the work of committees of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Most significantly, he helped Auxiliary Bishop John B. McDowell of Pittsburgh, chair of the committee that prepared To Live in Christ Jesus: A Pastoral Reflection on the Moral Life, which the U.S. bishops issued in November 1976 and which Pope John Paul II singled out for commendation when he addressed them in Chicago in October 1979.
While working on the The Teaching of Christ project, the article on contraception and the ordinary magisterium, and the pastoral on moral life, Grisez became convinced that the Church needed a new moral theology. Until the mid-1970s, very few Catholic moral theologians had responded more than superficially to Vatican II’s mandate for renewal in this field. Even before the dissent against Humanae vitae, many moral theologians, including several of the most prestigious, tried instead to help Catholics who judged themselves guilty of mortal sin to feel free of it without repenting and amending their lives.
Having been trained in philosophy rather than theology, however, Grisez at first did not think he could meet the need for a new moral theology. He tried to persuade able theologians to undertake the project, but none was willing. So, in 1977, he began to think he might be called to this task.
But Campion had neither a graduate theology program nor a theological library. Reflecting on this, Grisez realized that he could not undertake the new project unless he had a position on the faculty of a major seminary with several features: his teaching duties would be shaped by his research and writing, he would have a substantial expense fund and adequate office space, and he would be free of the departmental and committee responsibilities that had been so burdensome at Georgetown.
Obviously, no seminary was likely to offer him such a position. But, Grisez reasoned: If the Lord wants me to carry out this work, he will give me the means to do it. Still, he did not expect to be given the means unless he did what he could to obtain them. So, in May 1977, he drafted a description of the project and of what he needed to undertake it, and sent that grant application to one hundred foundations that supported Catholic causes and to every Catholic bishop in charge of a diocese in the United States.
Although a few bishops soon responded favorably, after a month it began to seem unlikely that adequate means would become available. But Bishop McDowell volunteered to promote the support of other bishops, and his efforts quickly obtained what was needed. He also set up a Trust for Theological Studies to receive and hold contributions and by September 1977 told Grisez to find the place to do the work. Grisez received that message as God’s call to write The Way of the Lord Jesus and as an assurance that the Holy Spirit would enable him to do what he had earlier regarded as impossible.
Looking into possibile places to do the work, Grisez encountered resistance by some and discerned unacceptable conditions at others. But Father Harry Flynn, then Rector of Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary (and later Bishop of Lafayette in Louisiana and still later Archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis), encouraged Robert Wickenheiser, then President of the Mount, to invite Grisez to discuss the possibility of coming there.
Wickenheiser did so, and they met in his office on 16 February 1978. Grisez expected many questions and a lengthy negotiation. But the two agreed that day to work out a plan for the Mount to host the project. Five days later, Wickenheiser obtained the Mount Board’s approval and established the Rev. Harry J. Flynn Chair of Christian Ethics, and on 23 June 1978 the Mount’s contract with Grisez, including his appointment to the new Chair, was signed.
Meanwhile, in May, Campion College gave Grisez a full year’s sabbatical, and the Grisezs moved back to Maryland near Washington, D.C., where Germain had access to excellent libraries. He and Joseph Boyle worked together during the summer of 1978 developing the plan for Christian Moral Principles. During 1978–79, Grisez did a great deal of research and obtained others’ help, not least of John Finnis during a week together in Oxford right after Easter 1979.
On 18 July 1979, Grisez began drafting the first chapter of Christian Moral Principles,, and on 8 September the Grisezs moved to the campus of Mount Saint Mary’s. On 21 April 1980, Grisez completed a one-half million word, first draft of the book; and a few weeks later he finished using that first draft as the textbook for more than fifty seminarians in first theology. With a additional help by Joseph Boyle and a great deal of help by Russell Shaw, that draft was thoroughly revised, as were subsequent drafts each year, until the volume was completed during 1982–83 and published just before the end of 1983.
Grisez at once began working on the second volume, Living a Christian Life. Although colleagues again provided substantial help, work on that volume took ten years, partly because Grisez had to research the many topics new to him and be very careful in drafting to ensure that all the Church’s specific teachings would be stated as accurately and understandably as possible.
When the second volume was finished in 1993, Grisez went to work on Difficult Moral Questions. It was much easier and more enjoyable to write, because it involved working with a great many people who had the problems treated or were especially interested in them.
When the third volume was published in 1997, Grisez began working on the fourth: Clerical and Consecrated Service and Life. Work on that volume proceeded very slowly, again partly because of the extensive research required but partly because Grisez was growing less efficient as he aged. By the end of 2013, it became clear that volume four would never be completed, and the work that had been done, despite its unfinished state, was published on this website. (To see it, please click on the Vol. 4 tab in the ribbon at the top of this page.)
Then too, while at the Mount, as Grisez’s publications list (accessed by the Other Works tab) makes clear, he has done a great deal of other scholarly work, much of it closely related to his main work but some of it in response to urgent, wider needs of the Catholic Church and the world. He also participated in several international theological meetings and provided help and advice on many occasions to various offices of the Holy See, to bishops, and to others.
During his years at the Mount, Grisez received supplemental grants from the De Rance Foundation and received awards from the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, the Catholic Medical Association, and the Center for Bioethics and Culture. In the spring of 2009, the Mount’s Board of Trustees and President Thomas H. Powell recognized Grisez’s work by designating him Emeritus Professor and conferring on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity.
On the occasion of receiving that honorary degreee, Grisez responded with a statement of thanksgiving to all who had contributed to his work over the years: “Germain Grisez’s Thanksgiving on the Occasion of His Reception from Mount St. Mary’s University of the
Doctorate of Divinity, honoris causa” (1 May 2009).