Students of Germain Grisez

“We are all students of Grisez now.” The man who said that several years ago was a Catholic theologian not generally seen as being a disciple of Germain Grisez. He simply was acknowledging the influence Grisez already had on serious students of moral thought — an influence that, one might add following Grisez’s death, seems likely to continue growing for a long time to come.


Grisez, a cherished friend with whom I was privileged to collaborate in writing several books, once gave me a striking indication of that. Interviewing him for a profile I was writing, I asked whether he could point to any impact he’d had on the thinking of the pope of that day, John Paul II.

Yes, he said. He then cited the landmark 1993 encyclical on moral principles,“Veritatis Splendor,”where John Paul discusses human goods as fundamental principles of morality (something new in a document of the papal magisterium), and the encyclical’s treatment of the Beatitudes as embodying a vision of the moral life meant for all Christians without exception. Both things are major elements in Grisez’s moral theory.

He was born in Cleveland and studied there at John Carroll University, at the University of Chicago, where he received his doctorate in philosophy, and at the Dominican House of Studies in River Forest, Ill., where he pursued his interest in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. He taught at Georgetown University, Campion College in Regina, Saskatchewan, and, for 30 years before retiring in 2009, at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. He died Feb. 1 at the age of 88.

In the preceding half-century, he’d produced a stream of notable articles and books. Among the latter is a work that constitutes a virtual Summa of moral theology — The Way of the Lord Jesus, whose three volumes, published between 1983 and 1997 and totaling nearly 3,000 pages, contain the definitive statement of his thought. He also was co-founder, with John Finnis of Oxford University and Notre Dame, of a new school of moral thinking generally referred to as the New Natural Law Theory.

Grisez was intensely loyal to church teaching. But that very loyalty, he believed, obliged him to critique arguments he considered inadequate sometimes put forward in defense of the teaching, and then to provide other, better arguments of his own.

This he conscientiously attempted to do, starting with his first book, Contraception and the Natural Law.Published in late 1964, more than three years before Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae”with its condemnation of contraception, the volume defends church teaching against artificial birth control while expounding a new approach to moral reasoning that centers on respect for human goods.

Much of Grisez’s contribution can be found in his books and articles on subjects such as abortion, euthanasia, nuclear deterrence and personal vocation. But his influence also was exerted quietly. That included preparing, at the request of a cardinal, a detailed critique of a draft of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The cardinal submitted Grisez’s voluminous comments to the CCC’s drafters. The result was a catechism significantly stronger and clearer than it otherwise might have been.

He was buried in a hillside cemetery in Emmitsburg, close to his wife, Jeannette, to whom he was intensely devoted, and to one of their four sons, Joseph, who died young. The cemetery is not far from the seminary where, along with teaching seminarians, he wrote the works that, as my theologian friend remarked, make all of us “students of Grisez now.”

Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington and author of American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018