Over Christmas, my sister, my two cousins, and I devoted a bit of time to the issue of dog-napping. None of us were planning to steal somebody else’s dog or had had one of our dogs stolen. Rather, we discovered that each of us is a devoted reader of the advice column “Dear Prudence” at Slate. The new “Prudence” (Mallory Ortberg, whose comedic writing at The Toast we all enjoyed) was starting her sojourn at “Dear Prudence” by tackling a surprising series of letters all related to dognapping. The locus of the question appeared to be whether it was ever ethical to dognap your neighbor’s abused or neglected dog. In situations where straightforward dognapping was ethically or legally out of the question, when was it ethical to refrain from returning your neighbor’s dog, if you found it wandering in the neighborhood? What if somebody at the church found the dog and was giving it a much better home? In short, after a few days of hashing out these compelling issues at Christmas teas, over Christmas cookies, and on after-Christmas walks, I realized that we had all been hooked on an exercise in old-fashioned casuistry.
I was not, therefore, terribly surprised to read a few days later that advice columnists began to be popular in England right at the time that rigorous religious practices of casuistry were declining. What I was surprised to learn was how important the practices of casuistry were in early Anglicanism.
Keith Thomas’s essay “Cases of Casuistry in Seventeenth Century England” demonstrates this point. He argues that King Charles I went “from one crisis of conscience to another,” seeking advice from one trained casuist and another (33). But seeking advice on cases of conscience did not just apply to the tender conscience of the king. According to Thomas, Englishmen of all ecclesiastical convictions regularly sought the advice of trained casuists, from Puritans to Roman Catholics. They had questions regarding professional choices, Sabbath keeping, marriage, contracts, divorce, and, the most important one of all, assurance: how can I know that I am a child of God? Anglican casuists were not just ordinary men (and women … Richard Baxter’s wife Margaret was, in his opinion, far better at achieving resolutions than he was) but were expected to be “learned in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, educated in the arts and sciences, knowledgeable in law, skilled in reasoning, and well versed in the literature” (33).
However, despite the acknowledged theological importance of the practice of Anglican casuistry, the times changed. Clergy began to worry more about whether a person’s intention was pure, rather than seeking to assist their flock in applying divine laws to their own lives. Although this change was theological, it was also, Thomas affirms, “the origin of the modern, more secular belief, that whatever we do, we maintain our moral integrity so long as we obey our consciences” (52).
But what does this brief historical survey have to do with modern Anglicans? The answer, I believe, lies in the advice columnists. At the point where casuists went out, advice columnists went in and stayed in until the present day. As I have followed debates regarding current issues of the day on blog posts, articles, and in conversations with friends, I have been surprised at how often advice columnists are cited.
Dan Savage’s sex advice column “Savage Love,” with its tagline of being “good, giving and game,” is often referred to in debates concerning sexuality and sexual behavior in marriage. The sheer number of columns in Ortberg’s “Dear Prudence” section of the Slate website indicates that her column is one of the site’s most popular features. Carolyn Hax of the Washington Post frequently has her own high-profile link on the front page of their website and an easily accessible archive of all of her questions. (As a side-note, both Ortberg and Savage were raised in, respectively, devout Reformed and Roman Catholic homes, and for a time both considered entering ordained ministry. It is intriguing to speculate on the possible link between their immersions in their respective theological traditions and their decision to pursue writing advice columns).
An important feature of advice columns appears to be their continuity. Rather than the writer providing “one off” or occasional references and advice, she or he refers back to an established corpus of other decisions, reasoning analogically to provide the correct answer to the case presented by a particular advice-seeker. The quantity and continuity of these cases helps to establish the authority of the columnist. Clearly, despite the disappearance of casuistry as a religious practice, the attraction of casuistic, situation-based ethical reasoning, along with the desire to have an outside source provide a well-reasoned answer based on some body of knowledge, has not gone away.
The question is why such a service is not being provided in the Church? What would it look like for Anglicans to regain our heritage of casuistry? Is there a need in parishes (or at a higher level) for this type of rational and analogical resolution to cases of conscience? Additionally, in a time when our church appears split over moral issues and questions of conscience, would regaining a practice of casuistry provide a unifying force that our ecclesiastical commitments at the current moment seem unable to provide?
In the past, the practice of casuistry provided a common language regarding moral issues that spanned ecclesiastical and even denominational divides. Puritans such as Richard Baxter consulted works of casuistry by high churchman and even Roman Catholics. Although the theological presuppositions varied from practitioner to practitioner, they were united in a common style of reasoning, a commitment to the care of the conscience, and the belief that action as well as intention was important.
In other words, we may need something like an Anglican “Dear Prudence,” or a whole host of them, before our current disputes are resolved. We need to develop again a common language for resolving ethical questions and crises of conscience. Any takers?
 Keith Thomas, “Cases of Conscience in Seventeenth Century England,” in Public Duty and Private Conscience, Essays Presented to G.E. Aylmer (1993).