Descending into the Particulars

August 25th, 2019 Sermon - Rev Kate Byrd

Descending into the Particulars

As many of you may know I am a fairly avid podcast listener. And, one of my absolute favorite podcast series is Revisionist History. Which Malcolm Gladwell, author of books like Blink and The Tipping Point, has produced and released every summer for the last four years. In fact my husband Drew and I typically stockpile the episodes in our podcast que, waiting to binge them during our annual summer road trips. The last three episodes Gladwell has released, have been particularly interesting to me as a lover of ethical and theological thinking. I was quite intrigued when Gladwell, a fairly secular individual, took on a three part series covering the Jesuit practice of casuistry. Now if you are not familiar with casuistry, which I myself was not until Gladwell’s recent podcasts, it is a method of moral reasoning, created by the Jesuits, coming out of the late 16th century. 

Because, the 16th century was a time of great expansionism, novel moral cases became a regular occurrence. And so, ethicists began adopting a “case-based” logic for addressing these novel issues, by comparing them with a standard or paradigm case. Casuistry holds, Gladwell argues, that “when it comes to new problems you can’t start by appealing to a principal. Principals don’t help because principals, are the product of past experience, and they’re only helpful so long as you are still living in the world those past experiences helped create.” Thomas Aquinas, in the 13 century wrote: “A general rule applies generally. And, the more you descend into the particulars the more it’s no longer a general rule.” This is what the Jesuits did, through casuistry, descended into the particulars. 

And, I would also argue that this is exactly what Jesus is doing today in our Gospel passage. As he sees the particular need of the bent over woman in the temple. Addressing her need as greater than the principal of the sabbath practice of rest. Coming to her aid and healing her in her time of need. In that moment Jesus allows the woman’s particular need, to become greater than the principal. Because, after all what is Jesus’ great commandment, other than… to love. And what is love, if nothing less, then bothering to care, and attending to the particulars that address the individual’s needs. 

In the second episode of Gladwell’s three part series on casuistry, he takes a look back at a very complicated, very charged, and very famous case of casuistry, in the Church (big C Catholic Church that is). Which was birth control. Gladwell begins by introducing us to the pills creator John Rock, who was himself an intensely devout Catholic, attending mass no less than daily. As a young medical student Rock was undecided about what speciality of medicine he would practice. Until his rotation delivering babies in the Irish tenements of Boston, when he found himself overcome with pity and compassion for the wretched poverty he witnessed as young mothers found themselves overwhelmed with 5, or 6, or even 7 children. Seeing families who could barely afford to feed or clothe themselves. It was here that Rock decided to become a doctor of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Where he began serving the Irish poor of Boston through the difficult years of the depression and the Second World War. 

After Rock founded the Fertility and Endocrine Clinic at the Free Hospital for Women, he began his work to create what he thought would be a way to come to the particular needs of these women, possibly even freeing them from the crippling bonds of poverty, through the pill. And in the early 1950’s alongside scientist Gregory Pinkus, these two men uncovered the revolutionary formula for the pill. After the FDA approved the drug, Rock realized he had  a problem. He may have made one of the modern world’s greatest discoveries, but as a devout Roman Catholic, his church [didn’t] believe in the need or even the application of that discovery. 

At that point Rock could have  walked away and renounced his work on the pill. But he believed too much in the particulars of its ability to lift families out of poverty. He also could have simply left the church. But, Rock wasn’t going to do that either. Instead Rock was going to try and convince the church to change its mind, the only way he knew how, through casuistry. In response to Rock’s challenge the Vatican set up an international commission in the early 1960’s, theologians, and medical experts deliberated for 3 years. And in the end voted 68 to 4 in favor of the pill. The chairman of the majority report, was a priest named Josef Fuchs, who everyone thought would vote against the pill, because he was a conservative. But, Fuchs was also a Jesuit. As Fuchs heard the particularities of the lay people, he realized that only the married couple knows how children will affect their lives. Which is how the commission came to the decision that you can’t make a general rule about contraception, because every family and every woman faces her own unique set of issues. 


Still, after receiving the commission’s report, and deliberated for 2 years, Pope Paul XI, ruled against the commission and against the pill. “At the church’s crucial moment, when the Pope had the opportunity to offer consolation to catholics around the world.” To lift millions of women and families in developing countries and  underprivileged communities out of poverty, he flinched. “He put a principal ahead of the particulars.” Gladwell states, “Don’t let anyone tell you the courageous person is a person of principals. The courageous person is actually the one who knows when to put principal aside.” 

What is most interesting to me about our Gospel story for today, is that the principal which Jesus overrules as he heals the bent over woman, defying the Jewish law of refraining from work on the sabbath, was a principal founded on the ideals of freedom. Because the religious observance of the Sabbath is so inextricably linked to the Jewish people’s exodus from their bondage and enslavement in Egypt. Set aside as a sacred day in which to remember and honor the liberation of God’s people. The actual principal of the Sabbath, is a beautiful one, a principal that invites us to enter into the freedom God so desires us to experience and participate in. In our story we see how principals can sometime create their own bondage and enslavement. Disallowing us from attending to the particularities that keep others from experiencing and knowing the freedom, grace, and love that God so much desires to give us. 

One of today’s great theologians and teachers on the Causist method, James Kennan, argues that “sin is simply a failure to bother to love.” I see our Gospel story for today, and the causist method as an invitation to think beyond the black and white that we so often associate with principals, and especially with religion. As we are called to answer the question: do we worship a God who proclaims love and freedom for the particulars of every human being, or do we worship a set of principles? What might it mean for us to descend into the particulars, not ignoring principals, but knowing when they keep us from bothering to love. Might it look something like Jesus’ great commandment? Might it look something like loving our God with everything we have, and loving our neighbor as ourselves? 


Rev. Kate Byrd