Baseball – like jazz, the constitution, and the Colt Single Action Army – is rightly included among America’s great contributions to the world. Nevertheless, despite the beauty of the national pastime, it is bicycle racing that commands my sporting passions and that I follow with anything approaching avidity.

Counted among the great races, the Giro d’Italia, Italy’s three-week, twenty-stage national romp, concluded on Sunday. Alas, cycling of late is infamous even outside its fan base for its controversies and the Giro’s tenth stage gave us a dose, though refreshingly not of pharmaceutical origins. In what ought to have been an innocuously flat stage, the overall ambitions of Australia’s Richie Porte took a mortal beating when he punctured with less than seven kilometers to go. In such circumstances, it is all but impossible to acquire a new wheel and regain contact with the hard-charging peloton barreling its way to the finish. Piles of minutes can be lost. However, what happened next was a fine example of both friendship and fair play. Porte’s buddy and compatriot, Simon Clarke, despite riding for a competing team, stopped and gave Porte his own front wheel, scuttling his own shot at a stage win but enabling Porte to quickly ride off with his teammates and limit his loses to just forty-seven seconds; still a blow but nothing compared to the damage that might have been.

Unfortunately, Clarke’s generosity also violated rules preventing a rider from receiving mechanical assistance from other teams, a prohibition designed to prevent unfair collusion. Porte was subsequently penalized two minutes, effectively ending his hopes for final victory. Most observers have railed against the penalty, insisting that not only was Clarke’s virtuous act to be praised rather than punished but that it also benefitted the competition itself by preventing ill luck rather than racing itself to determine the Giro’s outcome. Therefore, they argue, the infraction ought to have been overlooked. Others however have insisted, even if they sympathize with Porte, that rules are, well, rules and that if this violation is ignored there ceases to be grounds to enforce any of the rules that make a well ordered race possible.

That what’s really going on here resonates beyond a national tour is clear for those with eyes to see. Cycling fans, looking through the Oakleys darkly, have found themselves caught up in one of the enduring conundrums of moral inquiry: having accepted that general principles, or rules, are essential to bicycle races – as they are to moral reasoning – they were then captive to, and captivated by, the further question as to whether exceptionless rules are also essential to bicycle races – as like perhaps to moral reasoning. That is, cycling fans were enmeshed in the question of casuistry.

Casuistry, we shouldn’t be too embarrassed to recall, is a case-based method of moral reasoning attending to the application, or interpretation, of moral norms in relation to particular ethical cases and the role of rules or principles as mediating agents. Moral reasoning requires moral judgment, judgments that are faithful to moral principles even if they do not straightforwardly derive from them. Casuistry, by honoring both the multi-variegated complexity of moral conflicts as well as the need for normative principles, is essential to ethical inquiry, and Christian moral reasoning is the richer for it. Everyone agrees with this except for those who don’t.

In the contrary, and likely – if accurately suggested by a quick thumbing through the dictionaries – prevailing view, casuistry is a pejorative: it is specious, deceptive, oversubtle reasoning; the fallacious or dishonest application of principles; clever but unsound rationalization; sophistry. Early Protestants tended to view casuistry with suspicion, if not disdain. This was so for a variety of reasons including casuistry’s close association with Medieval systems of confession and penance as a tool to retrospectively judge the moral qualities of a penitent’s act and thereby assign appropriate penance as a means of restoring the agent to a state of grace. Among much else, this was distasteful to Protestant commitments to justification by faith. Moreover, such a system of penance was susceptible, even prone, to abuse and was perceived to cultivate an authoritarian relationship of priesthood over laity that was inimical to Protestant ideals regarding the priesthood of all believers.

Even so, Protestant disdain for casuistry wasn’t perennial. The Oxford don and moral theologian Kenneth Kirk describes the 17th Century as one in which casuistry flourished in Protestant thought, first among Calvinists but eventually throughout the wider communities as an aid to moral and spiritual formation. That said, this golden age of casuistic Protestantism was short-lived. As Kirk puts it, “this reformed casuistry died as sudden a death as any in history” and the career of Protestant regard for casuistry faltered back to one of fundamental misgiving. This perdured for many reasons ranging from Pascal’s devastating rebuke of the sophistry of Jesuit casuistry; to casuistry’s tendency toward legalism; to growing confidence in an individual’s unaided moral discrimination; to Protestantism’s growing anti-intellectualism.

What I am interested in here, however, is not so much the critique of casuistry but its defense. Among others, the Oxford moral theologian Nigel Biggar believes such a defense worthwhile because it is important for there to be accessible criteria by which we can guide our moral intuitions, imaginations, and decisions in specific cases in light of fundamental theological principles and moral norms. Thus, my present point of focus is casuistry’s ability to justify or criticize a proposal to act in a particular way in a particular situation.

Biggar suggests an example of casuistic reasoning by inviting us to suppose that he takes for granted that love is the ultimate norm of Christian behavior and that love is equivalent to self-sacrifice. Now suppose he believes that love implies the principle that children ought to honor their parents and that from this principle derives the rule that children ought to obey their parents. What happens in a situation in which his parents make unjust demands of him? Demands that, if obeyed, would wrongly injure – physically or morally – him, his marriage, and even, if particular accounts of human flourishing are to be believed, his parents themselves? Such a case compels one to question whether there are circumstances in which obedience does not actually honor one’s parents; in which, in fact, to obey might well be a means of dishonoring them – as happens when we allow those we ought to love to sin. Other questions rightly ensue prompting us to reconsider what it actually means to honor and, in light of this new understanding, whether an additional rule of, say, disobedience needs to be created alongside our original mandate to obey. If so, clarity needs to be established regarding under which general conditions the rule for obedience or disobedience obtains. Importantly, this process of refining and supplementing rules in light of cases also refines our understanding of the original principle – honor one’s parents – of which such rules are expressions. Moreover, in light of our refined principles we discover a new, deeper understanding of even ultimate norms – in this case, of love. We now know that love for one’s parents may well mean we disobey them.

Crucially, this interplay of principle, rule, and specific cases does not necessarily mean the principles or the norms from which they emerge are overturned. First principles are remarkably resilient across both the ages and cultural boundaries. Rather, it most often is our assumptions about the means by which such principles are expressed that we get wrong. Casuistry then, at its best, helps one to reason their way toward a moral decision faithful to their normative beliefs, even as it refines our understanding of these beliefs. Casuistry is a means of bringing ancient truth to changing times. This was understood by the Protestant ethicist Paul Ramsey who, as a casuistic forerunner to Biggar, helped clear brush along a similar path. Ramsey was famous, or infamous, for provocatively suggesting that Christianity is a faith without rules. For Ramsey, it is “love’s casuistry” that a Christian ethicist employs to bring the normative principle of love down to particular problems and to find resolution to moral dilemmas. But the provocation needn’t be so alarming: there may be “no rules”, but only in the sense, as we have seen, that the rules may change in light of circumstances – even as the exceptionless moral principles do not. If I have this right, then it’s safe to suppose Ramsey would have given Porte his wheel too.

To summarize, I am appealing here to casuistry as a means of helping to develop moral wisdom by engaging in a constant dialogue between norms, principles, rules, and cases; and by generating the suppleness to reform and refine where necessary while simultaneously exercising a blessedly obstinate fidelity to those things that never change. I have laid the groundwork too, I hope, to show in coming blogs that casuistry is crucial in helping us reflect on those occasions in which moral principles seem to conflict, as some suggest love and justice do in the build up toward, and the prosecution of, war. It will be seen that one of casuistry’s greatest assets is its equipping us with the confidence to refuse to rest comfortably with such claims of paradox and to vie against what are ultimately unnecessary and sloppy compromises.