Moral theology and the historian’s conscience: is there a license to besmirch?

Daniel Schwartz*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article examines how Catholic moral theologians analysed the constraints imposed by the rights of the dead to their good name on historical writing and research. The concern of Catholic moral theologians for persons’ rights to their good name coupled with their concern for the rights of dead persons placed serious moral constraints on the work of historians. At the same time, from very early on, these moral theologians showed appreciation of the benefits of historical writing, including writing on the less public aspects of historical figures. The general tendency was to allow historians some moral elbow room. There was, however, a clear red line: what was and had always been secret could not be revealed, regardless of the benefits. By the end of the nineteenth century, the authors of the casuist manualists revised the traditional doctrine and removed the moral red line that had been accepted until then. Historians could now reveal what had always been secret. This doctrinal development was the result of two historical events: the opening of the Vatican Archives and allowing propagandists and journalists within politically organized Catholic conservatism to fight as equals in the printed media.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)15-31
Number of pages17
JournalIntellectual History Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
I would like to thank Andreas Blank for organizing the workshop Esteem and Self-Esteem in Ancient, Early Modern and Contemporary Ethics and Political Philosophy in Klagenfurt and the participants for their comments. I would also like to thank the audience at the presentation of this paper at Universidad Panamericana, Mexico DF, and to Maurcio Lecón Rosales, Virginia Aspe Armella, and Silvina Vidal for their comments and help.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 International Society for Intellectual History.


  • Catholic Church
  • Historical writing
  • casuistry
  • moral theology
  • reputation


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