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Bernard Häring: a moral theologian whose soul matched his scholarship


German Redemptorist Fr. Bernard Häring, the foremost Catholic moral theologian of the 20th century and a leading advocate for church reform before, during and after the Second Vatican Council, died in the Redemptorist monastery in Gars-am-Inn, Germany, July 3. He was 85 and had been in active retirement in Gars since 1986.

Häring was a priest medic in the German army in World War II. He published a ground-breaking work of moral theology, The Law of Christ, translated into more than a dozen languages. A professor of moral theology at the Alfonsian Academy in Rome from 1950 to 1986, he was a most influential peritus at Vatican II. He was also an indefatigable, globetrotting missionary for Christian spirituality and church renewal and a staunch opponent of legalism and hypocrisy in the church.

The objective facts of Häring's life can never capture the spirit of the person. On the other hand, in reflecting on Häring's life and contribution, I must admit to my own sympathies and prejudgments. Häring has been teacher, mentor, spiritual director, friend and supporter to me.

I first encountered him teaching moral theology at the Alfonsian Academy in Rome in 1959. His approach changed my thinking dramatically. I was instrumental in bringing him to the United States for the first time, in 1963. He later spent many months each year teaching and giving retreats in the United States. He was a bulwark of support for me in my own struggles with the Vatican. I thank God for his example, strength, advice and encouragement.

What made Häring the person he was? What explains his life and work? Like all Christians, he had to answer the gospel question of Jesus: "Who do you say that I am?" Häring's answer reveals much about him. "Jesus is for me Son of Man, which means above all that he is `one of us.' He is Son of God, the Father's unsurpassable offering and assent to us. He is the prophet, the nonviolent but also powerful unmasker of all false images of God, of every religious falsification, the perfect worshiper in spirit and in truth." This basic commitment and faith help us to understand Häring the moral theologian, the church reformer and the deeply spiritual Christian person.

His 1954 The Law of Christ proposed a biblical, liturgical, Christological and life-centered moral theology. He pioneered a new approach to moral theology that opposed the method of the manuals with their concern for training confessors for the sacrament of penance by learning how to distinguish what is sinful and the degrees of sinfulness.

Häring's moral theology was based on the covenant -- the good news of God's loving gift for us and our grateful response. Christians are called to growth and continual conversion in their moral life and in their multiple relationships with God, neighbor, world and self. He staunchly opposed any legalism that made God into a controller rather than a gracious savior.

Two significant developments occurred in his moral theology. The earlier Häring, as indicated by the title of The Law of Christ, still saw law as the primary model of the Christian life. But in 1978 his new three-volume moral theology, written this time in English, was titled Free and Faithful in Christ, which indicates the move to a more relational model for the moral life and the rejection of a legal model.

The second development involved a growing emphasis on the healing power of nonviolence. Häring was truly a person of peace who often candidly and forcefully stood up for his position, but his manner was always nonviolent. Even among nations the later Häring emphasized the need for nonviolence, although he did not totally exclude all use of force.

Some criticized Häring's moral theology for its lack of scientific rigor and its often homiletic style. There is some truth in these criticisms. Häring was never primarily an academic writing learned tomes in search of academic promotions and acclaim. He wrote for the church and the people of the church. However, his work came from a deep and creative intelligence that helped to reshape the entire discipline of Catholic moral theology in the post-conciliar era. In his various writings he also showed a broad knowledge not only of theology and scripture but also of sociology, psychology and medicine.

The German Redemptorist was a prolific author, writing about 90 volumes in moral theology, spirituality and church reform. In addition he was an indefatigable speaker, going all over the globe to give lectures, conferences and retreats. Häring spoke fluent German, French, Italian, English, Spanish, Portuguese and Polish and even learned Russian during the war. He traveled and lectured extensively in Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States.

Long before Vatican II made it popular, he was involved in ecumenical dialogue. During the war he defied military orders and ministered as a priest not only to Catholics but to Protestants. On the Russian front he baptized many Orthodox children in the midst of the savagery of war. His doctoral dissertation, "The Holy and the Good," done in Tübingen, Germany, in 1947, showed his familiarity with many Protestant thinkers. After the council he served as a visiting professor for a semester at three non-Catholic institutions here in the United States: Brown University, Yale Divinity School and Union Theological Seminary.

As a church reformer, Häring played a significant role in Vatican II. Pope John XXIII wrote a letter praising and thanking Häring for his The Law of Christ. In his diary Pope John mentioned that he had read with great joy and complete agreement Häring's book on what he hoped the council would do. Pope Paul VI, in his first year as pope, invited Häring to give the annual retreat to him and the Roman curia and encouraged him to speak frankly and without fear.

Häring also contributed to the council documents. He served on the pre-conciliar and conciliar commissions and was the secretary of the editorial committee that drafted the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Cardinal Fernando Cento, the co-president of the mixed commission in charge of that document, publicly referred to Häring as "the quasi-father of Gaudium et Spes."

Häring consistently opposed legalism and religious falsification wherever he found them. During the council he frequently addressed groups of bishops and the press. His honesty and forthright comments were widely appreciated.

In 1968, he publicly disagreed with the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which condemned artificial contraception. I will never forget my own exhilaration when Häring readily agreed to sign the statement of dissent from Humanae Vitae that we had proposed here in the United States the day after the encyclical was issued.

His reaction to Pope John Paul II's 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor was especially strong. "Let us ask our pope: Are you sure your confidence in your supreme human, professional and religious competence in matters of moral theology and particularly sexual ethics is truly justified? ... We should let the pope know that we are wounded by the many signs of his rooted distrust and discouraged by the manifold structures of distrust which he has allowed to be established."

Behind Bernard Häring the theologian and church reformer stood Bernard Häring the person of prayer and deep spirituality. Anyone who spent any length of time with him recognized he was truly a person living in the presence of God. There was an interior calm and peace in Häring that showed through in all that he did even when he strongly opposed what he considered religious falsification. ðHäring was often involved in pastoral work and spent much time giving retreats and spiritual conferences all over the world. He took a special interest in setting up houses of prayer for religious orders where people could come to attend to their own spiritual lives. He gave spiritual conferences not only to lay people, priests and sisters throughout the world, but also to many non-Catholics. For example, he annually gave a retreat to the members of the Church of the Savior in Washington and Baltimore.

Häring's sacramental and prayerful spirituality was the basis for his life and work. He was brought up in a very pious and traditional German family. Throughout his life, he practiced what he preached about continual conversion and growth in one's life with God.

He was often characterized by others as too optimistic. But his was an optimism of grace based on the redeeming love of God. In his own life he experienced deep sorrow and pain. He faced death many times in the war. After four bouts with cancer in the later 1970s, he lost his larynx and could no longer speak normally. What a cross for a man who had spoken all over the world in so many languages! In the 1970s he was investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and this cruel investigation continued even in the midst of his serious illnesses. He also suffered greatly from the lack of true reform in the church after Vatican II, but he continued to have hope based not on human prognostication but on the redeeming love of God.

Häring served the church as a committed, holy, intelligent, and courageous person. His legacy is an example and sign of hope for all who struggle for conversion in our lives and in our church.

Charles E. Curran is Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University.

National Catholic Reporter, July 17, 1998