e-mail us

Spring books

Häring’s hope underestimates tough challenge of renewal

By Bernard Häring
Translated by Peter Heinegg
Liguori/Triumph, 144, $16.95


This is a book full of hope for the future of the church, but it does not recoil from the hard issues that face contemporary Catholicism. Having said that, however, I think it underestimates the deep-seated problems and tough challenges that face those who value the Catholic tradition but want to see it change.

My Hope for the Church is Bernard Häring’s last book. A Redemptorist priest, Häring was arguably the greatest Catholic moral theologian of the 20th century and one of those most responsible for the renewal of contemporary Catholicism. He died in June last year at 85.

While his revolutionary approach to moral theology raised deep suspicions in the Vatican and led to a long-term investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, this book is an optimistic assessment of the possibility of recapturing the renewed vision of Catholicism that became the dominant model of the church among Catholics from the 1960s onwards.

Certainly it is a book that I needed to read. For it is tricky business, both ecclesiologically and strategically, to take on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- the CDF -- in public. It is also wearing both personally and spiritually.

A recent book of mine, Papal Power: A Proposal for Change in Catholicism’s Third Millennium (London: HarperCollins, 1997) was reported to Rome. This time last year I received a letter from Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the CDF, via my Rome-based superior general of the Sacred Heart Fathers, asking that I respond to a set of “observations” from an anonymous consultor of the CDF.

As soon as I received the CDF demand, I resolved that -- despite the Roman preference for secrecy in these matters -- there was nothing else I could do but to debate the whole thing in the open forum. My book is a public document, and it seemed to me that any form of criticism of it ought to be subjected to equal public scrutiny. So I posted both the Roman letter and critique and my response on the Internet. My reply was sent to Rome nine months ago; to this point I have not received even an acknowledgment of it.

To go public was a natural thing for me to do. For almost 15 years I have had some minor prominence in mainstream media in Australia through radio and TV. Working in secular media, especially as an editor, I am often faced with serious ethical and spiritual questions. As a Catholic Christian, I constantly need to ask myself such questions as: Should this story be made public? Will it hurt someone? Does it serve the public interest? Does the public’s right to know justify broadcasting anything and everything no matter what the consequences?

I found myself asking similar questions in deciding to debate the CDF’s criticisms in public. For if you enter into a public debate with the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation, then you have to maintain a careful ethical discernment. There are a number of moral and spiritual problems, not least of which is the danger of harming the unity of the church, and of giving scandal to those who do not fully comprehend the issues involved.

And there is always the problem of maintaining clarity about the purpose of the debate and a consciousness of ultimately submitting one’s views and motivation to the judgment of God and the Catholic community. You also have to deal with anger and hostility and strive to maintain charity, and above all hope and optimism.

I said that Häring’s My Hope for the Future was a book that I needed to read. The reason is because the book is a kind of last will and testament from one of the most courageous theologians of our century. Through his own long investigation by the CDF, he never lost the courage to write and speak about the hard issues. He drew on the virtues that we most need in the church today -- hope for the future and the imagination to shape it.

With all genuine religious thinkers, it is hard to separate life and thought. The first part of Häring’s book is quasi-autobiographical, in the sense that he describes his development as a moral theologian.

The primitivist and often damaging moralism that generally characterized post-Tridentine casuistry is vividly illustrated by a sad event in the Häring family. When Bernard was 15, his eldest sister delivered twins prematurely. One was baptized by the midwife before death, the other was born dead. The scrupulous local pastor refused to bury the unbaptized child in consecrated ground. This caused his sister to become severely depressed and led to a determination on the part of young Bernard to discover the church’s true tradition, which even then he felt could not be so harsh.

Wounded in Russia

While educated in the post-Tridentine tradition of morality, Häring was already teaching seminarians a new approach to theology before he was called up for active service as a medic in the Nazi army in July 1940. He spent a year in France and then from the summer of 1941 to 1945, he served on the eastern front. This was a profound turning point in his life, which he has described in Embattled Witness: Memoirs of a Time of War (1976).

Seriously wounded in Russia in May 1942, he was later involved in the dreadful December 1942-January 1943 retreat from Stalingrad. He was one of the 12,000 German troops from the Sixth Army who, together with remnants of the Fourth Panzer Army, survived as prisoners of war after being trapped in a pocket to the west of the city. They were under the command of Gen. Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus (1890-1957) who surrendered on Feb. 2, 1943. These are the soldiers Hitler called “cowards” because they did not hold out to die to the last man. They had actually been trapped because Paulus obeyed Hitler’s catastrophic order not to arrange a strategic retreat.

Both as a solder and as a prisoner of war, Haring disobeyed orders and acted as a medic and a chaplain, caring for anyone with whom he came in contact. He ministered not only to his comrades but to Russian soldiers and to civilians of various nationalities. He often worshiped with Protestant and Orthodox communities. It was as a result of these wartime experiences that he concluded that “there was no way I could ever conceive of a profound renewal of moral theology except ecumenically.”

After the war he returned to Tübingen to complete a doctorate in 1947. He then taught at the Redemptorist seminary at Gars-am-Inn in Bavaria, and from the 1950s at the order’s newly established Alphonsianum academy in Rome.

The academy was founded to train teachers of moral theology, and Häring made it his aim to make his approach truly theological in its inspiration and to put a stop to what he called the “dangerous concubinage” that existed at that time between moral theology and canon law.

Bases of morality

The old legalistic moral manuals reflected the centralized, hierarchical church characteristic of the post-Tridentine, baroque period. He wanted to evolve a new approach.

While he belongs to a tradition of German Catholic moralists who attempted to re-engage moral theory with biblical, historical and systematic theology, it was Häring (together with the Jesuit Josef Fuchs) who shifted the focus away from casuistry to a type of moral theology that was a response to Christ’s call to conversion and discipleship. Häring held that human freedom and love of others were the genuine bases of all morality. He also emphasized the centrality of freedom of conscience and of the role of psychology in moral decision-making.

Häring held that the best moral theology emerged from a context in which “the word of God showed the way to a faith that bore fruit in love, justice and peace.” He argued that the best possible context for moral theologizing was the ethical experience of Christians and he valued the contribution that the social sciences made to our knowledge of the process of moral decision-making.

The first fruit of this new approach to moral theology was the three-volume The Law of Christ, which was first published in German in 1954 and in English between 1959 and 1966. There are some 200,000 copies in print in 15 languages.

At first sight the book seems rather traditional in its approach. Haring was trying to avoid the impression of a “radical break” with the past. As he progressed and as new editions came out, he constantly tried to integrate a thorough biblical exegesis with his theology.

With John XXIII (1958-1963) came the Second Vatican Council. It was only after the pope intervened that Häring was invited to join the preparatory work. His contribution was enormous, especially as secretary to the subcommission that drafted the “Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes).

The second half of My Hope for the Church is a series of wide-ranging reflections on contemporary Catholic issues. While it is held together by Häring’s primary interest in moral theology, it almost reads like a stream of consciousness. But the very nature of the writing conveys a sense of hope in a profoundly Christian sense. With Häring, hope is a profound determination to build up the future of the church guided and sustained by God’s Spirit, which he sees shining through all of the practical problems that Catholicism faces.

Troubling issues

In this book he addresses most of the issues that have troubled me and, I suspect, anyone seriously involved in the ongoing renewal of Catholicism.

He sees the restorationist agenda of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and other powerful elements in the church, as the basic source of this disquiet. He refers to it often, especially when discussing his own discipline of moral theology.

He criticizes the escalating tendency of John Paul II and the CDF to “infalliblize” an increasing number of issues; he says that this is no longer “creeping” but “galloping” infallibility! For instance, speaking of the question of the ordination of women, he says bluntly: “I consider Rome’s ‘infallible’ decision not only inopportune but out of touch with the times.”

Häring contrasts the renewed understanding of moral theology held by most contemporary Catholics, which is characterized by autonomy and conscientious decision-making in the light of Christ’s teaching, with the moral vision set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1994). These, he argues, are not just abstract documents, but they set out a whole restorationist understanding of the church and of the moral theology that is derived from that understanding.

These two visions are now engaged in a struggle for the soul of the church. “What is at stake here is the perspective of tomorrow -- and the overall context of the future,” he writes.

From the beginning of the book, Häring also gives expression to a profound hope: He claims that a turnaround is already taking place, that restorationist models of the church are in decline and that “new ones are coming into view.” Clearly this reflects his deep trust in God’s Spirit, and I wish I could share more fully in his vision.

The fundamental problem is that such an interiorized vision of the possibilities of Catholicism is often completely out of synchronization with what Catholics experience in the real world of the church, diocese and parish.

These are the people Häring directly addresses, and in the final part of My Hope for the Church, he confronts their sense of despair head-on. He emphasizes the importance of being prepared to dream dreams about the future. But he admits that these dreams have to be confronted with reality. His view is that “in the last years of the pontificate of Karol Wojtyla an old model has largely run itself into the ground, thus paving the way for a turnaround that is in the offing.”

My own view is that this “turnaround” is still some way off, and that the “old model” has a remarkable ability to restore itself. Häring gives the impression that with the advent of one or two new popes and the force of public opinion in the church, things will change. I think that he underestimates the staying power of the modified baroque Catholicism that is represented by the restorationist agenda that is at present in the ascendant in the church.

By “modified baroque Catholicism” I mean the power structure represented by a Euro-centric, absolute monarchy model of papacy and hierarchy, supported by a highly centralized and relatively efficient bureaucracy. It has managed to survive the reforms of Vatican II precisely because the renewed model of church was not firmly established in a structural form.

Sickness and decay

These days I find myself thinking increasingly of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as I contemplate the contemporary power structure of Catholicism. The image of sickness and decay that permeates the whole poetic fabric of the play, and Hamlet’s reference to the rottenness at the core of the state suggest a kind of almost “cosmic” evil that transcends individuals and infects the whole body politic.

I suspect that Catholics are facing something similar in the church. That is why I think that change will not occur simply by articulating a new vision or through the death of one pope and the election of another. What we face is something much more profound: the abandonment of a deeply dysfunctional power structure and the renewal of the whole institutional fabric of the church.

This can only be achieved from the bottom up. Those on the hierarchical ladder, especially those at the top, have too much invested in the maintenance of the structure to perceive the need for renewal. That is why the fidelity of a group of serious and committed Catholics at the base core of the church is so important. It is their adherence to a renewed vision of Catholicism and their determination to work to make that vision real in church structures, no matter what the obstacles, that will be the essential element in realizing a whole new way of living Catholic Christianity.

What Häring’s book does is to point to some of the important issues upon which we should focus and to re-emphasize the sheer centrality of hope and trust in the Spirit of God in the search for renewal.

But we kid ourselves if we think that renewal is “just around the corner,” or that some newly elected “progressive pope” will suddenly appear as a kind of “messiah” for reform-minded Catholics. The reality is that the challenge is ultimately ours and that what we need most is what Daniel Berrigan has called “the spirituality of the long haul.”

It will all be easier said than done.

Sacred Heart Fr. Paul Collins is an Australian priest, writer and broadcaster. Of his two most recent books, God’s Earth (1995) has been made into a major TV documentary by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and Papal Power (1997) is being examined by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His next book Upon this Rock, a study of the development of the papal office, will be published in the middle of the year.

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999