I have been wrestling in my head all week about today’s post, which deals with the paradigm shift or conceptual change in the way that Catholic thinkers address moral theology. To whom do we compare the Redemptorist priest Bernard Haring in terms of his contribution to the Catholic moral tradition? One clue is the considerable worldwide interest in the man himself, as the New York Times records in his obituary in 1998. I decided to do my own homework and I downloaded to Kindle his autobiography published the year of his death, Free and Faithful: My Life in the Catholic Church, which I completed on Thursday.
The Times obituary is generally correct; Haring’s The Law of Christ (1954) marks the discipline of moral theology with a “before and after” moment. But the bigger question for me is what drove him to do it, what stirred him to seek an alternative to a legal fixation upon sin and its proclivity for detail and gradation, what historians today refer to as the “manualist era” in reference to the case studies texts employed in seminaries and graduate studies.
It is not clear in Free and Faithful precisely when Haring wrote his life’s story, though the dating of his death and publication suggest he was into his 80’s. His autobiography answers many questions, not always in straight lines. But all the same there is a logic to his life that spills out into his theology. He is no stranger to conversion and forgiveness. He has no tale of evil deeds to unload, though a well disguised hubris and subtle self-promotion were probably not unknown to him, as is true with many of us. Haring’s knowledge of grace and forgiveness, the heart of his thinking and writing, came primarily from his total immersion in societal sin.
As a young Redemptorist priest, Haring was conscripted into the German Army during World War II, where he served four years. Clerics as a rule were assigned to the medical corps but were forbidden to act in a ministerial capacity, on penalty of death. Haring’s responsibilities were gruesome enough, often including the reinsertion of inner organs of dying soldiers. (It has occurred to me, with considerable irony, that my father was a medic on the opposite line of fire in the late days of the war.) The Nazi threat of execution seemed to have little effect on Haring, who fully expected to be killed in action at any rate, and he was in fact wounded. He heard the confessions of dying Catholics; Protestants pleaded with him to read the Bible as they died. Years later, Haring observed that tending to Protestants gave him new appreciation for the importance of the Bible, and he came to marvel at the relatively minor role of Scripture in Catholic parochial life.
Haring writes that a number of German officers became aware of his priestly activities, and rather than discipline him, they encouraged him to provide Mass and interfaith services for the morale of the men. Despite their generally benign attitude, Haring was arrested four times, and brought to tribunal twice. Again, on those two occasions he fully expected to die, but his worst punishment was imprisonment, from which he escaped, evidently in the chaos of the German retreat from Russia. From this point Haring and his German unit became something of a semi-independent force making its way home. This allowed Haring to provide medical and religious services along the way to every village regardless of denomination. He had easy access to Sulfa which he made available to civilians, who somehow conflated the first of the “wonder drugs” with this visiting man of God and began referring to him as “the healing priest.”
Later Haring would write of his war years as engendering a powerful sense of ecumenism. He came to regard World War II rightfully as a corporate sin requiring a corporate conversion. While he never lost his identity as a Roman Catholic, he came to understand that the divine plan called for a unity of faith and prayer beyond denominational lines. As a young moralist, he understood that evils such as world war would only be countered by a universal conversion to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ as given to us in the Sacred Scriptures.
Haring survived the war and undertook a doctorate in moral theology, though as is well documented, he complained rather vigorously to his superiors that moral theology was essentially a dead-end career. This is a remarkable comment on the state of affairs of moral theology in the late 1940’s, given that the Redemptorist Order had been founded by St. Alphonsus Ligouri, the renowned moralist who in his own way sought to mollify the legalism of the manualist practice. From what I can ascertain, the Redemptorists themselves may have shared something of Haring’s frustration with present-day moral theology, for it was planning the establishment of the Alphonsian Academy in Rome, which came about in 1950. In response to Haring’s complains, his superiors said to him that “We are asking you to prepare yourself for this task with a doctorate from a German university so that it can be different in the future.”
Haring was clearly not a lone wolf among European theologians who similarly discerned a need for renewal in all aspects of Catholic academic and pastoral life. In Free and Faithful there is little or no account of the composition of The Law of Christ, the proposal of a new model of moral theology based upon the biblical Jesus Christ. In fact, Haring’s plate was quite full in the 1950’s with his teaching, speaking, and retreat work, as well as his ventures with other Christian Churches. However, Haring relates an episode that may give a clue about his sense of a need for a new moral text for seminarians.
At some juncture before 1950 he sat in on a moral theology case study offered at a major university in Rome. The professor presented the class with a case study that went something like this. A priest has offered his morning Mass on a weekday. Later he encounters a group which has not had an opportunity to attend Mass in a long time and may not have another opportunity for some considerable time hence. The question: can a priest binate (offer Mass twice) on a weekday to accommodate this group? After lengthy discussion involving Church law, the professor concluded, “he cannot.”
If your own instincts run to the opposite conclusion, thank Bernard Haring.
I was able to find the New York Times obituary of the Redemptorist priest and moral theologian Bernard Haring, written in 1998. Although he was not alone among European moralists of the post-World War II era, Haring is probably the most pivotal in his work to change the methodology of the moral science away from the Manualist categorizing of sins toward emphasis upon a profound personal conversion experience of embracing the Gospel figure of Jesus. The Times piece does not use the term “Manualists” but the reference is clear enough.
As I wrote two weeks ago, European theologians addressed moral theology more aggressively than, say, their counterparts in the United States after the War. Haring’s biography is a good case in point. A native German, he joined the Redemptorists with the hope of being a missionary, but in 1936 his superiors told him to obtain a doctorate in moral theology. Haring resisted with the complaint that moral theology was the most boring of all the sacred disciplines; this is an interesting response from a Redemptorist whose order was founded by none other than St. Alphonsus Ligouri, who labored to mitigate the regimentation of the manualist tradition. Perhaps with that history in mind, the superior told Haring that “we are sending you to study so that this [apathy] will come to an end.”
Haring did so, and by the early 1950’s he was a highly respected expert in his field. It is hard to say exactly how Haring’s WW II experience shaped his thinking about morality. He had been drafted by the Nazis for medical duties, but he also distributed communion at considerable risk, in the face of strict orders not to do so. When he returned to his university studies, it is fair to say that he shared the concerns of other European thinkers about the moral decay of Europe and specifically the absence of an adequate methodology of advancing the moral life. Haring has left us his autobiography, Free and Faithful in the Catholic Church, published in 1998 at about the time of his death. This work—a true witness of the moral scene in the past 70 years of Roman Catholicism, is available on Kindle and inexpensively elsewhere; I ordered a copy for myself this morning.
In 1954 Haring wrote his most famous work, The Law of Christ. A three-volume work, it was not published in English until 1963, but its influence was already powerful in the United States, as elsewhere, because so many young American priests sought doctorates in Rome and Germany, U.S. scholarship lagging at the time. Haring’s greatest achievement in The Law of Christ and his other later works was to change the role of the moralist from that of a confessional lawyer into a spiritual and practical director of embracing the teachings and example of Christ as a blueprint for Christian living. Perhaps not a perfect analogy, but he pivoted morality away from practical law into the world of religious psychology, i.e., what does a person really believe at his inner core, which would then unlock an assessment of his outer actions. (The technical term for this inner belief core is fundamental option, which you may see in moral texts that you read.]
The optimal fundamental option in Haring’s view was the full embrace of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Sacred Scripture. This turn to the Biblical Jesus was a major innovation, as it would be for the other theological disciplines such as liturgy. There was, in moral theology, a democratization of the Christian—certainly the Catholic—Church. Intense personal holiness had been the provenance of a select few—those who took vows, entered cloisters, eschewed marriage for works of charity, presented themselves for sacred orders. This represented a small percentage of Catholics, to be sure. For the vast majority, the Manualist/confessional approach to morals had been adequate at best for the Catholic layman whose life’s project was to avoid hell or long stays in purgatory.
The 1950’s school—notably including Haring—was now gently raising the possibility that morality was the consequent of Baptism, when in St. Paul’s words one puts aside a life of old and takes a new being, that of Jesus Christ. I hasten to add that this was not an original idea of the twentieth century. One can look to medieval times and the theology of St. Francis of Assisi. St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) suffered greatly for his advocacy of what we might call a universal call to holiness. (During my oral comprehensives in moral theology in 1974, I was asked to defend the term “democratization of the dark night of the soul,” in light of St. John of the Cross’s preaching and writing. I passed with a gentleman’s C.)
I am going to cut short our discussion on Father Haring’s influence, as I am due to work at the clinic shortly. The links in today’s post do provide good background material. I will be back tomorrow for next Sunday’s Gospel.
This is the second installment of an extended post on the Catholic moral teaching on the defense of life. The first can be found on yesterday's (Sunday's) stream.
During my years as a student in Washington, DC, I lived next door to the complex then housing the National Catholic Conference of Bishops, which in turn bordered on the “Holy Land Shrine.” It was an interesting street. The Secretary of the NCCB as it was called then was a young bishop, Joseph Bernardin, who was a very good neighbor and joined us for dinner on many occasions. He performed the friars’ ordinations to the diaconate and priesthood, and he committed himself to celebrating my class’s ordination to the priesthood. In the months before my ordination, he was named Archbishop of Cincinnati, but he agreed to return to Washington for our day. He asked to meet with us at the seminary prior to the ordination at a large suburban Maryland church borrowed for the occasion. The meeting at the seminary went overtime—Bernardin had just been named one of America’s 50 most influential people by Time Magazine—and we talked about the Church and the country we would be serving as priests.
As you might expect, over the years I had more than passing interest in the ministry of Archbishop—soon to be Cardinal—Bernardine, who went on to Chicago and became something of the voice of reason in the U.S. Catholic Church. His years of national influence concurred with the three decades immediately following Roe v. Wade in 1973, a time of great concern, obviously, for many Americans, not just Catholics. However, I can recall that in my pastoral years abortion was not my highest moral concern. That would have been the issue of mutually assured mass destruction by nuclear weapons; the Cold War was still an overarching fear among the American populace, and in about 1986, under Bernardine’s leadership, the United States Bishops undertook a pastoral letter on the morality of nuclear arms. I was asked by my bishop at the time to serve on his advisory committee in preparation of the document. [The issue of nuclear weapons, interestingly, came up in last night’s presidential debate.]
At about this time Bernardin coined a phrase that would have significant repercussions in all moral discussions of the sanctity of life: “the seamless garment of life.” One of the Chicago Cardinal’s teaching gifts was synthesizing Catholic moral life. He was certainly no manualist. If we think back to the early paragraphs of the Catechism (published about three years before Bernardin’s death in 1996) it is hard not to be amazed by the language employed to describe the majestic riches of the human person, endowed by the nature of divine creation to come to an understanding of goodness, moral truth, and the divine. This is the “anthropology” of the Catechism and everything we say about human life springs from our created nature.
The focal point of the Seamless Garment metaphor is that the value of life is consistent regardless of age or later circumstance. Bernardin had many critics, particularly in the Pro-Life leadership, who argued that his broadening of moral concern for all of life—and particularly to certain classes of people such as those on death row—would water down both catechetical and civil efforts on behalf of the unborn. One very touchy issue—highlighted in the book/film Dead Man Walking—was advocacy of the sanctity of life of convicted killers facing execution. It took a brave soul to argue that the life of a man on death row commanded the respect of an unborn child.
I would agree that reflection on this point is jarring, but when has the pursuit of moral truth not been so? Perhaps a more palatable example might be that of nuclear weapons. Catholic teaching before the nuclear age had always carried a mandate about the killing of noncombatants, though as I read Carlos M.N. Eire’s Reformations (see home page) it is clear this moral concern was frequently ignored in the breech. The sheer expanse of the destructive power of one nuclear weapon makes any distinction between combatants and non-combatants morally and tactically impossible. The atomic bomb at Nagasaki destroyed a Jesuit novitiate.
The threat here is a moral stance that allows for a bifurcation of lives—which do we protect, and which do we justify terminating. Time does not permit me to examine the variety of slippery slopes currently in place which tolerate, allow, or even justify the taking and risking of lives, in society as a whole and even in some strains of Catholic thought. The inconsistency, however, does not help the promotion of the Pro-Life cause, particularly in the eyes of outsiders who look to the Church as a kind of moral beacon.
Cardinal Bernardine addressed the need for a unified pastoral message on the sanctity of all life at a speech at the University of St. Louis in November, 1984:
Abortion is taking of life in ever growing numbers in our society. Those concerned about it, I believe, will find their case enhanced by taking note of the rapidly expanding use of public execution. In a similar way, those who are particularly concerned about these executions, even if the accused has taken another life, should recognize the elementary truth that a society which can be indifferent to the innocent life of an unborn child will not be easily stirred to concern for a convicted criminal. There is, I maintain, a political and psychological linkage among the life issues—from war to welfare concerns—which we ignore at our own peril: a systemic vision of life seeks to expand the moral imagination of a society, not partition it into airtight categories.
I will continue this discussion on Wednesday, focusing upon the positive steps that Catholics in general, and catechists in particular, may consider in advancing the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of all life.
On Saturday’s sacrament post I commented that advances in one field of theology inevitably influence all of the others. This is no less true in moral theology, though given the very practical nature of the moral life—where the rubber meets the road—it is probably safe to say that moral theologians are impacted by secular life as well. This was certainly true in the twentieth century, where two World Wars, the atomic bomb, the Holocaust, and the Great Depression, among other moral tragedies, were giving churchmen, statesmen, and philosophers many reasons to reflect upon the forces that led to these evils, specifically what was going on in the minds and hearts of men who perpetrated such things. But equally to the point, what was happening in the churches as the Nazi movement was evolving in a country composed of Lutherans and Catholics?
One way to put the question is whether Catholic life in the pews was a vibrant expression of God’s will, a true leaven to society. Again, reverting back to Saturday’s post, I recall Father Pius Parsch’s recollections of serving on the front lines of World War I, in which he was distressed at the lack of participation available to the soldiers in the Mass formulary of his day. His military experiences led him to a new career as a scholar and experimenter in the liturgical movement then beginning to blossom in Europe and the United States. The same kinds of conversions in Church life were occurring more and more frequently among thoughtful clerics, religious, and laity.
For the moral theologians, this conversion occurred at a time when morality itself was equated to the precision of the manuals in identifying and assessing sins. Again, referring to Saturday, I think back to the Vatican directive to moralists to incorporate specific penalties regarding women’s clothing into the compiling of new manuals—in 1943, the midst of the horrors of total world war. During and after the war there was a growing consensus that the entire science of moral theology needed a profound overhaul.
The best source for this revolution of Catholic moral theology is Father James Keenan’s history of twentieth-century developments (see home page), and I must admit that I cannot do justice here on the blog to all of the labors and the contributions of the European Catholic thinkers. I do recommend Father Keenan’s work to anyone who wants a close-up of the ecclesiastical and academic development of Catholic morality. A key point I do wish to make is that the United States lagged somewhat behind the Europeans in several areas of theology, including morality. In part this was due to the simple reality that European thinkers of all stripes, having experienced war in their front yard, approached religion and life questions with greater urgency. Many in Europe had despaired of organized religion in general. Others turned to philosophers such as Jean Paul Sartre, the father of Existentialism, for outlooks to reality divorced from what they considered the corruption of bourgeois structures, perpetrated by institutions such as the Catholic Church. And, in post-war France and Italy in particular, Marxists and Socialists were making major inroads. European Catholic theologians were up against formidable foes, which brought out significant excellence, urgency, and imagination in the university classrooms, seminaries, and publishing.
Catholicism in the United States, as historians admit today, was not distinguished for its advanced academic strengths. American Catholicism was pragmatic—in 1947 the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was opening a new Catholic elementary school every ninety days—and the GI Bill of Rights enabled millions of Catholic vets to attend Catholic colleges for degrees in accounting, business, law, science, etc. Roman Catholicism in the United States had something of the reverse of the problems facing European Catholicism—the postwar economic boom here and the growth of Catholic families through the 1950’s placed enormous strains on American Bishops to provide the basics of Catholic life.
There was not a great deal of groundbreaking Catholic thought to be found in the United States prior to Vatican II, however. One could argue that the most internationally respected American theological scholar of the 1950’s was the Jesuit John Courtney Murray, whose work was in fact a major contribution to moral theology. In 1960 his We Hold These Truths discussed the challenge to Catholicism of living in free societies with no established religion, of which the United States was exhibit one. Although he was silenced by our old friend Cardinal Ottaviani, Father Murray was invited to Vatican II and contributed to the composition of the Council’s document on religious freedom.
But Murray was an exception to the rule. The thinkers who would impact Catholic morality in the United States were Europeans, and young American Catholic priests seeking advanced degrees in moral theology would of necessity travel overseas for their graduate studies. Father Keenan assesses the situation quite well: “In the 1950’s, Catholic moral theologians split over theological methods; they either stayed with the manualists and taught moral theology as an aid for the priest confessor or they followed the lead of the revisionists and began looking for a moral theology that was more positive, more theological and more attuned to human experience.” (p. 83) He goes on to quote the most visible of the mid-century revisionists, Father Bernard Haring, who observed that “Moral theology, as I understand it, is not concerned first with decision making and discrete acts. Its basic task and purpose is to gain the right vision, to assess the main perspectives, and to present those truths and values which should bear upon decisions to be taken before God.” (p. 83)
In 1954 Haring published The Law of Christ. This work, as much as any work I can recall, marked the beginning of a new age of undertaking the art of moral thinking and pastoral action. Next time we will cross the bridge with Father Haring from the moral manuals to the Gospel call to conversion.