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.