In the unfolding development of moral theology in the Vatican II era, a common theme among theologians of the time was “conversion,” specifically their own reactions to the classical/manualist tradition of their training and the emerging re-visioning of the Church in the language of the Council document and analyses of the times. In this blog thread, I have described the processes of two moralists of the times: Bernard Haring, profoundly affected by his World War II experiences, turned his attention from a legally based manualist moral approach to a Gospel-centered morality of virtue and deeds. Last week we examined the role of the classical moralist John Ford who, in the heat of debate over natural law and contraception, decided to remain faithful to the classical view of nature espoused by Pope Paul VI and became a major force behind the encyclical Humanae Vitae.
It cannot be denied that Josef Fuchs (1912-2005) came to his conversion moment with exquisite timing. The German Father Fuchs was not only a student of the classicalist tradition of moral theology, he was considered one of its eminent teachers. As a professor at the Gregorian Institute in Rome, Fuchs’ De Castitate et Ordine Sexuali became the standard seminary text on sexual morality, with editions appearing as late as 1963. His conservative credentials were so unquestioned that Pope Paul VI appointed Fuchs to the special commission studying the birth control issue through the mid-1960’s, as a counterbalance to the commission’s apparent trending toward a change in the Church’s teaching on artificial birth control.
Fuchs did not write an autobiography as Haring did, so it is hard to pinpoint precisely when his thinking began to shift, but historians of the era (see Robert McClory, for example) are in general agreement that his experience on the commission was something of an awakening to the struggles and realities of conjugal married life. Notably, he engaged with Americans Pat and Patricia Crowley, founders of the Cana and Pre-Cana concept for couples in the 1940’s as well as the Christian Family Movement after World War II (my own parents hosted CFM meetings in their home during the 1960’s). CFM was a precursor to RENEW and other small group faith sharing programs.
We get a hint that something was a stir from historian James F. Keenan (see home page). Keenan reports that in 1964, at an annual meeting of Jesuit moralists, the topic of the birth control pill as an agent to regularize the menstrual cycle came under debate. The last person to speak was the moralist Richard McCormick. Keenan quotes another historian, John Mahoney: “[McCormick] said, ‘I hear Joe Fuchs is reconsidering his understanding of the morality of birth control.’ Mahoney reports that there was an audible ‘collective intake of breath.’ Then, one after another, the Jesuits said, ‘Can we talk about church teaching on birth control?’ Joseph Fuchs change gave his brother Jesuits the permission to examine a topic that previously was off limits.” [John Mahoney, The Making of Moral Theology: A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition (1989), 2007 interview]
Fuchs himself resigned his teaching position at the Gregorian University in 1965 and asked the University to discontinue publishing De Casitate. Keenan, a later graduate student of Fuchs, asked about the experience of his work on the papal commission and his change of heart on moral methodology. “Listening to the testimony of married couples who testified to the commission, Fuchs grew in his understanding of the complexity of moral decisions about the responsible regulation of births and the right exercise of parenthood. Whereas earlier he believed that the way to apply church teachings was simply to obey them, now he realized that genuine application required adults to relate church teaching conscientiously to their personal responsibilities. From these couples, Fuchs learned the competency of a mature moral conscience.”
Keenan also recalls that Fuchs would advise his young moral theology graduate students to spend as much time hearing confessions as possible. “You should hear weekly confessions,” he urged me [Keenan]. “To be a good moral theologian, you must learn to listen to what the people of God are anxious about.” Fuchs, in that sense, was like Haring (and no doubt to Pope Francis today) in his contention that the baptized are intimately involved in the exercise of conscience, and his moral theologizing rests upon the premise that God grace enables Christians to make wise and prudent determinations in the circumstances of their lives.
Fuchs never wrote another book after his service on the commission, but he composed 70 essays published in various collections over the years. As he himself explained, he wrote in response to the positions—favorable or otherwise--of other scholars and churchmen, including the moral writings of Pope John Paul II. It is hard to summarize what would become Fuchs’ “system” without a wide reading of his essays, but it is clear that the thrust of his thought encouraged many theologians, priests, and bishops (particularly those on the commission) to entertain their own doubts and engage in important reconsiderations of the pastoral needs of the faithful.