Theology from the Pit of Hell
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.
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