Commission on the Doctrine of teh Faith

A review of MY WITNESS FOR THE CHURCH, by Bernard Häring (Paulist Press, 997 MacArthur Boulevard, Mahwah, New Jersey, 1992, 236 pp).

* Taken from Homiletic and Pastoral Review, November 1992.

Häring was born in Germany in 1912. As a boy he experienced the tragedies of the first World War. He took part in the second World War as a member of the medical corps. At this time he began his doctoral studies at Tübingen. He continued them intermittently during the war. He chose as his area of specialization moral philosophy and moral theology. In 1952 he completed the book which made his name known in many countries, The Law of Christ. The new approach in the book was to situate moral theology within the higher context of Christ's law of love.

 He took part in Vatican II as a theological consultant. It is at this time that tensions between him and the Vatican began to develop. These began already in 1950 with his strong criticism of the encyclical, Humani Generis. He took a highly critical position to Humanae Vitae's position on the immorality of contraception. Almost two-thirds of the book is devoted to his version of the "doctrinal trial" to which he was submitted by the Holy Officer over a period of many years.

 Toward the end of the book, he takes up some contemporary questions, for example, the role of women in the Church; women's ordination; priestly celibacy. He sees the male domination of the Church as a result of the sinful fall (p. 189). He thinks the question of the ordination of women should be put off. One of the main reasons he gives is the strong tradition against women's ordination in the Orthodox Church. As far as priestly celibacy is concerned, he considers it to be of purely human tradition. It should be abandoned (p. 208).

 In the final chapter, "In Retrospect," he takes a look back over his life. How does he see it? He sees himself as having contributed to liberating the consciences of people from legalism and moralism, and helping them develop genuine conscientiousness and respect for the consciences of others (p. 213). He sees himself as having helped counteract anxiety-provoking sexual rigorism, a rigorism which he finds reinforced by Pope John Paul II (p. 218). He feels he has done a great service in having taken away the burden of the teaching of Humanae Vitae. His own position is that ultimately one has to follow their own conscience in their position to the teaching of the encyclical. He has helped free the Church from the distortions concerning sexuality which the Church has inherited from Augustine (p. 227).

 In a letter to Pope John Paul II, Häring cautioned the Holy Father about rigorism in the matter of chastity. "It is precisely in this field that the saying applies, 'The bow is broken when drawn too tight.'"

 No one can fault H„ring for his good intentions and his personal piety. But there seems to be a radical flaw in his approach to morality. In all moral decisions there is a tension between the subjective and objective components of the moral act. In many if not most cases H„ring tends to give the weight to the subjective component, that is to say, in every moral decision except those that have to do with social justice. The objectivity of justice remains unchallenged. The shift to personal subjectivity as the primary component takes place mainly in moral decisions that have to do with chastity.

 Perhaps this is a weakness that comes from one-sidedness in his own intellectual background. He has no metaphysical depth. There is little or no evidence in his writing of knowledge of the Catholic tradition. There is little sense of the cost of discipleship of Christian morality, its countercultural, or prophetic dimension, its nature as a "scandal" or stumbling block to the world.

 Through the principles of his moral theology Häring has been one of the major figures in the formation of what can be called today the "para-church," or the "super-church." Some call it the smorgasbord church. It is a church which sees dissent as an equally valid way of belonging as assent. It is a church made up of those who claim a magisterial authority which is above and against that of the magisterium as we traditionally know it. It claims authority to sort out what belongs to the church of the future from what is taught by the contemporary magisterium.

 It is a unique phenomenon in the history of the Church. Other groups have broken away and set their identity. This shadow church is like a parasite that needs its host. Without the Catholic Church as a host, it would fragment into many churches. This is what happened historically to Anglicanism.

 It is understandable that their criticisms are directed mainly at Pope John Paul II. They instinctively sense that he is the focal point of the opposition to everything they stand for.

 This book was translated from German into English by Leonard Swidler. He is the cofounder of the Association for the Rights of Catholics within the Church. He also wrote the introduction for the English edition. Swidler and H„ring share the same basic vision of the contemporary Catholic Church in contrast to the Church of the future. The present Church under Pope John Paul is reactionary, non-collegial, repressive, obsessed with sexuality, authoritarian, ultra-conservative. The church of the future will belong to those who share the views of those who belong to the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church.

 The Church has navigated through many strange waters over two thousand years. This is the first time, however, that it works its way through a para-church that lives in a kind of love-hate relationship with the host on which it feeds. [Most Reverend John R. Sheets, S.J., South Bend, Indiana]

HOME | CBCP News | Bishops | Jurisdictions | Commissions | CBCP Documents | Contact CBCP | General Info