Pope Francis and Bernard Häring: The literally infernal cheek of dissent

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 07, 2017

During his discussions with the General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in November, Pope Francis praised the Redemptorist theologian, Fr. Bernard Häring, for being one of the first to try to revive an ailing moral theology following the Second Vatican Council. This was reported at the time, but I was focused on other matters and did not remark upon it.

Francis alluded to the casuistry into which moral theology had deteriorated by the first half of the twentieth century. Actually, this was an approach originally perfected by the Jesuits themselves, though the Pope was by no means wrong to note its drawbacks. In the sense in which Pope Francis lamented casuistry, it refers to the resolution of moral problems by the application of theoretical rules to particular instances. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. In fact, it is very necessary to apply the fundamental principles of the moral law to specific cases.

But a problem arises when this develops into the major thrust or primary focus of moral theology, which cannot truly thrive without a constant faithful reflection on the Divine Word—a prayerful study which penetrates ever more deeply into the beauty and goodness of God Himself, and of His love for us. Without this, an excessively prescriptive emphasis led to priests being taught their moral theology from the infamous “manuals”, which so often summarized practical conclusions without inviting spiritual perception and depth.

To give a simplistic example, one might attempt in 1950 to apply Catholic rules of morality to figure out how long unmarried persons of the opposite sex could sustain a kiss before it become mortally sinful. Since then, we have invented far more bizarre questions, but as a kid in a CCD class around 1959 or so, I really was taught the famous three-second rule by one of the nuns. (Later, my wife and I adapted the three-second rule to the question of how long food could remain on the floor before our children were no longer allowed to eat it, but that is neither here nor there.) In any case, it is obvious that at some point we need to get beyond rules-based behavior and begin to grasp God’s astonishingly fecund goodness, and how that goodness is expressed in human sexuality, and what it means in this divine/human context to become serenely and beautifully chaste—that is, to live in grace.

So perhaps as far as this particular criticism goes, we can say “fair enough”.

A cure that only spread the disease

Unfortunately, to stick with the Jesuits for a moment longer, they had long since developed the reputation for using “casuistry” not so much to delineate sin as to explain it away. In the previous century, with notions such as the theory of mental reservation, they had offended Protestants who were simply unused to a close parsing of moral dilemmas, but as time went on they (and many other academics who imitated the worst of them) seriously offended all those who strive to love God, as they do to this day in universities such as Georgetown. It was the Jesuits themselves who ultimately saddled casuistry with its more common popular meaning: “The use of clever but unsound reasoning, especially in relation to moral questions.” In other words, sophistry.

It is certainly true that the development of la nouvelle theologie, with its insistence on returning to the sources to revivify theology—to Scripture and the Fathers—was a wonderful thing in the work of such men as de Lubac, Congar, von Balthasar, Wojtyla, Ratzinger and many others, including philosophers such as Maritain and Gilson. But we must not kid ourselves. As a movement it was derailed easily and often by a great many who, in the name of renewed insight, simply adopted the values of the dominant secular culture which no longer took religion seriously at all.

I will not belabor the point, but there can hardly be an honest Christian left who does not realize that the dominant academic theology from the 1960s on was characterized chiefly by a reckless enthusiasm for making Catholic faith and morals “relevant” by accommodating it to worldly values. This was so obvious as soon as the so-called sexual revolution took place that it became clear that the revisioning had been going on behind closed doors for quite a long time. What we have all witnessed is nothing less than an enthusiasm for worldly values beneath a Christian veneer, a serious temptation which twisted the hearts of the innumerable Catholic academics who embraced Modernism—and of the majority of their students.

The legacy of Bernard Häring

The era to which Pope Francis referred when he acclaimed the work of Bernard Häring, was the period which morphed quickly into and encompassed the 1960s and 1970s. Fr. Häring, as I learned very quickly (and quite on my own) as soon as I went off to college in 1966, was one of the ringleaders of the so-called “new morality” (which was adopted with far more enthusiasm than the new math, and at about the same time). He was hardly breathing new life into moral theology. Instead, he was stripping it of its relationship to Divine Revelation—the very thing which makes authentic Christian theology possible in the first place. Bernard Häring and thousands like him, from Hans Küng to Charles Curran, sought not God but professional relevance in a faithless world. Refusing to be constrained by what Our Lord had revealed and His Church had defined, they claimed instead that the Holy Spirit enabled the fairly cohesive fraternity of academic “experts” alone to discern the real truth.

It goes without saying that the Holy Spirit was widely applauded for teaching what the secular world had already discovered! Häring himself was among the most vocal dissenters from infallible Catholic teaching, such as the deep truths authoritatively set forth during his own professional life in Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI and in Veritatis Splendor by Pope John Paul II. His utter ruin as a Catholic thinker is so obvious that, however one interprets his motives (and I grant that only God can know them perfectly), we are forced to conclude that anyone who would praise him as one of the first to give Catholic moral theology new life in the twentieth century must be ignorant, confused, or subversive.

This was brought home to me late last week when I received an email from Dr. Pravin Thevathasan, a well-known consulting psychiatrist who has written widely on medical ethics, including for Humanum, which is the quarterly review of the John Paul II Institute’s Office of Cultural and Pastoral Formation in Washington, DC. He also maintains a page highlighting his work on the Christendom Awake website managed by Mark Alder in the United Kingdom.

In his email, Dr. Thevathasan called attention to Pope Francis’ praise of Bernard Häring and noted that he had just posted a brief essay on the Christendom Awake site addressing the problem represented by such praise. He gave permission for adding it to CatholicCulture.org’s library; see Bernard Häring and his Medical Ethics. It is amazingly concise, and well worth reading. Among other things, you will learn:

In his 1973 book Medical Ethics, Häring defended sterilization, contraception and artificial insemination. He also suggested that the human embryo does not become a person until the twenty-fifth day…. Häring also wanted a change in the teachings of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage, regarding it as inflicting “cruel hardships on the young.” …According to Häring, under difficult circumstances, we may engage in a process of discernment which leads us to the commission of intrinsically evil acts. [emphasis added]

Since I turned eighteen and went off to college in 1966, my temper has been constantly provoked and my heart repeatedly broken by the infernal swagger with which so many representatives of the Church take advantage of the incomparable forbearance of Our Blessed Lord. I find it very hard to remember, in the face of such scandal, how much we all benefit from that Divine forbearance. Yet we cannot survive spiritually unless we do remember, for spiritual strength is inseparable from humility.

This, you see, is the very lesson which dissenters against the Magisterium established by Jesus Christ cannot learn while still remaining in their intellectual sins. It is so simple, and yet so very difficult, especially for academics: “Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto Thine.”

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 10 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Mar. 13, 2017 11:34 PM ET USA

    Praise God for Jerome Lejune! ...and the many like him who continue the good fight. Thank you, Dr. Jeff. Very good.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Mar. 09, 2017 9:58 AM ET USA

    Thus, Jesus Christ rigid, fundamentalist and a Pharisee, Bernard Harring flexible and full of mercy. If he were alive today, a good candidate for a red hat.

  • Posted by: shrink - Mar. 09, 2017 7:26 AM ET USA

    Very thoughtful analysis. There is a complementary analysis in the spirit of Gregory Baum. Simply ask Häring how many times a week he masturbates, and we may have an answer to the origins of his "moral theology". If his sex organs are his idol, he is most certainly not worshiping God. [Posted by JAM despite its frankness, because the question really is apt and shrink really is a very sharp Catholic psychologist, with the proviso, of course, that Häring died in 1998, and both of us hope that repentance has enabled him to truly rest in peace.]

  • Posted by: WNS3234 - Mar. 08, 2017 11:21 PM ET USA

    Swagger is a good term for us priests whose arrogance is held in high esteem across the spectrum of ecclesial matters. Bright men with "the pride of life" throbbing through our veins fail to grasp how toxic that is. I was weaned on Revisionist Moral principles in the seminary and happily those professors explained the hazards. It wasn't until Pope John Paul II took to task the "so-called fundamental option " of Josef Fuchs that a faithful Christocentric moral anthropology flourished.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Mar. 08, 2017 1:45 AM ET USA

    Carefully connecting the dots gives a very ugly picture. Pope Francis might be saying "all the right things" at his Angelus' and elsewhere but his actions focus and concentrate on what amounts to the family. He gives explicit support to the secular forces that seek to dismantle it as a social unit and that support encourages, as always, a chorus of like-minded or, even worse, more morally derelict thinkers. Either he has a grip on mercy beyond all of us or he is morphing into the image of the...

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 07, 2017 9:56 PM ET USA

    "Anyone who would praise him as one of the first to give Catholic moral theology new life in the twentieth century must be ignorant, confused, or subversive." Very courageous statement, and spot on. A relevant question is the following: Was Christ the Son of God, a mental retard, or a liar? One's world view determines his answer to your well-founded assertion and to the question asked. If Christ is the Son of God, then it is our most solemn duty to overcome our ignorance, confusion, and dissent.

  • Posted by: jackbene3651 - Mar. 07, 2017 9:45 PM ET USA

    There is a limit to the damage that Pope Francis can do. I am just waiting for the day when he converts to Catholicism or is forced out of the papacy by his peers or by God.

  • Posted by: jtlebherz3705 - Mar. 07, 2017 9:19 PM ET USA

    Wow!! Wouldn't...couldn't add a thing. Thank you Dr. Mirus.

  • Posted by: susana8577 - Mar. 07, 2017 8:38 PM ET USA

    Wow! Thank you!

  • Posted by: mary_conces3421 - Mar. 07, 2017 8:32 PM ET USA

    Keep on telling it as it is, Dr. Mirus. It is so disheartening to me that discredited ideas & people seem to be enjoying a new vogue in Rome when they have already done so much harm.