Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Bernard Häring and his Medical Ethics

by Pravin Thevathasan


A brief examination of the correspondence of ideas between Pope Francis and a theologian he has praised, Bernard Häring, who was well-known as a moral theologian who dissented strongly from a number of Catholic teachings.

Publisher & Date

Christendom Awake (United Kingdom), March 2017

In November 2016, Pope Francis praised the German moral theologian Bernard Häring (1912-1998) as “the first to start looking for a new way to help moral theology flourish again.” As these observations are not an expression of the papal magisterium, one might respectfully disagree on this matter.

As an expert during the Second Vatican Council, Häring was one of those who successfully persuaded Pope Paul VI not to condemn contraception. When the Pope later went ahead and condemned it in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, Häring became one of the leading dissenters in the Church, along with his disciple Charles Curran. He was later famously critical of Pope Saint John Paul in general and the great encyclical Veritatis Splendor in particular. It is therefore of concern that attempts are now being made to rehabilitate him.

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. His argument in defending sterilization is that it may be done if there are proportionate reasons for doing so: if sterilization is for the long-term emotional good of husband and wife, for example. For Häring, we should not consider such things as intrinsically evil acts, only the lesser of two evils. As we read his work, we cannot help but note his consistent dismantling of the natural moral law tradition in medical ethics. Anyone who disagrees with him is accused of “legalism”, a favourite expression of his.

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.” He even claimed that Natural Family Planning runs the risk of causing the births of physically and mentally defective babies, a patently absurd observation.

For Häring, our moral formation depends on our encounter with the Gospels and insights from the new psychology or, at least, what was new at the time. If he sounds somewhat Lutheran, he indeed identified his ethics with that of James Gustafson, a pro-abortion Protestant ethicist.

According to Häring, under difficult circumstances, we may engage in a process of discernment which leads us to the commission of intrinsically evil acts. This acceptance of immorality is by the liberal use of epikeia, that is, the lenient interpretation of the moral law in hard cases.

It is therefore hardly surprising that he had an almost physical aversion to Veritatis Splendor: the encyclical stood for just about everything he detested in the Church. Although contraception is hardly mentioned in the encyclical, it is clear that it is regarded as intrinsically evil and may not therefore be seen as the lesser evil under a given set of (difficult) circumstances. It becomes a matter of course to turn any given case into a hard case.

For Häring, conscience is an absolute and what is true for you may not be true for me. What matters is the existential, hence subjective, experience of truth. As Saint John Paul so brilliantly responded, the idea of subjective truth completely contradicts the idea of truth itself.

Häring was also a proponent of the fundamental option theory: as long as I make a basic choice in favor of God, my individual moral acts do not change my basic God-centered orientation. Little wonder, then, that for those who followed this line of thinking, confession became more or less redundant. The theory was condemned in Veritatis Splendor.

The Catholic commentator Philip Trower writes: “The claim is made that Fr Häring has put ‘the person of Christ’ at the center of moral theology. What he has actually put there is existentialist man, who after ‘encountering Christ’, and committing himself to Christ ‘in love’ is supposedly free to decide for himself as circumstances arise what the law of Christ allows-mortal sin, if he so wishes.” And so,were we to follow the teachings of Häring, a person may go to Holy Communion while engaging in an on-going adulterous union in Malta. Or receive the sacraments while determined to go ahead with euthanasia in some parts of Canada.

Perhaps Häring might have become a great moral theologian. Unfortunately, he imbibed a little too much of the [so-called] spirit of Vatican II and he became a revisionist theologian whose opinions contradict the teachings of the Church. Towards the end of his life, he had dreams of a democratic Church led by a democratic Pope and of a time when both men and women could be ordained to the priesthood. But, of course, the “progressives” had to be in control: dialogue is all well and good but power must come first.

If Häring is right, then Veritatis Splendor is wrong and vice versa. Two and two do not make five: Häring is indeed wrong. As Philip Trower put it so well many years ago: “With existentialism as the acid, Fr Häring is dissolving Catholic moral theology the way Rahner is dissolving dogmatic theology.”


Medical Ethics, Bernard Häring, St Pauls, 1972
The Church Learned and the Revolt of the Scholars, Philip Trower, The Wanderer Press, 1979
“Some Early Reactions to Veritatis Splendor”, Richard McCormick, Theological Studies, 55 (1994)
Human Existence, Medicine and Ethics, William May, Franciscan Herald Press, 1977
The Way of the Lord Jesus: Christian Moral Principles, Germain Grisez, Franciscan Press, 1983

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