Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Charles Curran Remembers Bernard Häring: "Hope Even in the Midst of Darkness"

At National Catholic Reporter, moral theologian Fr. Charles Curran offers a loving remembrance of his mentor Fr. Bernard Häring, who would have turned 100 on 10 November if he were still living.  Curran sees in Häring a lesson in hope:

In the last few years I have often been encouraged by the witness of Bernard Häring. A defensive centralization continues to mark the attitude of the Vatican to any attempts to bring about change. John Paul II recognized there was a crisis in moral theology because many moral theologians today dissent from papal teaching. But the popes have adamantly fought such change and even taken punitive action against those who have dissented on matters that are not essential to the Catholic faith. Meanwhile all of us have seen family and friends leave the Catholic church because of its intransigence. Many people have asked me if I see any signs of hope in the church today. I remind them and myself that hope is not hope if you see it in front of you. St. Paul tells us that hope is hoping against hope. Hope is believing in light in the midst of darkness and life in the midst of death. 
Bernard Häring was truly a person of hope. He faced death many times in World War II. He almost died in operations trying to cure his throat cancer. The person who spoke in more languages to more people in all parts of the world than any other theologian, preacher or missionary later had his vocal cords removed and had to learn to speak from the esophagus, which was not easy both for him and for his listeners. In the last years of his life he experienced the return of a centralization and authoritarianism he thought had been vanquished by Vatican II. 
Häring's witness of critical love for the church, his forthrightness, and his hope even in the midst of darkness enabled him to continue the struggle for church reform. His witness gives hope and strength to all.

In some respects, the process Curran is describing in the first paragraph above is the same process of implosion that Robert Mickens describes in the video to which I linked yesterday.   Mickens notes that the intransigence of the current pope re: any shift at all in the absolute monarchy that governs the Catholic church is a root cause of the current implosion of the Catholic church.  As does Curran above, Mickens notes the precipitous exodus of Catholics from the Catholic church in the developed sectors of the world.

As this exodus accelerates, Rome refuses to budge.  Even a bit.  In fact, it doubles down (as Mickens notes) on the outward signs of resplendent monarchy by retrieving outmoded ecclesiastical garb designed to set the clerical caste further apart from lay Catholics.  More silk!  Additional lace!  Bigger hats!  Redder red!

Surely someone will notice all of this and will recognize that we are men of consequence not to be disregarded!  Men to be feared as we prance about in our bigger hats, yards and yards of lace, scads of silk, and redder reds . . . . 

And so hope?  As Curran notes, it wouldn't be hope if it were right there in front of us to see and pick up with our hands.  Hope is believing against darkness, asserting life against the claims of death.

As I read Curran's testimony to all that Häring offered the Catholic church through his moral theology that sought to reground post-Vatican II moral theology in the witness of scripture and patristic sources of which the manual tradition had lost sight, I can't help but recall Häring's commentary on John Paul II's encyclical Veritatis Splendor.

In an essay entitled "A Distrust That Wounds," which was published in the British journal The Tablet (vol. 247 [23 Oct. 1993], pp. 1378-9), and later republished by John Wilkins in a volume entitled Understanding Veritatis Splendor (London: SPCK, 1994), Häring states that after he finished reading Veritatis Splendor, he suffered brain seizures and looked forward hopefully to leaving the church on earth for the church in heaven.  After he had recovered from his initial response, he managed to recover composure and even hope--but remained critically aware of the pain that the encyclical was going to inflict on many people.

Häring writes:

Veritatis Splendor contains many beautiful things.  But almost all real splendor is lost when it becomes evident that the whole document is directed above all towards one goal: to endorse total assent and submission to all utterances of the Pope, and above all on one critical point: that the use of any artificial means for regulating birth is intrinsically evil and sinful, without exception, even in circumstances where contraception would be a lesser evil.

And then Häring adds,

We should let the Pope know that we are wounded by the many signs of his rooted distrust, and discouraged by the manifold structures of distrust which he has allowed to be established. We need him to soften towards us, the whole Church needs it. Our witness to the world needs it. The urgent call to effective ecumenism needs it.

As Robert Mickens notes in his analysis of the implosion now occurring in the Catholic church, the very high price that the Catholic church pays for the decision of its leaders (from John Paul through Benedict) to double down on the style of absolute monarchy in their governance of the church is the inability to function effectively as a sacramental sign of the incarnation in the world.  Our witness to the world needs it, as Bernard Häring puts the point . . . . 

The incarnation was, at its very core, about the free choice of an all-loving, all-redeeming, all-healing God to take human flesh and enter the world of human misery to embody love, redemption, and healing in a way that catches the entire cosmos up in the divine act of redemptive love.  Bernard Häring's moral theology flows from this central biblical insight.

It is far less clear to me that, with its heavy emphasis on absolute, coercive papal authority, the moral theology defended by John Paul II and Benedict and imposed on the church as a whole moves in a similar direction.  And this is why Catholics are now leaving the Catholic church in droves.

And so I return to the question: And hope?  It depends, surely, on the choice of the monarchial rulers of the Catholic to disavow the imperial style and the coercive, bullying techniques of absolute monarchy in which the last two popes have invested so much.

Or, failing this willingness on the part of the men ruling the church, it lies in the precipitous exodus of believers from an institution grown so rotten that it no longer faithfully embodies its fundamental incarnational impulse.  And it lies in the implosion of structures grown so rotten that they are now destructive to the humanity of many people in both the church and the world at large, and so these structures absolutely have to fall apart, if the Catholic church is ever effectively again to communicate God's all-embracing, all-redeeming, all-healing love in the world.

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