Bernard Haring, 85, Is Dead; Challenged Catholic Morality
By BARBARA STEWART
Published: July 11, 1998
The Rev. Bernard Haring, a Roman Catholic scholar who influenced the sweeping modernization of Vatican II by emphasizing a moral theology of Christian love rather than the cataloguing of sins, died July 3 at a German monastery. He was 85.
The cause was a stroke, according to the Catholic News Service.
For centuries, moral theology -- the study of the morality of human actions -- had concentrated on sin: the causes, characteristics, degrees and consequences of the gamut of wrongdoing. Beginning with ''The Law of Christ,'' several volumes published in 1954, Father Haring pioneered a much broader approach that became the standard in Catholic seminaries and universities.
For Catholics, the result, said one theologian, was a new definition of how to live a Christian life. Later, his criticism of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II and of their conservative stances on birth control and other sexual issues provoked an investigation by church officials from which he was exonerated.
''He emphasized the positive,'' said the Rev. Richard A. McCormick, a Jesuit professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. ''He emphasized the aggressive following of Christ. He said that the heart of moral life is charity to one's neighbor.''
''The Law of Christ,'' he added, was ''ground breaking, revolutionary.'' His teachings were a touchstone when the changes of Vatican II were debated in the 1960's. Father Haring, a priest of the Redemptorist Order who taught moral theology at the Alphonsian Academy in Rome from 1950 to 1986, was a member of several Vatican II councils.
''He was up most nights advising bishops who came to him,'' said the Rev. Richard McBrien, who studied with him in Rome during the 1960's and now teaches theology at Notre Dame. ''He always looked so tired at his lectures in the morning.''
As the man some people called the most important moral theologian of the century, Father Haring was at first a most reluctant student. The son of a German peasant, he entered the priesthood hoping to be a missionary. Conscripted as an army medic during World War II, he offered Communion to the faithful though he had been forbidden from performing priestly functions.
After his ordination, he was dismayed when his superior asked him to teach moral theology. ''I told my superior that this was my very last choice because I found the teaching of moral theology an absolute crushing bore,'' he wrote in ''My Witness for the Church,'' written in the 1970's. ''He mollified me with the answer: '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.' ''
One difference was his ecumenical attitude toward other faiths. He studied Protestant theologians. He taught at Brown University, Union Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School -- all non-Catholic institutions and led annual retreats for Protestants in Washington. During the 1960's, when he taught at Catholic University of America, students crowded into his classes, eager to hear the fresh and supple religious ideas that were replacing the church's rigid and traditional approaches.
''All of us dislike a fellow who always speaks to us and never listens,'' he told Catholic University students in 1964. ''If the church doesn't listen to the world, then the world will never listen to the church.''
During Vatican II, he helped draft statements saying that Christians have an obligation to cultivate an appreciation of beauty, to participate in cultural events, and to help the poor. ''We must learn that to be a Catholic means to see the needs of all men.''
For Catholics who had grown up thinking the obligations of Christianity consisted of stepping around a complicated web of sins, this was a vast and exciting thought. Today, said Charles E. Curran, a Catholic moral theology professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, these views of the subject are widespread. The older teaching of the fine points of sin has virtually disappeared.
After Pope Paul VI issued ''Humanae Vitae,'' the declaration forbidding Catholics to use birth control, Father Haring was one of the most prominent dissenters. He was investigated by church officials, but was not charged with any offenses.
''Nothing ever came of it,'' Father McCormick said. ''They just harrassed him.''