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A letter to the Pope

"I would want to be a priest"

A letter to the Pope

Bernhard Häring

From The Tablet, 30th June 1990, pp. 841 - 843.

Reprinted on the Internet with permission from The Tablet. Address: 1 King Street Cloisters, Clifton Walk, London W6 0QZ UK. Tel: 44-20-8748 8484; fax: 44-20-8748 1550; email: thetablet@the tablet.co.uk.

We publish below in English translation a letter which the former professor of moral theology at the Gregorian University in Rome sent to the Pope in November 1988. It first appeared late last year in Fr Häring’s book, Meine Erfahrung mit der Kirche (My Experience with the Church). Fr Häring then let it be known to The Tablet that he hoped it would appear there in English.

Dear Father in Christ,

We have many reasons for loving you not just because of your high office but also because of your untiring enthusiasm for justice and peace, because of your closeness to those in need, and for many other reasons.

Love for your person, high esteem for your office and the responsibility we all share for handing on the faith to the critically-minded generation of today and to those who will come after us nevertheless compel me to express publicly my reservations about what I regard as your over emphasis on too rigorously interpreted norms in the field of sexual ethics.

Naturally like you we are aware of our duty to do what we can so that Christians may love and foster chastity. But it is precisely in this field: that the saying applies: “The bow is broken when drawn too tight”. If in this difficult field we demand even an iota more than we can reasonably justify from revelation or from reason inspired by faith, we lose credibility. Quite simply, we are no longer listened to.

I was shattered to read recently that among 6,000 readers of Weltbild, a journal that is very loyal and devoted to the Pope (Nos. 23 and 24, 4 and 28 November 1988) only 12 per cent of the faithful under 50 and only 25 per cent of those over 50 are ready to listen to the present papal teaching on questions of sexual morality, while in general the same people are fully prepared to value papal authority very highly on questions of faith and morals. Similar findings have resulted from surveys in other parts of the world.

Recently I had to listen to a large group of highly-qualified teachers of religion, men and women loyal to the Church, telling me how difficult it has been and still is for them to calm the waves caused by your address to moral theologians on 12 November 1988.

The headline in L’Osservatore Romano of 13 November 1988 is something one can and must agree with: “One cannot speak of a painstaking search for the truth if one does not take into account what the teaching office teaches.” But if this teaching authority of the Church becomes the battle-cry of intransigent people who boast about standing particularly close to the Pope, and if it becomes a weapon against those who resist far too strict an interpretation only on secondary points, then one does no good service to the Church, to its mission or even to the Petrine ministry.

I have before me the text of the lecture “Who is like the Lord our God?” given by Professor Mgr Carlo Caffarra to the congress of moral theologians which you paid particular honour to by receiving and addressing its participants. The level of scholarship is far below what is needed. It seems to call radically into question any attempt to justify or analyse moral norms on teleological grounds. On page 7 of the typescript we find: “That is why once man has raised himself to the ethical level he is no longer interested in detail or ultimately in the historical possibilities, consequences and results of his action: he is raised above such calculation.”

The first thing that has to be noted against a naive and indeed alarming misinterpretation of the teleological approach is that what is involved is in no way a calculation of utility but a careful weighing up of the consequences with regard to healthy and healing relationships, with regard to bearing fruit in love and peace in a context of solidarity. Caffarra’s statement comes in a context in which he uses very abstract ideas that are remote from life and unproved assertions concerning tradition in an effort to prove that the norm laid down by Humanae Vitae (the ban on artificial methods of birth control) does not admit of any exception in any case.

Along with virtually the entire tradition of the Eastern Churches and a large part of the Roman Catholic tradition, St Alphonsus Liguori taught that even in questions of the natural law there is room for epikeia (looking for the spirit of the law rather than the letter)(Theologia moralis l:I:tr.II, c.IV n. 201) By this he does not of course mean the highest norms of the commandment to love God and one’s neighbour that is inscribed in our hearts. Nevertheless he applies the possibility of epikeia explicitly to coitus interruptus, which at that time was the only non-magical method of birth control, and the cooperation of the wife who knows her husband is going to use this method. Like other moral theologians of that time he too teaches that coitus interruptus in itself contradicts the procreative sense of the marriage act and is therefore to be rejected. But he explicitly mentions cases in which couples have good reason to want the marriage act not to lead to conception. He too saw a high value in abstention, but nevertheless left open the possibility of epikeia for a just cause (iusta ex causa).

In his lecture to the congress of moral theologians, as in earlier statements, Carlo Caffarra does not distinguish whether in an actual situation procreation would be desirable or whether it would be irresponsible. As an example let us take the kind of case that I have repeatedly been faced with: because a woman has already given birth to children with genetic defects, she suffers from a pregnancy psychosis. Gynaecologists and psychiatrists are convinced that the woman can once again become capable of living a married life and can be restored to her family to help bring up her handicapped children if.through a combination of sterilisation and psychotherapy she can be freed from her psychotic fear. The strict moral theologian says “No”, on the ground that the woman’s reproductive organs are not diseased. In other cases that occur not infrequently, the rigorous insistence on the Church’s norms brings a marriage to breaking-point: in the actual case “natural family planning” is not applicable; the husband is alienated from his wife through her obedience to the Church and also from the Church in anger at its rigorism.

In such cases are all artificial methods of birth control proven to be absolutely immoral when what is ultimately involved is maintaining the mutual self-giving of marriage and the bond of loyalty?

According to Caffarra, whatever the situation may be, what is involved is nothing less than “an attack on God’s holiness” and the pride of wanting to be like God, and so on. How can one argue so simplistically? That is not the image of God which Jesus makes tangible and visible for us.

In your papal address to the participants in the congress who are presented to you by Mgr Caffarra, we find: “This moral norm does not allow of any exceptions: no personal or social circumstance has ever been, is or ever will be able to make such an act rightly ordered.” As far as I am concerned it is beyond question that there are moral prohibitions which do not admit of any exception. For example, torture can never ever be morally justified, especially when it is used to extort statements and confessions. Pius XII said that with great sorrow about an extremely inglorious earlier church tradition and the doctrinal statements of popes that supported it. Similarly it is at first sight obvious that rape and similar acts always offend against the moral law.

But does this also apply to the norm that every marriage act must be open to generation? To put it another way, are artificial means of controlling conception worthy of condemnation in all circumstances? The majority of moral theologians side with St Thomas Aquinas in teaching that the more complex and more remote from the supreme principle of love a derived moral norm is, the smaller is its degree of certainty and the less does it exclude the application of epikeia.

In the Augustinian tradition the norm of the actual openness of sexual intercourse to procreation was an absolute norm; and this was indeed on account of his pessimism with regard to sexuality. For him and his followers the sexual act counted as something degrading and shameful and thus needed to be excused and made moral (excusatio, cohonestatio) by the direct intention of procreation. But today one can no longer appeal to this tradition. Rather, it should make us careful about what we say.

How can one expect the critically minded people of today and even devout Christians to accept the statement that in the interpretation of the norm laid down by Humanae Vitae every exception (all epikeia) must be absolutely excluded, and then put forward the statement: “In reality what is called into question by the rejection of this teaching is the very idea of the holiness of God” (address of 12 November 1988)?

Furthermore, we are shaken to have to face the question whether one can really say of the norm of Humanae Vitae when interpreted so strictly that “it has been inscribed by the creative hand of God and has been confirmed by him in revelation”. Where can such a confirmation be found? If indeed we consider how many good and intelligent Christians inside and outside the Catholic Church simply cannot join in deducing such a rigorous interpretation and how they find scandalous, indeed offensive, the thought-models, methods of argument and imputations of guilt proposed by Carlo Caffarra and others, then one should not teach in so undifferentiated and simplistic a way: “To call it into question is thus equivalent to refusing to God himself the obedience of our intelligence” (the same papal address of 12 November 1988).

Immense questions concerning the history of the exercise of the teaching office by the popes are thrown up by the following stricture against any analysis of statements of this kind: “Because the Church’s teaching office has been instituted to enlighten the conscience, any appeal to this conscience in order to contest the truth of what has been taught by the magisterium involves the rejection of the Catholic concept both of the magisterium and of the moral conscience” (from the same address).

The critically-minded person and indeed precisely the devout Christian who is very devoted and loyal to the Church and to the successor of Peter needs to subject such a statement to historical analysis and questioning, perhaps by trying to put this question: “Has anyone who has subjected to analysis and question, by appealing to conscience, the teaching of Boniface VIII and several of his successors about the plenary powers of the pope over all secular realms and spheres thereby rejected at least by implication the Catholic concept both of the magisterium and of conscience?”

If only one particular theological tendency is accepted in the Vatican, and indeed with such severity as in the case of the congress of moral theologians organized by Carlo Caffarra, then for all of us innumerable and very painful questions are raised.

On the other hand, the more collegially the Petrine ministry is able to encourage the diversity of cultures and traditions and the quest of the different theological cultures, the greater will be the trust the Petrine ministry instils in us all. But if the pope is directly drawn into intransigent interpretations and the most shocking kinds of argumentation, then we are all plunged into a crisis and are compelled by our loyalty to the Church to express our distress and agony.

The shocking nature of the present crisis is demonstrated above all in the field of papal teaching on sexual morality, where people react most sensitively. But in my view much more serious is the danger that as a consequence of the present intensification of polarisation, if the pope himself is primarily involved in his own person, then the teaching office of the pope and the bishops can ultimately no longer develop its full potential even on quite central questions of our faith. And yet the present generation’s poverty of faith is already so great!

Dear Father in Christ,

I am an old man who already has more than one foot in the grave. I love my Church passionately and I also love the successor of Peter. And to my eyes there are many reasons that make him worth loving. In order to be able to await God’s mercy with confidence in the hour of death, I have throughout my life been concerned to follow a compassionate and merciful moral theology and pastoral practice. Married couples in their distress must be aware of the balm of compassionate love. In thousands of letters and in hearing thousands of confessions I have learnt the extent to which good Christians are grievously hurt by rigorism in sexual matters.

Harsh formulations such as those favoured by Carlo Caffarra and his allies hurt people and reopen old wounds. They make the ministry of healing and saving love more difficult for all of us. If, for example, we hear Carlo Caffarra say triumphantly that at the ethical level one does not need to bother in any way with foreseeable consequences, then we can only weep and pray when we are asked what we have to say to that.

These and other considerations have compelled me to pour my heart out to you. If you should feel yourself injured by what I have said, I ask your pardon.

“The pope’s teaching office”, a phrase now so often used, should not become a battle-cry of the Church’s intransigent hussars and as a result become for many others an incomprehensible myth.

Thus I remain in the love of the most sacred heart of Jesus your obedient servant.

Gars am Inn, 1 December 1988

Bernhard Häring

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