Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(3) August 2017

Bernard Haring and his Medical Ethics

Dr Pravin Thevathasan

In November 2016, Pope Francis praised the German moral theologian Bernard Haring (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, Haring was one of those who unsuccessfully tried to persuade Pope Paul VI not to condemn contraception. When the Pope later went ahead and condemned it in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, Haring 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.

Haring worked hard to erode many of the core principles of medical ethics. In his 1973 book Medical Ethics, Haring 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 Haring, 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.

Haring 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 Haring, 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.

Haring also developed arguments to defend the commission of intrinsically evil acts. According to Haring, 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 Haring, 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. Haring was also a proponent of the fundamental option theory: as long as I make a basic choice in favour 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 Haring 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 Haring, 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 Haring might have become a great moral theologian. Unfortunately, he imbibed a little too much of the spirit of of the sixties and (perhaps aided at least a little by the widespread hope that Vatican II would change Church teaching) 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 for Haring, those who disagreed with him were met with his favoured accusation of “legalism”.

In the end, if Haring is right, then Veritatis Splendor is wrong (and vice versa). Haring is indeed wrong. As Philip Trower put it so well many years ago: "With existentialism as the acid, Fr Haring is dissolving Catholic moral theology the way Rahner is dissolving dogmatic theology”.