Take and Read: The Law of Christ

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by Charles E. Curran

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Editor's note: "Take and Read" is NCRonline's newest blog series. It will feature each week a contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."

"Take and Read" will be published every Monday at http://ncronline.org/feature-series/take-and-read.

The Law of Christ: Moral Theology for Priests and Laity
by Bernard Häring

(The Mercier Press, 1963)

For me, Bernard Häring's The Law of Christ was the most important book I have ever read. We all recognize, however, that the most important book we have ever read depends heavily on what we were looking for at the time we read it.

Here was my situation and mindset at the time I first read The Law of Christ. I was finishing my theological studies at the North American College in Rome in the spring of 1959. I had been ordained a priest in Rome in 1958 for the diocese of Rochester, New York. In early spring, I received a letter from my bishop saying that I was to come back to Rome in the fall of 1959 to pursue a doctorate in moral theology at the Gregorian University to prepare me to teach moral theology at St. Bernard's Seminary in Rochester.

As a seminarian, I had studied moral theology at the Gregorian University with well-known and distinguished moralists such as the German Jesuit Franz Hurth and the American Jesuit Edwin Healy. I enjoyed their classes in which they basically followed the purpose of the manuals of moral theology in preparing seminarians for their role as confessors by knowing what acts are sinful and the degree of sinfulness. The ethical model was a legal one -- law was the objective norm of morality. In addition, Josef Fuchs also taught me in two courses, and he pointed out that the approach of the manuals was not the only possible approach to moral theology. (In those days I did not know Fuchs very well, but later we became quite close.)

With this background in the spring of 1959, I started thinking about my future studies and how I wanted to teach moral theology. At this time a friend pointed out to me the three-volume Italian translation (La Legge di Cristo) of Häring's work which was originally published in German in 1954. The Italian translation had just been published in the period of 1957-1959. The English translation of The Law of Christ was published only in 1963.

The Law of Christ opened my eyes and my mind to see a new approach to moral theology. The very subtitle of the work -- Moral Theology for Priests and Laity indicates that the focus was on the moral life as a whole and not just on what acts were sinful and the degree of sinfulness. The very first chapter of The Law of Christ insists that responsibility, not law or commandment, is the focal center of Catholic moral teaching. The basis for the importance of responsibility is found in the very understanding of religion itself. Häring had written his own doctoral dissertation on the understanding of the Holy and the Good. Religion has the essential character of response to the loving coming of the Holy One. The essential religious form of response and responsibility to the Holy brings about a truly religious ethic. For Christians the I-Thou relationship of intimacy with God flows from the Word of God who is God made flesh. God comes to us in Christ, and we respond in Christ to God's gift. However, this Christian personalism is not narrow individualism. Yes, God calls us personally by name (Häring frequently insisted in his classes on this fact), but in God's presence we also find our neighbor and the way to fellowship and community in the Church and the broader human society.

In this first chapter, Häring goes on to examine the most significant moral concepts in light of this criterion of responsibility. Commandment and law must be understood as religious concepts. The commandments of God are words of divine love addressed to us in the great commandment of love; the fulfillment of the command is the response of obedient love. Such an approach differs from the manualistic concept of law, which is based on the sovereign will of God and not on the all holy essence or nature of a loving God.

The three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love must be seen in light of a response-relationship with God. The virtue of religion is our response to the majesty of God, our creator and father. The other moral virtues do not directly and immediately respond to God, since they are directly concerned with the created order. The believer, however, detects in the order of creation the loving work of the Lord and creator, and thus this relationship with all that God made is grounded in the personal relationship with God in Christ Jesus. The manuals of theology had paid very little attention to virtues. In fact, in treating virtues they treated the sinful acts that go against the virtues!

Reading further in the book, I recognized that Häring also appealed to value theory and value experience as proposed by Max Scheler and Dietrich von Hildebrand to ground the theory of responsibility. A profound difference exists between mere theoretical knowledge of the law that something must be done or avoided and insight into value as the basis of response and obligation. The deepest knowledge of value arises from an intimate connaturality with the good. All values are rooted in the basic value, which for the believer is the loving God. The specific types of value include the various virtues.

The manuals almost completely neglected scripture except for an occasional proof text—the scriptures were used to support a position that had already been arrived at primarily by human reason. But Häring sees scripture as the basis for developing moral theology. The title of the whole work is taken from Romans 8:2, which is quoted on the title page of the first volume -- "For the law of the Spirit of the life in Christ Jesus has delivered me from the law of sin and death." Unlike the manuals, Häring insisted on the theological character of moral theology. The first page in the foreword to volume I begins with a sentence: "The principle, the norm, the center, and the goal of Christian moral theology is Christ." I later came to realize that Häring's approach to Christology was what was called a Christology from above. Christ is the Word of God who comes to us as the God-Man with the Father's love. We, then, are also joined with Christ in responding to the gift of the Father. Other Christologies begin with the human and historical Jesus, but Häring sees Jesus the Christ as the mediator bringing God to human beings and bringing us to God.

The manuals of moral theology usually devoted a separate volume to the sacraments, but the treatment was almost totally canonical -- what is necessary for the valid and licit administration and reception of the sacraments. The Law of Christ does not have a separate volume covering all the sacraments. Volume 2 discusses life in fellowship with God, and here Häring treats the sacraments in general under the development of the virtue of religion. For Häring, religion is a living dialogue between God and the human person. The sacraments are the most intimate and personal encounter with God. The sacraments, however, do not involve just the narrow I-Thou relationship to God. They are essentially a social reality uniting us with all the members of the mystical body of Christ.

After reading the Italian translation of The Law of Christ in spring 1959, I learned that Häring was then teaching at the Academia Alphonsiana in Rome. At that time the Alphonsiana could not give doctoral degrees, but in 1960 they were given the right to confer the ecclesiastical doctorate in moral theology. My bishop insisted that I get my degree in moral theology from the Gregorian University, but in the fall of 1959 I also enrolled for classes at the Alphonsiana. In the next two years, I took four classes with Häring. His Latin lectures were stunning and stimulating. I invited a good number of my fellow students from the graduate house of the North American College to come and listen to him. To a person, they were greatly impressed. From Häring and other professors at the Alphonsiana I learned a new approach to moral theology, which I tried to develop when I started teaching at St. Bernard's Seminary in the 1961-62 school year.

My relationship with and respect for Häring grew with the years. I was the person who first brought him to the United States to give lectures. Later he lectured and gave retreats all over the United States to say nothing of doing the same thing in practically all parts of the world, especially Africa and Asia. I came to the conclusion in the late 1960s that Häring's tremendous involvement in spirituality and working for reform in the Church meant that he would probably never again publish as important a theology book as The Law of Christ.

Looking back, I do not think that The Law of Christ is a classic. It is a transitional work that probably will not be read very much in the future. Most Catholic moral theologians, however, would agree that it was the most important book in moral theology in the twentieth century, because of its influence in changing the approach to moral theology even before the Second Vatican Council. 

[Charles E. Curran, a priest of Rochester, N.Y., diocese, is the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.]

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