In his lifetime, Bernard Haring was a revered theologian, but he was controversial as well. He played a significant role in the Second Vatican Council where he was well received, but his later writings, particularly his writings concerning moral theology have been labeled by some to be too liberal, and others view his writings as nothing short of heretical. None the less he persevered in spite of the controversy surrounding him and contributed a great deal to the faith.
One of his last works is called Priesthood Impaired, and it was published in 1996, shortly before his death. In the book the reader will see his great love for the priesthood, but also a critical examination of a ministry in need of change and revitalization. The book is part historical, part theological, and very personal. His concerns are not all that surprising. Naturally he looks at priestly celibacy as an issue, but he also wonders if the lack of attention paid to the priesthood during Vatican II is due in part to today's problems. Other issues in his book include the outdated model of priesthood stemming from the 19th century model, and how this model can often keep priests from their true vocation. Inadequate seminary training is also a concern. Still, the readers can see he loves both the priesthood and the Church, so the book seems more hope filled rather than just an analysis of difficulties.
Since the book was published in 1996, many of the problems facing today's Catholic Church are not specifically addressed, and some could disagree with some of his claims, particularly that clericalism is long gone. Still, the book deserves reexamination. One interesting note is a story that he includes about a German priest who opposed the Nazis. The Nazis threatened to expose his relationship with a woman and his love child. Rather than be intimidated, the priest admitted his transgression to the congregation, which in turn forgave him. Haring was calling for transparency in the Church before the crisis which I suppose puts him more in the category of prophet rather than critic.
Father Bernard Haring is a prolific author on ethical and moral issues, the state of society and the state of the church today. He has given his vast experience and critical insight into this wonderful book, Priesthood Imperiled. Fr. Haring was a professor of moral theology for 25 years at the Lateran University in Rome, as well as having taught at Yale, Brown, Fordham, Georgetown, and Temple universities. The author of more than 80 books, this book is perhaps an eloquent coda on all that he has published and taught before.
Joan Chittister describes this book as
'...a beautiful piece of applied gospel. Its major value, perhaps, lies in the fact that it doesn't come out of theological theory; it comes out of Father Haring's own life. He is what he speaks. But more than that, his book is such a sign of hope for the rest of us.'
This is a very candid book, that explores what is right and what is wrong with the priesthood, or, to be more specific, with particular views of the priesthood, from the inside and outside. He examines the following questions:
'What was the intent of Jesus? Does the priesthood today look like anything Jesus would have actually envisioned or instituted?
How has the idea and enacting of priesthood changed over time, particularly over the past generation?
What attracts people to the priesthood in the first place, and should this be changed?'
Arguing strongly against the tendencies toward elitism and careerism in the priesthood, present those whose vocations were formed both before and after the changes instituted by the Second Vatican Council, he looks for a stronger, more personally connected, more servant-leadership model that the church can truly embrace as the exemplar of priestly character.
'Priests who are not persons for others are living contradictions of their calling.'
Perhaps in no other statement in his book does Haring embrace the idea that Jesus was calling for in the world of discipleship and service. So often in education and formation of ministers of every denomination, the tendency away from actual practice of ministry toward either academic concentration or leadership emphasis takes people away from their true calling.
'Knowing about poverty and living it are two different things. Becoming a disciple of the Son of Man requires that we meditate daily in the here and now, in our lived context, on what it means to be 'one of us'.
Looking at many of the problems with ministry, specifically for Fr. Haring in the Roman Catholic church, but with more general applicability to other denominations and faith traditions, he sees problems arising from a lack of true spirituality on the part of the institutions and the individuals who comprise the institutions. For example, how can a church function in the 'real world' and be a credible witness if it worries about the validity of ministry being dependent upon whether or not the one being ordained touched a chalice, paten, and altar bread at the ceremony?
Also, Fr. Haring decries the tendency toward clerical careerism, resulting in ever more elaborate titles and designations and rights that take the cleric further from the true purpose of ministry, and fills one instead with a sense of self-importance.
'Priesthood is not at all a step upward on the social ladder, but rather a particular commitment to descend, in humility and service, to where the people are, so as to be 'one among them.'
In all, this should probably be a required text of anyone thinking about the priesthood or ministry, or who is already serving in the priesthood or other forms of ministry. Again, while some of the issues are specifically Roman Catholic, the majority of Fr. Haring's thesis applies across the board to ministers of all denominations. Recapturing the spirit of Christ in communion with the world is key to successful ministry, and Fr. Haring does an excellent job of pointing out the journey.