Champion of Conscience
The death of Josef Fuchs, S.J., on March 9 in Cologne, Germany, marks the end of a period of enormous transition in moral theology. Along with Bernard Häring of the Alfonsianum University (d. 1998) and Louis Janssens of Louvain University (d. 2001), the Gregorian University’s Fuchs provided the foundations for the moral theology of the Second Vatican Council. Häring led the reform with his monumental The Law of Christ, which summoned the church to recognize morality not primarily as a code of sinful actions to be avoided but rather as a call to discipleship to be realized. Later, Janssens proposed a “personalism,” by which a person could grow, through moral action and grace, more into the image of God. But it was Fuchs who would become known as the champion of the Catholic conscience, yet only after repudiating his earlier works.
In the 1950’s, Fuchs’s Natural Law and De Castitate were the standard texts for moral theology courses. So when Pope Paul VI became concerned in 1963 that the birth control commission appointed by his predecessor, Pope John XXIII, was moving to recommend reform of church teaching in this matter and expanded the committee’s membership by adding other theologians, among them Fuchs, it was expected that Fuchs would oppose the commission’s inclinations. Instead, he became the draftsman of its majority report, which the pope rejected with the publication of the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968.
Robert Kaiser (The Politics of Sex and Religion), Robert McClory (Turning Point) and Mark Graham (Josef Fuchs on Natural Law) describe the inner workings of the commission and highlight how Fuchs came to recognize the relevance of the conscience in moral decision-making. Listening to the testimony of married couples who testified to the commission, Fuchs grew in his understanding of the complexity of moral decisions about the responsible regulation of births and the right exercise of parenthood. Whereas earlier he believed that the way to apply church teachings was simply to obey them, now he realized that genuine application required adults to relate church teaching conscientiously to their personal responsibilities. From these couples, Fuchs learned the competency of a mature moral conscience.
At the commission’s final session, two bishops asked Fuchs to describe the transformation he had undergone. He told them how doubts about the direct applicability of church teachings originally arose in his mind in 1963; that from 1965 to 1966, he stopped teaching at the Gregorian University, because he could not take responsibility for a doctrine that he no longer accepted; and that he simultaneously ordered the Gregorian University Press to stop distributing his book De Castitate. After hearing his narrative, the bishops voted on whether contraception was an intrinsic evil: nine no, three yes, three abstentions. The bishops then voted to make the majority report their own.
Fuchs never wrote another book-length manuscript, but from 1968 to 1998 he published at least 70 essays on the moral theology of Vatican II. I once asked him why he used the essay form. “I usually read what people are writing on a particular topic. If I think otherwise, then I write.”
Like many others (Milan’s Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, Klaus Demmer and Bruno Schueller, for example), I was one of his doctoral students. He was a remarkably considerate mentor, who loved bringing his students together for drinks and dinner, simply to share in our vocation. He reminded us that we belong to a guild and that we should listen to one another. He also wanted us to listen to others. “You should hear weekly confessions,” he urged me. “To be a good moral theologian, you must learn to listen to what the people of God are anxious about.”
Fuchs had a refreshing, practical wisdom. In an oral exam with him, he asked me to explain Vatican II on papal infallibility. At the end of my answer, he said, “Fine, but Cardinal Ratzinger wouldn’t agree with you.” Later, he advised me: “You Americans are so emphatic with your judgments. You finish your statements with a period. I find a question mark much more effective.”
Providentially, I visited Josef just three days before his death. Not knowing how alert he was, I said, “I’m Jim Keenan.” “I know him,” he answered in English.
On the bookshelf were his writings, from De Castitate to his most recent essay. There was also a solitary photo album that recorded a visit to Washington, D.C., where Charles Curran and Richard A. McCormick, S.J., among others, had feted him. Fuchs was weak, but I knew he wanted news. So I told him that I had just been talking with Curran. “What’s he writing?” “He just wrote The Moral Theology of Pope John Paul II.” He looked puzzled for a moment and then gave me a whimsical smile.
Later, as I was leaving, I thanked him for teaching me to be a moral theologian. In turn, he shook my hand and said, “Grüss Gott!,” extending to me a final greeting in German.