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Peter Hünermann giving a lecture in 2014. Philosophisch-Theologische Hochschule Vallendar / Youtube

March 27, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – The theologian criticized by Pope Emeritus Benedict in his recent controversy-causing letter to the head of Vatican communications is a major influence on Pope Francis’s theology of marriage. 

German theologian Peter Hünermann, 89, was mentioned by name in Benedict’s letter, which was on the topic of an 11-volume series on Pope Francis’ theology which Benedict declined to read. The Pope Emeritus expressed surprise that Hünermann had been asked to write a volume. This section of the letter was originally omitted from the public by the Vatican. 

Hünermann had led “anti-papal initiatives,” Benedict stated in his letter, and “virulently attacked the magisterial authority of the Pope [John Paul II], especially on questions of moral theology.”

“Additionally, the ‘Europäische Theologengesellschaft’ [European Society of Catholic Theology], which he founded, was initially conceived by him as an organization in opposition to the papal magisterium. Later, the ecclesial sense of many theologians blocked this orientation, making that organization a normal instrument of encounter among theologians,” Benedict added.  

Hünermann revealed in a 2016 interview with Commonweal his connection to and influence on Pope Francis.

The theologian's relationship with Jorge Bergoglio goes back to 1968. In the same interview, Hünermann mentioned a private meeting with the Pope in May 2015 that, in the words of the interviewer, “influenced the Apostolic Exhortation” Amoris Laetitia. 

Kaplan wrote that Hünermann, largely unnoticed by the English-speaking world, “exercised a seismic theological impact that stretches all the way to Francis’s much-debated Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia.” 

“It is Hünermann’s work that has helped provided a theological justification for [Francis’s] insistence that the sacrament of marriage be understood in less legalistic terms,” Kaplan wrote. 

“According to Hünermann, certain medieval reflections on the theology of marriage recognized that not all sacramental marriages were indissoluble in the way that indissolubility came to be understood in the modern period.”

Hünermann said that some “situations” make it “impossible” for certain marriages to “continue.”

“But if indissolubility refers to the nature of marriage, it is quite clear that [due to a failure of human cooperation] it can break down. Situations can arise where it is impossible to continue in marriage. If there are children and so on, one has to deal with the individual situation and attempt to find a pastoral solution,” he told Commonweal

He would like to see the Church reclaim this understanding. 

Hünermann is both a graduate and a professor emeritus of Tübingen University in Germany, an establishment with which the more famous names of Hans Kung, Walter Kasper, and Joseph Ratzinger are associated. 

As a seminarian in the 1950s, Hünermann was fascinated by Kant, Heidegger, and Hegel and supplemented his studies of neo-scholastic philosophy with their works. When he began to study theology, he concentrated on the early figures of the “Tübingen School,” admiring their approach to problems in modern theology. He later studied in Freiburg with Bernhald Welte, a fellow devotee of Heidegger, who became his mentor.

Hünermann in Argentina

According to Hünermann as reported in Commonweal, many Latin Americans studied at Freiburg in the 1960s, and so Welte was invited to lecture in Chile and Argentina. When the older man returned, he said that German theologians should have more influence in Latin America.

“It was important that we go there to balance out not only the neo-scholasticism, but also the positivistic thinking that filtered down from the United States,” Hunermann told Kaplan. 

Therefore, the German theologians set up an exchange program. Hünermann learned Spanish and went to Buenos Aires, Cordoba, Mendoza, Santiago and Valparaiso to teach. The program still exists throughout South America. In 1968 Hünermann met Jorge Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis. 

“I used to stay in the Jesuit seminary residence when I taught in Buenos Aires,” the German told Kaplan. [Father Bergoglio] directed the novitiate and later became provincial. Over this period I saw him almost once per year. He manifested a certain spiritual distance, which struck me.”

Father Bergoglio, whom Hunermann believed shared his own antipathy for Argentinian dictator General Perón, made so much of an impression on the German scholar that in 2005 the latter said he hoped the former would be elected Pope. When Cardinal Bergoglio was elected Pope eight years later in 2013, Hünermann’s Latin American colleagues had inside connections to set up a meeting between the theologian and the new Pope. 

Casti Connubii ‘too narrow’

Hünermann sent Francis a paper on his own theology of marriage, apparently at Francis’s behest, reported Commonweal. It included his sharp critique of the most important papal encyclical about marriage of the pre-conciliar period, Casti connubii (1930). 

The document, promulgated by Pope Pius XI, was a direct response to the Anglican Lambeth Conference which used the argument of hard “cases” to “limit or avoid parenthood” by “contraception control.” 

Pope Pius XI lambasted the decision, describing it as “openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition” for “another doctrine” which constitutes “moral ruin.”

He upheld Catholic teaching against frustrating the natural end of the sexual act, writing: “any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin.”

Hünermann told Commonweal that the encyclical was based on the work of a Jesuit moral theologian named Franz Hürth, one of Hünermann’s professors in Rome. But the former student was critical of his teacher’s work. 

“Hürth’s standpoint came from canon law and moral theology, and was not informed by systematic theology. One upshot was a narrow understanding of what it meant for a sacrament to be a sacrament,” Hünermann said. “The document was too narrow for the beginning, and could not deal satisfactorily with the complexities of the situation we face today.”   

Dr. Christian Brugger, author of The Indissolubility of Marriage and the Council of Trent, told LifeSiteNews that Hünermann “misconstrues” doctrinal teaching on the nature of marriage. 

“It is not Casti Connubii, but Peter Hünermann that misconstrues the Catholic Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, “ Brugger said. “The Catholic Church has taught since the time of the apostles that consummated Christian marriages are absolutely indissoluble.”

“Therefore, although there can be a separation of habitation, there cannot—not should not, but CANNOT—be a separation of the bond.  Therefore, pastoral solutions that suggest that there can be are contrary to Catholic faith and morality,” he said. 

Elsewhere in the Commonweal interview Hünermann, when asked about the possibility of women deacons in the Roman Church, replied that the topic was “of great importance to me for over forty years.”

“I think the women diaconate would be a great step toward integrating women sacramentally into the service that they already do,” he said.