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Chapter Twenty

This last part of the book is intended to high-light the influence of the tendencies we have been following on Catholic thinking at every level by studying their effects first of all on a major theologian, and then on the attempts to make the liturgy more telling as an instrument of spiritual transformation. Three chapters will be devoted to the theologian and two to liturgical change.

The theologian I have chosen is Father Karl Rahner, chiefly became during the 20 or so years following the Second Vatican Council he became for many people its most authoritative interpreter.

As I said in Chapter One, "theologians (or major theologians) are the principal channel through which doctrinal developments, or deviations, enter the main stream of Catholic thinking. They also create the intellectual style through which, at any particular epoch, divine revelation is transmitted via the clergy to the Catholic people. In both these respects, Fr Rahner, above all other theologians of the period, deserves studying." Furthermore, he illustrates better than any other figure of the conciliar period what I said in Turmoil and Truth about Catholic scholars who fall in love with their special subject and start subordinating the faith to it.

For Rahner, "my subject" was, of course, German idealist philosophy. However, before looking at the ways in which it affected his theology and faith, I will say something about his life and career in so far as they throw light on the development of his ideas.

A Bavarian, he came from what he called a "normal middle-class Christian family." It was normal for those days. His father, a professor at a teacher-training college at Freiburg in Breisgau, had seven children. To supplement his salary he tutored on the side and his wife went out baby-sitting. The couple never had a house they owned themselves.

At 18, Karl, the third child, entered the Jesuit novitiate at Feldkirche in Austria. His brother Hugo, who became a well-known religious writer himself, had joined the order three years earlier. There followed the usual course of Jesuit training three years of philosophy, mainly at Pullach near Munich (1924-7); two years teaching Latin to novices back at Feldkirche (which gave him a command of Latin later invaluable for communicating with non-German speakers at the Council); for his theological formation  (1929-33) he was sent to Valkenburg in Holland. He was ordained in Munich in 1932 by Cardinal Faulhaber. His studies over, it was decided that he should teach the history of philosophy, and he returned to his home town Freiburg to get the necessary doctorate.

Because Heidegger was teaching there, Freiburg university was at this time considered one of the most stimulating centres of philosophy in Germany. However, owing to Heidegger's support for the Nazis, Rahner's superiors considered Heidegger unsuited as a supervisor. Instead, Martin Honecker, the holder of the chair of Catholic philosophy; was chosen as guide for his studies. He and Rahner were not well suited. Honecker was unsympathetic to the new trends in philosophy and theology. Rahner, on the other hand, was already a devotee of German idealism. During his time at Pullach he had nade a careful study of Kant, Marchal and Rousselot, and his life-long antipathy to scholasticism, for which the way that theology was taught at Valkenburg may have been partly responsible, was already well developed. The relationship with his supervisor was an anticipation in miniature of the clashes that would take place at the Council.

For his doctoral thesis, Rahner chose a text from St Thomas. The thesis was intended to be an historical study of St Thomas' theory of knowledge. But Rahner, who was never in awe of authority at any rate not ecclesiastical authority and whose "innovative and systematic spirit" [McCool, A Rahner Reader, p. xix] was already making itself felt, used it to demonstrate what he believed to be an affinity between St Thomas's epistemology and that of Kant and Heidegger. Honecker rejected the thesis and forced Rahner to leave the university without a degree. However, sympathetic superiors intervened. Rahner was precipitately transferred to Innsbruck, given a degree in theology, and made a professor at the Jesuit theological faculty Rahner was to teach theology for the rest of his life.

In 1939, an amplified version of his rejected doctoral thesis was published under the title Geist im Welt (Spirit in the World) and two years later a series of lectures on the philosophy of religion, delivered in the summer of 1937, appeared as Her des Wrtes (Hearers of the Word). These two books, which established his reputation, "were the seminal and foundational works from which Rahner was to develop his philosophical theology" 206

Although Rahner would always insist that he was a theologian not a philosopher, his subsequent career suggests that philosophy always mattered more to him. In an address on the occasion of Heidegger's 80th birthday, Rahner referred to him as "his one master ... without whom Catholic theology would no longer be thinkable."207

On the invasion of Austria, the Nazis closed the Jesuit college and ordered Rahner to leave the city. But they do not appear to have taken further measures against him. Most of the war years he spent in Vienna as a theological consultant to the archdiocese and a member of the diocesan pastoral institute. He also gave lectures on theology there and in other Third Reich cities. Meanwhile he had gained the confidence of the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Innizer.

In January 1943, the Archbishop of Freiburg, Rahner's home town, wrote a letter to all the bishops of Germany and Austria warning than against dangerous innovations in doctrine and liturgy, and Innizer, who disagreed with him, used Rahner to draft his reply. The reply showed an "acute sense of the need for ... reform in Church teaching and liturgy" (Dych, p. 9). Gradually Rahner was becoming a name to the whole German-speaking episcopate.

In 1948 the theological faculty at Innsbruck reopened and Rahner's long career as a teacher and professor of theology began in earnest.

A former pupil has called him "a stimulating teacher." "I think the main reason for his attractiveness to students was that his classes were alive he did not just repeat what was in the textbook. In fact he rarely referred to the textbook" though "he told us to learn what was in it. He would take thesis by thesis and ask what it really meant and how it relates to the situation of the Christian today... He was also quite witty in his own way. He often amazed us by giving brief summaries of the theologies of various theologians ... or philosophers." The writer also speaks of the regularity of his life. "He was ... up very early, Mass and Breviary before 7 a m " After breakfast, "he went to his desk for the, rest of the day. He had that old German Sitzfleisch." 208

Without this old-time self-discipline, one feels, his enormous output would hardly have been possible. For Rahner, the 1950s were a formidably prolific period of writing and publishing. Most of his work was in the form of articles that began as lectures and later appeared in journals, lexicons and encyclopaedias. He was an active member of several learned German theological societies concerned with ecumenism and the relations between faith and science. He was co-editor of a half dozen ambitious publishing ventures, which included the more than one-hundred-volume series Quaestiones Disputatae (Disputed Questions), to which he contributed eight books of his own and 8 in collaboration with others. Meanwhile he was editing the 28th-31" editions of Denzinger, the definitive collection of the doctrinal decrees and statements of Councils and popes. The encyclopaedic knowledge of Catholic doctrine he thereby acquired would stand him in good stead the deeper be entered into difficult theological waters an entry that had indeed already begun.

In 1950, Pius Xll's Humani Generis had singled out existentialism as liable to undermine "the validity of metaphysical reasoning," even when it didn't undermine the very belief in God's existence, and as Rahner was known to be an ardent Heideggerian it was widely assumed that the authorities in Rome had Rahner in mind. The idea, the encyclical said, that existentialism could be harmonised with Catholic doctrine merely by adding "a few corrections" and filling in "a few gaps" was "a palpable illusion."

Being a controversial figure does not of course of itself mean that a theologian is unsound. That depends on whether his ideas accord with Catholic teaching something not always instantly apparent and on the Church's final judgement. However, the next brush with authority did reveal an increasingly typical Rahnerian character trait.

In 1951 the Jesuit authorities forbade him from publishing a lengthy paper entitled "Problems in Contemporary Mariology" It was Rahner's way of voicing his opinion on Pius XII's proclamation of the Dogma of the Assumption the year before. Purportedly a learned defence of the doctrine, it began with the statement on p.1:"Let's make one thing clear from the outset. Every word in this definition seems to us at first hearing to be off-putting" (Tablet, 14 July, 1984). This lordliness of tone would grow over the years until eventually it acquired an imperial ring suggesting that the entire body of the Church's teaching was his private property to dispose of as he wished.

Three years later, someone drew Rome's attention to an article Rahner had published in 1949, "The Many Masses and the One Sacrifice." In addition to advocating concelebration, which the Church has since restored (a positive contribution), the article raised questions about "the fruits of the Mass" and the value of multiplying the number of masses. Without mentioning Rahner by name, Pius XII contradicted part of it in a talk in 1954.

There was yet another skirmish a few months before the opening of the Council. In 1960, Rahner had published an article on Our Lady's perpetual virginity in which he drew a distinction between "the real content and substance of a doctrine and what can be considered part of the historically conditioned form in which it is expressed" (Dych, p. 12). What did he mean? Surely, either Our Lady was or was not perpetually a Virgin? How could historical conditioning affect this central fact?

To begin with, the article seems to have passed unnoticed. Then suddenly in October 1962, Rahner was informed that in future everything he wrote had to be passed by Rome before publication. Rahner replied that in that case he would give up writing altogether. However no such drastic step was called for. The three German-speaking cardinals, Frings of Cologne, Dpfner of Munich and Knig of Vienna, the leaders of the German-speaking wing of the reform party at the Council, intervened and persuaded Pope John to suspend the censorship. A learned society of professors in the sciences and humanities, the Paulus Gesellschaft, was also mobilised in Rahner's support. Two-hundred-and-fifty signatures were gathered for a petition to Rome asking for the censorship to be dropped.

Because of these contretemps, Rahner played little part in the work of the conciliar preparatory commissions. The restoration of the permanent diaconate seems to have been the only subject on which he was officially consulted. Nor was he initially made an official peritus or theological adviser of the Council. He came to the Council as Cardinal Knig's personal adviser, a role he also filled for Cardinal Dpfner, and was only an official conciliar peritus after the Council began. From then on, with the backing of his patrons, he rapidly became a dominant figure.

Fr Congar speaks of his influence as "enormous." "The climate," Congar says, "had become: Rahner dixit. Ergo verum est. Let me give you an example there were two microphones on the table, but Rahner had monopolised one ... It often happened that the Cardinal Archbishop ofVienna. Franz Knig, whose expert Rahner was, would turn to Rahner and say, as if prompting him to intervene: Rahner quid? Then, of course, Fr Rahner would intervene." 209

"Traces of his theology" writes Fr Dych,"can be found in the Council's teaching on the Church, on papal primacy and the episcopate, on revelation and the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, on the inspiration of  the Bible, on the sacraments and the diaconate, on the relationship of the Church to the modem world, on the possibility of the salvation outside the Church (the visible Church) even for non-believers and in many other areas." However this does not mean that the Council adopted Rahner's views wholesale on all these subjects. We do not have to deny that he made positive contributions to the texts. But there is also evidence of his having exerted a negative influence, in the sense of traditional positions having been less strongly upheld than they could have been.210

However, the main thing at this point is his having emerged from the Council as, unofficially, the most authoritative interpreter of what it had all been about. "Who today does not take his point of reference from Karl Rahner?" wrote von Balthasar about this time.211

Meanwhile, with his impressive capacity for work, he had continued teaching theology at Innsbruck, until he moved to the University of Munich in 1964, and finally, in 1967, to Mnster, where he was professor of dogmatic theology until his retirement in 1981.

After the Council, his position vis--vis Rome could be compared to that of a 19th century Austrian Archduke backing independence movements in the subject territories of the Empire without personally taking to the field or breaking off relations with his father in Vienna. Direct confrontations with authority were left to Fr Schillebeeckx, Fr Kng and lesser subordinates. Ever watchful of his reputation as a "great theologian," Rahner took much more care than the revolution's "shock troops" to make his ideas look like legitimate theological developments rather than the innovations they increasingly were. This was the period of tours abroad lecturing to ecstatic audiences of priests, religious and laity.

Rome on its side did its best, for strategic reasons, to disguise the degree of his responsibility for the rebellion and the precise nature of what he seemed to be saying. He was, for instance, one of the first members of Pope Paul's International Theological Commission. Later it was agreed that he and the Commission should "go their separate ways" owing to "incompatibilities" of theological outlook.212

In November 1963, over a decade earlier, he had written to his friend Vorgrimler from Rome that a festschrift in honour of his 60th birthday would stand him in good stead because it was by no means certain that "my 'most dangerous' things have yet been written" (30 Days, no. 4, 1993, p. 61). But now the "dangerous 'things" were being written, and as they multiplied, so did the prominence of his critics.

Cardinal Frings and Fr Ratzinger had begun to have reservations about aspects of his theology before the Council ended.213 The critics would eventually include not only "traditionally-minded" figures like Cardinal Siri of Genoa but one-time sympathisers or colleagues such as Frs von Balthasar and de Lubac. Von Balthasar had rapidly revised his opinion of Rainier as "a point of reference." 214

In spite of this, at no time was any of Rahner's teaching officially called into question, nor, as happened to lesser men, was he invited to Rome to explain it. He can be seen as revolution's heavy artillery, firing from behind the lines to soften up a doctrine before his followers went in to the attack.

He spent his years of retirement writing and lecturing at home and abroad. For his 80th birthday in 1984 there were celebrations in Freiburg, Innsbruck, London, and Budapest. He died three weeks later, by which time entire generations had absorbed his way of thinking. One of his last acts was a letter to the bishops of Peru supporting the liberation theology of Gustavo Gutierrez.


206. William V. Dych, Karl Rahner, Geoffrey Chapman, Outstanding Christian Thinkers Series, p. 8. Fr. Dych, a pupil of Rahner acted as interpreter on his American lecture tours and has translated Spirit in the World  and, at Rahner's own request, Foundations of Christian Faith.

207.  30 Days, no. 10, 1992, p. 53. By way of contrast, in 1931, Heidegger told Edith Stein, whom he mistakenly thought was applying for a job as his assistant, that if she "intended to take a Catholic line, then it would be impracticable to work under him" (Edith Stein, by Sister Teresia de Spiritu Sancto, O.D.C., Sheed and Ward, 1952, p. 92).

208. Letter to the author from Fr. Kenneth Baker SJ, editor of The Homiletic and Pastoral Review. Sitzfleisch: an old German expression for perseverance.

209. Congar, interview in 30 Days. no. 3, 1993.

210.   Some of his less happy endeavours can be found in Ralph Wiltgen's account of Vatican II, The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber, Hawthorn Books, U.S.A..1967. The great merit of this book is that while "full of precise details" (Yves Congar), the author, a Divine Word missionary, knew how to keep on top of them. He ran an international news service during the Council, and met and interviewed munberless Council Fathers and periti.

211.    Quoted in 30 Days, no. 10, 1992., thought I ought to discover what the new theology is all about" said a future archbishop to the author in 1967, brandishing a book by Rahner. For the first two-and-a-half decades after the Council the new theology meant Rahner, Schillebeeckx and Kng for the majority of Catholics, as could be seen from a glance at most presbytery bookshelves of that period. At least in England, it was unusual to find much if anything by De Lubac or Congar.

212. Cardinal Seper, to the author, October 1980.The cardinal was at that time head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In 1993, in a rather cautious letter to the international monthly 30 Days (no. 3, p. 7), Cardinal Knig, while admitting that "there might be the desire to disagree with some aspects of Rahner's theology," defended Rahner from the charge of heterodoxy on the grounds that, had any of his writings deserved censure, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would have been bound to take action. The Cardinal must surely have known that with his former protege constantly accusing Rome and the CDF of trying to sabotage the Council, any such action had become next to impossible.

213. Wiltgen, op cit. p. 285.

214.         Cordula oder der Ernstfall, 1966 (The Moment of Christian Witness. Ignatius Press 1994) pp. 100-130. For Cardinal Ratzinger's criticisms see Principles of Catholic Theology. Ignatius Press, 1987 (German original, 1982), pp. 162-171.

Copyright Philip Trower 2006, 2011, 2018

Version: 16th February 2021

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