Rahner’s Ghost

After Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ, had read the preparatory documents (or Schemata) for the Second Vatican Council, he wrote to Franz Cardinal König in Vienna. The Schemata were doctrinally correct, he thought, but without any charism and unable to convince anyone today. In Rahner’s judgment, their authors did not even attempt to empathize with the difficulties modern people experience when they approach religion. He thought that the council, however, should aim at “winning people of today for Christian truth”—an eminently practical purpose for which the Schemata were useless. And, as we know, they were quickly buried.

Rahner’s intention—notwithstanding his slightly condescending tone—was intellectual, though with the evangelistic goal of “winning people for the truth of the faith”. His influence on theology has been unparalleled, especially in Germany, and particularly in “pastoral” or “practical theology.” By and large, reception of Vatican II in Germany followed Rahner’s interpretation; this is where talk about the “spirit of the council” has its home and origin.

Can Rahner help us in the work of evangelization today? In order to go about  “winning people for the truth of the faith,” according to him, we need to find the right language. For sharing the truth of the Gospel, the Church should use language and patterns of thought more accessible to people outside the Church. According to Rahner’s (highly complex) theology, human beings are “always already” connected to God and touched by supernatural grace (transcendentally)—but this needs to become concrete (categorically). Such a view changes how we understand the relationship between grace and nature, and that between revelation and culture. It is also not hard to see how his views depend on where he developed them: the areas of ancient Christendom in 20th-century Central Europe.

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But how do people become aware of what they “always already” possess? And where do we take them after meeting them “where they are”? As Bishop Robert Barron says, “the theological language of the tradition exists not simply to clarify our minds in regard to God but to order our spirits appropriately.” And, as Augustine knew, we need “a small bit of reason” in order to perceive what we believe, but reason must never manipulate or substitute what faith itself communicates.

The paradigm of adapting faith and the language of faith to conform with the ways in which people already speak, think, and live can easily become misleading. It is true that we need to speak the language that people speak “where they are”; otherwise, there cannot be any communication at all. But as the process of evangelization unfolds, it must be turned around—which is another aspect of “conversion”: we need to change and adapt our lives and language to the Faith, and not vice versa.

As a theoretical distinction this may seem obvious. In reality, however, this distinction has not been maintained. Rahner left us a theology with internal tensions that often cannot be reconciled, and with a fundamental ambivalence when it comes to how the faith relates to modernity. The “balance of Rahner’s vision,” as Patrick Burke notes, has not been maintained by his heirs and followers. As a consequence, the Church in Germany today is in adaptation mode. Its bishops are convinced that, in order to be “relevant,” they need to reform her doctrines and practices so that they are less removed from “the reality of people’s lives”. Many theological discussions today are deceptive: they pretend to be about language, whereas they are about content. They claim to call for development, whereas they demand a revolution.

At the basis of all debates in the Church, however, there must be a dialogue that is profoundly different from all other conversations. We are called to listen to God’s Word in faith, or else we cannot recognize him as God. “Winning people over for the Christian truth” cannot be reduced to helping them discover that they already adhere to it, and it cannot even start with that discovery. The Gospel, on the other hand, opens up otherwise inaccessible insights, hopes, and possibilities.

A casual attitude towards Scripture and Tradition is unhelpful in the work of evangelization. Intellectually and theologically, it is shallow; liturgically, it is reckless. Evangelization must not be reduced to translating the Gospel into the language of today, for that would entail adopting assumptions and modes of thinking that are not compatible with Christ’s message. Indeed, some even contradict it.

It is true that faith and reason—the ways through which God speaks to us, and with which we speak to him and one another—need to meet. But the ultimate the goal is for us to immersed ever more deeply into God. The project of bringing the Faith closer to people today got stuck at the very beginning. People approaching the Faith need to learn the Church’s way of speaking and thinking, which was forged over the centuries to be adequate to its content. Otherwise, we cannot detect how we are “always already” ordered towards God.

Many attempts of “translating” or re-interpreting Christian doctrines lack fidelity to the original. This breaks the most fundamental law of translation as it creates the impression that the Faith is insubstantial. Looking back on the years of Vatican II, we could easily consider them as one big war between manipulators: on the one side, the Romans and the Schemata, on the other, their opponents with their theological brainpower—with John XXIII and, later, Paul VI stuck in the middle.

In our day, around the much smaller Amazonian Synod, the situation is curiously similar and dissimilar at the same time. Again, the Romans were ready with a preparatory document, the infamous Instrumentum laboris. As has generally been the case in recent synods, the prelates leading the synod were carefully selected. So much for similarities. What has changed is that, today, the outside forces disturbing the Romans’ scripted proceedings come from the traditional side, while the Curialists have become operators of change, in line with most German bishops. Our synods appear ever more as events where political logic and gamesmanship apply.

For decades, concern for doctrine and tradition has been greatly diminished in the Church. In Germany in particular, a new kind of practical theology is prevailing, which intends to supplant theology (and doctrine!) based on Scripture and Tradition. From Germany, via the channels of its theological establishment and well-funded development agencies, this theology has profoundly influenced liberation and “Indian” theology, which are in fact much less “indigenous” than they claim to be—never mind their association with expressions of local cultures.

Looking at councils, bishops, and popes as agents of doctrinal evolution profoundly misconceives their mission as custodians of the apostolic Faith. Instead, “discipline is the custodian of hope,” as St Cyprian observed. The authority of the Church—and of the hierarchy, in particular—is the authority of truth as Tradition; evangelization is nothing other than winning people over for this truth and this Tradition.

As much as doctrine is developed, it does not change, and it does not contradict itself. What changes is our perception and appreciation of it, and not always for the better.

For the purpose of evangelizing our culture, the hour of (Teutonic) churchmen and theologians—inaugurated by Vatican II and inseparable from the work of Rahner—has been a huge disappointment. By putting traditional doctrine on the shelf and prioritizing pastoral activity, we have not achieved what Vatican II itself set out to do—rather, we have damaged liturgical practice, the theological culture, catechesis, and charitable outreach. Only now, ever so slowly, can we get started on evangelization. Whether our work will be blessed or not will depend on whether we resist the double temptation of accommodation on the one hand and isolation on the other (James Mallon); in other words, it depends on whether we put Christ’s truth first in order to serve him by making him known to the world.


  • Msgr. Hans Feichtinger

    Msgr. Hans Feichtinger is a priest of the Diocese of Passau (Germany) and pastor of St. Albertus and St. George’s in Ottawa. He also teaches at St. Augustine Seminary (Toronto). He holds an STD from the Augustinianum in Rome, a Ph.D. from the Faculty of Philosophy SJ in Munich, and an MA in Classics from Dalhousie University. He was an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 2004-2012.

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