The “Balancing Act” of Karl Rahner and Luise Rinser

The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner (1904-1984) was known as a “progressive” and, during the papacy of Pius XII, was required to submit his writings for approval before publication, but in 1962 was reinstated and appointed as one of the periti for Vatican II by John XXIII. During the Council he was very influential among German bishops, and with the “European alliance” at the Council, and was involved to a great extent in the preparation of Lumen gentium, Dei verbum, Gaudium et spes, and Perfectae caritatis.

In the aftermath of the council, he was noted for dissent from Vatican positions, and often quoted in the media. On birth control and female ordination, he wrote,

I do not see either in the arguments used or in the formal teaching authority of the Church…a convincing or conclusive reason for assenting to the controversial teaching in Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae [encyclical against contraception] or to the Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith which seems to exclude the ordination of women in principle and for all time.

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In 1962, at the outset of Vatican II, Luise Rinser (1911-2002), at that time a 51-year-old widow and two-time divorcee, a novelist and prolific writer, wrote to Rahner that she wondered if she could consult with him about a writing project concerning the “specific type of spirituality for women.” They met in Innsbruck, and continued getting together at a bar, “The Grey Bear.” At one meeting she confided to him that she was in an “exclusive” love relationship with a Benedictine Abbot, “M.A.,” who was also involved in the Council.  Rahner asked if there was room in her love for “both,” and she agreed, but said M.A. would always have her primary commitment. This caused great distress. She later wrote, “I was the wheat that was ground between the mill stones. I suffered. Rahner suffered. M.A. suffered. What an impossible situation!”

Their relationship continued, with personal meetings whenever possible, from 1962-1984. During those years a prolific correspondence took place. Rinser has 2203 letters in her possession, 1847 from Rahner, and 366 by Rinser. Rahner wrote sometimes 3-4 letters per day. He kept her letters and returned the letters to her before his death, to keep in safe possession. The Jesuits would not grant her permission to publish Rahner’s letters, but she published her own letters, which sometimes were responses to Rahner, in her 1994 book, Gratwanderung. Briefe der Freundschaft an Karl Rahner (“Ridge-Walking: Letters from a Friendship with Karl Rahner”). The book has not been translated into English. Gratwanderung is literally a “walk on the edge, or a ridge,” figuratively a “balancing act” or “tightrope walk.” A phrase with a similar meaning used now is “boundary issue”—a situation which skirts the limits of propriety, without necessarily transgressing these limits. The “boundary” relevant for Rahner, of course, was his vow of celibacy.  There is no indication that he ever broke this vow.

In Gratwanderung, Rinser describes herself as a “Leftist Catholic, as a politically involved contemporary, as a participant in protest marches, as a signature-contributor, also as an author of ‘revolutionary articles’.” Regarding her “leftist Catholicism,” she offers the following description: “I lived as a child (perhaps as the fruit of an earlier life) an authentic form of mystical devotion, which later was covered over with my intellectuality and my acquaintance with dogmatic theology, which led me to agnosticism even to the boundary of atheism, but later included the path of my encounter with far eastern religions.”

In reading Rinser’s responses to Rahner’s letters, we have the (hopefully anomalous) image of a celibate priest overcome with passion for a woman. In a letter dated Aug. 10, 1962, Rinser writes:

My Fish, truly beloved, I cannot express how shaken I was as you knelt before me. You were kneeling before the Love that you are experiencing and before which I also kneel in amazement, in reverence, with trembling and with an exultation that I hardly dare to allow myself to feel. We are both touched in the innermost part of our being by something that is much stronger than we anticipated.

A constant complication for this romantic relationship, of course, was Rinser’s “exclusive” relationship with “M.A.” Rahner felt jealousy regarding the other man in this love triangle, and was not contented with Rinser’s assurances that she loved him, too.  M.A. (whose identity I have not been able to discover) seemed to be irritated but resigned to the fact that he had a competitor.

In the letters the couple called each other by nicknames—hers was “Wuhschel,” the German rendering for a character in Winnie the Pooh; his was “Fisch” (“Fish”), related to the common symbol for Christianity and also Rahner’s astrological sign, Pisces. The topics in these letters were miscellaneous: Discussions of various trips, and reactions to her invited lectures; complaints about a good friend on a trip unexpectedly asking her to sleep with him; assurances about the solidity of their love; some spiritual experiences, etc. Occasionally they discussed events in the Council, or in Church politics.  For example,

I heard that Pope Paul VI has appointed “moderators” (or whatever they are called) for the Council: [Leo Joseph] Suenens, [Julius] Döpfner, [Giacomo] Lercaro, [Grégoire-Pierre] Agagianian. And so: progressive. And Döpfner listens to you [Rahner].

The Pope has said on the radio that the beatification of the last 2 popes has begun. Very dumb. [Pope] John is holy, and as regards Pius it doesn’t help at all to talk about ‘holy’ or ‘blessed.’ In my opinion…. But ‘Fish’ [Rahner] is even holier, even if he doesn’t realize it—and that is what is so holy about him.

Once a teaching sister wrote to Rinser, furious that Ratzinger and Urs von Balthasar had attacked Rahner.  The nun writes, “stick out your tongue and say loudly, ‘You can just….!’”

Ecclesiastical politics and theological fashions aside, it goes without saying that we are witnessing in this relationship an extraordinary psychological phenomenon—a priest with an array of usually incompatible compartments in his psyche: on the one hand, committed to celibacy, on the other passionately in love with a woman, but constantly suffering from the fact that his competitor had won out, and that he would never have the primacy in the woman’s affections. During the 60s and 70s, priests and nuns were admonished by experts that they had to affirm themselves as sexual beings, in order to be fulfilled, and even effective in their calling.  Many fell by the wayside, possibly after an unsuccessful experiment with a similar “balancing act.” Rahner may have retained his integrity in his own balancing act, but one can only wonder at the immense and continual psychological distress he must have experienced. I do not know whether Rahner, who was interested in existential philosophy, amid his theological theorizing, had read Sören Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. But he might have benefitted from the reading. Love and commitment (for most of us) is not an area where “multitasking” is advisable.

In any case, Rahner’s experience is a paradigm for us all, clerical and lay, sometimes attracted to “balancing acts”: The homosexual male who accepts a position in which he will be in close contact with boys or young men; the politician accepting contributions from sources that can profit from legislation he is working on; the judge who refuses to recuse himself from cases in which he has a special interest; the married professor who decides to share a hotel room with an attractive colleague at a conference, just “to reduce expenses”; the alcoholic who just wants “one for the road”; and so on. Such “walks on the ridge” have a history of upsetting one’s balance.


  • Howard Kainz

    Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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