by Father Robert Lauder
Sixth in a series
I think the chapter that I most enjoyed in Father Michael Paul Gallagher’s Faith Maps: Ten Religious Explorers from Newman to Joseph Ratzinger (New York: Paulist Press, 2010, 158 pages, $16.95) was the chapter on the 20th-century theologian, Karl Rahner.
Years ago when I was teaching philosophy at what was then Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception, Douglaston, I team taught a course on Rahner with Father Michael Walsh, who’d written his doctoral thesis in theology on Rahner. Father Walsh, now deceased, knew Rahner’s thought well. I knew next to nothing except that Rahner was an important theologian about whose thoughst I wanted to know more.
Father Gallagher begins his analysis of Rahner’s thought this way:
“Karl Rahner is often looked on as the most important Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, greatly admired by some while severely criticized by others. Why such deep divisions about him? It seems a question of two different mentalities.
For those conscious of a changed and complex culture around us and of the need for different languages of faith, Rahner is seen as a figure of spiritual and intellectual courage. Even his major critic, Hans Urs von Balthasar, recognized a genuine pastoral urgency in Rahner’s desire to make sense of faith for post-war Europe. Not all of Rahner’s critics are so generous; some see him as the source of many of the ills of today’s Church. Usually, these opponents of his belong to what Lonergan calls the ‘classicist’ model of theology which stresses what is permanent and universal, and remains suspicious of starting points that seem too ‘anthropological.’ (p. 36)
I think that Rahner was one of the most important Catholic theologians of the 20th century. I agree with one commentator who said that in the history of the Catholic Church the three most important theologians were St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Rahner.
One reason I like his theological vision is that he believed that many people who may not be outwardly religious might be close to God. This view speaks to my own experience. When I was in Catholic high school and college we called people who did not consciously embrace Christ or the Christian faith as people who had baptism of desire. Rahner used the term “anonymous Christian.” When I used that term in a St. John’s philosophy class a Muslim student found it offensive. I can understand that and so I no longer use the term. The point is that Rahner believed that there might be people who are close to God but for some reason cannot consciously believe in Christ.
I have met many people who don’t seem to have any relationship with any traditional religion who seem to be very good people, unselfish and ready to sacrifice for others. When I was a young priest some of my priest classmates were upset when they left a Catholic ghetto and found people who were not Catholic but who seemed to be very good people. They were surprised to find goodness and holiness outside the Catholic Church. Finding such goodness and perhaps holiness never bothered me. It inspired me. The Holy Spirit breathes where It will.
Father Gallagher points out that a constant refrain in Rahner’s thought is that every person, whether the individual realizes it or not, is in touch with God’s action. To Rahner Christian faith seemed to have lost touch with human experience and he was determined to build bridges between the inner depth of the human person and the Christian vision. Father Gallagher suggests that probably no other major Catholic theologian has devoted so much sympathetic attention to agnostics and atheists.
I believe Rahner’s theology may also speak to those who wouldn’t describe themselves as either agnostic or atheistic but who have drifted away from practicing their faith. I suspect that a constant refrain from such people is that Catholicism no longer speaks to their experience or seems relevant in their lives. I believe that there is nothing more relevant than the Catholic faith but how can that be communicated to those who have drifted from the practice of Catholicism? I think Rahner’s vision of the human adventure and the mystery of God can be very helpful.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.