Arts and Culture

Rahner’s Vision of the Human Adventure

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.

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3 thoughts on “Rahner’s Vision of the Human Adventure

  1. Lauder states:

    “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.”

    Lauder makes a deceptive statement which Pius XII dealt with directly in “Humani Generis” (1950):

    “For though, absolutely speaking, human reason by its own natural force and light can arrive at a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, Who by His providence watches over and governs the world, and also of the natural law, which the Creator has written in our hearts, still there are not a few obstacles to prevent reason from making efficient and fruitful use of its natural ability.

    “The truths that have to do with God and the relations between God and men, completely surpass the sensible order and demand self-surrender and self-abnegation in order to be put into practice and to influence practical life.

    “Now the human intellect, in gaining the knowledge of such truths is hampered both by the activity of the senses and the imagination, and by evil passions arising from original sin.

    “Hence men easily persuade themselves in such matters that what they do not wish to believe is false or at least doubtful.”

    In opposition to Catholic doctrine spelled out clearly by Pius XII in “Humani Generis”, Rahner’s thesis of “anonymous Christianity” in essence affirms that every man is already a “Christian,” even if he does not know it, by the simple fact of loving something other than himself: his neighbor, humanity, some value, etc.

    Such love would already be a true love of God and would merit him eternal salvation.

    Obviously, this conception is opposed to Catholic doctrine.

    All those “good” “anonymous Christians” — with the urban liberal bourgeois values — abortion, gay marriage, etc.?

    In 20/20 hindsight, it become increasingly apparent that Pius XII was correct in his assessment of the “New Theology” that was endorsed by Vatican II which in its naive admiration of “the world” lay the groundwork for the secularlism Pope Benedict XVI is now complaining about.

    Incidentally, Rahner with other “New Theology” theologians was censured by Pius XII after the publication of “Humani Generis”. Incredible that these people were rehabilitated in the political wind change that occurred with the election of John XXIII.

    In fact, Cardinal Heenan of Westminster (England) in his autobiography “Crown of Thorns” states that John XXIII called a few trusted cardinals together after the first session and asked how he could call off Vatican II gracefully.

    The scandalous debate at the first session of Vatican II on the Sources of Revelation which was forceably stopped by John XXIII was an omen of evil days ahead — thanks to Rahner’s “Anonymous Christian” and de Lubac’s obfuscation of Nature and Grace, Christian influence of civilization is nil!

  2. I often worried about what happened to the Catholic doctrine since Vatican II, and reading that before Vatican II people like Rahner were censored gives me a much better understanding of the cause. Thank you for your insight!

  3. Since Vatican II there has been a downgrading of the doctrine of Original Sin and its effects.

    The Catholic teaching regaring purgation as an essential stage in the spiritual life has been jettisoned for this shallow Rahner/de Lubac concept that somehow people are “Anonymous Christians” (Rahner) or that somehow everyone is innately imbued with Grace (de Lubac), overlooks Pius XII’s observation that a truly good, Christian life “demands self-surrender and self-abnegation in order to be put into practice and to influence practical life.”

    In short, a person could have a veneer of politeness, civility, kindess and fall far short of a Christian life in key areas of life.

    Given this lack of appreciation of these points Pius XII raises in “Humani Generis”, I think it is silly that Lauder to question in his previous column why the 20-40 year old demographic doesn’t go to Mass on Sunday.

    Having been fed on Rahner’s “anonymous Christianity”, why would they?