Karl Rahner was once the figure to be reckoned with. When, at the very outset of the Second Vatican Council, the gathered bishops rejected the schema on revelation prepared in advance by the Holy Office, they signaled the end of the presumptive authority of neoscholastic theology over the intellectual life of the Catholic Church. Ferment and experimentation followed, and for more than a decade all questions seemed open and every inherited assumption vulnerable. It was during those years that Rahner (though in his sixties) emerged as the most influential of the “new theologians,” especially in the English-speaking world, where the great majority of Catholic theologians used his work to formulate their own theologies.

That time has passed. Beginning in the late 1980s”Rahner died in 1984, at the age of eighty”Hans Urs von Balthasar’s influence began to ascend and St. Thomas reemerged. Nevertheless, Rahner, or at least the Rahnerian style, continues to shape the Catholic academic scene in America, providing the theological justifications for nearly all forms of contextual, feminist, and liberationist theologies, as well as for nearly all revisionist moral theologies. That’s not because he was a radical, though aspects of his theology are innovative and, by the standards of his day, bold and provocative, and not a few Rahnerians adopt radical ideas. Instead, his theology was and remains influential because it promises to restore rather than revolutionize Catholic theology. Rahner was an essentially conservative figure. He reassured rather than challenged the mentality of the pre-conciliar Church.

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