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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.

He became so influential in part because he had students, which was not true of Balthasar, who never had a teaching post, or Henri de Lubac, who didn’t teach systematic theology and was barred from teaching for nearly a decade, or Joseph Ratzinger, who became a bishop in the earlier stages of his career as a professor. It’s important not to underestimate this factor. Professors who teach and mentor students always have the most influence over academic culture.

He was also so influential because, a classically trained German academic, he was extremely productive. Editor of a number of editions of Denzinger, a compendium of snippets from official Church doctrines that once served as the definitive collection of proof texts for theologians, he also served on the editorial boards of journals and launched multivolume dictionaries of theology and other mainstays of academic research. His justly famous theological essays (published in many volumes) provide magisterial summaries of the scholarly literature.

Far more important for his remarkable influence after Vatican II, however, was the conservative structure and “feel” of his theology. Of all the “new theologians” who rejected neo-scholasticism, his style was the most conventional. It preserved the intellectual gestalt or form of neo-scholasticism.

For example, in the modern era, Catholic theology had developed distinct specializations: ecclesiology, moral theology, systematic theology, historical theology, liturgical theology, biblical studies, and so forth. Rahner did nothing to challenge this system of specialization. In his academic work, he addressed a broad range of topics, and he published many of his homilies and spiritual talks, but in every instance he was clear to issue disclaimers about his competence, always insisting that he could only speak tentatively about matters outside of his professional expertise as a systematic theologian. A professor or graduate student could retool as a Rahnerian without leaving his comfort zone as a systematic theologian. In that sense, Rahner reinforced rather than revolutionized. He reassured the academic guild.

This academic conventionality stands in marked contrast to the transgressive style of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Balthasar thought nothing of immersing himself in biblical scholarship for a period of time and then writing with a confident directness and scriptural immediacy about the passion of Christ, which he did for his contribution to Mysterium Salutis, a multi-volume handbook of dogmatic theology put together by Rahner and others to displace neo-scholastic handbooks. Balthasar subsequently published this material as the extraordinary and un-categorizable book Mysterium Pascale.

Rahner was also conventional in the way he argued. He made his own famous contribution to Mysterium Salutis. It was a bold and fundamental rejection of the main lines of earlier doctrines of God and theologies of the Trinity, making him seem a revolutionary thinker. But his mode of argument was conventional, and slots easily into modern Catholic scholarly treatments of the Trinity. He can be taught alongside earlier scholastic theologians, and students will have little difficulty seeing how he modified and overturned inherited theological assumptions and conclusions. Yes, he challenged the substance of neo-scholasticism, but not its habits of mind.

Rahner also used philosophy in a way that challenged the substance but reinforced the basic form of earlier approaches. During the modern era, the natural sciences, sociology, and philosophy began to organize our perceptions of reality without recourse to revelation. The upshot was often a worldview under the mastery of concepts uncongenial to theological reflection. To remedy this, the modern Catholic tradition emphasized an explicitly pre-theological mode of philosophical analysis and formation. Settling philosophical questions was thought to be an essential first step toward having a robust and effective theological culture. We need to develop the correct philosophy in order for our faith to have traction in life.

In his introductory course in theology, published in English as Foundations of Christian Faith, Rahner promises to “try as far as possible to situate Christianity within the intellectual horizon of people today.” For the neoscholasticism Rahner rejected, situating Christianity on the intellectual horizon of people today required doing battle with modern philosophy in order to secure crucial metaphysical claims. Rahner’s approach is quite different. He adopts and modifies rather than challenges and refutes modern philosophy. That marks an important substantive change, which most scholars and historians of theology see as decisive. But we need to keep our eyes on the role he assigns to philosophy. Rahner agrees that we need to nail down certain philosophical claims in order to gain a workable “idea” of Christianity. Philosophical clarification and formation come before theology. That’s very traditional.

Because Rahner reinforced neoscholastic habits of mind, he was an innovator congenial to the Catholic academic culture of his day. But he was much more than congenial. He was in many ways the ultimate establishment theologian, and in his heyday his influence was profound and pervasive. That’s because his theology promised to vindicate the mid-twentieth-century hopes of the Church’s leaders: that the Church might join with people of goodwill to address the pressing moral and social questions of our time, that the faithful might see their life of discipleship as an integral human vocation, and that our broken world might awaken to the healing, humanizing power of the gospel. These hopes are most clearly expressed in Gaudium et Spes, which, sociologically speaking, was the most conservative document of the Second Vatican Council.

Each dimension of this profound expression of Christian solidarity with the world is fitting, because based in truth. Christ is the Alpha and Omega; by him and in him are all things made. But the atmosphere of Gaudium et Spes is one of nostalgia for Christendom, reflecting as it does an earnest desire to find a path toward reintegrating the distinctive imperatives of the gospel to which the Church must remain loyal with the increasingly self-confident and independent secular West. It’s this nostalgia, a nostalgia that longs to repair and restore the Church’s central role in the West, that makes Gaudium et Spes conservative.

Rahner’s theology can be best understood as reflecting this mid-twentieth-century restorationist desire for a new, modern-friendly integralism, the technical term for social conditions that allow Christian institutions to work harmoniously with secular ones, and to do so with a widely recognized spiritual and moral authority. Two major features of his theology, both central to his theological project, allow him to satisfy this desire. In one form or another, they make Rahnerians Rahnerian. He argues for a philosophy built on the supposition that all human subjectivity is based on a “pre-apprehension of being” that can be understood as a transcendental (not categorical) experience of God. In order to give this transcendental experience a Christian valence, he argues for an account of nature and grace that introduces a “pre-apprehension of the Incarnation,” as it were.

First, then, the notion of a “pre-apprehension of being.” Our consciousness has, as he puts it, “an openness for absolutely everything, for being as such.” We can’t, of course, translate this openness into actual knowledge. As finite beings, we can’t take in “absolutely everything.” Therefore, this consciousness is transcendental, which means that we have an underlying consciousness or disposition toward something always more, something always greater, which is of course God.

This can seem like a version of one of the five ways of St. Thomas, but it’s not. The traditional arguments for the existence of God make a case for the proposition that God exists. Rahner’s argument is different. His line of reasoning leads to the conclusion that every actual experience is underlined by a transcendental experience, which is, as he puts it, “the subjective, unthematic, necessary and unfailing consciousness of the knowing subject that is co-present in every spiritual act of knowledge.” From there, he argues that everybody always already experiences the infinite horizon of being, which he elsewhere calls “holy mystery” or God.

The “always already” shows the genius of Rahner’s transcendental method. He is not arguing that God exists. He’s instead arguing that every authentic act of human subjectivity has beneath it a pre-apprehension or consciousness of God, something that’s true even if a person denies the proposition that God exists. This allows him to slide toward the assumption that an inevitable God-consciousness, a hidden affinity and openness to theology, lies beneath or hidden within the cultural and moral discourses of the post-Christian secular West. The new integralism sought by Gaudium et Spes is, in a sense, always already present and achieved. Transcendental experience ensures a perpetual partnership between theology and human subjectivity as such.

That’s the first major feature. The second is what I’ve called the pre-apprehension of the Incarnation. Though we have this God-consciousness, the Church proclaims Christ, not God. The nostalgia at Vatican II was for a Christian integralism, not a theistic one. So Rahner needs to do more than argue for transcendental experience. He needs to show that our transcendental experience is somehow intrinsically Christ-oriented. To use the technical terminology of Catholic scholasticism: He needs to argue that there is a universal supernatural mode of transcendental experience rather than merely a natural one.

This he does. In 1950, Pius XII issued the encyclical Humani Generis condemning various trends in theology, the most important of which were efforts to provide a theological foundation for reintegrating distinctively Christian and Catholic beliefs and modes of life with the broad sweep of human reality. This debate was carried out in terms of the relation of nature (what pertains to our humanity as such) and the supernatural or grace (that which is possible only in and through our fellowship with Christ).

Put crudely, there are two trajectories in this debate. One goes in the direction of intrinsicism. In this view, grace fulfills and completes natural tendencies already at work within the human person. Christ tops us off, as it were. Those who sought a broadly affirmative approach to human experience and culture adopted this approach, because it supposes that to a great degree our natural tendencies are heading in the right direction. The other trajectory leads to extrinsicism. In this view, the supernatural or grace is an unexpected and new possibility, one in decisive ways discontinuous with our natural tendencies. Christ does something unique and unexpected for and in us. Those seeking to buttress the authority of the Church tended toward this position, because the Church’s teaching and sacraments make available to us a grace we’re not able to anticipate—and therefore are in no position to critique as not properly fitted to our expectations and needs.

In an important technical article, “Concerning the Relationship between Nature and Grace,” published in the midst of the heated debates that precipitated Humani Generis and its condemnations, Rahner makes an argument that seems to split the difference but in fact provides a formally traditional basis for the intrinsicist trajectory, the culture-friendly option. He argues that there must be a distinction between nature and grace. If Christ tops us off, then as creator God owes to us the completion of what he began, which of course can’t be right, because God does not owe us grace. Therefore, he takes it as a necessary presupposition that grace and our supernatural life in Christ must be genuinely “above” our natural, created capacities. But God doesn’t want to hit us over the head with something entirely new and alien; grace cannot be “extrinsic.”

Therefore, Rahner hypothesizes, from the very outset God gives us an intrinsic, anticipatory grace that establishes in us something that can be drawn out and completed in Christ. This something is not “natural” in the strict sense, and as such it can’t be a capacity or potency. Given by grace, it must be “supernatural.” Drawing on technical distinctions in Heidegger that allow him to talk about defining features of life that are not part of our natures, he designates this grace our “supernatural existential,” a transcendental quality of human experience that points our natural capacities in a supernatural direction.

With the concept of a “supernatural existential” in hand, Rahner can put Christ into transcendental experience. It’s not the case that everybody already knows Christ any more than it’s the case that everybody already believes in God. But the argument here (as before) is not about what we believe; it’s about the origin, shape, and tendency of our consciousness as such. The concept of the supernatural existential allows Rahner to suppose that all human experience and culture has been divinely influenced to anticipate Christ, not in the negative mode of rejection (which is the dominant biblical mode) but rather in a positive mode of welcoming him. Christ is what we’re always already stammering as we try to answer the question of our humanity. We need but recognize and make explicit what is already present, which is the transcendental experience that whispers Christ, however haltingly. Thus does Rahner vindicate the new integralism hoped for in Gaudium et Spes.

Both major features—transcendental experience and the supernatural existential—served the conservative, restorationist hopes of the mid-twentieth-century Catholic Church. She had become demoralized by the inability of neoscholasticism to successfully reintegrate European culture around the leadership of the Church. Scholarly books written at that time and later, after Rahner and others succeeded in supplanting neoscholasticism, itemize the problems: an inability to deal with “history,” a “fortress mentality,” a metaphysical system with no room for “experience,” an ineffective moral theology, and more. Formulated by protagonists in the theological struggles of mid-century Catholicism and uncritically repeated by many in recent decades, these descriptions are often inaccurate and tendentious. A satisfactory history of twentieth-century Catholicism has yet to be written.

But the very real feelings of failure and disconnection cannot be gainsaid. Many Catholic intellectuals suspected that what the Church was talking about wasn’t what really matters. Many bishops of that era feared that, if forced to choose, the faithful would obey the various magisteria of secular culture rather than the apostolic authority of the Church. In that context, Rahner’s theology was a godsend. He allowed for theologians to argue that the felt imperatives of the human heart—religious and secular, Christian or otherwise—are in harmony. We need not choose, but instead must work to discern and nurture the Christ-desiring dimensions that are necessarily part of every human experience.

More than two decades ago Augustine DiNoia wrote an account of Karl Rahner for a survey of twentieth-century theology, The Modern Theologians. He noted that an unfortunate Rahnerian “orthodoxy” had taken root, but nonetheless expressed optimism. “The deeply traditional and scholastic character of Rahner’s thought, and the recognition that he cannot be properly assessed apart from the achievements of classical theology, will presumably encourage a more balanced appropriation of his theology.” I was once persuaded by this prophecy. The hours I spent reading Rahner taught me what academic theology is for, which is to exposit and clarify the logic of revelation, drawing out its implications and meeting objections. I even wrote a book defending Rahner’s account of nature and grace.

Looking back now, however, an objective observer must conclude that Rahner had an almost entirely negative influence on Catholic theology after Vatican II. First, Rahner is the great figure after the council who, because he was committed to sustaining disciplinary boundaries, was most likely to keep the Bible in a hermetically sealed box to be opened only by biblical scholars under controlled conditions. In other words, he inadvertently made theology less biblical, exacerbating rather than remedying a significant defect in the neoscholastic tradition. Second, his transcendental philosophy obscures the Christian claim to truth, encouraging a debilitating theological relativism. And third, his great desire to find Christ everywhere ends up obscuring the role of Christ at the center of Christian life, thought, and practice.

When it comes to Scripture, the difference between Rahner and Ratzinger could not be more dramatic, and with telling results. Where Rahner seeks to establish the cogency of the “idea of Christianity” with transcendental arguments, Ratzinger focuses on expositing the intrinsic form of the Christian mystery, especially in its biblical and liturgical expressions. He has surely been right to do so. Modern science and philosophy challenge Christian claims about reality, the soul, and God. But as a cultural reality, modernity challenges in a different way: It claims our loyalty. Most people are not intellectuals, including the intellectuals. What we need is ballast, not arguments. We need a rich sense of the inner coherence and beauty of what we believe rather than an “idea” with which to manage our relations to modern culture.

Our theologies must be more direct and more scriptural. We need to allow ourselves to be described as academically naive, not in the sense of being unsophisticated or unaware of scholarly standards, but rather because our work must find its source—including its concepts, idioms, and rhetoric—in the Church, not contemporary intellectual culture, which falsely claims to provide the most fitting concepts, terms, and methods for a life devoted to truth. Although it was not his intention, with his use of transcendental categories Rahner drained theology of density and solidity.

Rahner also undermined Catholic theology’s capacity to speak with clarity about truth. His approach has encouraged many to translate the theological doctrine of God’s transcendence into an epistemological doctrine of God’s unknowability. The consequences have been dire and too multifaceted to itemize here. They can be summarized as a tendency toward theological relativism, especially among those who get their Rahner secondhand. Today, a great deal of Catholic theology will admit of no material criteria for theological truth. What we have instead are formal criteria such as “experience” and “dialogue,” both of which are qualities of consciousness, or ways to “raise consciousness.” We also have theologies organized to serve reciprocity, solidarity, or social justice, which are again features of consciousness and culture rather than truths affirmed and known. This follows directly from Rahner’s approach, which makes features of consciousness (“pre-apprehension of being”) central.

Catholic theology needs to change the subject back to propositions that can be true or false. This means a return to metaphysics in philosophy and dogma in theology. Such a return need not exclude Rahner’s transcendental analysis. His “idea of Christianity” can be a useful thought experiment that provides orientation in modern intellectual culture. Moreover, a renewed dogmatic theology can draw on Rahner’s often brilliant expositions of doctrine.

But first and foremost, we need to speak about the truth: the truth about reality, about the soul, and about God. These are the truths that modernity challenges, demanding from us answers. We’ve got to know what we believe and why before we can meet that challenge and give our answers. This return to truth from the misty realm of “meaning” will make theology intellectually more relevant, not less so, for metaphysical realism and authoritative dogma must be reckoned with, even if only to be refuted and denied. This is not the case for “experience” and “dialogue,” which is why so much of contemporary Catholic theology influenced by Rahner is so marginal in academic culture.

The failures of Rahner’s theology stem from the fact that his conservative efforts to restore Christian integralism were theoretical rather than real, as I suspect they had to be, given that Europe was moving in a post-Christian direction. To my mind, this is what made his theology particularly destructive. In order to conjure harmonies, he adopts the transcendental method, a muddy mediating voice that is neither empirical, nor metaphysical, nor dogmatic, nor scriptural.

This becomes particularly debilitating when he takes up the central Christian affirmation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Incarnate Word of God. With the transcendental method, Rahner can make a formal affirmation of the particularity of Christ, but his approach tends to dissolve Christ into an idea or concept that our consciousness anticipates.

The consequences are significant, as Bruce Marshall has demonstrated with devastating clarity in Christology in Conflict, a comparison of the “identity of a savior” in Rahner and Karl Barth published in the late eighties. Marshall asks which has logical priority for one’s faith: the particular person Jesus Christ, as Barth claimed, or a general religious anthropology allied with the idea of an absolute savior, as Rahner argued. If we answer this question in favor of the particular person of Jesus, then our destiny turns on his presence in Word and sacrament as passed down and guarded by the authority of the Church, and our theology flows from these sources. If we opt for the idea, then what matters most is theological anthropology and method.

Those options define many issues facing Catholic theology today, and we need to side with Barth. For example, questions of authority in theology are rooted in questions about the nature of our salvation in Christ. Rahner’s theology has not encouraged a theological culture enthusiastic about ecclesial loyalty. We need to show the deep christological need for a theological loyalty to the Church and the magisterium.

An integral role for Scripture in theology, the importance of robust claims about truth, clear affirmations of the first-century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, as the fount of all truth—these are important for a healthy theological culture. But faith is more than theology, and the Church more than her theologians. On this point, Rahner’s influence has been perhaps the most harmful. His efforts to theorize a new integralism flattered and perpetuated the mid-twentieth-century illusion that we don’t face hard choices.

Balthasar criticized Rahner soon after the council for reducing the moment of decision for Christ to affirmations of “a bland and shallow humanism.” Balthasar saw a pattern in salvation history that heightens rather than relaxes the contrasts between Church and world. In that sense, he was far less conservative than Rahner and the mainstream mid-century Catholic consensus Rahner represented, which was so eager to return to earlier harmonies. Balthasar was also far truer to the way the Bible sees faith in relation to the world, and far more prescient about how the Church’s post-conciliar experience of secular modernity would unfold.

Balthasar’s criticism came home to me a decade ago, when I taught Rahner’s Foundations. Most of my students were pre-med science majors. They were naturally interested in Rahner’s attempt to reconcile faith in Christ with the Darwinian theory of evolution. After all, we face a hard question: Is what modern science teaches about the origins and destiny of our lives true, or is what the Church teaches true? Or can they be harmonized? To draw on the title of Balthasar’s book criticizing Rahner, Cordula oder der Ernstfall (The Moment of Christian Witness in an English translation), it is an Ernstfall, a moment of existential emergency. Secular modernity makes claims about truth without regard to our faith, and we feel naked before these challenges.

When we had a class discussion of the material, I was taken aback. The students expressed an almost bitter disappointment. Rahner, they said, discusses neither evolution directly nor Christ, but instead a nonscientific “idea” of evolution and a concept of an absolute savior developed at many removes from traditional christological terms. For my students, his analysis is neither convincingly scientific nor clearly rooted in the Church’s own language of faith. With his transcendental formulations and mediating voice, Rahner does not answer the hard questions. Instead, he changes the subject. That’s tempting. We all like to change the subject when we face hard questions. But it’s futile, and not just futile but destructive when it becomes the main method for theologians, who should be providing intellectual leadership for the Church.

A final word. I have a great deal of sympathy for Rahner and the Rahnerian project. I too sigh with a desire for a new integralism. I would like to see my faith working in harmony with the best aspects of modern secular culture. I want to achieve an affirmative stance toward religious and cultural pluralism. As a participant in contemporary life, I find myself rooting for the success of Gaudium et Spes, for I want to see myself at the center rather than the periphery, as taking full possession of the best of modernity while still remaining loyal to Christ. Christ or culture? I too want to avoid hard choices, as did so many Catholic leaders after World War II, a time when Christianity and the Church seemed relevant again and something of the old days could be restored, admittedly on new terms.

But it’s not 1965 anymore. Then, the Catholic Church was led by men born in the nineteenth century, most of whom had difficulty even imagining Christianity on the margins of Western culture. They wanted an updated integralism, and that’s what Rahner’s theology promised. He was alluring because his transcendental method and its muddy middle voice seemed to make hard choices unnecessary. Now it’s become painfully apparent that in many spheres of life we must choose between the authority of Christ and the many and various worldly powers that define what counts as healthy, normal, and fulfilling.

We must let go of our restorationist dreams of integralism and face the emergency situation of the Church in the West. To a certain degree, Rahner’s successors have done so. There is very little nostalgia for integralism left in the Jesuit theologian Roger Haight. He now argues with clarity that a great deal of what the Church has taught through the ages must be relativized, if not rejected outright. He has made his choice: solidarity with our experience of modernity. Which means, essentially, against Catholic theology.

The future of Catholic theology rests in the opposite choice: solidarity with the apostolic tradition as vouchsafed to us by the Church. We need not renounce the intellectual, artistic, and cultural achievements of the past, which are great and enduring. In those achievements, we can see the fundamental truth of Gaudium et Spes: Christ is the seminal force in all that is true and noble in human history, and in him all things are brought to their completion. But ours is a Christ-forgetful age, and the Church’s patrimony is losing its cultural currency. The truths we know to be true are no longer buttressed as they once were by philosophers, poets, artists, and composers.

Thus the Ernstfall, the emergency situation. At times, not even the faithful can provide supports for their own affirmations of the truth of Christ. Our minds are formed in large part by the secular academy, which makes the authority of our reason unreliable. Our artistic culture is deformed, and so the authority of our taste is suspect. Most of us can’t count on the authority of our experience, not even the deliverances of our consciences, which in all likelihood are malformed. Without these reliable supports, our faith is naked and vulnerable, unable to weave a handsome garment of philosophy and culture around itself, at least not in a reliable, convincing way for a wide variety of believers.

“Who do you say that I am?” Theology has something to say in every age if it gives a clear and direct answer to Jesus’ question. This we must do, and because our tradition is deep, rich, and living, we can do so with philosophical, historical, and cultural sophistication. But we must have courage to endure the world’s reaction—and to endure our own interior poverty as children of our world. Our secular, critical age cannot help but regard a metaphysically ambitious and dogmatically confident theology as barbaric in its direct claims to truth. Let us affirm this primitive power rather than change the subject, as does Rahner’s theology.

For therein lies our strength. The density and solidity of the Church’s witness is her most potent force: morally, intellectually, and spiritually. This is especially true in our postmodern era, which suffers from a cultural osteoporosis, a weakening brought on by a steady diet of critique. The era of integralism is over. Theology after Rahner needs to take up Samson’s jawbone.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.

Image by Jesromtel licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.