Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Robert Royal’s fine book A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century consists, by and large, of a series of inviting and insightful essays on the great figures who brought that tradition into creative and challenging encounter with a culture that was fast forgetting its Christian roots.

Maritain and Gilson, de Lubac and Rahner, von Balthasar and Ratzinger are treated with generosity and discernment. As are the poets and novelists of the Catholic revival in England and France: Chesterton, Belloc, Greene, and Tolkien; Péguy, Claudel, Bernanos, and Mauriac. Each essay sparkles with appreciation and delight. Yet Royal’s is not an exercise in hagiography. As in all authentic discernment, one comes to recognize both light and shadow. Only thus can one learn and move forward.

I found particular resonance, for personal and professional reasons, in the pages dedicated to the great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner. My own theological education began in the 1960s, at a time both propitious and problematic. I had the grace of studying at Rome’s Gregorian University during the four sessions of Vatican II. I pursued my doctoral work during the ecclesial and cultural upheavals of the late-sixties, with 1968 as the pivotal year of cultural revolution, political assassination, and ecclesial turmoil.

All through the sixties Karl Rahner was, by any measure, the dominant theological voice. He took a leading role in launching the journal “Concilium,” edited the multi-volume Sacramentum Mundi (the one-volume abridgment of which was the ordination present of choice for about ten years), and produced a steady stream of dense articles that sought to further the “aggiornamento” motif of the Council. These articles were quickly gathered into the many volumes of his Schriften zur Theologie, and, with increasing rapidity, translated into English as Theological Investigations.

Almost fifty years since I first read them, I still have vivid and grateful recollections of two of these articles: “The Concept of Mystery in Catholic Theology” and “What Is a Dogmatic Statement?” It would not be excessive to say that they provided me with a real sense of theological liberation. In the face of a more constricted neo-Scholasticism, Rahner enabled one to savor the rich amplitude of the Catholic dogmatic tradition that did not pretend to circumscribe Mystery narrowly, but evoked and pointed toward the true direction in which it was to be encountered, pondered, and celebrated.

Dogma, Rahner taught, is of its very nature mystagogic, and the theologian in the Church is called to be a mystagogue. But that requires that he or she be steeped in the Church’s Tradition and nourished by the Church’s liturgy and spirituality.

Hence Rahner’s commitment to “aggiornamento” cannot be separated from his immersion in “ressourcement”—from his rootedness in Ignatian spirituality, his recovery of the Patristic tradition of the spiritual senses, and his ongoing wrestling with the thought of Thomas Aquinas. Only thus equipped can the theologian engage in fruitful dialogue with the modern world, seeking to illumine its joy and hope, suffering and affliction with the light of the Gospel.

Those of us who fell under the Rahnerian spell in the sixties and seventies reveled in his evocation of God’s Holy Mystery, of God as “semper major,” with its apophatic sensibility. “Si comprehendis, non est Deus,” Rahner repeated with Augustine: If you think to have grasped God, it is not God whom you have grasped.

We also echoed with fervor his insistence upon the inseparability of the Mystery of God and the mystery of man—his “anthropocentric turn” in theology. This promised to help repair the breach which in neo-Scholasticism separated theology and spirituality—a divorce also lamented by Hans Urs von Balthasar, who, like Rahner, was deeply rooted in the Ignatian spiritual tradition.

However, as the seventies bled into the eighties, students of Rahner assumed positions of importance in university and seminary schools of theology. More and more, they lacked the vital immersion in the Catholic theological Tradition that had characterized Rahner himself. Too often, the hard-won and differentiated conclusions of the master became the facile and often clichéd starting points of the disciples.

Rahner’s pregnant apophaticism, awe before the Holy Mystery, became an empty transcendentalism, without form or definition. It became the vague and distant mountain upon whose accommodating surface many salvific paths wended their winding way. Not “no other name,” but “many other names under heaven.”

This suggests what led me and others to take our distance from the Rahnerian enterprise, while, like Robert Royal, remaining appreciative of much that he had accomplished. The crucial issue was the centrality of Jesus Christ. To his immense credit, Rahner always taught, faithful to the liturgical and theological Tradition, that all grace is the grace of Christ. But when this was implicitly or explicitly denied by many who claimed to have learned from him, one could not but wonder whether Rahner’s theological edifice was erected upon insufficient Christological foundations.

In 1970, a young theologian who had collaborated with Rahner during the Council voiced his concerns in a series of probing questions. Royal cites him as asking:

Is it true that Christianity adds nothing to the universal but merely makes it known? Is the Christian really just man as he is? … Is it not the main point of the faith of both Testaments that man is what he ought to be only by conversion, that is, when he ceases to be what he is? Does not Christianity become meaningless when it is reinstated in the universal, whereas what we really want is the new, the other, the saving transformation?

Whether Rahner’s theology allows him to respond adequately to these questions posed by Joseph Ratzinger would fuel a fascinating and lengthy discussion. But by placing the absolute newness of Christ and the transformation it demands at the very center of his theology, Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI continues to inspire and nourish the theology and spirituality of many of us.

Father Robert Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is associate professor emeritus at Boston College and the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination (Liturgical Press).

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles