If Yves Congar was the most influential theologian at Vatican II, Karl Rahner was by all accounts the most prominent theologian from Germany present at the deliberations in Rome. Yves Congar described Rahner’s intellectual engagement in the work of the all-important theological commission in the following evocative terms. The group of advisers sat at a table separate from the actual commission members. ‘If my memory serves me right’, Congar recalled twenty years on, ‘there were three microphones available on both tables.’ The veteran reform theologian, Gerard Philips, the nominal leader of the periti advising the Doctrinal Commission, needed one of the microphones for himself. The two remaining microphones were there to serve the other ten experts. ‘Rahner, however, seemed to have taken over one of these microphones, and that for a good reason. He contributed to the debate more frequently than anyone else, and certainly never in order to say anything that was of no importance.’81 Henri de Lubac once confided to Bernard Sesboue at the time of the council: ‘Rahner is the most outstanding theologian of the twentieth century’, an authoritative and enthusiastic claim, which is not diminished by de Lubac’s subsequent revaluation of Rahner’s heritage when he informed Sesboue in 1983: ‘I would no longer say the same today.’82 Whatever the precise position of Karl Rahner at Vatican II, it is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that Rahner operated at the centre of a distinct declared topic of this study, in its second volume also includes more than 200 fascinating pages on the overall theological contribution by Chenu.

  • 81 Yves Congar, ‘Erinnerungen an Karl Rahner auf dem Zweiten Vatikanum’, in Paul Imhof and Hubert Biallowons (eds), Karl Rahner. Bilder eines Lebens (Zurich: Benziger, 1985), p. 65.
  • 82 Bernard Sesboue, Karl Rahner (Paris: Cerf, 2001), p. 26. By the late 1960s, Henri de Lubac, along with other reform theologians, including such figures as Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, who, earlier on, had formed part of the team of enthusiastic supporters of the council deliberations, distanced themselves from the grouping of theologians most committed to the spirit of Vatican II, leading to the formation of rival publications and a notable deterioration in personal relationships between the two blocs.

shift in the geography of theological innovation, a shift which occurred in the course of the 1960s, a move away from the near-total dominance of French or, at any rate, francophone thinkers as the shapers of the reform agenda in Catholic theology, towards Germans and, most certainly, germanophone theologians as the leading movers and shakers of forward-looking intellectual debates within such circles. It is beyond the remit of this particular study to investigate the causes of this secular shift, but the reality of such a sea change is clear. Congar, Chenu, de Lubac, and other francophone theologians were still in the limelight of council discussions as such, so that the deliberations of Vatican II themselves are, in fact, a poor indicator of this subterranean shift. Yet, in hindsight, it is clear that Vatican II constituted a watershed of sorts or, better, a moment of transition from the uncontested hegemony of French theology towards a new paradigm of German predominance.[1]

Karl Rahner was born less than six weeks earlier than Yves Congar and, like Congar, he reached adulthood and carried out his post-secondary studies in the late 1920s and the turbulent decade of the 1930s. A Heidegger student in his native Freiburg, in 1936 the Jesuit Rahner moved to Innsbruck, Austria. This quaint Tyrolean alpine town was then at the centre of a theological renewal effort organized around a group of theologians including Josef Andreas Jungmann and Rahner’s elder brother, Hugo. Though never wholly convinced of the key theses of kerygmatic theology then formulated in Innsbruck,[2] certain features of it were clearly closely related to Rahner’s own theological innovations, which he developed in the subsequent forty-five years before his death in 1984.

Jungmann’s theology of predication (Verkundigungstheologie) emphasized the need for a theology touching the emotional and mystical needs of humankind. Finding traditional theology, as then taught and practised for some time, far too focused on questions of methodology and painstaking theological detail, theologians at Innsbruck felt that the optimistic, utopian, eschatological dimension of Christian belief was in dire need of being restored to a central place in theological practice. Keeping an eye on the prize of the ultimate goal and fulfilment in salvation, so the kerygmatic theologians contended, would rekindle interest in Christian belief which had become too bogged down in excruciatingly formalistic and thus counterproductive efforts to contend with liberal modernist ideologies. Amongst other things placing greater weight on the figure of Jesus Christ than orthodox theologians, kerygmatic theologians likewise strove to give greater recognition and expression to the views and needs of human beings as such.[3]

In a rather tangible sense, then, during a brief but important period in the late 1930s and early 1940s, kerygmatic theology played a distinct role as a current of renewal within the German-speaking world, not entirely dissimilar to Le Saulchoir in francophone Europe. Yet, as Rosino Gibellini correctly notes, unlike the school of Le Saulchoir, which frontally attacked the dominant paradigm of theological tradition, the Innsbruck school left mainstream theology largely untouched, preferring to offer kerygmatic theology as a parallel or supplemental theology rather than as a superior alternative to the theology taught in seminaries and manuals far and wide. This may well have been a factor behind the less turbulent relationship between Rahner and the church hierarchy. For, regardless of Karl Rahner’s precise involvement with kerygmatic theologians in the late 1930s, Rahner—unlike Congar and, most certainly, Chenu—did not run afoul of church authorities for quite some time.

What, then, were some of the key features of the theology developed by Karl Rahner? As in all other sections of this chapter, the investigative focus will be placed on just some of the main arguments of the theologian under review, with the selective focus on those elements which are of greatest relevance to the increasingly active Left Catholic communities on Western European soil.

One central theme of Rahner’s thought is his constant concern to give prominence to the transcendental dimension of Christian belief. From early on, Rahner kept stressing the eschatological utopia of the ultimate state of grace as an important feature of human practice and human concern. Forever in constant dialogue with secular philosophers, scientists, and philosophers of science, Rahner by the 1950s developed a distinct theology of science which underscored the transcendental destination ofhumanity. Researchers, whether operating in the field of human or natural sciences, carry out their work motivated by the desire to stretch and enlarge the boundaries of knowledge. Yet, Rahner contended, the more scientists discover, the more they realize that the realm of potential knowledge grows ever more vast. Rather than slowly narrowing the limits of science, scientific pursuits enlarge the contours of the yet-to-be-discovered in a never-ending quest for knowledge. Knowledge engenders concrete insights, at the same time as it enables new open questions to be formulated. Most certainly, Rahner avers, science will never be able to discover everything and definitely never the ultimate mysteries of the world and of life. This ultimate destiny will remain the prerogative of religion and belief.

‘As long as one is young, the danger is present to overestimate science. As one grows older, one realizes that science is not at all about deciphering the ultimate puzzles of existence. Instead, one grows more understanding vis-a-vis those persons who expound the word of God’, wrote Rahner in a 1957 contribution.[4] ‘All learning about the world, all views of the world, all classifying comprehension of the multitude of phenomena in this world thus occur in anticipation of the unimaginable, the incomprehensible, that which is not part of this world and the image of the world, but which is an infinity, which cannot be comprehended as a manifestation of this world and its laws, that which stands behind the multitude of earthly realities’, explained Rahner in a 1954 article attempting to grapple with the relationship between science

and belief.[5]

Yet, what could easily have become a conception of the limits of science leading to passivity and an attitude of quiet, step-by-step and detailed empirical earthly pursuits in expectation of the eventual certainty of the ultimate salvation and the Kingdom of God, takes on a wholly activist and dynamic dimension in Rahner. For the focus on the transcendental redemption of life on earth goes coupled with a deep-going and equally fundamental concern with what is often called ‘the anthropological approach ofhis theology’. Unlike much traditional theology, which then continuously strove to teach human beings the supposedly eternal values of theological doctrines, Rahner was most interested in the lived experience of humanity which, when placed in juxtaposition with the message of much religious belief, often clashed with the latter. Rahner concluded with a maxim which made many traditionalists frown: ‘At the very beginning stands the human being, not the Church’s statement of faith.’[6]

Transcendental destiny and everyday life became two sides of the same coin for Rahner, whose theology ‘represents the most vigorous contribution emanating from the world of theology to what has been called the “anthropological turn” in theology’, writes Rosino Gibellini in his informative survey of twentieth-century theological trends.[7] ‘Transcendental experience’, in the eyes of Rahner, is ‘cause, condition of possibility and horizon of the experience of everyday life’,[8] or, as Rahner formulated it towards the end of his life: ‘If this experience of transcendence, lived by human beings in everyday life, where they are constantly going beyond all limits, can be called “mystique”, then one could say that mystique happens already right in the middle of everyday life, hidden and unnamed, the condition of possibility for the most simple and elementary experience in everyday life.’[9]

  • [1] For a stimulating apergu of this intellectual paradigm shift in Catholic theology, noteChristian Sorrel, ‘La Theologie francophone au lendemain du concile Vatican II. Dominanteou dominee?’, in Dominique Avon and Michel Fourcade (eds), Un nouvel age de la theologie?1965-1980 (Paris: Karthala, 2009), pp. 181-91.
  • [2] ‘For good reasons, this theory elicited no interest’, claims Rahner retrospectively in hisentry for ‘Kerygmatische Theologie’, in Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimmler, Kleines theolo-gisches Worterbuch (Freiburg: Herder, 1963), p. 196.
  • [3] Rosino Gibellini furnishes a pithy summary of the Innsbruck school of kerygmatic theologyin his Panorama, pp. 241-7.
  • [4] Karl Rahner, ‘Der Akademiker. Notizen zur Frdmmigkeit des Akademikers’, in KarlRahner, Sendung und Gnade. Beitrage zur Pastoraltheologie (Innsbruck: Tyrolia, 1959), p. 312.
  • [5] Karl Rahner, ‘Wissenschaft als “Konfession”?’, in Karl Rahner, Schriften zur Theologie,Vol. III: Zur Theologie des geistlichen Lebens (Einsiedeln: Benziger, 1956), p. 459.
  • [6] Karl-Heinz Weger, Karl Rahner. Eine Einfuhrung in sein theologisches Denken (Freiburg:Herder, 1978), citations on pp. 22 and 23. I have only partially relied on the English translation ofthis text, Karl-Heinz Weger, Karl Rahner. An Introduction to his Theology (New York: Seabury,1980), pp. 14-15.
  • [7] Gibellini, Panorama, p. 269.
  • [8] Karl Rahner, ‘Ideologien und Christentum’, in Karl Rahner, Schriften zur Theologie,Vol. VI: Neuere Schriften (Einsiedeln: Benziger, 1965), p. 68.
  • [9] Karl Rahner, Erfahrung des Geistes. Meditation aufPfingsten (Freiburg: Herder, 1977), p. 29.
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