Karl Rahner 1904-1984

March 31, 2009 in General, News

rahner_01.jpgOn 30 March UCD held a seminar in Newman House to mark the 25 years that have passed since Karl Rahner slipped into what he had called “the colossal silent emptiness of death”, and beyond that into the mystery of the ineffable God. He was the greatest Jesuit theologian of the 20th century. His bibliography contains some 4000 titles, material for endless doctoral theses. Paul Andrews SJ, who has lived two years longer than Karl did, bows respectfully towards the scholars and reflects instead on the occasions when Karl impacted on him. Read more.


Paul Andrews SJ

When, in 1950, I went to study philosophy in Pullach near Munich, our professor of Ontology was a corpulent, gregarious Bavarian called John Baptist Lotz. To us he was distinguished not so much for his philosophy – he re-wrote his codex every year into ever more cloudy shapes – as for the curious fact that he had gone to Freiburg with Karl Rahner seeking a doctorate in philosophy; and JB had succeeded where Karl (see Jesuitica below) had flunked.

heidegger_02.jpgYet we knew that Karl was incomparably the brighter philosopher; and even if he left Freiburg without a doctorate – his Provincial called him away to teach theology before he could rewrite his thesis as his supervisor wanted – he had learned a great deal there, especially at the feet of the prestigious professor of philosophy Martin Heidegger. He had learned, in existentialist mode, to see human existence as defined and impacted by the horizon of death. When faced with this aggressively anti-Christian Nazi, Karl learned the importance of discernment: he could find truth in the thinking of even those hostile to the church and its teaching. It started his journey towards the theory of the anonymous Christian. Where anyone, including the atheist or agnostic, protests against injustice, suffering and meaningless death, harbouring a hope so deep that it can go undetected, there is God.

Karl was a teacher’s son, the fourth of seven children. He followed his older brother Hugo into the Jesuits, and the story was told in Pullach how during the long years of what was called “formation”, the two of them spent their summers reading systematically through the 217 volumes of Migne’s Latin Patrology, and the 166 volumes of the Greek Patrology. In other words, the Rahners mastered the theological thinking of the church from the time of the Apostles. Nobody could accuse them of second-hand scholarship. What they wrote about the Scriptures or the Fathers was from primary sources.

However, in Karl, the same radical questioning that had embarrassed his conservative doctoral supervisor had also led him into trouble with censors, whether of the Society or of the Vatican. He was said to keep in a trunk ten typescript books, which he was not allowed to publish. There is no surer sign of his greatness than that he continued patiently, under this cloud, to study, to teach, to write and to preach.

The 1930s and 1940s were dark years for German Jesuits. The Nazis saw them as enemies of the Reich. They closed down the Innsbruck theologate where Karl was teaching, and banished him from Tyrol. Under the cloud of a double persecution, by the state and by the Vatican, he moved to pastoral work in Vienna, and developed a Christian response to what he called the “collective madness” of Nazism. Ever since his noviciate the Spiritual Exercises had been central to his life. Now the meditation on the Two Standards gave him the fortitude to keep working through two decades of darkness.

He lived under that cloud until a momentous phone-call from Cardinal Konig, archbishop of Vienna, in the early 1960s, inviting Karl to be his personal theologian at the Second Vatican Council. The Inquisitors at the CDF made one last lunge at him. They required him to submit all his future writings to the Vatican’s Holy Office for censorship before publication. Bishops and academics, outraged at this insult to Karl’s orthodoxy, protested to Pope John XXIII, who intervened personally to defend Rahner, and later nominated him to the influential theological commission of Vatican II. At last he was able to dust off the books under his bed, and in that post-Conciliar Spring became more productive than ever before.

He wrote in long, convoluted sentences, sometimes the length of a paragraph, to guard against being quoted out of context. When, in 1956, I translated Cor Salvatoris (it remains the definitive book on devotion to the Sacred Heart), I found Karl’s chapter the most rewarding but also the most laborious to render into English. As the cloud lifted and he felt less threatened, his prose grew simpler. He was driven by a pastoral concern for people and their spiritual lives, and believed the task of theology was to serve preaching, to reach people where they are. He developed a theology of everyday things, like sleeping, laughter and leisure. Because he trusted both his God-given intelligence and the sources of Revelation, he would not shy from such controversial topics as the courage needed to remain in a sinful church, or the ordination of women.

One spring I listened to him preaching in the hospital church in Innsbruck. After the Gospel he walked down to the altar rails to speak. There was no microphone – the church was small – but as he opened his mouth an elderly lady approached the altar rails and held up her ear-trumpet like a microphone in front of Karl’s face. Karl was unfazed, and expounded the Gospel into the trumpet and beyond it, calmly and lucidly for ten minutes before resuming Mass. I saw the same unforced humility when he visited Ireland in the 1960s, and asked to be shown the school where I was working. He was obviously at his ease with teachers and with even the youngest boys, and at the same time full of curiosity: a happy man. What a blessing to have had such a giant in our Company!