Karl Rahner
Krista Stevens

In his book Introducing Contemporary Theologies, Neil Ormerod says that no “Catholic theologian has contributed more to the development of contemporary theology than Karl Rahner. He has made major contributions to every area of theology, through is books, articles, theological dictionaries and his 'notebooks'” (Ormerod, 93). From early on in his theological career, Palmer's interests are clear. He entered into the Society of Jesus at the age of 18 on April 20, 1922, and went on to study philosophy and then theology at the Jesuit school of theology in Valkenburg, Holland. These early studies are important for many reasons. First, the Church was pushing for a condemnation of modernism and so theology courses “followed the prescribed method and prescribed terminology of a strict neo-Scholasticism which dictates not only correct answers but also correct questions” (Dych, 5). In later years Rahner would protest this type of theology. Despite his dissatisfaction with some of the theology curriculum, parts of his studies were of great value. Rahner became “thoroughly conversant with large areas of patristic theology by reading the Church Fathers on such topics as grace, sacraments, spirituality and mysticism....His early interest in the Ignatian notions of prayer, mysticism, and existential decision-making became a lifelong preoccupation” (Dych, 5-6). From these studies, Rahner developed his style of doing transcendental theology that Ormerod says border on becoming “philosophical anthropology” (Ormerod, 94). This emphasis on philosophy is important, however, because “such a philosophical approach is firmly entrenched in Catholic tradition. It is a mark of the power of that tradition that Rahner is able to produce such a profound reflection on the Christian faith” (Ormerod, 95). This type of approach, along with Rahner's reflections on Christianity and on the Catholic Church, would have lasting effects before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council.

In the years leading up to Vatican II, Rahner often found himself in a place where he was forced to take a stand against the church, hi 1943 while Rahner was living in Vienna, the archbishop of Freiburg wrote a letter to the bishops of Germany and Austria “warning them of dangerous innovations in Catholic doctrine and liturgy” (Dych, 9). Rahner's archbishop did not agree with this letter and asked his Pastoral Office to draft a response which Rahner wrote. This response is important because it shows Rahner's “acute sense of the need for the kind of reform in Church teaching and liturgy which was in fact undertaken 20 years later by the Second Vatican Council” (Dych, 10). In the years leading up to Vatican II, Rahner would embark on a prolific writing career in which one project in particular serves to foreshadow Rahner's importance in regard to the Council. From early in his career, “he was convinced of the need to dispel the notion that Catholic theology was a monolith in which everything of importance was settled, and therefore he saw the need for a forum in which disputed questions could be discussed and progress in theology could be made.” (Dych, 10). Rahner was able to put this idea into action with the publication of the first volume of a series entitled Quaestiones Disputatae, in which Rahner published eight of his own books and co-authored another eight. Even before Vatican II, Rahner seems to be hinting at the necessity of a council to address Church reform.

Not everyone, however, supported Rahner's ideas or saw the need for theological or church reform and renewal. In 1951 Rahner was forbidden to publish “Problems of contemporary Mariology,” a manuscript in which he “raised important questions about the nature of Tradition and the development of doctrine, particularly from an ecumenical point of view” (Dych, 11). In 1954 Pope Pius XII, in a public statement, took issue with what Rahner had written in an earlier 1949 article called “The many Masses and the one sacrifice.” In this article Rahner “raised a variety of questions about the relationship between the Masses celebrated by the Church and the sacrifice of the cross they make present, about the 'fruits of the Mass' and the value of multiplying the number of Masses, and about the possibility of concelebration for priests” (Dych, 11). After Pius' statement, Rahner was forbidden to further discuss the issue of concelebration. Finally, in 1962, Rahner was told by his Jesuit superiors that everything he wrote had to be submitted to Rome for prior censorship. This special censorship was not lifted until May of 1963 (interestingly seven months after Vatican II began).

Ironically, during the Vatican imposed censorship on Rahner, drastic changes were occurring in Rome. Rahner played only a small role in the preparatory work leading up to the Council, serving as an advisor to the commission addressing the restoration of the permanent diaconate, but as the Council progressed, Rahner would come to have a larger role. At the council, Rahner was “appointed one of the official periti, or theological experts of the Council. This gave him access to the Council sessions in St. Peter's.” (Dych, 13). Despite this access to Vatican II, however, most of Rahner's influence came outside of the official sessions in his discussions with not only German-speaking bishops but other regional bishops as well. In 1962 Rahner, along with Joseph Ratzinger, prepared a document addressing the question of Scripture and Tradition as sources of revelation. Their document was an alternate text to the one submitted to the Council by the preparatory commission, and their document was accepted by the German bishops' conference (Dych, 13). By the time the Council closed in December of 1965, Rahner's influence on the Church was obvious. Rahner had “exercised enormous influence on the final shape of many of the conciliar documents. Traces of his theology can be found in the Council's teachings on the Church, on papal primacy and the episcopate, on revelation and the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, on the inspiration of the Bible, on the sacraments and the diaconate, on the relationship of the Church to the modem world, on the possibility of salvation outside the Church even for non-believers, and in many other areas” (Dych, 13).

In addition to the lingering effects of his work during Vatican II on the post-conciliar Church, Rahner would continue to make contributions to the Church through his ideas and writings. In 1979 Rahner wrote an essay in which he discussed the lasting effects of Vatican II and its newly recognized role as a world church. In his essay Rahner divided church history into three periods. The first period was “that short period of Jewish Christianity (A.D. 30-49) when Christianity was proclaimed within one culture only: Israel” (McCarthy, 64). The second period was a period in which the gospel “was proclaimed not in Jewish culture but in the Roman-Hellenistic culture in European and, eventually North American culture and civilization. Christianity and western culture were goods exported to the cultures of Africa, Latin America, India, and the Orient” (McCarthy, 64). Finally, the third period emerged with the beginning of Vatican II when the “church appeared for the first time as a world church in a fully official way. The church had found ways to formulate and incarnate the gospel within the traditions and customs of each culture” (McCarthy, 64). Rahner said that the signs of this change were obvious. He pointed out that the council had “brought together indigenous representatives of all the world's countries and cultures; it advocated the vernacular in the liturgy; it highlighted the authority of bishops in their dioceses; it recognized the autonomy and independence of regional or national churches; it expressed an opening to the world and historical consciousness; it made the first truly positive statements about other religions; and it produced the document on religious liberty” (McCarthy, 64-65). Rahner concluded his essay, however, with a warning. Despite the changes that had already been brought about in the Church, Rahner believed that the church still had many steps to take in becoming de-Europeanized and de-Romanized. He felt that if the Church did not take these steps “it would remain a western church and, in the final analysis, betray the meaning of Vatican II and aggiornamento” (McCarthy, 65).

Finally, aside from his conflict with the Vatican, Rahner, throughout his life, seemed to be held in high repute by his peers, colleagues, and students. Rahner was perhaps best known for two things. First, Rahner is known for the difficulty of the style of his works. Ormerod points out that even most German theologians prefer to read Rahner's writings in English translation and that as it is “with all great creative thinkers, Rahner is forced to take language to its limits in order to express the reality which he has grasped” (Ormerod, 93). In addition to his reputation as a difficult, but influential thinker and writer, Dych points out that Rahner's reputation for a concern for pastoral ministry cannot be overlooked. Rahner spent most of World War II as a member of the Pastoral Institute. In 1945 Rahner lived and worked as a parish priest in a small Bavarian town, and it is through his work in this town that his pastoral cares are evident. Dych says that “More than once I accompanied him, as did others, on a journey first to the supermarket where he would buy a large supply of groceries, and then on to some poor family which he had met perhaps years earlier but whose need he had not forgotten” (Dych, 9). His commitment to pastoral theology is also clear in his writings in which he published 24 articles on different pastoral topics (Dych, 11).

Through his interests, contributions, and reputation, Rahner's influence on the Catholic Church and on theology in general are clear. From early in his career, Rahner had a vision for what the Catholic Church should be and for what reforms the Church needed to undertake, and he pushed for these changes in his writings and in his teachings. Despite being censored by the Vatican, the Second Vatican Council seemed to embrace many of the ideas and changes that Rahner was advocating. Rahner continued to push the Church, however, warning that embracing these ideas was not enough. The Church needed to act on the changes that the Council had developed. Finally, in addition to all of his scholarly efforts before, during, and after Vatican II, Rahner seems to have remained committed to pastoral concerns for the people.

Works Cited
  • William V. Dych, S.J. Karl Rahner. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1992
  • Timothy G. McCarthy. The Catholic Tradition: The Church in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Loyola Press, 1998
  • Neil Ormerod. Introducing Contemporary Theologies. Australia: E.J. Dwyer, 1990


    Karl Rahner, “Towards a Fundamental Theological Interpretation of Vatican II”
    Theological Studies, 40, no. 4 (1979): 716-727

    Abstract by Krista Stevens
    Rahner seeks to discuss a “fundamental theological interpretation of the Second Vatican Council—that is not imposed on the Council from outside but is rather suggested by the Council itself, so that fundamental nature and fundamental interpretation in this case will mean the same thing” (716). He goes on to say that from this interpretation it can be concluded that at the Second Vatican Council, the Church “appeared for the first time as a world Church in a fully official way” (718). Rahner next works to prove this idea. He says first that the Council was the first formal council of a world Church. For the first time a truly world wide episcopate was present at the Council, and this episcopate gathered not “as an advisory body for pope but rather with him and under him the final teaching and decision-making body in the Church. For the first time a worldwide episcopate came into existence and functioned independently” (718). In addition to a worldwide episcopate, signs of the Church's emergence as a world church can be seen in various decrees of the Council, including the Church's allowance of the vernacular in liturgy. Rahner says that “the documents on the Church, on the missions, and on the Church in the modem world proclaim a universal and effective salvific will of God which is limited only by the evil decision of human conscience and nothing else” (720). This idea is important because it allows for a “salvific revelation-faith even beyond the Christian revelatory word” (720).

    Rahner next attempts to show how the Church has emerged as a world Church in three distinct periods of history. The first period is a period of Jewish Christianity. The second period is a period of the Church in the Hellenistic and then the European culture. The third period is what Rahner calls “the period in which the sphere of the Church's life is in fact the entire world” (721). Within these distinct periods if Church history the Church is now making transition from a “Christianity of Europe—to a fully world religion” and that this transition had occurred only once before when the Church made a transition from Jewish Christianity to Gentile Christianity (722-723).

    Finally, Rahner says that while the transition that the Church currently finds itself in is a transition similar to what has happened in the past, the new transition must “acquire a completely different content than the first break” and that “despite all modem futurology no one can correctly predict the secular future to which the church must do justice in the new interpretation of her faith and of her essence as a world church” (724). Within this new transition from Church to world Church, there is a notion of Christian proclamation. These proclamations would be different from region to regions but at the same time would be source of unity in the church in that they would “criticize and enrich one another” (725). Rahner concludes his article by saying that the Council was “the active subject of the highest plenary powers in the Church” (726). The question that must be asked, however, is a question of how this plenary authority can be able to act and exist. Rahner warns that the Church has yet to fully answer this question and that if the Church does not act on the reforms mandated by Vatican II then the Church risks falling back into a status of a European and Roman Church.


    Karl Rahner, “Morality Without Moralizing”
    The Shape of the Church to Come
    Milwaukee: Crossroad, 1983

    Abstract by Chris Hughes
    In a mode not unlike that of Vatican n, Rahner does not attempt to predict the future of the church or to provide a concrete road map for the perfection of the church, but rather attempts to open dialog on topics that Rahner feels are important to the advancement of the church in delivering the message of salvation. The chapter entitled “Morality Without Moralizing” is a clear example of Rahner's beliefs and provides a glimpse into his thoughts on the position of the Catholic Church in the formation of human conscience.

    Rahner starts by stating that even theologians have difficulty in answering questions of morality in light of modem circumstances. The church should take into account the constantly changing face of human existence and adjust her moral teachings accordingly. Supporting this statement, Rahner states that although Christians are bound to a perfect love of God and man, “it cannot be said that this absolute obligation binds us at every moment to the most perfect realization then possible in a concrete deed” (65).] Rahner clearly believes that morality is absolute, but the application of morality to particular moral questions can not and never will be static, but must be open to change according to the times and circumstances.

    The most acute danger of not allowing the expression of morality to change with the times is that the church faces the loss of her authoritative role in teaching morality because the instruction is seen as moralizing. People can understand a morality that is current and feels parallel to the society they live in. They are able to internalize such a morality and embrace it as their own. A church that holds on to existing ways merely for the sake of preserving tradition risks the appearance of handing out “laws which are not the concrete expression of the impulse of the spirit liberating man from within” (67).

    John XXIII opened the door for Rahner by explicitly attempting to step off of the path that the church had always taken. Rahner was among those who felt that the church needed reformation, and his ideas were a strong force in the shaping of the doctrine introduced at the council. Through his concern for the salvation of modem man, and his ability to ask the right questions, Rahner became an important contributor to the progress of Vatican n and thus to the postconcilar and future Catholic Church.


    Karl Rahner, “Jesus Christ”
    Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity
    New York: Crossroad, 1984

    Abstract by Kiley Moore
    In a mode not unlike that of Vatican n, Rahner does not attempt to predict the future of the church or to provide a concrete road map for the perfection of the church, but rather attempts to open dialog on topics that Rahner feels are important to the advancement of the church in delivering the message of salvation. The chapter entitled "Morality Without Moralizing" is a clear example of Rahner's beliefs and provides a glimpse into his thoughts on the position of the Catholic Church in the formation of human conscience.

    Rahner starts by stating that even theologians have difficulty in answering questions of morality in light of modem circumstances. The church should take into account the constantly changing face of human existence and adjust her moral teachings accordingly. Supporting this statement, Rahner states that although Christians are bound to a perfect love of God and man, "it cannot be said that this absolute obligation binds us at every moment to the most perfect realization then possible in a concrete deed" (65).] Rahner clearly believes that morality is absolute, but the application of morality to particular moral questions can not and never will be static, but must be open to change according to the times and circumstances.

    The most acute danger of not allowing the expression of morality to change with the times is that the church faces the loss of her authoritative role in teaching morality because the instruction is seen as moralizing. People can understand a morality that is current and feels parallel to the society they live in. They are able to internalize such a morality and embrace it as their own. A church that holds on to existing ways merely for the sake of preserving tradition risks the appearance of handing out "laws which are not the concrete expression of the impulse of the spirit liberating man from within" (67).

    John XXIII opened the door for Rahner by explicitly attempting to step off of the path that the church had always taken. Rahner was among those who felt that the church needed reformation, and his ideas were a strong force in the shaping of the doctrine introduced at the council. Through his concern for the salvation of modem man, and his ability to ask the right questions, Rahner became an important contributor to the progress of Vatican II and thus to the postconcilar and future Catholic Church.


    A Karl Rahner Bibliography
  • Free Speech in the Church. Johannes-Verlag, 1959
  • Theological Investigations. New York, 1961-1992
  • Renewal of Preaching. New York: Paulist Press, 1963
  • Nature and Grace; Dilemmas in the Modern Church. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964
  • The Word; Readings in Theology. New York: P.J. Kenedy, 1964
  • Studies in Modern Theology. Freisburg, Herder 1965
  • The Christian of the Future. New York: Herder and Herder, 1967
  • Theology of the Spiritual Life. Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1967
  • Spirit in the World. New York: Herder and Herder, 1968
  • Everyday Faith. New York: Herder and Herder, 1968
  • Grace in Freedom. New York: Herder and Herder, 1969
  • Hearers of the Word. New York: Herder and Herder, 1969
  • Do You Believe in God? New York: Paulist Press, 1969
  • Eucharist. Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1970
  • Mary, Mother of the Lord, Theological Meditations. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1972
  • On the Theology of Death. New York: Seabury Press, 1973
  • Meditations on Priestly Life. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1973
  • The Priesthood. New York: Herder and Herder, 1973
  • Pastoral Approach to Atheism. New York: Paulist Press, 1973
  • The Shape of the Church to Come. New York: Seabury Press, 1974
  • Opportunities for faith : elements of a modern spirituality. London: SPCK, 1974
  • Theology, Anthropology, Christology. New York: Seabury Press, 1975
  • Theology and the Spiritual Life. New York: Crossroad, 1975
  • Religious Life Today. New York: Scribner, 1976
  • Christian at the Crossroads. New York: Crossroad, 1976
  • Meditations on Hope and Love. Burns and Oates, 1976
  • Meditations on the Sacraments. New York: Seabury Press, 1977
  • Watch and Pray with Me: The Seven Last Words. New York: Scribner, 1977; New York: Crossroad, 2000
  • Meditations on Spirit and the Spirit. New York: Seabury Press, 1978
  • Anointing of the Sick. Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1979
  • The Spirit in the Church. New York: Crossroad, 1979
  • Ignatius of Loyola. William Collins Publishers, 1979
  • The Courage to Pray. New York: Seabury Press, 1980
  • New Christology. New York: Crossroad, 1980
  • Mission and Grace: Essays in Pastoral Theology. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1980
  • Dictionary of Theology. New York: Crossroad, 1981
  • Concern for the Church. New York: Crossroad, 1981
  • Our Christian Faith: Answers for the Future. New York: Crossroad, 1981
  • Prayers and Meditations: An Anthology of the Spiritual Writings of Karl Rahner. New York: Seabury Press, 1982
  • The Love of Jesus and the Love of Neighbor. New York: Crossroad, 1983
  • Shape of the Church to Come. New York: Crossroad, 1983
  • Practice of Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality. New York: Crossroad, 1984
  • Is Christian Life Possible Today. Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1984
  • Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity. New York: Crossroad, 1985
  • Karl Rahner in Dialogue: Conversations and Interviews 1965-1982. New York: Crossroad, 1986
  • Words of Faith. New York: Crossroad, 1987
  • Confirmation. Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1989
  • Eternal Yes. Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1989
  • Holy Baptism. Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1989
  • Marriage. Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1989
  • Faith in a Wintry Season. New York: Crossroad, 1990
  • On Prayer. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993
  • The Church and the Sacraments. New York: Hyperion Books, 1994
  • The Need and the Blessing of Prayer. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997
  • The Trinity. New York: Crossroad, 1997
  • Allow Yourself to Be Forgiven: Penance Today. Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1998
  • A Priest Forever. Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1998
  • Belief Today. 2nd edition. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1999
  • Encounters with Silence. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 1999