The new Church of Karl Rahner. The theologian who taught how to surrender to the world.

His Eminence Giuseppe Cardinal Siri had summarized the nucleus of Karl Rahner’s theological error in “the conception of the non-gratuitous supernatural”. He wrote these words in 1980 in Getsemani for the members of the Fraternity of the Virgin Mary. In other words, the supernatural is “necessarily” linked to human nature. In this case, however, it would no longer be gratuitous; it would no longer be a gift; it could no longer be accepted or refused by man. In brief, a sort of supernatural imposed upon man by God. A compulsory  gratuitousness.

If what Rahner sustains were true – asserts Cardinal Siri – the end result would be “the uselessness of the faith” because “God is in my essence”. I don’t have to accept Him or refuse Him: whether I like it or not, God is part of me. The German theologian evidently doesn’t realize that on the basis of such an assumption “all the principles, all the criteria, and all the foundations of the faith have been questioned and collapse”.

The real issue, however, is not the opinion of this heterodox theologian. It can be demonstrated that his suggested indications have involved and subverted much of theology over the last 60 years. Rahner “seems to have won” writes Stefano Fontana in his latest essay dedicated to “the theologian who taught” the Church “to surrender to the world”. It is not exaggerated to say this: “a survey conducted at the Pontifical Lateran University immediately after Vatican II” – writes Fontana – “revealed that for the large majority of seminarians studying theology there the greatest Catholic theologian of all times was not St. Thomas of Aquinas or St. Augustine, but Karl Rahner”.


An athematic God

Mr. Fontana describes the trajectory of Rahnerian thought ruinously inserted into the modern method of doing philosophy and hence doing theology. It is a method he had already dealt with in a previous essay entitled “Philosophy for All” (“Filosofia per tutti” (Fede & Cultura, 2016) and which consists in assuming each time a certain form of the “modern transcendental”: in other words, the philosopher or theologian of modernity no longer  perceives a direct relationship with the reality to be known, but thinks “man sees the world through a pair of eyeglasses he cannot remove”. These eyeglasses are the a priori forms of the knowledge of any object which, however, modify and limit it, making any certainty or conclusion about it impossible. Whether a table or God Himself, the object of knowledge therefore becomes never completely comprehensible, never known with certainty.

Rahner takes flight from neither this praxis nor this logic. The pair of eyeglasses with which he reads each feature of reality (including God) is called – Mr. Fontana writes – “the keyhole”. Essentially speaking, each intellectual proponent of modernity has his gnoseological apriorism. Rahner’s is such whereby “God reveals Himself in the darkness that precedes and surrounds the keyhole”. He reveals Himself in an athematic manner in the sense of a manner bereft of contents. Conversely, what is on the other side of the keyhole is the world of experience, the world of human words. But what relationship can this experience and these words have with truth? An ambiguous relationship made up of doubts and uncertainties because the criterion of judgment is seized on this side of the keyhole where I am and where God is, but where there is nothing but silence and darkness. It is tantamount to trying to measure the length of something with a crooked yardstick. It will never be possible to determine the extension of things because of the initial defect due to the instrument used to take measures. Things correspond to objective reality, and the crooked factor is in man, who is the subjective reality.

Rahner draws these convictions from the apriorism of Kant, but it is especially in Heidegger that he bases his own gnoseology: precisely on the principle – writes Mr. Fontana – whereby “man, who asks what is being, is within the problem, and hence there is no knowledge of an object which isn’t subjective as well”. This is unconditional surrender to opinion, to personal “point of view”.  Moreover, if the subject is flawed, so too becomes the object, the world, God, my experience in the world, the truth of the world and God.


Human nature disappears

Far different in nature are the teachings coming from classical philosophy, Catholic theology and the Magisterium of the Church. From Plato to St. Thomas Aquinas nary an inroad was made by the temptation to argue that man could not access truth, albeit in an imperfect manner. The classical transcendental is quite different from the modern transcendental: it abounds with contents and hope in human cognitive ability; it sets the criterion for judging the world beyond the cosmos; it accepts the help of a God who reveals Himself and speaks; it has no problems with identifying the real vocation of a person beyond the physical sphere, beyond the phenomenon itself, situating the horizon proper to man in metaphysics.

On closer inspection, the error of Rahner pinpointed by Cardinal Siri – regarding the supernatural linked to human nature – is perhaps the last element to be taken into consideration for the simple reason that once metaphysics has disappeared, likewise disappearing are the contents relative to the concepts of nature, essence and substance. In Rahnerian thought, or modern thought in general, is it still possible to conceive human nature as such? Mr. Fontana says no: from the viewpoint of this German theologian. “it becomes difficult to continue using the term ‘nature’”. In the existential outlook of both Heidegger and Rahner “man does not have a nature” insofar as “he is an historical being”. Each being ebbs and flows in time and history, and ceaselessly “becomes”, while the classical nature is based on a stable truth. Therefore, following hard on the heels of the downfall of nature is the downfall of natural law and anything people might want to say about the supernatural above nature. As Mr. Fontana argues, Rahner’s thought does not have two levels (nature and above nature), but rather “a single level, that of history, which is both sacred history and profane history”. Coming into the picture here is also the thinking of Hegel.


The anonymous Christians

Moreover, following the suggestions of this 20th century Protestant theologian, Rahnerism reaches the point of envisaging a “dehellinization” of Christianity, where hellinization had been theology’s use of Greek philosophical categories. There is no longer a doctrine with which to discern present time and set in motion a praxis. On the contrary, praxis enjoys absolute primacy and every conclusion (if there ever were one) should always follow historical becoming. Everything is therefore absorbed by historicism: doctrine, dogma and teaching. Everything is debatable and open to interpretation, continues Mr. Fontana. Everything evolves: even Revelation which comes to be in the immanence of history and is never to be understood as over.

In continuity with Protestantism, faith is deprived of rational categories and is thereby in antithesis with reason. In addition, due to the fact of having access to religion through the a priori transcendental, all men are united in Revelation, all men are equidistant from truth. There is no longer any purpose in having a Church that teaches, nor works of evangelization. According to Rahner, all men – Mt. Fontana notes – “are Christians or anonymous Christians”, that is to say “Christians who don’t know they are so”. The task of the baptized Christian or the clergy is therefore no longer to “govern, teach and sanctify”  someone, but rather to “listen to” non believers and welcome them.


Dogma is no longer a final word

While still to be assessed is the degree to which Rahnerism may have infiltrated the Church, there is evidence of the extent to which new theological currents of thought coincide with Rahner’s thinking. This evidence leads to the affirmation that “Karl Marx is the father of all the theologies of theological progressivism after Vatican II”. There is but one common denominator behind the priority many bishops give to the apostolate, the downplaying of Thomism, dialogue at all costs, the primacy of athematic experience, the preference for the language of the world, and the concept of council (or synod) where what prevails is the endeavor to reach consensus on the effective contents of the event.

Mr. Fontana offers the example of Cardinal Walter Kasper, who was very active at the latest Synod on the Family, and whose formation is entirely Rahnerian. According to Cardinal Kasper, modern theological method must not begin from dogmas, but rather “see the dogma as intermediary between the Word of God and the concrete life situation of the Christian community”. No longer a dogma “looked upon as something definitive”, but rather as a plain linguistic expression that must adapt to the real situation of each person and changes in historical perceptions.

What is so striking about Rahner, however, is that “despite the numerous and fundamental points contrary to Catholic doctrine, no official reproach has been issued in his regard”. John XXIII called him to Vatican Council II as an expert. Something doesn’t add up here.


Silvio Brachetta


Stefano Fontana, “La nuova Chiesa di Karl Rahner. Il teologo che ha insegnato ad arrendersi al mondo”, Fede & Cultura, 2017, pp. 109, euro 13,00