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The Century after Rahner

by George Weigel

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  • Description:
    In this brief article, Mr. Weigel questions the theology of Karl Rahner whose influence has had a detrimental effect on the faith both during and after the Vatican Council. He explains that the one serious problem with Rahner's theology was that he assumed that the audience he was writing for would be the "forerunners of world culture."
  • Larger Work:
    Arlington Catholic Herald
  • Publisher & Date:
    Most Rev. Paul S. Loverde, February 10, 2000

In a recent America interview, German theologian Werner Loeser spoke of his intellectual journey "beyond" the theology of his fellow German Jesuit Karl Rahner.

Rahner, who died in 1984, was the most influential Catholic theologian of the second half of the 20th century. His thinking decisively shaped the Second Vatican Council's dogmatic constitutions on the church and on revelation; important Rahnerian themes can also be found in the "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World." Moreover, Rahner largely determined the world theological community's reception of the council for a generation after Vatican II.

Rahner's theology dominated the seminaries. Moreover, through his chief theological disciple, Johannes Baptist Metz, Rahner was the grandfather (if not always the happy grandfather) of the theologies of liberation. Further, 20 years of mission theory bear the imprint of Rahner's argument that all people of good will and moral earnestness are, in some sense, "anonymous Christians."

At one level, the notion of "anonymous Christianity" was simply the ancient Christian recognition that "there are many whom Christ has that the Church does not have" — though all who are saved, even outside the formal boundaries of the Church, are saved through Christ.

But in the hands of some mission theorists, Rahner's theology of the "anonymous Christian" became the opening wedge for arguing that the point of Christian missionary activity was dialogue, not conversion. From there, it was a short step to the claim (recently encountered during the pope's visit to India) that Christian mission is cultural imperialism. Theologians will be arguing for decades whether these untenable positions were implicit in Rahner's "anonymous Christianity," or whether they represented serious distortions of his thought.

But I was particularly struck by Father Loeser's reason for his intellectual break with Rahner (the two men remained friends). Loeser was, at first, attracted to the influence on Rahner's theology of German philosophy: Kant, Hegel and Heidegger, in particular. But one day, Loeser reports, "while reading one of his books, it suddenly struck me that Rahner's theology was limited by his philosophy . . . It was a shock to realize this because for years I prepared myself to have Rahner as my theological guide. But I discovered that theology needs to recognize that its point of departure is the attentive listening to the word of God in . . . the history of Israel and of Jesus Christ."

I had a similar experience in the mid-1980s. At that point I had been reading Rahner intensively for 15 years and, like Loeser, thought of him as my theological mentor. But one night, working my way through Rahner's Foundations of Christian Faith and its lengthy reflection on the problem of belief today, it occurred to me: I didn't know anyone Rahner was describing. I knew lots of people with this or that problem with this or that aspect of Catholicism, Christianity, or even belief. But I didn't live my Christian life clinging to an ecclesial life raft on a sea of unbelief.

The more I thought about this, the more it seemed to me that one serious problem with Rahner's theology and one explanation for Rahner's enthrallment to German philosophy was his sense of audience. Rahner was a devout Catholic and a serious churchman. But his primary intellectual audience — the people he had in mind when he thought and when he wrote — were the men and women of the German academy, formed in the skepticism and relativism that were two by-products of Kant, Hegel and Heidegger; convinced of their cultural superiority; dazzled by the sciences' accomplishments; tempted by Marxist social and economic analysis; and, it must be admitted, carrying a burden of historical guilt from the Second World War.

Making the Christian proposal compelling in that climate was an enormous challenge. In trying to meet it, Rahner left a corpus of work with many merits. But Rahner is not the future of theology, because he mistakenly imagined his fellow German academics to be the forerunners of world culture.

Things have turned out differently. We're not all Heideggerians now, and the world hasn't followed Western Europe into the intellectual apostasy of post-Christianity. Among other things, this means that the future of Catholic theology will not be Rahnerian.


Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

© Arlington Catholic Herald

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