Part II
Theology and Morality

Chapter 6
An Interview with Karl Rahner
on the State of Catholic Theology Today*

"Molta teologia - poco Dio." (A lot of theology - a little bit of God.) Cardinal Konig


"Ce qu’il faut dire en premier lieu de la situation theologique actuelle est qu’elle n’est pas brillante." (In the first place it is necessary to say that the actual situation of theology is not brilliant.) Ch. Schonborn, Archbishop of Vienna


"The way graduate students (of philosophy) were taught in the sixties was in part a reaction against the tradition of manual Scholasticism still in existence prior to Vatican II... In part as a remedy for the manual tradition’s ahistoricism, the graduate education of Thomists preceding Vatican II usually focused on studying Aquinas’s own texts. The professors were concerned to establish the correct interpretation of Aquinas’s texts in their historical context, often in opposition to an incorrect interpretation of one of the classical commentators or of some modern Thomist.

This historical-textual approach to Thomism, however, was not the only alternative to the manual tradition. As we all know, the twentieth century produced many Thomists who were neither manualists nor textual commentators but thinkers who philosophized Thomistically... This philosophical approach to Thomism, however, was seriously neglected in the graduate education of thirty years ago... The fact is that in the second half of this century Thomists have produced far less literature of a creative philosophical character than in the first half." John C. Cahalan in "On the Training of Thomists"


What would Karl Rahner think about Catholic theology today? Well, we can’t ask him directly, but from the many interviews he gave in the last years of his life and some remarks taken from his writings we can come to a good idea.


Toe: (Theologian On Earth): Just how would you rate Catholic theology today?

Rahner: "All things taken into consideration, I really do feel that Catholic theology today, by and large, does not rate a higher mark than Grade C."1 Perhaps the major figures of the new theology like von Balthazar, Congar, de Lubac - and I hope I am wrong here - have not really found successors of the same stature even though significant work is being done in systematic and fundamental theology. But this may be just my perception because I belong to the older generation.2

Toe: Does your theology have its own kind of rationality, that is, make its own particular use of reason?

Rahner: "I would say that in theology, as well as anywhere else, one cannot think enough, think intensively enough, courageously enough, and precisely enough."3

I wonder if "a systematic, architectonic theology, as envisioned in earlier times" can any longer be done by a single theologian. But "one must think systematically in theology, as well as anywhere else… and one must be able to express, in almost a few sentences, what actually constitutes the essence of Christianity."4 "I think that today speculative theology must and can be renewed."5

"Personally I have a great aversion to the dogmatic positivism that flourished in Catholic schools during the last century. For example, if you wanted a course on the seven sacraments, you were told to use Denzinger. This was a disease that theology had contracted. Yet, while I detest dogmatic positivism, I am a great lover of speculative theology."6 That is, a theology "that seeks a simple internal principle and through it sees the unity of all dogmatic thought."7

Toe: How would you characterize the neo-scholastic theology before the Second Vatican Council?

Rahner: It had "a kind of defensive mentality, a certain defensive turning of the Church in on itself against the world… The Church certainly had great missionary success, but in fact only by exporting Western European Christianity to all the world… I also believe that one can say that neo-scholastic philosophy and theology, for all their accomplishments, are quite passé today."8

"Between the two world wars there was, perhaps, no major breakthrough towards a truly new and modern theology. But there was a very fundamental breakthrough to a more open Catholic, and thoroughly Catholic way of thinking, which departed from traditional neo-scholasticism, but still was part of the Church’s patrimony."9

Toe: And what do you think of contemporary European theology and its involvement with modern philosophy?

Rahner: Its pioneers like Blondel and Marechal "agree that we must be receptive to modern philosophy without considering it absurd or something to be opposed and criticized. What is needed is a trusting colloquium between traditional scholastic philosophy and modern philosophy. This is necessary if, on the one hand, we are to be of our time… On the other hand, we do not want to lose the true riches of tradition."10

Toe: Tell us something about your ideas on what you call anonymous Christianity.

Rahner: "Anonymous Christianity means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity… Let us say, a Buddhist monk… who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God; of him I must say that he is an anonymous Christian; if not, I would have to presuppose that there is a genuine path to salvation that really attains that goal, but that simply has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. But I cannot do that. And so, if I hold if everyone depends upon Jesus Christ for salvation, and if at the same time I hold that many live in the world who have not expressly recognized Jesus Christ, then there remains in my opinion nothing else but to take up this postulate of an anonymous Christianity."11

Toe: So do you believe that the Holy Spirit works through other religions?

Rahner: "Certainly."12

Toe: So missionary work is more than a dialogue than a one-way street?

Rahner: Yes. "On the side that leads from the Church to the non-Christians there travels the message of the unsurpassable and normative role of Jesus and his saving meaning for all people. From the non-Christian side there travels something perhaps completely different, which can turn out to be very important for me."13

Toe: Would you single out some of your writings as being particularly important?

Rahner: Well, not perhaps this or that book, but "certain ideas that are very important to me." Beyond my transcendental theology I would like to call attention to "what I have called "the logic of concrete individual knowledge in Ignatius Loyola""… This kind of knowledge "had no place whatsoever in the traditional type of fundamental theology written by Jesuits… Instead, they presupposed some sort of essential and rational theory of knowledge as the only possible one and didn’t realize that Ignatius had taught them something entirely different."14

"What Christian faith teaches is never communicated merely by a conceptual indoctrination from without, but is and can basically be experienced through the supernatural grace of God as a reality in us… an awakening, a mystagogy into this original, grace-filled religious experience is today of fundamental importance."15

Toe: What about the limits of theology, or the conflicts that seem to arise between the freedom of theologians and the teaching of the Church?

Rahner: "Obviously theology needs an area of freedom. No doubt theology’s free space was often unduly restricted in the years" before the Second Vatican Council. "Naturally, there are limits to its range of freedom wherever theology denies head-on and decisively a defined truth of Church faith."16 "…Unlike Hans Küng and such people, I never really wanted to do a theology that called into question the teaching authority of the Church where it bound me unconditionally."17

"A conservative tendency is certainly perceptible in Rome. That, however, is probably often a result of the fact that some Catholic theologians defend positions that are objectively incompatible with the teachings of the magisterium. Dangers for the continued handing on of the content of the Catholic faith do exist, dangers which are, in part, provoked by so-called progressive Catholic theologians."18 "I am a Catholic theologian who attempts an absolute loyalty to the magisterium of the Church to rethink Catholic teaching."19

Toe: Taking for granted the Church’s teaching of the hierarchy of truth, are there some areas in which your own theology exercises its freedom to disagree with the opinions of Church authority?

Rahner: This is a difficult question. I can point to two areas. One has to do with the question of birth control. "On the one hand,… I am obliged to attach great importance to the position of the highest authority in the Catholic Church presented" in the birth control encyclical. "On the other hand, I also have the right and the duty not to consider such a position simply and absolutely the last word, but to give it more thought and eventually to reach my own personal position, assumed on my own responsibility." Without saying "that this is my solid, my clear, my unequivocal conviction," "I would rather think that the approval of certain forms of contraceptives "would not conflict with the essential Catholic conception of sexuality."20

Toe: What do you think about the question of the ordination of women?

Rahner: "When the Vatican declaration against the ordination of women (even in the future) came out a few years back, I published an article saying that it failed to convince me. (Of course, it was not an infallible definition). Rome is digging in its heels, it seems to me, against the development that one ought to admit calmly might not be a bad thing."21

Toe: What about clerical celibacy?

Rahner: "The obligation of the Church to provide sufficient clergy is of divine right and takes precedence over the ecclesiastically desirable law of celibacy. If, in practice, you cannot obtain a sufficient number of priests in a given cultural setting without relinquishing celibacy, then the Church must suspend the law of celibacy, at least there."22

Toe: Are there limits to these kinds of questions?

Rahner: "A Catholic theologian ultimately cannot strive to be particularly original: to say something which no one else has ever said. Rather, a theologian’s obligation, duty, and intent aim at guarding and interpreting the message of Jesus, the revelation of God, and the teaching of the Church, and to make it intelligible to one’s contemporary."23

But another point should be made. "Relationship to the Church is at the very essence, an absolute of Christian faith." In "the criticism of a Catholic one should be able to see that here is someone who wants to find eternal salvation as a member of the Church."24

Toe: What about young people in the Church today?

Rahner: "It seems to me that today’s younger Christians should display a greater will for societal change than they, in fact, do… Basically, I do not see why the young people attached to the church in Germany should coincide with the conservative wing of society."25

Toe: What about the more pluralistic nature of today’s theology?

Rahner: "The concrete individual theologian will never be able to handle with equal thoroughness every imaginable theological question." People trained in different theological methodologies like the history of dogma, or exegesis, will create different kinds of theology than I do. "But for me, there basically cannot exist a fundamental difference between my theology and another normal Catholic theology."26

Toe: What kind of interchanges can there be between these theologies?

Rahner: Well, I think an absolute system is impossible. "However, if historical theology, given the relativity and questionableness of what has come down to us from earlier eras, would strive to respect the theological substance of those who lived earlier, then already much would be achieved."27

But because there is one faith, and the human being is one, there must "always be a universalistic theology" … and "without therefore denying the significance of the individual technical theological disciplines, there must be a method… which at least indirectly achieves such a unity of theology. This method would not force the individual theologian first to go through the sum total of the individual theological disciplines… "28

Toe: Would it be fair to say that there is a certain tension between your more metaphysical theology and a more historical theology?

Rahner: "I have never been an exegete, and only in a very limited sense have I done work in dogma and historical theology. In this respect, I readily admit that my theology has limits. It is a speculative reflection on data available in the general faith-consciousness and scholastic theology…29 "I tried to ferret the out the inner power and dynamism which is hidden within scholastic theology. Scholastic theology offers so many problems and is so dynamic that it can develop within itself, and then by means of a certain qualitative leap, can surpass itself. As a result, one can make considerable progress beyond the supposedly much simpler scholastic theology."

Toe: What was your relationship with St. Thomas?

Rahner: "This relationship differed from that of the classical Thomists, especially that of the Dominicans. For them, Thomas’ writings were something like a second Scripture upon which one was supposed to comment. Just think of Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange. I by no means want to deny that even this sort of contact with Thomas was something important. We Jesuits were certainly acquainted with and studied a work, such as Garrigou-LaGrange’s God. But Thomas was read by my generation, unlike the Dominicans, as a great Father of the Church."30

"… I have through Maréchal, Kant and German idealism, studied - let’s be content to formulate it negatively - a "transcendentally," philosophical Thomism. I readily make use of this Thomism in theology. I say, for example, in my theology that I cannot start off in a purely positivistic fashion from a so-called historical experience, or only from a so-called narrative theology, or even from a "political" theology that ultimately lacks self-understanding; I must also do philosophy. Heidegger may like to say that metaphysics is dead. It has not died, and it will continue to remain alive. On the contrary, metaphysics goes around causing trouble in unreflective form when it is not done explicitly."31

"Let me put it this way: what classical philosophy, beginning with the pre-Socratics up to the present day, has done under the name "metaphysics" must be done somewhere in theology. And Thomas has done precisely this, and done it in a splendid manner. So at least to that extent and for that reason one should try to learn from him. If young theologians can no longer begin with this Thomistic heritage, that’s a bad sign - not for Thomas, but for present-day theologians."32

"I consider myself a sincere and profound friend of St. Thomas. I do not, however, agree with those Thomists who are so locked into traditionalism that they can’t imagine that any progress can be made independently of traditional Thomism."33


 *What would Karl Rahner think about Catholic theology today? Well, we can't ask him directly, but from the many interviews he gave in the last years of his life and some remarks taken from his writings we can come to a good idea. 



  1. "The Present Situation of Catholic Theology", T. I. V. XXI, p. 75
  2. Ibid., p. 74-75
  3. I Remember, p. 57
  4. Ibid., p. 60
  5. Karl Rahner in Dialogue, p. 15
  6. Ibid., p. 16
  7. Ibid., p. 17
  8. Ibid., p. 87-88
  9. Ibid., p. 258
  10. Ibid., p. 14
  11. Ibid., p. 135
  12. Ibid., p. 134
  13. Ibid., p. 134
  14. Ibid., p. 195-196
  15. Ibid., p. 328
  16. Ibid., p. 319
  17. Faith in a Wintry Season, p. 52
  18. Ibid., p. 154
  19. Ibid., p. 155
  20. Karl Rahner in Dialogue, p. 35
  21. Ibid., p. 271-272
  22. Ibid. p. 272
  23. Ibid., p. 353
  24. Ibid., p. 332
  25. Ibid., p. 273
  26. Ibid., p. 326-327
  27. Faith in a Wintry Season, p. 18
  28. Ibid., p. 20
  29. Ibid., p. 16
  30. Ibid., p. 45
  31. Ibid., p. 47
  32. Ibid., p. 48
  33. Ibid., p. 155


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