SASKATOON — Insights into the life and thought of 20th-century theologian Rev. Karl Rahner, SJ, were presented Nov. 17 as part of a series about Great Catholic Thinkers in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon.
Bishop Emeritus Gerald Wiesner, OMI, was the featured speaker at the fourth session of a five-part series organized through the diocesan Foundations: Exploring Our Faith Together office. Other speakers in the series have explored St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine of Hippo, Dorothy Day and Hans Urs Von Balthasar.
Wiesner began his reflection on Rahner’s life at the end, quoting a statement by the Jesuit order at the time of his death in 1984: “Strengthened by the church’s sacrament and accompanied by the prayers of his Jesuit brothers, shortly after completing his eightieth year, Father Karl Rahner has gone home to God. He loved the church and his religious order and spent himself in their service.”
Wiesner quoted Rahner’s reflection on the priesthood from Servants of the Lord (1968): “Your vocation is your life and your life is your vocation. You have no private life that might be built up independently of and outside of your priesthood . . . for you, being a Christian is being a priest and vice versa . . . the candle of a candlestick in the house of the church that you are, must burn by the oil of your own heart, must burn all your life away. Only then will it burn as it must.”
Born March 5, 1904, in Freiburg, Germany, Rahner grew up as one of seven children in a middle-class family; his father was a professor at a teacher’s college and his mother was a courageous spiritual person, Wiesner described. “How does Rahner comment on his own biography? Well, he said: ‘I lived through the First World War . . . and the Second World War and the perils of the Nazi period. . . . I was, if you will, exiled . . . one of the ordinary people who survived those times . . . (but) one of those spared the most frightening horrors of those days. . . .’ He knew many others had it much, much worse,” noted Wiesner.
Rahner began his novitiate as a Jesuit in 1922, and was at first designated by his order to be a professor of the history of philosophy, until he was “re-destined,” and his path was shifted to the study of theology — a change that “corresponded with Rahner’s own interests and his own inclination,” said Wiesner.
“Rahner’s theological work was motivated not so much by scholarship and erudition, but by pastoral concerns — to a great extent this was a large part of his published work. It is filled with immediate religious, spiritual and pastoral concerns,” he said. For instance, Rahner’s Theological Investigations, a series of some 20 volumes, deals with a diverse range of subjects, most prompted by concrete conditions of the time.
Rahner understood that through a renewed theological effort, every dogma can be thought through anew — and every dogma is open to the future, described Wiesner. He pointed out that Rahner’s life and his work was a reflection of the very definition of theology: “faith seeking understanding.”
Rahner taught theology at Innsbruck, Munich and Munster and lectured all over the world (including a talk in 1967 in Toronto that Wiesner attended.) He produced some 4,000 written works, with paperback book sales in excess of a million copies. He undertook difficult and complex editorial work, such as Sacramentum Mundi: An Encyclopedia of Theology.
Along the way, Rahner was partially silenced by Rome in the early 1960s, when for a time he could not publish or lecture without advance permission, but that restriction was withdrawn by the time of the Second Vatican Council, when Pope John XXIII appointed Rahner as a “peritus” or expert adviser to the council.
A personal adviser to Cardinal Franz Koenig of Vienna, Rahner was appointed to the theological commission of the council, which presented the two dogmatic constitutions of Vatican II: Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the church, and Dei Verbum, the dogmatic constitution on divine revelation. He also had a role in preparing the document Gaudium et Spes, the constitution on the church in the modern world. These documents have had a great impact on the church, noted Wiesner.
According to Rahner, the Second Vatican Council “was a great council, whose effects are not nearly at an end” and which “will never allow the church to return to the way that she was,” Wiesner said. “The development that began with the council cannot be reversed.”
The bishop concluded by sharing insights into Karl Rahner as a person. “One of the first things we come to know is that Karl Rahner was very spiritual,” said Wiesner, noting that his published works begin and end with treatises on prayer. “Rahner stands in a long line of Christian theologians who were likewise great teachers of prayer,” he said. Wiesner emphasized Rahner’s involvement in inter-religious and inter-faith dialogue and his great social concern and personal commitment to charity and justice.
He also noted Rahner’s intimate platonic relationship with a woman, Luise Rinser, which spanned 22 years, and included a long correspondence on personal and theological matters. “She said: ‘the Jesuits should be proud to have among their spiritual leaders, a great theologian who was also a great human being and a man, who though bound to celibacy, dared to love a woman.’ ”
Ending his talk, Wiesner noted that Karl Rahner loved ice cream. When he was teased about it, he quoted another theologian to say: “The good things in life are not only for the rascals.”
During the question and answer session that followed his talk, Wiesner summarized Rahner’s impact: “Historians will come to say that during the last century, there were two theologians who played a very prominent role — the Jesuit Karl Rahner and the Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx — between the two of them, they are the theological pillars of the 20th century.”