Karl Rahner and the Unspoken Framework of (Much of) Modern Theology

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Charles Coulombe’s interesting remark in a recent article that Pius XII, for all his intransigence against dogmatic modernism, allowed Father Karl Rahner, S.J., to be the editor of the prestigious Denzinger prompted me to take up the question of Rahner’s theology and the immense influence it has had on modern Catholic discourse. His influence is such that it is no longer even felt or perceived as such, but has successfully created an atmosphere, a set of implicit assumptions, a mental miasma within which many theologians and students work without even realizing that it is Rahnerian rather than Catholic. Just as for many centuries nearly every work of theology and spirituality bore the unmistakable imprint of St. Thomas—whether he was expressly cited or not—so too, the unmistakable imprint of the Jesuit of Innsbruck is to be found nearly everywhere, including in authors who are styled “conservative.”[1]

Inevitably, a figure of Rahner’s magnitude, who published dozens of volumes of dense material, is not someone it is easy to summarize, and I offer the following “big picture” fully recognizing that it will lack nuance. However, I am convinced there is a big picture at work; that we can accurately identify what it is; and that it is sufficient for assessing his impact and raising critical questions about it. Every thinker has certain guiding ideas that coalesce around a few major themes, and if one can find out what those are, one has a sort of “key” to the rest.

The revolutionary nature of Rahnerian theology can be seen only against the backdrop of a traditional account of Christian doctrine. If one had to attempt a summary of the traditional account in one paragraph, it would go something like this.

God, Who is three Persons in one nature, created man in order to bring him to eternal happiness in union with Himself. The first man, Adam, was entrusted with the supernatural gifts necessary for arriving at this union, and he was supposed to pass them on to all his descendants. By sinning against God, Adam lost these supernatural gifts, and passed down his sin to his descendants instead, so that each of us is born with a real guilt, although not a personal guilt. Since we could not save ourselves, the second Person of the Trinity took on a human nature and became a man, known as Jesus Christ, and offered His life as a sacrifice for all men. Anyone who puts faith in this sacrifice and follows Christ’s directions on how to incorporate himself into that sacrifice can be saved from Adam’s sin and from his own sins, and can arrive at eternal happiness in union with God.

Rahner’s Big Idea

Rahner takes one new idea and places it at the very center of Christianity. This is the idea of the “transcendental experience.” It is hard to grasp exactly what he means by this, but one can give some impression of it at least. While all creatures are limited and finite, man is the only creature who can reflect on his limitations and finitude; in so reflecting on them, he transcends them, reaching out beyond his limitations to the “transcendent,” to the Unknown Beyond which calls him and urges him to move beyond his limitations. The Unknown Beyond, the “term of transcendence,” is what Christians call God. And since a man operates within his limitations in every action he does, then every action of a man has the transcendental implicitly within it, simply waiting for the man to reflect and make it explicit; hence God (Who is that Unknown Beyond discovered in a transcendental experience) is the implicit horizon of every human action.

Although a man may not fully understand what the Unknown Beyond is calling and urging him to, it is in fact God’s call to the beatific vision. So a man’s fundamental duty in life is to respond to the call to transcendence, and seek union with the Beyond which is at the same time utterly Beyond and intimately close as the horizon of his every action. If a man does this, he is saved.

Rahner’s Reinterpreted Christianity

Since this call to transcendence, which is a necessary part of man’s very nature, is now the fundamental problem of salvation, it is obvious that the basic doctrines of Christianity need to be “reinterpreted.”

First and foremost, the doctrine of original sin simply has to go, because it claims to be the fundamental problem of salvation. So Rahner says that original sin is not something passed on biologically, by the act of begetting—that idea is a kind of mythology—but rather a tainting of our actions by all the history which has gone before us. For example, suppose that I inherit millions from my father who got the millions dishonestly. No matter what I do with the millions, even if I give it to charity, my deed is tainted by the fact that the millions were ill-gotten. Similarly, if I buy a banana at the grocery store, suppose that the banana farmers were evil men, and that those who profit from the banana sales are evil men: their previous evil deeds taint my action of buying the banana, even if I am unaware of them. These are all examples of original sin. The biblical account claiming that the first human beings had already begun to taint the deeds of their descendants is not really an account based on history but rather a reasonable inference from the current state of things: if this is how things are today, the biblical author reasoned, then this must be how things were at the beginning. This is Rahner’s version of original sin.

Next, the Incarnation must be reinterpreted. It can no longer be seen as God coming down from above to pay a debt we were unable to pay. So instead we emphasize that in the Incarnation, God is perfectly united with man. Jesus is an example of a man who perfectly responded to God’s call to transcendence, and lived in union with the Beyond. (It seems to me that Rahner would very much like to be Nestorian in this regard, but finds himself unable to do so in the face of such clear Church teachings against Nestorianism. So instead, he insists that Christ’s divinity, although we have to acknowledge it, should be downplayed in favor of his humanity.)

In particular, the crucifixion must be reinterpreted. It is entirely wrong to see the crucifixion as a “sacrifice” which “merits” our salvation, even though this way of describing it is found in a secondary way in Scripture. Rather, in the crucifixion, Christ perfectly responded to the call to transcendence—more perfectly than any other man has ever responded or will ever respond—thus perfectly carrying out what every man is called to by his nature. By knowing Christ’s response and recognizing ourselves in it, we can share in Christ’s perfect response. The crucifixion is thus a “Real symbol” of our salvation.

It is now evident that since all men everywhere at all times experience at least implicitly the call to transcendence, it follows that all men everywhere at all times are at least implicitly receiving a revelation of the inner essence of Christ’s crucifixion. So if a man responds to the call, he is living out the essence of Christianity, and can be called an “anonymous Christian.” There is tremendous advantage to explicit Christianity, of course, because recognizing oneself in the Gospel account of Christ’s Incarnation and crucifixion is greatly helpful in fully responding to the call to transcendence; but it is not necessary to be explicitly Christian.

Given this, it is not hard to see that all sincere Christians, no matter what their denominations, are living out the essence of Christianity. It becomes clear that, as Vatican II pointed out, there is a hierarchy of truths, some of them more important than others; and, in particular, the fundamental problem of seeking transcendence is more important than all the other doctrines. Hence, Rahner called for the immediate institutional unity of all Christians, regardless of their particular doctrinal differences.

Rahner’s Trinity

Although logically Rahner’s ideas about the Trinity belong earlier in this essay, it seemed to me that putting his Trinitarian ideas in their logical place would have disrupted the flow of the above presentation. Basically, that Unknown Beyond which presents itself to every reflecting man presents itself precisely as the Beyond, and the traditional teachings about the Trinity represent an attempt to state something about the inner life of the Beyond—an absurd thing to attempt. Hence Rahner emphasizes that one must think about the Trinity in terms of the “economic” Trinity: God as creator is the Father; God as incarnate savior is the Son; and God as impelling grace within us is the Holy Spirit. (Again, as we saw before in regard to his Nestorianizing Christology, so too in Trinitarian theology it seems Rahner would like to be a Modalist.[2] Let us not forget that a characteristic of Modernists is to be sympathetic to the early heresies that were condemned by the Church.

Rahner’s Repudiation of Christianity

The synthesis I have presented above is my own interpretation of clues and emphases and downplays in Rahner’s work; he himself might well have rejected my presentation as inaccurate and indeed he would have rejected it if only for political and rhetorical reasons. Purveyors of heresy rarely wish to be known as such, preferring rather to ride the coattails of orthodoxy. But there is no doubt that Rahner does say, quite clearly, that the transcendental experience is the fundamental idea in all of his theology, and it is clearly true that his famous oddities of doctrine suddenly snap together into a monolithic synthesis if one takes the fundamental idea as the key to a reinterpretation of Christian doctrine. If what I have said is right about Rahner, then he is not just heretical about this or that teaching, but rather, systematically non-Christian, inasmuch as he undermines dogmatic Christianity at its foundation.

It is only fair to make a few standard disclaimers. I am not calling into question Karl Rahner’s personal commitment to or good will in living the Christian faith as he (wrongly) understood it. His 22-year secret Platonic romance with a widow and two-time divorcee, the German novelist Luise Rinser—a romance that would generate some 4,000 letters between 1962 and 1984—shows that, however confused he may have been, he remained faithful to his vow of celibacy and to a religious concepton of life. He may have had the best intentions in the world for endeavoring to recast Christianity from the ground up, presumably for the benefit of that most puzzling of creatures, “Modern Man,” in whose name the entire liturgy was also uprooted, inverted, and transmogrified. Rahner appears all his life to have wished to be a “son of the Church” and said many things—for example, in his debate against Hans Küng—that do fall squarely into the Tradition of the Church.

Nevertheless, I feel all the more confident in presenting this summary critique when even so fashionable and controversial a theologian as (quondam Jesuit) Hans Urs von Balthasar sharply critiques Rahner in a substantially similar way to the foregoing: one need only consult Balthasar’s The Moment of Christian Witness, section III, 3, as well as the fifth essay in his New Elucidations entitled “The Religion of Humanity and the Religion of Jesus Christ.” Balthasar first defines the central thrust of the Enlightenment as “the change from a theocentric to an anthropocentric viewpoint,” which, “for religion… means the change from a positive historical religion to a religion valid for man in general, who is essentially religious.”[3] This leads to the view that

Positive dogmas, based on history, are transcendentally outlined in human nature. Affirming them, man always affirms at least his own being as well. And since the religious human being is essentially seeking union between himself and God, all the world religions and other world views could be christologies on the search… [H]enceforth every form of positive historical religion is reducible, and must more and more become reducible, to a human religion… The two models of religious universality are incompatible: Jesus’ absolute claim—“No one knows the Father except the Son”—cannot be subordinated to an “intrinsically good” human nature that of itself (despite obscurities, despite Kant’s “radical evil”) knows the truth and can come to possess it.[4]

Balthasar then runs through a number of dogmas that would have to be “reinterpreted” (just as we said earlier), of which the following example may suffice (note that the italics here are phrases taken verbatim from Rahner):

[T]he view that Jesus, in our stead, died for our sins…is in the last analysis unthinkable. Since all true salvation can be thought of as happening only in the exercise of the individual’s own freedom (the word “self-redemption” is altogether meaningful), and since on the other hand God cannot be made to change his mind, the Cross can be nothing other than the supreme quasi-sacramental sign that God has always been reconciled [to man].[5]

It is but one step from there to universalism in both senses: there is, when all is said and done, only one religion, however much we in our human weakness and prejudice diversify its expressions and fight over them due to a lack of metaphysical and psychological penetration; and there can be no talk of damnation, since the divine spark in all of us must return to God. The immense indebtedness of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to Karl Rahner should be obvious. The Abu Dhabi statement, the Abrahamic House, the remarks on hell to Scalfari—in general, the interreligious and eschatological vagueness, together with the language of, and concrete associations with, proponents of a new world order—cannot but remind us of Rahner’s new interpretation of humanity, religion, and salvation.

Even though the essay in New Elucidations is a sustained critique of Rahner from start to finish, quoting him copiously in the form of italicized phrases, the only direct assault on Rahner by name comes in a solitary footnote at the very end.[6] In this note Balthasar becomes quite direct, and I endorse his sentiments a hundredfold:

I do not by any means claim to have presented (or “exposed”) Rahner’s central intention here; it is evident that as a Catholic theologian his thought is more subtle and differentiated. But despite all the retardant insertions, formal basic structures still emerge. Thus it seemed beneficial to single out certain statements—after digging them out of their thick protective packing—in order to show that by their own dynamics they ‘lead where you do not want to go,’ namely, towards a ‘transcendent unity of religions,’ as the newly edited work of Frithjof Schuon says: ‘This transcendental unity is to be effected purely spiritually, without betraying any individual form. The contrasting elements of these forms no more impair the one, universal unity than the contrast between the colors hinders the transmission of the one, colorless light.’[7]

Whatever we may think of other aspects of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology, here he is undoubtedly in the right. Karl Rahner leads to where we do not want to go—right out of dogmatic, confessional, salvific Christianity, out of the traditional faith of the Catholic Church, and into the empty, howling byways of the Modernists’ interior “religious sense,” subjective experiences, and pseudo-mysticism, the labyrinth that stems from self and leads to self, however draped in splendors borrowed from conventional religious language. The triune God, Light, Logos, Life, and Love, calls us in Christ Jesus, by His bloodied Cross and bodily Resurrection, by the sevenfold sacramental stream, out of that dark labyrinth into His eternal glory.


An earlier version of this essay contained a slighting remark about a recent work by David Bentley Hart, which was falsely claimed to exhibit sympathy for Arianism. The remark was unjust and has been removed, with apologies to Dr. Hart.

[1] Naturally, much of the theology world is definitely “post-Rahner,” in the sense of having abandoned even the tenuous ties to Tradition that one finds there. One need only look at CTSA conferences to see the dissolution of theology into an enterprise of politically-woke, hyper-modernist, historically-revisionist-and-relativist babble.

[2] Rahner’s Grundaxiom is: “the ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity” (The Trinity, trans. Joseph Donceel [New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1997], 22). Notice that he says “is,” not that the economic manifests and continues the immanent.

[3] Hans Urs von Balthasar, New Elucidations, trans. Sister Mary Theresilde Skerry (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 75.

[4] Balthasar, 76–77.

[5] Balthasar, 80–81.

[6] Never underestimate footnotes! Maritain, for example, refutes Kant’s Critique of Judgement in a footnote to his work Art and Scholasticism.

[7] Balthasar, 86–87. For some critical thoughts of my own about Schuon and the “perennialist” school, see this article.

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