Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity
Concern for the Church: Theological Investigations XX
The task of the modern era was the realization and humanization of God—the transformation…of theology into anthropology.
Karl Rahner, who will be seventy-eight years old in March, is, I think, the most brilliant Catholic theologian since Thomas Aquinas. During the last forty years this German Jesuit priest has almost singlehandedly revolutionized the way the Church understands its message, and he has contributed the lion’s share to reshaping Catholic philosophy outside the narrow limits of official Neo-Thomism. The Second Vatican Council’s liberalization of dogma and ecclesiastical structure would have been almost unthinkable without him; that is why he is frequently the target of attacks by reactionary Catholics. Indeed, if the last two decades have witnessed a radical change in the articulation of Church teaching and if that revolution should survive, the credit must go in large measure to this brilliant, controversial, and immensely productive man.
Rahner’s published works run to over 3,500 titles in a dozen languages, including fourteen volumes of collected essays, a score of monographs, and a half-dozen or so dictionaries and encyclopedias. A former professor at Innsbruck, Munich, and Münster, he has written on virtually every topic in theology: Christology, the Trinity, atheism, death, evolution, gnosticism, ethics, to mention only a few topics on his list. And it is a list, because Karl Rahner is a most unsystematic systematic theologian. Not that he is sloppy—far from it. Rather, his preferred genre is the essay or encyclopedia article instead of the multi-volume summa of theology favored by Karl Barth or Paul Tillich. Now at last with Rahner’s masterful Foundations of Christian Faith we have, if not an exhaustive summary, at least a comprehensive view of his theology.
The book will not please everyone, least of all those increasingly vocal conservative Catholics who, confused by changes in the Church, hanker after the good old days when Catholicism was a stable rock in the swirling sea and who find in Pope John Paul II the hope of a return to terra firma. These range from those who understandably lament the loss of, say, Gregorian chant and its replacement by tacky guitar music, through the intellectual romantics who miss the hierarchical Church of Pius XII and G.K. Chesterton, up to the theological revanchists who only reluctantly accept the Second Vatican Council, and then merely as window dressing for the unchanging dogmatic theology that they memorized decades ago.
Even further to the right are the fundamentalist vigilantes who each week fill the pages of the National Catholic Register with field reports on what they call the “guerrilla warfare” that faithless liberal theologians are waging against the Pope—the fifth column theory. Then there are those who denounce the treacherous betrayal of the Church by none other than the Pope himself, Paul VI, who intentionally let communist moles into the Vatican—the Antichrist theory popularized by the former Jesuit Malachi Martin. These Catholic…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.