Karl Rahner Consultation 2019: “Another World Is Possible”

The KRS has published its annual “call for papers” which invites members to submit proposals for the annual Karl Rahner Consultation.  The consultation will take place within the June 6-9, 2019 convention in Pittsburgh of the Catholic Theological Society of America.  “Another World is Possible: Violence, Resistance and Transformation” is the theme for the 2019 convention, which “supports positive interaction with the contemporary social and religious movements for constructive change,” through justice, as an alternative to violence.  For the Rahner Consultation, the KRS invites proposals that consider Rahner’s theological work in the light of the convention’s theme.


Karl Rahner Consultation 2018

Jessica Coblentz will moderate the 2018 Karl Rahner consultation.

Jessica Coblentz moderated the 2018 consultation.

The Karl Rahner Society met at the seventy-third annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America, held at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown in Indianapolis, Indiana, from June 7-10, 2018.   The theme was “Grace at Work in the World.”  Michael Canaris (Loyola University Chicago) convened the Karl Rahner Consultation on June 9, and Jessica Coblentz (St. Mary’s College of California) moderated it. The first presentation, entitled “Karl Rahner’s Theology of Neighbor Love in Dialogue with Social Psychology and Neuroscience,” was offered by Sarah Thomas (Boston College).  She  raised a question: If Christian discipleship is defined by the commandment to “love one’s neighbor,” how does embodiment enhance or diminish our freedom to do so?

Sarah Thomas will discuss Rahner's theology of neighbor love.

Sarah Thomas discussed the theology of neighbor love.

Thomas’ paper showed how Rahner’s theology of neighbor love accounts for the way freedom to love depends upon prior experience of grace and the human capacity to attend to the “other.”  The experience of grace, she said, includes that of God’s love as mediated through interhuman love.  “Otherness” or human distinctiveness underlies our capacity to relate to one another.  Thomas brought Rahner’s conception of neighbor love into dialogue with a description of embodiment provided by social psychology and neuroscience. The interlocutors for Thomas’ paper included C. Daniel Batson, who first proposed the empathy-altruism hypothesis.  The hypothesis states that empathic concern produces altruistic motivation.  Thomas suggested that Rahner indirectly offers a supplement to the theory of empathy-induced altruism.  The theory should not focus exclusively on the obligation to heal, but also on the desire to heal.

Brandon Peterson will focus on soteriology.

Brandon Peterson focused on Rahnerian soteriology.

The second paper was by Brandon Reed Peterson (University of Utah), who in 2017 published Being Salvation: Atonement and Soteriology in the Theology of Karl Rahner.  His contribution to the session was entitled “Grace in Our Place? Rahner’s Understanding of Christ as a Representative.”  In the paper, Peterson asked, “How does Jesus work in the world to redeem humans?”  Throughout Rahner’s career, said Peterson, he expressed deep suspicion of answers that had Christ “standing in” for humans [Stellvertretung], performing a great redemptive act in their stead. For Rahner, grace does not substitute or replace; it transforms and capacitates.

Annie Selak will respond to the presenters.

Annie Selak responded to the presenters.

Such an answer provoked great protest from Hans Urs von Balthasar, for whom Stellvertretung was indispensable. Peterson’s presentation traced the exchange between the two theologians, considering Rahner’s closely related distinction between mere “signs” (Vertretungssymbole) and real symbols.  It also analyzed Rahner’s favored alternative for Stellvertretung, the notion of Repräsentation, which he adopted from his early patristic studies.

Annie Selak (Boston College) responded to both the Thomas and Peterson papers.  Peterson (she said) emphasizes that Jesus “is” salvation because he expressed God’s Word in the world.  His paper makes the point that in Jesus, God is not simply doing what other human beings could not do.  Peterson’s paper shows that Jesus is also opening up possibilities for what human beings can and should do. To Thomas, Selak noted that people often feel empathy for those who are like them.  Thomas’ paper (Selak said) calls attention to an important distinction made by Rahner.  He said that helping neighbors means helping them as God sees them, including those who are quite different.


Karl Rahner Consultation 2017

“Ecology: Theological Investigations” was the theme of the seventy-second annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America, held at the Hyatt Regency Albuquerque from June 8-11, 2017.  The Karl Rahner Society had invited Michael Rubbleke (University of Notre Dame) and Jean-Pierre Fortin (Loyola University of Chicago) to present papers on the convention theme.

Michael Rubbelke

Michael Rubbelke

In his paper entitled “Christ, Creation’s Center; Humans, Creation’s Microcosm: Reading Rahner’s Evolutionary Christology with Bonaventure,” Michael Rubbelke brought Karl Rahner into dialogue with a central figure of medieval theology. At the heart of Rubbleke’s presentation was the issue of humanity’s place in the created order. Rubbleke outlined Bonaventure’s conviction that human nature represents the unity of creation: humanity as the microcosm of creation’s macrocosm, all of which is redeemed in Christ. For Bonaventure, “body and soul” captured the unity of seemingly opposed elements of the cosmos.

Moving on to Rahner, Rubbelke showed that Rahner’s understanding of the relationship of spirit to matter was dynamic: Rahner’s evolutionary view depicted matter as capable of transcendence; human beings alone, however, were able to transcend toward God. In Rahner’s theology, human beings were uniquely able to “read” creation in relation to the creator; in human beings, therefore, creation came into consciousness of itself, a conscious inseparable from God’s revelation in Christ. It was Christ, then, who was the source of unity in creation. For that reason, as Rubbelke argued, Rahner saw all of creation as ordered towards incarnation. The uniqueness of humanity in creation must be distinguished, Rubbelke stressed, from a license to damage the physical world. For Rahner, as for Rubbelke, the destruction of the environment leads to the destruction of humanity.

Jean-Pierre Fortin

Jean-Pierre Fortin

Jean-Pierre Fortin, whose paper was entitled “Self-Transcendence and Union in Christ: Karl Rahner’s Eucharistic Theology of Creation,” began with a reflection on Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’. Fortin argued that the pope’s “integral ecology” summarizes the encyclical’s focus on the interdependence of all aspects of creation. From there, Fortin, tracing the development of Rahner’s thought through the latter’s engagement with Aquinas, Kant, and Heidegger, highlighted Rahner’s conviction that in human beings the universe has become self-aware. Paralleling Rubbelke’s presentation, Fortin showcased the centrality of Christ in Rahner’s theology: in Christ the divine enters the human, and the human the divine. The grace of Christ empowers human transcendence, but humans are free to accept or reject that grace.

In the second half of his presentation, Fortin brought Rahner into dialogue with the work of Charles Darwin, showing that Rahner’s emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit expanded Darwin’s exclusively naturalistic approach to evolution. It is through grace, Fortin contended, that creation is elevated and able to receive God’s self-offering. The final section of Fortin’s paper explored the connection between Rahner’s theology of grace and his sacramental theology, presenting the church and the seven ecclesial sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, as contributing to humanity’s “spiritual maturation.” Such maturation can lead to a deeper relationship to the natural world, which is to be nurtured and protected as the site of God’s self-revelation in Christ.

Nancy Dallavalle

Nancy Dallavalle

Nancy Dallavalle, in responding to the two presentations, questioned whether Rubbelke’s analysis issued in an anthropocentric approach to creation; a critique, Dallavalle noted, often directed to Rahner’s stress on theology as anthropology. In addressing Fortin’s paper, Dallavalle focused on Rahner’s concentration on humanity as the highpoint of creation, asking whether Rahner does justice to the reality of suffering and human sinfulness. The final section of Dallavalle’s response introduced the work of Linn Tonstad, who asks whether Rahner’s trinitarian theology is problematic in its emphasis on God’s action in the world as the key to resolving all human challenges.

From there, Dallavalle drew a comparison with Pope Francis’s use of “integral ecology,” asking whether, like the invocation of the Trinity, it is in danger of being called upon as a solution to every problem in contemporary society, but without providing any specificity. Dallavalle’s naming of the specter of “anthropocentrism” in Rahner’s theology sets the scene for an animated period of questions after the presentations and response. The presentations and discussion confirmed Rahner’s enduring value as a source for environmental theology, but also identified challenges facing his theology.  (Summary by Richard Lennan, Boston College.)


Karl Rahner Consultation 2016

The Rahner Consultation of the Catholic Theological Society of America heard two papers on June 11 at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan.

Paul D. Murray

Paul D. Murray

The first presenter was Paul D. Murray of Durham University who spoke on “Charism, Institution and Trinity in Rahner.”  Murray began by delineating his two background concerns: 1) establishing a proper ecclesiological basis for the ministry of the Church, and 2) extending this basis into an integrated theology of the ministry that sheds new light on the relationship between the free charism of the Holy Spirit and the Church’s effort to order this charism institutionally. Murray noted that there was a pneumatological deficiency in the West going back to St. Augustine, who subordinated the Holy Spirit to Christ.  Rahner wanted to overcome this deficiency, said Murray, by giving the Holy Spirit a greater role both within the Trinity (ad intra)and in the economy of salvation (ad extra).

Rahner’s new trinitarian framework implied that the church has two elements with their own particular responsibilities: its hierarchical organization and its charismatic structure. In The Dynamic Element of the Church, said Murray, Rahner correctly saw that the hierarchy exists to serve the charisms within the Church.  But this emphasis on hierarchy can also threaten the Church.  The “Christic” magisterium (i.e., the teaching office composed of representatives of Christ), separated from the Spirit, can devolve into a mere mechanism for maintaining a bureaucratic routine.  When that happens, said Murray, a “standoff” can arise between the charismatic element in the Church and the hierarchical.

Murray’s solution would be to elevate the role of the Spirit from an agent of acceptance to a fully-realized partner with Father and Son.  The Spirit should be seen, according to Murray, as the “initiating, transforming, life-giving power of God.” The fuller understanding of the Spirit proposed by Murray would exercise a more active role in the Trinity.  The Spirit would be seen as the action of God, the force that inspires people to search out the possibilities that God offers.  Far from being merely the love that links Father and Son (as in St. Augustine), the Spirit should be understood as part of a dynamic threesome – an unoriginated Father, an expressive Word, and an actualizing Spirit.  Such a shift, concluded Murray, would secure the pneumatological basis for church office and the charismatic element in the Church. The twelve attendees asked a number of questions about Murray’s paper, and could easily have discussed it at greater length.

Matthew R. Petrusek

Matthew R. Petrusek

The second paper was by Matthew D. Petrusek (Loyola Marymount University) and entitled  “Specifying ‘The Space’ Necessary to Exercise the Fundamental Option: How Human Capabilities Help Clarify Rahner’s Conception of Justice.”  The “space” is a reference to Rahner’s essay on “The Dignity and Freedom of Man.”  In the essay, Rahner stated that the human personality “requires of necessity a certain space for realizing itself.”   Petrusek depicted this space as the condition for the possibility of human self-realization.  He suggested that the work of political theorist Martha Nussbaum can make more specific the conditions at which Rahner only hinted.

Petrusek’s overall aim was to expound the notion of justice implicit in Rahner.  He argued that the moral sense in Rahner is “grounded in the vulnerability of the individual’s capacity to effect her fundamental option.”  In other words, Petrusek linked the conditions for human self-realization with the capacity to make what Rahner called the fundamental option, that is, the basic decision about the shape of one’s life.  This option, for Petrusek, means a capacity (I am able to choose) and a decision (I choose to live thus).  To Rahner, the concept of justice implies that, in my actions toward my neighbor, I define my relation to God. Rahner should have been more specific, Petrusek implied, about what would enable the moral actor to make a sound choice.  Martha Nussbaum remedies that lack of specificity by arguing the existence of necessary capacities for moral decision-making.  She means things such as the capacity for living healthily, for affiliating socially, and for enjoying bodily integrity.

Nussbaum, claimed Petrusek, fills a genuine void in Rahner, for whom the concept of free choice was not fully conceptualized.  By contrast, Nussbaum gives specific examples of what makes free moral action possible. But Nussbaum falls short, Petrusek argued, due to a fundamental weakness in her moral theory.  It lacks, he said, a basic metaphysics or justification for moral goodness rooted in something other than an empirical consensus.  If there is such a thing as genuine goodness, then there must be such a metaphysical justification.  Rahner supplied it.  Nussbaum did not. The members thanked Petrusek for making his paper available on the KRS website and asked about Nussbaum’s assumptions that would more readily identify her place within philosophy and her relationship to a theologian such as Rahner. The 2016 Rahner Consultation was moderated by Michael M. Canaris (Loyola University Chicago)  The KRS Administrative Team includes Michael M. Canaris, Nancy Dallavalle (Fairfield University), Mark F. Fischer (St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo), Peter J. Fritz (College of the Holy Cross), Richard Lennan (Boston College), and Richard Penaskovic (Auburn University).


Karl Rahner Consultation 2015

1[2]Two papers on Karl Rahner and the Sensus Fidelium were presented at the  2015 Rahner Consultation on Friday, June 12, at the Hyatt Regency Milwaukee.  The consultation took place within the June 11-14 convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America.  Peter Joseph Fritz (College of the Holy Cross) convened the Friday afternoon session.

Canaris, Michael.cropped

The first paper in the Rahner Consultation was given by Michael Canaris of Loyola University Chicago.  Rahner, he said, analyzed the crucial interplay between 1) the faith of individual believers and that of the community as a whole; 2) the contribution of theologians to the development of doctrine, and 3) the process by which the kerygma and  depositum are safeguarded and handed over to every generation by the magisterium.

In his paper, Canaris argued that a Rahnerian reading of the International Theological Commission’s 2014 document Sensus Fidei in The Life of the Church can contribute to the contemporary theological conversation.  Canaris incorporated hints from the ecclesiology of reception as explored by Ormond Rush.  The reality of the Sensus Fidei is neither the majority opinion, Canaris held, nor a docile submission to Eurocentric Christianity.

Howard EbertThe second of the two papers for the Rahner Consultation was given by Howard Ebert of St. Norbert College.  Titled “Locating the Sensus Fidelium: A Rahnerian Perspective,” Ebert described how Rahner treated the sensus fidelium and examined the treatment in terms of the “reflexive sociology” of Pierre Bourdieu.

Ebert argued that Rahner did not offer a sustained explicit theological examination of the sensus fidelium, but that his theology grounded its validity and importance.  When key aspects of Rahner’s theology are seen in tandem with Bourdieu’s reflexive sociology, claimed Ebert, we gain practical guidance in the identification and utilization of the sensus fidelium for the faith life of the church.  Click here to read Locating the Sensus Fidelium.


2014 Consultation: Rahner and Ecumenism Today

Ecumenism was the topic of the 2014 Karl Rahner Consultation, which took place at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego on June 7.  Jon Nilson (Loyola University Chicago) convened and moderated a panel discussion entitled “Rahner and Ecumenism Today: Is Unity Still ‘An Actual Possibility’?”  At the end of his life,  said Nilson, Rahner “was still arguing that Church leaders bore serious responsibilities” for ecumenical unity and that “Christianity divided was too weak to confront contemporary secularism effectively.” The phrase “an actual possibility” was the subtitle of a 1983 book by Rahner and Heinrich Fries entitled Unity of the Churches. The two authors maintained that visible Christian unity is realizable today. They showed how major obstacles to unity, such as the papacy and ordained ministry, need not be such, provided that they be understood in new but still faithful and orthodox ways.  At the June 7 consultation, this thesis was discussed by a panel including Catherine Clifford (St Paul University, Ottawa), Richard Lennan (Boston College), and Jill Raitt (University of Missouri).

Jon Nilson

Jon Nilson

Unity of the Churches garnered attention, said Nilson, “but Rahner’s death and Cardinal Ratzinger’s hostility pushed it off the ecumenical radar.” Since then, new obstacles have arisen.  An example is today’s disputes over moral issues, Nilson said.  Moreover, ecumenism has been largely Eurocentric; today’s Christianity is not. The hypothesis of the panel was that Rahner still has much to teach Christians about the ways and means to the visible unity of the Church. Each panelist addressed the question, “What, if anything, does Rahner still have to contribute to the cause of Church unity?” A discussion followed.  For further information on the panel discussion, see Ecumenism Today. All of the participants referred to Karl Rahner and Heinrich Fries, Einigung der Kirchen – reale Möglichkeit. Mit einter Bilanz ‘Zustimmung und Kritik’ von Heinrich Fries (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1983), and  Jon Nilson, Nothing Beyond the Necessary: Roman Catholicism and the Ecumenical Future (New York: Paulist, 1995).

The Karl Rahner Consultation took place within the annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America.  The theme of the convention was“Identity and Difference, Unity and Fragmentation.”  Click to learn about the 2014 Rahner Breakfast, which featured presentations by Brandon Peterson and Leo J. O’Donovan.

Panelist Contributions

The three panelists at the 2014 Rahner Consultation shed light on The Unity of the Churches, the book of 1985 written by Rahner and Fries.

Jill Raitt

Ecumenical Perspectives from the Vatican and the World Council of Churches By Jill Raitt, University of Missouri

Raitt’s contribution examined the rather pessimistic view of ecumenism from Michael Kinnamon, past Executive Secretary of the World Council of Churches and (from 2007-11) the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches.  She compared Kinnamon’s viewpoint with the optimism expressed by Walter Kasper,  who was President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity from March 2001 through June 2010. Raitt examined Kasper’s 2010 publication, Sacrament of Unity: The Eucharist and the Church.  There Kasper compares “churches of the Word” with “churches of the Eucharist,” and considers whether their Eucharistic theologies support a substantial presence.  For further information, see Raitt’s Ready or Not?

An Ultimate Resolution of Disputes? By Richard Lennan, Boston College

Richard LennanSome Catholic critics of Rahner and Fries, including Cardinal Ratzinger, dismissed Unity of the Churches at the time of its publication, said Lennan.  They considered it an ill-judged attempt to promote Christian unity at the expense of Christian truth. For the critics, the Rahner-Fries proposal was unrealistic in arguing that unity did not require ultimate resolution of the conflicting claims to truth expressed in the doctrines of the divided churches. Lennan placed Unity of the Churches in the context of the wider corpus of Rahner’s post-Vatican II writings on ecumenism.  In Rahner’s assessment, the church needed to shift its emphasis away from doctrinal disputes that had their origins in the Reformation. Lennan asked whether Rahner’s focus on context as a determining factor in ecumenism was a denial of truth or a prophetic insight.  For further information, see Lennan’s Truth and Christian Unity.

Ecumenism and Doctrinal Authority Catherine CliffordBy Catherine Clifford, St. Paul University, Ottawa

Clifford examined two theses by Rahner and Fries.  Their first thesis, she said, was that the fundamental truths of faith expressed in Scripture and in the creeds provide a sufficient basis for ecclesial unity.  Their second, related thesis, was that the confessional expression of that faith in the “binding dogmas” and confessional statements of ecumenical partners should be recognized as consonant with those fundamental truths, even if not imposed upon them.  These two theses have been sorely tested in by the evolution of the churches in recent decades. Catholic magisterial pronouncements have tended toward doctrinal maximalism, said Clifford, while Reformation churches show an increasingly ambivalent attitude to their own “historic” expressions of faith. The normativity of creedal and confessional affirmations is less clear in the movement of third wave Christianity represented by Evangelical and Pentecostal communities, Clifford added. The complex question of doctrinal authority, in particular the normativity of the creeds and their relation to confessional expressions of faith, remains at the heart of theological ecumenism and the challenge of ecclesial recognition in the twenty-first century.  Clifford suggested that the proposals of Rahner and Fries offered insights into possible ways forward. To read titles of previously published “Rahner Papers” click here.

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