The theology of Karl Rahner and the euthanasia of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Let’s begin a discussion about Rahner’s theology.

Karl Rahner

Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi wrote the following words in the book “The Social Doctrine of the Church. Taking stock ten years after the Compendium (2004-2014)”: “As I see it, the most influential school of thought for the criticism of the Social Doctrine of the Church is that of Karl Rahner. If we take a close look, many of the theologians who later launched criticism and elaborated trajectories alternative to the Social Doctrine were his students. Rahner’s line of thought follows in the wake of Heidegger’s work, that is to say outside the context of a Christian philosophy, outside the context depicted by the Fides et ratio of St. John Paul II. This encyclical mentions a few names of Christian philosophers by way of example, but Heidegger is not among them. Rahner understands God as an ‘existential transcendent’. This mainly means two things: that all men are in God because He is their aprioristic dimension, the unknowable and unclassifiable horizon of their subjectivity and their liberty, in practical terms, of their being persons; that access to God is always within our conscience. Not known, He is consciously and existentially experienced as the horizon of all meaning.

This sets faith in an historical perspective; faith not considered as knowing, but as having an existential experience of a transcendent horizon. There are no longer atheists or believers because one and all are within this horizon and accompany one another in the interpretation of life. When someone passes from an anonymous Christianity to just the opposite, that being a clearly cogent and conscientious Christianity, that person does not cease sharing this same horizon. Good and evil are not clear-cut. Since existence as a whole unfolds within the transcendental horizon of God, there are various levels of good to be uplifted, but never to be condemned. Man can never really know when he is in a situation of sin. The Church is not face to face with the world even though it is also in the world, but becomes world because it shares the common existential horizon with the world.

Within this framework I have had to abridge at the risk of being incomplete, it is very difficult to include the Social Doctrine of the Church unless we dismantle it as a doctrinal corpus, eliminate its missionary and salvific significance, and understand it as a praxis of receptivity, listening and journeying together, but without the light coming from outside this world, from the Transcendent. According to Rahner, this transcendent is the existential transcendental dimension which, insofar as the condition of all meaning, cannot be singled out in a thematic sense.”

Evident in the light of these considerations is the incompatibility of Rahner’s theology with the Social Doctrine of the Church, and it is readily understandable why all the currents of thought following his lead have actually and always engaged in evident or concealed battle against the Social Doctrine of the Church, also and especially during the lengthy period when it was supposed to have been launched anew according to the direct will of successive pontiffs. This has been a sort of deaf and obstinate opposition that has caused considerable damage and today seems victorious. I had an opportunity to confirm this thesis of the Observatory in my recent book entitled The New Church of Karl Rahner. The theologian who taught the Church to surrender to the world (Fede & Cultura, Verona 2017). In light of what is written in this book as well, it may be useful to evoke the basic points revealing how Rahner-headed theology represents an attempt pursuing the euthanasia of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Thus do we hope to launch a discussion we will willingly host on our website.

The Church in the world

In order for the Social Doctrine of the Church to be, it is necessary for the Church to be not of the world. In fact, the Social Doctrine of the Church is the announcement of Christ in temporal realities. If the Church becomes indistinctly immersed in temporal realities, the mission of the Social Doctrine of the Church and the Social Doctrine of the Church as mission of the Church are already over and done with. Nonetheless, this is exactly what is asserted by Rahner, who says the Church has to stop wanting to “manipulate the world”. The Church must understand itself as a part of the world without any claims of superiority as regards doctrine and truth.

God reveals Himself in the world

This is because God does not reveal Himself by way of priority in the Church but in the world, since He reveals Himself indirectly in the events of existence insofar as the primordial and aprioristic horizon that makes them possible. The revelation of God is neither cosmic nor metaphysical; it is completely historical. God reveals Himself in historical facts and events. It therefore follows that doctrine – and hence the Social Doctrine of the Church as well – is not a primary element. First of all there is life, praxis. . . .and then doctrine. This is why the Social Doctrine of the Church has been accused of ideology and abstraction.

God is immanent in history

In Rahner’s opinion it is necessary to rethink the transcendence of God which is existential by nature and not metaphysical. God is transcendent in the sense of not being one thing among things, but rather the horizon that make it possible for us to have a vision of things that is interested, participatory and free. Transcendent means a-priori for him. In this sense God does not reveal Himself to us in knowledge, does not hand down doctrine to us, and does not give us binding instructions. All He tells us is to live in a participatory manner, dialoguing with others because He reveals Himself to everyone, not just to Christians.

God asks questions and gives no answers

Albeit with its practical and even experimental character, the Social Doctrine of the Church claimed it offered humanity responses regarding good and salvation. For Rahner, however, God gives no rules, suggestions or indications. God’s presence in all men consists in their being “question prone”, that is to say in the insatiability that prods them to never cease challenging or disputing newly acquired results. A Christian is quite simply he who is open to the future and is the source of all the theological doctrines of the future and the practices characteristic of the decades following Vatican II.

Doctrine and natural moral law no longer exist

The Social Doctrine of the Church has always sustained its being founded on revelation – that is to say on the doctrine of the faith – and on natural law. From Rahner’s perspective, however, neither one of them exist any longer. Revelation does not teach us doctrinal truths, dogmas are historical and evolve, while “nature” is completely reabsorbed in history and is a metaphysical residue of the past.

As we can see from these brief references developed in greater detail in the aforementioned book, the theology of Karl Rahner and the Social Doctrine of the Church are absolutely incompatible. This, I repeat, is why the latter was and is so strongly disputed and opposed. Reason, however, stands not with Rahner and Rahnerism, even though that school of thought seems to prevail in the Church today.


Stefano Fontana