Grace in Freedom by Karl Rahner
Karl Rahner, S.J., studied theology under Martin Heidegger, then taught dogmatics in Catholic unversities in Munich and Innsbruck, Germany, between 1937 and 1984. He wrote more than a half-dozen books and was an observer at Vatican Council II in 1962-1965. Published in 1969 by Herder and Herder, New York. This book prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.
Section 3: Religious Patterns
Is Christianity an "Absolute Religion"?
The Catholic Church is confronted by historical powers which she cannot neglect as being wholly "secular", but which are important for her, even though they are opposed to her. It is her duty to establish a relationship with them and to understand their existence insofar as she cannot simply approve of them. But she must bear the scandal of their opposition and conquer it by herself becoming the higher unity that embraces it. This is what is meant by "open Catholicism".
One of the most difficult elements of this pluralism is the multiplicity of religions which exists even after two thousand years of Christianity and its missionary activities. For no other religion claims to be the religion and the absolutely unique and only valid revelation of the one living God. Moreover, today the existence of many religions threatens the individual Christian more than ever before. For in the past another religion was at the same time also the religion of a different civilization, with which there were only very peripheral contacts, it was the religion of foreigners. Thus it is not surprising that the existence of such a religion should not have affected oneself at all.
Today the situation is very different. Everyone is everyone else's neighbour and therefore, whether willingly or unwillingly, conditioned by a communications system embracing the whole planet. Every religion has become a question and a possibility for every man; hence it challenges the absolute claim of one's own Christianity. We would therefore explain the basic characteristics of a dogmatic Catholic interpretation of the non-Christian religions, and thus help to solve the problem of the Chris- tian position with regard to contemporary religious pluralism. We call it a dogmatic interpretation, because we consider the question not from the empirical point of view of the history of religions, but from the dogmatic stand- point of Christianity's own conception of itself.
We begin with the statement that Christianity claims to be the absolute religion destined for all men, which cannot tolerate any other as having equal rights beside it. This thesis is the basis for the Christian theological understanding of the other religions. Christ, the absolute Word of God, has come in the flesh and reconciled, that means united) the world to God through his death
and resurrection, not only theoretically but in reality. Ever since, Christ and his permanent historical presence in the world which we call Church are the religion which binds man to God.
It should, however, be noted that Christianity has a historical beginning in Christ; but this means only that this absolute religion, too, must come to men historically, confronting and claiming them as their legitimate religion.
The question is therefore: Is the moment in time at which this absolute historical religion makes existentially real demands on men the same for all, or has the beginning of this moment itself a history and thus is not the same in time for all men, all civilizations and periods of history.
If we presuppose that our second theory is correct, this means that we can understand our first thesis in a more differentiated way. For we shall positively state only that Christianity is meant to be the absolute and therefore unique religion of all mankind, but we leave open the question at which moment in time it is objectively binding for any man and any civilization. It should be noted that we are therefore concerned with the fact that a social entity is needed for salvation. Hence we may, indeed must, say without hesitation that this thesis implies that its social organization belongs to the very essence of religion.
Moreover, we may say that paganism continues to exist not because it has rejected Christianity, but because it has not yet met it in a sufficiently impressive encounter. If this is true, paganism will cease to exist in this sense, because the West has begun to enter the history of our whole planet. Or, to express it more cautiously, we enter an entirely new phase in world history, in which Christians and non-Christians, living in the same situation, confront each other dialogically.
Until the gospel actually enters the historical situation of a certain person, a non-Christian religion contains not only elements of a natural knowledge of God mixed with depravation caused by original sin and human elements, but also supernatural elements of grace. It can therefore be acknowledged to be a legitimate religion, even though in different graduations.
According to the first part of this thesis even non-Christian religions may be said a priori to contain supernatural elements of grace. This opinion is based on the theological principle that, as Christians, we must profess the dogma that God wills the salvation of all men even in the post- paradisal period of original sin. On the one hand this salvation is specifically Christian, for there is no salvation apart from Christ, while, on the other, God truly and seriously wants all men to be saved. Both can be combined only by saying that man is exposed to the influence of divine grace, which offers him communion with God, whether he accepts it or not.
The second part of our second thesis, however, goes further. It says that because of this the pre-Christian religions, too, need not simply be regarded as illegitimate but that they, too, can very well have a positive meaning. This applies also to religions which, in their concrete form, may contain many theoretical and practical errors. This is shown, for example, by a theological analysis of the structure of the Old Covenant. For in the Old Covenant such as it appeared in history there was much that was right and willed by God, but there were also a great many errors, wrong developments and depraved ideas, while there was no permanent infallible authority to separate the two. Hence we must give up the prejudiced idea that we may confront a non-Christian religion with the alternative of being either wholly of divine origin or a merely human thing. If in these religions, too, man is under grace, the individual must have the possibility of a genuine saving relation with God. Now man is a social being, and in earlier times he was even more radically involved in social ties. Hence it is unthinkable that he could have realized his relationship with God individually and interiorly, outside the actual religion which offered itself in the world around him. For, as has already been said, it belongs to the characteristics of a true, concrete religion that the individual religious practice is embedded in a social religious order. Hence the salvation God wanted man to have reached him according to the divine will and permission in the concrete religion of the historical conditions and circumstances of his life, though this did not deprive him of the right and the limited opportunity to criticize and to pay attention to the reforming impulses which God's providence always inspired in such a religion.
If this second thesis is correct, Christianity confronts an adherent of a non-Christian religion not only as a mere non-Christian, but also as a person who may already be regarded in certain respects as an anonymous Christian.
Now it must be possible to be not only an anonymous theist but, as has been said, an anonymous Christian. There is a twofold reason for this. For the man who becomes the "object" of the missionary activities of the Church may have approached and even found his salvation without having yet been reached by the preaching of the Church; and, secondly, this salvation which he has found must also be the salvation of Christ, because there is no other. And so it is true that in the last analysis the preaching of the Gospel does not make into a Christian a man absolutely forsaken by God and Christ, but that it transforms an anonymous Christian into a man who realizes his Christianity in the depth of his grace-endowed nature also objectively and in the communal confession of the Church.
This implies that this express self-realization of a formerly anonymous Christian is a higher phase of the development of this Christianity, demanded by his nature. Hence we may on no account conclude that the preaching of Christianity is superfluous, because a man is an anonymous Christian without it. For the self-realization of the formerly anonymous Christianity is demanded, first, by the incarnational and social structure of grace and Christianity, and, secondly, by the fact that a clearer and more reflected comprehension of Christianity offers a greater chance of salvation to the individual than his status as an anonymous Christian.
True, we cannot hope that religious pluralism will disappear in the foreseeable future; nevertheless, Christians themselves may well regard the non-Christian world as an anonymous Christendom. It follows, therefore, that today the Church will not so much regard herself as the exclusive community of candidates for salvation, but rather as the avant-garde, expressing historically and socially the hidden reality which, Christians hope, exists also outside her visible structure. The Church is not the community of those who possess God's grace as opposed to those who lack it, but the community of those who can confess explicitly what they and the others hope to be. Of course, this explicit confession and the historical institution of this salvation of Christ which is offered to all is itself a grace and part of salvation. The non-Christian may think it supercilious that the Christian attributes all that is good and whole in every man to the fruit of the grace of his Christ and regards the non-Christian as a Christian who has not yet found himself. But the Christian cannot do otherwise. And actually this seeming superiority is the way in which his greatest humility is expressed, both as regards himself and his Church. For it lets God be greater than both man and the Church. The Church will confront the non-Christian with the attitude of Paul who said: "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." Hence we may well be tolerant and humble towards all non-Christian religions.
Is Christianity an Absolute Religion?: Orientierung 29, no. 16 (1965), pp. 176 -- 8.
What I want to say here as a Catholic theologian does not concern particular visions and apparitions which have aroused popular interest, whether in the past or the present. It is quite outside my competence to be for or against any such individual event. I only want to make some remarks on the subject of apparitions and visions in general from the point of view of the
As a Catholic theologian I think that a Christian cannot deny the possibility of genuine visions, that is, of those produced by God and expressing his will, and also that he cannot say in principle that they concern only the visionary himself. For both the Old and the New Testaments testify to such events as caused by God and important for us. To accept only those described in Scripture and to reject all later ones altogether would mean abandoning both the Bible's and one's own credibility, whether we admit it or not. True, in Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word of God the history of God's self-revelation has entered its final eschatological phase, and everything necessary for salvation has been given us. But this does not exclude, it rather implies that prophecy and vision remain in the Church as an actualization of the permanent message of Christ.
The question of the nature of such visions is more difficult, for it involves criteria by which visions are to be distinguished from invented ones or those due to mere subjective human conditions. For there are also such, and they are probably the great majority, so that sober caution and the "examination of spirits" which Scripture recommends are indicated. For credulity causes more mischief than too much caution.
An authentic vision may probably be explained as a purely spiritual touch of God affecting the innermost centre of a man and spreading from there to all his faculties, his thought and imagination, which transform this touch. Hence, when a "vision" reaches the consciousness of the visionary it has already passed through the medium of his subjectivity, and therefore also bears his individual characteristics as regards language, interests, theological presuppositions and so forth. Hence the authentic vision is both divine and human, and because it is also human it is also affected by the visionary's nationality and the time in which he lives. In fact nothing else could be expected. It may well be assumed that in the case of a divinely caused vision of a heavenly person, too, though he or she appears to be there in the body, we have nevertheless to do with an imaginary vision, that means it is seen within the sphere of the interior imagination. This does not exclude that this vision is caused by an actual divine touch of the centre of the person (not merely by the visionary's own imagination) and that this touch is correctly translated into an imaginary picture. But Catholic theology does not offer a unanimous and binding opinion on this subject.
Where such visions are accompanied by prophecies and similar phenomena, these will best be explained in the same way as the comminatory texts of the Old and New Testaments. For precisely if they are genuine they do not anticipate future events, they are not phenomena of
clairvoyance or second sight. Nor do they give detailed prescriptions for political action or offer an escape from unforeseeable history. They are also invariably conditioned by the visionary's own subjective experience. Such prophecies are calls to penance, perhaps in popular language, but touching many hearts. They can actually say only one thing) the same as the beginning of the gospel: Repent, believe the good tidings, "for the kingdom of God is at hand". Ultimately such prophecies cannot mean to say more if they are to be understood as actualizing the message of faith and not as fortune-telling. If they are wrongly inter- preted they cease in any case to be true vision and prophecy for us.
These considerations also provide the criteria by which to distinguish genuine visions from the many false ones. Visions are authentic only if they are in accordance with Christ, if they conform to the teaching of the Church, serving not sensationalism but true Christian piety. They must lead to the centre of Christianity, not away from it to petty devotions and similar caricatures of biblical and ecclesial Christianity. Only then will they be true divine message and encounter. In judging these visions we shall, moreover, have also to take the whole character of the visionary into consideration. Finally, no Catholic Chris- tian is bound to believe in any post-biblical vision unless
he recognizes himself that it has its origin in God and is a call to his own free conscience.
We should not speak too easily of medical ethics unless we truly understand that objectivity is in itself a virtue. Ob- jectivity is here defined as the capacity and will to see and admit objective facts, understood in this context as scientific data. Though the physician's art is undoubtedly more
than merely applied science, contemporary medical men are nevertheless right to base themselves on it, and insofar as they do so, they can and must be objective in their profession in the sense described above. Fortunately this objectivity seems to situate the medical art within a sphere which rarely requires decisions of conscience and the solu- tion of ethical questions. It might be
thought that an action will become less ethical the more "medical" it is, and medical problems of morality might be regarded as a sign that objectivity has not yet been carried far enough.
Even though the object is to determine as far as possible what the physician should do, nevertheless objectivity as the conscious will to be guided by the object rather than by prejudices (even by moral ones) is itself a moral attitude. No one finds it easy to adopt such a moral attitude which is determined by this "medical objectivity". For example: Any suppression of factors which are necessary for the clarity of a diagnosis but may be unpleasant for the physician contradicts not only the "object", but also objectivity as an ethical attitude, hence a "virtue of the physician". The content of medical activities is largely determined by medical, not by ethical principles; but the will to let one's actions be determined by objective medical principles is itself a moral action.
This becomes even more evident (I hope I may be for- given the seemingly involved philosophizing) the more we realize that the principle of objectivity as such cannot be derived from the objects themselves, at least not in the sense in which it is used here. The objects can only determine conditional relationships. If such and such a weight is to be placed on a beam, its stability must correspond to the weight in question. Objects can determine the means, but not the end. If this or that disease is to be cured, such and such a medical method must be employed. But the medical "things" cannot tell the doctor that a man must be cured, if or that his life ought to be preserved, even in his old age, even when he no longer seems to be economically productive, even if to preserve his life is expensive. The medical data can only furnish a conditional principle of objectivity. The physician, however, who is more than merely a medical man, is guided by an absolute principle of objectivity which includes that something ought to be. Because of this, at least, the physician is also a moral person, the subject of an ethical imperative addressed to him, no matter to what he attributes this absolute principle.
This is the paradox of the whole medical situation. For the matter under discussion and which offers a conditional principle of conduct seems to militate against making this principle absolute. For whom does the physician encounter when he regards his patient only with the eyes of an objective medical scientist? To such a physician the patient might appear only too easily as perhaps a miserable human being of whom one might doubt whether he was worth keeping alive, who was himself biologically endangered by his civilization, though without it he could not exist even biologically. Thus the physician becomes involved in ever increasing tensions between what he can achieve biologically and what he must achieve through man-made civilization and its results.
Must such a human life be preserved as far as possible in every case? Is the absolute demand that the physician should defend the life of every man as far as at all possible either the artificial and morally unreflected exaggeration of the biological zest for life which rational man opposes to the true "objectivity" of nature's action in life and death, or is such absoluteness a genuine ethical demand? This seems to me the fundamental ethical question which every physician must answer, and actually does answer at the sickbed. There will be many doctors who, in their practice, answer it in favour of the dignity of man, which is more than mere biological zest for life. They will not, however, reflect very much on what is the ultimate ground of this dignity, which turns the conditional into an absolute principle, namely that the "object" which makes the principle of objectivity an absolute principle is man, that is the person. An explicit answer is given by the Christian, for according to Christian teaching the dignity of man as a person is founded on his relation to the absolute reality of God. But every responsibly acting physician will give an at least implicitly correct answer in which he reaches an absolute ethic at least at one point.
The doctor is in a strange situation. He is a member of a society in which there is a constant exchange of service and remuneration. Nevertheless, as in the case of priests, artists and perhaps even true politicians, more is required from the physician than merely a paid service, namely his own person and his ethics, which is part of his work. Because of his profession the physician is an advocate of the humane.
In the medical profession objective knowledge produces an achievement which can be paid for. But being a physician is not only a profession, but the vocation to be a man for others. As this vocation is lived in the sober unity of scientific knowledge and human achievement it is prevented from becoming mere humanitarian twaddle. Since members of the medical profession must be faithful to their vocation, their work will always be more than a mere way of earning their living, it will reveal true humaneness.
Fortschritte der Medizin 85, no. 24 (21 December 1967), pp. 1029 -- 30.