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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 4: Ecumenical Perspectives

*This chapter was originally written as an answer to an article by Bishop Lilje: "Reformation heute", Stimmen der Zeit 180 (1967), pp. 217 -- 27.


The Question of Justification Today

Today we Christians are all sadly conscious of the separation of the Christian Churches and of our duty to do everything in our power to heal the breach. This is a difficult task, because there are so many diverse reasons for the separations, reasons going back to the time of the reformation, reasons which have emerged only later through the historical development of the separated Churches, doctrinal reasons, but also sociological, national, cultural ones which by themselves do not add up to a real denominational difference. Then there are reasons which are subjectively felt as separating the Churches even though they no longer exist or may actually never have existed, reasons which would justify a pluralism within the one Church, but not a separation. All this is aggravated by the very fact that there are these separations, independent of their justification and the reasons which have led up to them. Because of this burden social and institutional history moves more slowly than we wish.

Because the reasons for the division between the Churches are so complex, there is no other way than to discuss each single cause by itself in order to remove or at least to weaken each obstacle to unity individually. It may seem that not much has been gained if a single obstacle has been intellectually overcome, for the other reasons are still there, and in reality we appear not to have progressed at all. But there is no other way. It is the same as in the case of a door which is fastened by ten nails. It is "more open" if even one nail has been extracted, for this will give us hope that we shall remove all, especially as our technical skill in drawing out the nails will also increase.

One of the decisive reasons for the separation of the Churches is the difference in the doctrine of man's justification before God through grace.

Here I cannot deal explicitly with the historical controversy, so I shall not discuss in detail the doctrine of the reformers, especially of Luther, nor the teaching of the Council of Trent on this point. Nor can I report the differences of the theological opinions which have since emerged on this subject in the various Churches. I also must leave aside the question why theologians on both sides could not agree, or at least thought they could not agree, about the subject of justification. All these questions cannot be treated here, and not only for reasons of time; for though they are very important for the history of theology, they lead into such a tangle of theological subtle- ties that they cannot be expected greatly to advance the ecumenical cause. Hence I should like to use another method. I want to say quite simply what a Catholic Christian thinks about justification, or, to express it more cautiously, what he is allowed to think. In my opinion this presentation will be acceptable to official Catholic doctrine which derives from the Council of Trent and need not be opposed either by contemporary Protestant Christians. This implies that the doctrine of justification, i.e. the sola gratia, is no reason for the separation of the Churches today. I must ask you to believe simply that my presentation is orthodox in the Catholic sense; whether it is also acceptable to Protestants must be decided by the Protestants themselves and their theologians. I do not pretend that my interpretation is the only one possible as regards points of view, formulations, emphases, etc. Considerable differences are possible and actually exist among Catholic theologians. But the same is the case in Protestant theology. Such theological differences need not destroy the unity of faith and confession, they need not be a cause for schism, and today neither side ought to emphasize them to such an extent as still to justify the separation of the Churches. Every single theological statement is only important and intelligible if it is considered within the whole complex of statements about justification. Hence every single statement can always be criticized, integrated, newly formulated and better protected from misunderstandings in the context of the whole. This has been only too often over- looked by both parties in their controversies. The object is infinite, while the aspects grasped by theologians and the terminology are finite and historically conditioned. Hence in the question of justification, too, we must simply take into account a theological pluralism which cannot be adequately abolished by a safe counter-argument.

First of all, we Catholics are as convinced as our separated brethren that today, too, the confession of the solely justifying grace of God is a fundamental truth of the Christian faith. In view of the central importance of this doctrine it matters less whether it is readily accepted by our contemporaries, provided that its message is not interpreted in a narrow, selfishly individualistic sense, but that the gracious divine act which opens man to God is from the beginning understood also as creating authentic community among men.

What we call salvation or justification is given to man, the creature and sinner, only through the free and undeserved grace of God, that is through God's free self-revelation in Jesus, the crucified and the risen Christ. Man's relation to God, which means his salvation, cannot be based on, or sustained by man's own initiative, but is instituted by the sovereign action of God. There are no "works" by which a man could render God "gracious" to himself, no initiative which would start with man. All saving activities of men are only a response, and even the very possibility and act of this response is once more based on God, who gives that we can and do accept his action.

God's grace must be accepted in freedom. Now this freedom which believingly accepts this grace is delivered by it from the finiteness and sinful egoism of the creature. Hence the Catholic doctrine of justification does not profess a semi-Pelagian synergism according to which salvation would be divided up into God's gracious act and the independent free act of man. On the contrary, man's free response to God is itself again the gift of God's grace.

This gift of God in which he communicates himself to sinful man is the "event" (not simply a constant dialectical state) through which the sinner becomes a justified man. God's grace truly reaches man, sanctifying him and making him a true heir of eternal life, that is he becomes something he was not before but now truly is. This statement, applied to the individual, does not autonomously fix the moment when this event takes place; but every man applies it to himself, not by reflecting on a certain empirical fact, but in the very act of faith and hope itself. Hence it does not mean that man absolves himself, but that he accepts in hope God's merciful judgment.

What God thus works in us and what we accept in faith and hope is the event which, while truly changing us "now", is yet wholly directed to the final judgment of God's mercy in which it will be perfected. Hence it is an event of promise which now is present only in hoping faith, but never becomes a possession which would be at our disposal in this world.

Though the various aspects and human developments of this grace-given event may be described in the scriptural terms of faith, hope and love, the event itself in its entirety can also be defined with St. Paul simply as "faith", and it may then be said that we are justified by faith and by faith alone.

Even though God's justifying grace truly affects and changes a man, and though it is seized in absolute hope and faith, nevertheless the event of justification does not happen only once by God's free action, but remains always dependent on his sovereign grace. It is inaccessible to a theoretical reflection which would abandon the hope of faith, and it leaves man under the threat of the world's power of sin. Moreover, a man can never absolve himself and decide with certainty whether his daily sins which he must acknowledge do not hide a radical No to God, even though he hopes that they do not exclude him from the kingdom of God. In this sense we Catholics, too, can and must speak of the sinner who is also just. (Sirnul iustus et peccator, according to Luther, Tr.) We must say that a man is justified only by always turning away from himself to the saving grace of God. The "state" of his justification is the possibility, offered by God, to do this over and over again.

This justifying grace of God frees us from the enslaving powers of death, from the merely external demands of the law and the world. It gives the children of God the power to act, it makes demands on them, indeed only the one demand that is founded on the love given by God, which man must answer by doing the work of love, producing the fruit of the spirit which is given to him. This work of responding love is valuable in itself because it is made possible by God, it is "wrought in God" (Jn 3:21). But just because of this it does not give man a claim on God, because it is itself God's gift to man if it is done in a love in which man sees only God and not himself. All praise of the objective dignity of the work of justified man can only be a praise of the truly creative grace of God. This grace vivifies truly, but crowns only its own work which it approves because it is done by itself as our freedom that has been set free.

I think that I have thus presented the Catholic doctrine of justification, briefly, it is true, but without having left out anything really essential. Of course, I could not interpret the many concepts and theses of the Council of Trent which are not simply intelligible and acceptable to a Protestant theologian. But I hope that the doctrine of justification need no longer separate us today. We have the duty rather to consider anew this "article" of the Christian faith so that it may be preached in a way that is credible to modern secular man. This is a much harder task than to produce agreement on this point among the separated Christians. For even if we are agreed on this question there remain many other obstacles to the unity of Christians in the one Church of Christ.


Text of a lecture in Soest i. W., 5 November1967, on the occasion of the 450th anniversary of the Reformation


A Catholic Meditation on the Anniversary of the Reformation

It is difficult for a Catholic to speak on this subject. Ultimately he, like any other Christian, can only be silent before this event in the history of the Church. For it is caused by inevitable historical development as well as by intellectual, theological and social factors. There has been guilt on all sides, a guilt which is inexcusable, but nevertheless is always superseded by the mercy of God. And there has also been a necessity resulting from the freedom of historical decision, and which remains even when the situation and the freedom have changed into something quite different from what they were at the time. Of such historical events we must also say that they ought not to have happened, but that they are nevertheless included in the history of salvation, and though we have to regard them also as free decisions, we cannot positively imagine the alternative of what could, and ought to, have been but has not happened, namely the preservation of Christian unity combined with the necessary reform. Thus we might say all sorts of things about the reformation, but only to be finally silent before the mystery of God, who, in the end, is alone responsible and alone judges this history. But we are silent only because we hope that everything, and this also inevitably includes the guilt of the Church, is again the event of the greater love of God which has mercy on, and even through, the guilt.

However, if the Catholic must begin and end by saying that he cannot make a final statement on the Reformation, he must nevertheless voice some provisional opinions. Even today the first point to be made must be the confession of guilt. Here the convinced Catholic especially is faced with a dreadful situation. He has not the right finally to judge those who at that time thought that their Christian conscience told them to break with the Church of the Papacy and to regard the Pope as the Anti-Christ who damaged the gospel of the grace of God by his very office (not only actually). The Catholic is also convinced that this principal concern of the Reformation is safeguarded in his own Church, indeed that this Church is its true and permanent home. He is firmly convinced that God has given us the duty to preserve the unity of the Church, regardless of whether through his forgiving grace he brings good even out of human disobedience. But though all this is true, and since one cannot simply detach oneself from one's Church, how can a Catholic not be horrified to realize that his Church, too, has a share in the guilt of the separation? Surely he must ask himself time and again -- without finding an acceptable answer -- how AlexanderVI, Julius II and Leo X, the contemporaries of Luther, could have called themselves, in the Catholic view rightly, the Vicars of Christ and as such have been partly responsible for the catastrophe? How could he not realize that today, too, such things are possible, though in quite different forms, since they actually did happen in those days? And if he tries to gain an historical understanding of such things this will only increase his fear; for such understanding will only show how easily the Church, too, succumbs to the spirit of the times and becomes guilty without "noticing" it.

There is another point. The Catholic and his Church profess the sola gratia of the Reformers. God gives us in freely granted grace himself and his justice without any preceding "work" of ours. And if he wants us to accept this grace in responsible freedom, he must also grant by his undeserved grace that we accept it. There are good reasons why this basic event of God's free grace and its acceptance through grace should be called "faith", though this concept includes all the differentiated fullness of Christian existence which we call faith, hope and love; hence we Catholics, too, can agree to the sola fide of the Reformation. In my opinion every Catholic can agree to what bishop Lilje* has said on the subject. Both sides should be careful not to obscure this possible agreement by theological subtleties and secondary differences of opinion which may well be allowed to persist, and which exist also among Protestants. For such differences should not be allowed to justify existing separations which today have quite different reasons.

This, however, leaves us with the question why this was not understood at the time, why the reformers did not have the patience to listen to the ancient Church lovingly and understandingly till they heard this sola gratia and sola fide, and why the Church, on her part, did not speak more clearly and bravely about what was the just concern of the Reformers. Much might be said in explanation from the point of view of hermeneutics, philosophy and national and personal psychology. But in the end we shall be left with the incomprehensibility of history which has been discussed at the beginning.

Thirdly: the sola scriptura as a formal principle ought no longer to separate the Churches. The Catholic Church regards herself, according to Vatican II, as the servant of Scripture. And the Protestant Christian knows that the New Testament originated in the apostolic kerygma of the living apostolic Church and therefore is and remains her book. He knows that Scripture receives its full meaning only through the preacher's actual interpretation, by which faith is awakened. Hence Scripture needs the Church to realize itself; it is not meant to be read only by oneself. Why then should we not be able to agree about the sola scriptural Of course, this is possible only if permanent differences of opinion are not turned into principles of separation in order to justify existing facts.

On a fourth point I beg to differ from Bishop Lilje: The Catholic is not compelled by his faith to regard the Church and her magisterium as the first and fundamental factor of his Christian faith. No matter how his faith has originated psychologically, or how the interconnection of all its elements may be interpreted theologically, the Catholic believes the Church (not: in the Church), because he believes in God and his grace, in the crucified and risen Christ as his only Saviour, and not the other way round, even though as a Catholic he always believes in the "community of the faithful". Ultimately this fundamental decision is not supported by the Church and her magisterium, but these are supported by it; they are only a secondary norm for the contents of the individual Catholic's faith. The fundamental decision is, if one wants to call it that, the decision of the solitary conscience for which man is responsible to God alone. It is a decision for the Church, not one that is derived from the Church.

The Catholic understands this concept of the solitary conscience very well, provided it is not contaminated by modern individualism which diminishes man's stature and is, indeed, no longer regarded as his permanent inheritance. For today more than ever the experience of this conscience belongs also to the Catholic. True, we have the impression that this genuinely Christian concept of the reformers has been tainted by a subjectivism which was itself a product of the times; nevertheless, we Catholics should also admit that our quite legitimate defence of the authority of the magisterium has also been affected by paternalistic and feudalistic patterns through which this authority was, and perhaps even today quite often still is, presented to us.

The Christian is bound to hope against all hope, also in this matter. And thus he must hope that agreement among true Christians is possible also on the subject of the ministry, its necessity, its competence and its limitations. This hope, however, lays an obligation also on the authorities of the Catholic Church to be critical of themselves, to respect the conscience of every man which is responsible directly to God, and to avoid anything that may give the impression that the exercise of this ministry may have other purposes than the preservation of the one faith. The profession of this faith is necessary as an appeal to the conscience of the individual, who obeys because he is free in the greater community of the Church of truth, hope and love. Individual and community, conscience and authoritative doctrine, truth and institution will always be opposites which may cause incredibly bitter conflicts. Yet they ought never to be divorced from each other, else each would be destroyed precisely when it thinks it has conquered the other.

But even if we are thus reconciled in the "idea", this does not mean that the actual separated Churches are united, those Churches which for 450 years have lived side by side, fighting and contradicting each other, or, worst of all, indifferent to one another. We should thank God that we are at least no longer indifferent, but that theologians on both sides have once more begun to learn from each other and that we have all realized more intensely the duty to seek the ecclesial unity of Christians, because it is the inexorable demand of the Lord of the Church. Nevertheless, it seems to me that even today none of the Churches has as yet that will to unity which they all ought to have. Separation is still considered a natural fact which must be presupposed.

I do not think that the leaders of the Churches are really wholly devoted to the cause of ecumenism. Today, when Christendom is in mortal danger, the Churches ought surely to be prepared to make even now any concessions to each other that are not absolutely contrary to their convictions. Within these limits the courage to take risks is the only possible tutiorism. There are still enough differences on all sides which, on strict examination, will prove to be not necessarily causes of separation and which ought to be proclaimed unimportant, whether they concern canon law, the liturgy, the way of life, administration or theology. All parties are still subconsciously far too inclined to justify actual divisions theologically.

We Catholics have received a theoretical programme for a new evalution of our dogmas in Vatican 11's teaching on the "hierarchy of truths", but this programme is still far from being carried out in practice. For we do quietly presuppose that unless a doctrinal agreement is reached on the basis of the present formulation of doctrine and within its perspectives, we shall cease to be Catholics. We actually do not have sufficient hope and courage to develop the controversial points of doctrine in such a way that they can become intelligible and acceptable for the others, or at least need no longer be regarded as separating the Churches. We have not yet asked ourselves sufficiently whether everything the Latin Roman Church has proclaimed as her dogma must be accepted by those Christians who are to join us with the same formulas) emphases and perspectives. If we believe that in the future, too, the Church of Christ will be the Roman Catholic Church, this does not mean that this Church of the future will be exactly the same as the Catholic Church is now, and especially as it now appears to outsiders.

But are we really working for our Church of the future, not with wildly revolutionary methods, but with creative imagination and courage, patiently accepting also what has historically grown? I

dare not affirm that we all work sufficiently for her according to our calling. The true Church above all has the duty to "give way" wherever her faith permits it. But does she do this sufficiently? And does she do it without regard to prestige and mere custom, without expecting advance payments from the other side, even risking to be misunderstood, simply in the evangelical folly of love? Is she already making room for all the differences that may legitimately be expected from past and future history, or does she still in parts consider desirable that uniformity which has been her right and her destiny in the time which is now coming to an end? Surely we Catholics do not yet collaborate with all other Christians as much as we might to bear witness to the gospel by sacrifice and love. In the missions especially this could be done much more effectively if only the theorists would get more creative ideas about such possibilities. We must leave it to the Protestant Christians to decide whether they, too, have to face similar questions; in any case, we Catholics must practice self-criticism.

We Catholics, however, should like to be allowed to ask one pertinent question about the whole problem of ecumenism, not in order to manoeuvre the other side into an unfavourable position, but because it simply cannot be avoided. We must ask who is to speak authoritatively for the Protestant partner in the ecumenical dialogue. For what power and authority do the official leaders of the Protestant Churches possess in order to discuss, in the name of their communities, a desirable doctrinal unity in such a way that we may hope for its realization? We understand very well -- at least I hope we do -- that owing to the principles of Protestantism this question is difficult to answer. But surely it must be posed if an ecumenical dialogue is to be more than merely private theological conversations between individuals. May we Catholics hope that in the Protestant Churches there is a growing under- standing for the concept of "Church" and of authoritative teaching together with the courage also to define and limit? If such a development were to take place there would then also be an official partner who could say authoritatively what does or does not separate us, and who could expect a large following. During the Third Reich the Evangelical Church of Germany had the courage to speak authoritatively and to condemn the "German-Christians". It refused to accept any who belonged to this organization as Christians on the same terms as its own members. Today these Protestants will no doubt say that this was a charisma which could or should not be institutionalized. We Catholics can only hope that such a charismatic Yes to the Catholic Church of the future may be given from above, and that the Spirit may then work also through the institution and not only in spite of it, simply because this is inevitable.

This leads to another question. On both sides we are not the same as we were 450 years ago, and this gives us new hope. But it involves also new difficulties which cannot yet be fathomed. We should state quite frankly, especially if we take the "hierarchy of Christian truths" seriously, that the doctrinal differences which divide the modern Protestant Churches are much deeper andmore radical than those that separated the original Protestant denominations from the Tridentine confession. While Protestant Christians are convinced that, for the sake of their faith and conscience, they may not be joined to us in the same Church and Eucharist, they yet do not have the same difficulties with regard to those of their fellow Christians in whose theology hardly anything is left of the ancient creeds of the Reformers. I know that the matter is not simple. The "orthodox" Protestant may say that he tolerates radical heresies in his Church only for the sake of freedom of conscience and teaching, but that they are not for this reason part of the official creed of his Church, while that of the Catholic Church includes doctrines which he must reject in conscience, even if it were only the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope or perhaps a Marian dogma. But may we not ask such an "orthodox" Protestant whether his Church might not, after all, practice such tolerance which, existentially and ecclesially, would not be distinguishable from a recognition, even if it were not expressed by the authorities in so many words? Surely we may ask him whether his view of the Church, too, must not include doctrines that ought not even to be tolerated in the Church if she is to have one confession and not to degenerate into a mere external religious organization. Can one be sure of a unity of confession if all conceptual statements are regarded as mere optional interpretations (Interpretamente), while what is actually meant lies beyond and cannot be expressed at all? Surely we Catholics should be allowed to hope that the Protestant Churches may one day be given grace and courage to achieve a greater unity of doctrine so that they will become better partners in the ecumenical dialogue.

I do not think that such a hope should be interpreted as the supercilious pride of those in happy possession. Indeed, we Catholics have no reason whatever for such a pride. An authoritative magisterium would be of no use to the Catholic Church if there were no freely given obedience to it. So the actual situation of personal faith may be the same in the Catholic Church as in Protestantism, though it is hidden behind the facade of the official doctrine (though we do not dispute that this is also of theological importance).

Thus we come to the new common task shared by all Christian Churches of our time, namely that they all must bear witness to God, his Christ and his grace in a world that does not want to hear their message and that they all have the duty to proclaim it in such a way as not to make it unintelligible or incredible. Today we recognize each other more clearly than formerly as Christians in a theological, not only in a sociological sense. This implies that, by the grace of God, we still have a common faith which is not destroyed by doctrinal differences, however important. We have not the right to judge each other saying: because you believe or reject such and such a thing, what we still have in common is merely verbal. We must and can bear a common witness before the world. We must say it in a new way, because the world and we, it is to be hoped, with it, have changed. Hence we have the right and the duty to think about this new task, and Bishop Lilje is right in saying that in a certain sense the old doctrinal differences have been relativized. Even those Catholics most devoted to the Pope must realize today that it is infinitely more important to tell the world credibly what is actually meant by "God" (which in former times could simply be presupposed) than to indulge in controversy about the First Vatican Council.

Perhaps this new common task will be the best way of progressing in the ecumenical dialogue. Faced with this frighteningly serious task the Churches, without losing their true inheritance, may yet change so much that they will one day be able to say in blissful surprise: we may celebrate the Supper of our one Lord together in the same faith, hope and love, we may announce God's mercy to the whole world as the one small flock of Christ and we may together expect the coming of God's kingdom. May this day dawn before the end; but it is solely the gift of God's grace. But such is also the task which we must acknowledge to be ours and accept with courage, faith, prayer and ecclesial self-denial. Only he looks truly back into the past who looks forward to the future and to our common Lord, who takes pity on our guilty past and offers us a future in his grace.


A Catholic Meditation on the Anniversary of the Reformation: Stimmen der Zeit 180 (1967), pp. 228 -- 35.

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