The church after the council

By Karl Rahner, S.J.| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Scripture and Theology

In this article in the November 1966 issue of U.S. Catholic, German Jesuit Father Karl Rahner, one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century, writes about what Catholics should do to make church renewal in the wake of the Second Vatican Council more than a promise.

Can it be maintained that the Church has consummated her aggiornamento, that she has fulfilled the task given her? Can one say that the Church is now youthful and fresh, eager to confront the unknown spiritual adventures lying in the future for a mankind of so great number, a mankind which is highly organized, technologically sophisticated, automated, capable of influencing its own future development, of reaching out to the super-terrestrial realms of outer space, which portend so much good and so much deadly terror?

It would certainly not be advisable, and in fact one should dare not attempt, to make such a claim. Nothing would be more dangerous than an over-enthusiastic attitude. The Council marked the decisive beginning of the aggiornamento, it established the renewal, it called us to the ever necessary repentance and return; in other words, it was only the beginning of the beginning.

If it did all of this, the Council accomplished a great deal; but all that it accomplished was still by way of beginning. Everything, almost everything, that the Council declared is still in the form of written intention. It is all print, out of which can come spirit and life, service, faith, and hope, but print is not the reality which is striven after. The Church has recognized her task, but she has yet to fulfill it. For we must recall that the Church, according to one of our most fundamental insights in fire and the Holy Spirit, is we ourselves. We are the Church.

Beginning of beginning . . . beginning of what? First of all, of course, the beginning of that which was, and is, and ever shall be, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever; the beginning of his grace, which alone redeems us and opens unto us access to the living God; but beginning of beginning so that Jesus Christ and his Church may truly encounter the spirit of this and the future age.

Therefore, the Council was the beginning of beginning of beginnings for the Church of the limitless grace of God; for a Church of our Lord and Saviour; for a Church of the word of God, of brotherhood, of hope, of humble love and service, of joy in the Holy Spirit, a Church of love which conquers all legalisms; for a Church which is able to recognize her own being and to go out to meet the deepest longings and needs of our age, a Church which learns in that she teaches, receives in that she gives, rules in that she serves.

The Council was the beginning of the beginning of a Church who already is and always will be what she is, in that she turns anew to her only source, who is both the Beginning and the Lord of history, the Lord who has led and will lead the Church on into the unknown future. And there is much, almost too much that needs to be done in order to initiate this beginning.

We must yet translate the instructions of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy into concrete forms for the celebration of the liturgy, we must yet transform them into the real prayer- life of the Church, worship in spirit and in truth. Now the ecumenical dialogue must truly begin, patiently, humbly, courageously, optimistically, and audaciously. We do not as yet have the deacons for whom the Council has created new opportunities in the Church. The episcopate has yet to show that it can make real in the Church in a new and living way the unity of the collegial principle of the Church. The promised reforms of the Roman Curia have only begun to be codified and put into practice in real life.

It will take many years of hard work before the Canon Law can be made to reflect in spirit and in the letter the reforms of this Council. All the prudent and courageous norms laid down for the formation of the clergy, for priestly activities, for episcopal activities, the norms for the college of bishops, all these things must be actualized and become a living reality in the daily life and habitual operations of the Church. The religious life is not yet renewed merely because there has been a decree concerning it. The laity, endued with the universal priesthood, have not become responsible and fully aware of their apostolic mission simply because the documents of the Council edifyingly—I use the word in its best scriptural sense—used such a term.

Holy Scripture has not been enshrined in the hearts of men and become central in the parochial liturgy as the Word of Life simply because each day at the Council the Gospel book was enthroned with ceremony and because, in addition to the many allusions praising Scripture, there was approved a constitution which lauded the meaning of Scripture for the life of the Church. The decree on the missions is not identical with the missionary will. This shall be the missionary spirit of the Church in practical everyday life, in actual practice, when, for example, bishops will send to the missions priests whom they sorely need, when money is given which could also be prudently used at home.

A board of directors for ecumenical work has yet to be established. The statutes for the national conferences of bishops have yet to be drawn up and ratified. The decree concerning the formation of future priests has yet to be dealt with by the regional episcopal conferences, and many other matters referred by the Council to the regional episcopal conferences are yet to be accomplished. The work on the Canon Law of the Eastern Churches, which began under Pius XII, must now be carried out in the light of the new paths opened by this Council. Difficult individual problems which were taken under consideration and which in their complexity and urgency have become in some sense a measure of the success of the Council—such problems as the laws regulating mixed marriages, marital relations, penance, and indulgences—still remain unsettled.

The newly founded secretariats for non-Christians and non-believers must yet prove themselves not to be still more bureaucratic, hypertrophied appendixes operating according to Parkinson’s Law. The Oriental Catholic Churches must yet demonstrate that they have the will and the power to undertake their own missionary activity, and the Latin Church must still demonstrate that she regards these Churches as more than honorable museum pieces preserved as relics of the past.

The Church must also learn how to protect freedom, must learn to walk humbly and modestly with her organized social power, to be more noble, more open, more patient, more tolerant, even as she is with herself. The Church must now engage in dialogue with the world in all its needs, possibilities, and dangers, a dialogue which she has undertaken and outlined in the far-reaching pastoral constitution on the Church’s relationship to the modern world.

She should, she must, state frankly that this or that point in the conciliar work, besides being the work of the Holy Spirit, remains also the work of men, imperfectly done, and only begun, reflecting better the past than the future. This is shown especially in the decree on communications and the Catholic schools. It still remains to be seen how the fundamental and ambitiously conceived instruction on the now permissible “cornmunicatio in sacris” can be practically, despite the necessary limitations, worked out and put into practice.

The conversation with contemporary atheism and the need for faith characteristic of our day, which the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World has declared to be necessary, must now be carried through into reality. The magnificent conception that each diocese must help the others in realistic deeds must yet be actualized so that the idea does not become simply a pious gesture which costs one diocese little trouble and is as of little help to the other.

These things and many others remain to be done. This is a task which the Council has not completed, but which it has laid upon the Church because she is commissioned by God.

Above all, a new theology must be found which is worthy of Vatican II and of the task assigned to the Church. It is not as though the theology of today were not good, but because it can become better, because it must delve ever deeper into the depths of the knowledge of God and deal more radically with the questions that the future holds out for us, for theology must be able to serve the proclamation of the Church of tomorrow.

One task which certainly should be undertaken immediately is a thorough thinking through of the texts of the Council, an exhaustive commentary on them; further, these documents need to be put in full historical perspective. This would be excellent; this must be done at all costs. But the post-Vatican II theology would not be worthy of the Council if it accomplished this and only this as its chief task.

There are many other questions which present themselves, questions which would not have been inappropriate and could have been themes of the Council, the old questions, which always remain pertinent and always present themselves in epochal new ways: how theology can speak of God, and his existence in the midst of mankind, in such a way that the words can be understood by the men of today and tomorrow; how it can so proclaim Christ in the midst of an evolving universe that the word of the God-man and the incarnation of the eternal Logos in Jesus of Nazareth do not sound like myths which men cannot any longer take seriously; how it can relate human ideologies and plans for the future with the Christian eschatology; how it can assure humanity that in the eschaton redemption has already been achieved, so that men do not relapse into the position of the men of the old covenant who dreaded death as though it meant separation from the God of life; how it can show that love of God and love of neighbor always form in a new and epochal way an absolute unity, love which one without the other is incomprehensible and unattainable, especially since God is manifested for us through Christ in mankind and thus is for us only so attainable; how and why the cross will always loom over the realm of human existence and why, even in the triumphal future, mankind will always be nailed to the cross and that only through death and patient seeking through the darkness of existence will men find the entrance into eternal life.

These and similar eternal, old, ever radically new, never-solved questions will be the questions for the theology of tomorrow which will be worthy of the Council. When, and I maintain only when, the theologians of all Christian confessions restate these questions anew in common language and not in the language of the old polemical theology, then will they come nearer to each other and put into operation a truly ecumenical theology.

The Council has undertaken tasks and dealt with themes which, measured by the concrete realities which face the Church for the moment, doubtless could not have been more ambitious. However, measured by the challenges which face the Church in the coming decades, these topics represent only a beginning, a remote preparation and a preliminary fitting-out for the pressing tasks of the future. For this future does not ask the Church for the precise details of our ecclesiology, nor for a more exact and lovely ordering of the liturgy, nor for more precise distinctions in controversy with the theologies of non- Catholic Christians, nor for a more or less ideal regulation of the Roman bureaucracy, but, rather, whether the Church can so faithfully testify to the redeeming and fulfilling presence of that ineffable mystery whom we call God that the men of the age of technology, who have already made so many advances towards control of their world and destiny, can experience the power of this unspeakable mystery in their lives.

The Church will be asked with hitherto unparalleled severity— to return again to an old theme for our example—whether she can so comprehend and express the mystery of the God-man that this fundamental dogma of Christendom does not appear to be some merely archaic, correct, lifeless, and dead formula, but to be that blessed incomprehensibility in terms of which all other things are for the first time understandable, as the divine authentication of man himself who discovers for the first time that his existence in the eternity of his freedom means the possibility of activity and not just of contemplation, that it is a promise that even death, guilt, and all the absurdity which governs mankind and seems to grow and not diminish with his history, is surrounded and swallowed up by the light and salvation of God.

The Church will be asked more inexorably by the future than heretofore whether her love of mankind on account of the love of God is stronger and more victorious than the love that links man to man within the dungeon of his own existence without showing him the way across the infinite abyss of the divine.

Such themes could not be the immediate tasks of this Council, perhaps could not be the objectives of any Council. However, they will confront the Church of the future because they have always been and always will be the most authentic themes of Christianity. Therefore, all the answers and solutions of the Second Vatican Council are not capable of being more than a beginning of the mission of the Church to the future just breaking upon us. Seen thus, the efforts and results of the Council seem not unimportant, but rather to achieve their undeniable significance.

The aggiornamento which the Church has undertaken is not an effort to make the Church more attractive to and comfortable for the world, but chiefly to prepare the Church in advance to deal with the questions of life and death which will confront her. And from this perspective also, the Council is only a beginning.

It is necessary to add a word of warning: it would be a fearful error and a terrible delusion of the heart, but it is a real danger (from which, we may believe, not even the indestructible Church has been protected from the first), should one think that after the Council one can simply go on with everything just as it was before because what was said, decided, and taught at the Council was either already assumed in practice or dealt with only peripheral and unimportant things or consisted only of pious ideals which one sets down on the ever-indulgent paper for one’s own self-edification.

Naturally, the Church must always be true to her own nature and traditions, rightly understood. Things won’t be better tomorrow. The holy Church will always remain, even in the future, the Church of poor sinners, for we are all the ecciesia semper reformanda in capite et in membris, the Church always needing reform in head and in members.

It will certainly be a long time before the Church which has been given the Second Vatican Council will be the Church of the Second Vatican Council, just as it took a number of generations after the close of the Council of Trent before she became the Church of the Reform of Trent. But this does not alter in the least our own terrible responsibility, which we all who are in the Church have been invited to fulfill: to do what we have said we will do, to become that which we have recognized ourselves to be and before all the world have acknowledged ourselves to be, to make deeds out of words, to make spirit out of rules, to make true prayer out of liturgical forms, and reality out of ideas. The Council could hardly be more than the beginning of this task, but that is a great deal, and it is more than one can express in mere words.

It would be a difficult judgment indeed, both for sheep and shepherd, for us all, if we should confuse word and deed, beginning and fulfillment. We have in the council, just as Elijah did of old, wandered through the desert and have come nearer to God upon the holy mountain. If we would like to stretch out, tired and sleepy, under the broom tree of a conciliar triumphalism, then an angel of God may, yea he must, by means of the frightful dangers and anxieties of our time, by means of persecution, apostasy, and pain of heart and spirit, wake us up out of our sleep: Rise up, a long road lies ahead of you (see 1 Kings 19:7).

©1966 by Herder and Herder

Image: Franklin McMahon (Courtesy of McMahon family)