On Friday, March 30, we commemorate the deaths of two different, but complementary, figures of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church: Karl Rahner, the celebrated Jesuit theologian who died on this day in 1984 at age 80, and Thea Bowman, an African-American Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration who died in 1990 at age 53.
There has been a bit of an academic tug-of-war going on in theological circles, especially among younger theologians and graduate students, over the relative importance of Karl Rahner and the more conservative Hans Urs von Balthasar, a former Jesuit who became a diocesan priest and who was named a cardinal by the late Pope John Paul II in 1988 but who died before receiving the red hat. Rahner was never so honored.
There is a small, but insignificant, body of opinion today that regards Karl Rahner as pass√©, as if his time in the theological sun has given way to the darkness of oblivion. This column strongly disagrees.
There is a meaty entry on Rahner in the one-volume HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, which I had the privilege of editing. The irony would be lost on younger readers that the author of the laudatory article, Thomas F. O’Meara, is a Dominican, while the subject of the entry is a Jesuit. Younger Catholics would arch their brows and ask, “What difference does that make?”
Rivalries between major religious orders was part of the pre-Vatican II Catholic culture. The Jesuit-Dominican rivalry was certainly not of the Sunni-Shi’ite kind, but it did exist, albeit at a friendly polemical level — if that’s not a contradiction in terms.
Thomas O’Meara, the Dominican, calls Karl Rahner, the Jesuit, “probably the most prominent and influential Catholic theologian of the twentieth century.” As a diocesan priest, friendly to both religious orders, I should drop the adverb “probably.”
Rahner was, by any reasonable, nonideological standard of judgment, the most prominent and influential Catholic theologian of the last century — bar none. Indeed, O’Meara acknowledges at the end of his article that Rahner “became after Vatican II the Catholic Church’s most important theologian.” Not von Balthasar; not even the revered ecclesiologist Yves Congar. Rahner towered above all others — and still does, some 23 years after his death.
People used to make jokes about Rahner’s dense writing style, even though he intended to write for ordinary Christians, not primarily for fellow scholars. His older brother Hugo (d. 1968), also a Jesuit, is reported to have said in jest that, upon his own retirement from teaching, he would like to translate his brother’s writings into understandable German. Alas, Hugo did not live long enough to do the job.
However, if anyone still thinks that Rahner is too difficult to read, whether in the original German or in translation, they should pick up, at random, the writings of von Balthasar. Rahner’s style is Reader’s Digest in comparison with his.
Those interested in delving into Rahner’s mighty corpus of writings would do well beforehand to read Thomas O’Meara’s latest book, God in the World: A Guide to Karl Rahner’s Theology, just published as an original paperback by Liturgical Press.
Meanwhile, it is difficult to believe that Sister Thea Bowman, a compelling speaker and singer who had helped to found the Institute of Black Studies at Xavier University in New Orleans, has been gone now for some 17 years.
She had been diagnosed with breast cancer the year Karl Rahner died, but she continued her extensive speaking engagements well after that. By then, her body was ravaged by the disease. She had become bald from her chemotherapy treatments and was confined to a wheelchair.
Her prayer in her remaining years was: “Lord, let me live until I die,” that is, “to live, love and serve fully until death comes.” “I don’t make sense of suffering,” she once said. “I try to make sense of life.”
We do not know how history will finally situate Sister Thea Bowman among its panoply of significant figures who made a lasting impact on the lives of others. One doubts that she will loom as large as Rahner, but her legacy is likely to be far richer and more broadly-based than it now appears — not only for African-Americans, nor for religious and lay women, but for many, many others as well, both inside and outside the Catholic community of faith.
This column wishes to remember her now, on the eve of another Holy Week, as one of the many uncanonized saints of the church, through whom God continues to be revealed and through whose good works God continues to heal, to reconcile and to give hope.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.