Some humor from Karl Rahner


Karl Rahner’s Prayers for a Lifetime is a selection of prayers that Rahner composed throughout his life as a priest and professor. The “prayers” are often in the form of meditations that approach theological discourses in their own right, as you would expect from Rahner.

The following is a humorous bit from his meditation on the law. What I love most is how, after poking fun and displaying a heavy dose of tongue-in-cheek, he then turns to a grateful consideration of the church’s law. In other words, Rahner does not let the frequent silliness of the church disturb him or, worse, let him slip into a fashionable spiritualism (what Barth dubbed, “ecclesiastical docetism,” in CD IV.1, 653). Instead, he ends with a profound affirmation of the visible church.


But, Lord, what of the commandments imposed upon us by human beings, issued in Your name? Let me tell You quite frankly what rumbles through my heart when the spirit of criticism and discontent is upon me, O God of freedom and of sincere, open speech. I can tell You with confidence — You listen indulgently to such things.

Lord, You have abrogated the Old Law, “which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). But You have established rulers in this world, both temporal and spiritual, and sometimes it seems to me that they have diligently set about patching up all the holes that Your Spirit of freedom had torn in the fence of rules and regulations by His liberating Pentecostal storm.

First there are the 2414 paragraphs of the Church’s law-book. And even these haven’t sufficed: how many “responsa” to inquiries have been added to bring joy to the hearts of the jurists! And then there are several thousand liturgical decrees clamoring for our attention. In order to praise You in the Breviary “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” in order to “sing and make melody in the heart” (Eph 5:19), I need a road map, a directorium, so intricate and elaborate that it requires a new edition every year! …

And what delicate calculations must go into the granting of an indulgence! Only recently some learned theologians found occasion to dispute whether a sick person is obliged to kiss the crucifix of Your Son fourteen times or six times, or fewer, in order to gain an indulgence. What incredible zeal Your servants and stewards have shown in Your absence, during the long period while You have been away on Your journey into the distant silence of eternity! …

I don’t mean to accuse them, Lord, these wise and faithful servants whom You have placed over Your household. Rather I must say to their praise that they are usually not vulnerable to the reproach which Your Son once made against the Scribes and Pharisees who sat upon the chair of Moses (Matt 23:4). Unlike those rulers and teachers of old, Your modern stewards have imposed heavy burdens not only on others, but on themselves too.

A little later, Rahner then comes around:

I know too that all the detailed rules and regulations, the ceremonies and customs, methods and tricks of the trade which are commanded, or at least recommended to me, can be made the external expression of my interior love, provided of course that I have the love. I know that these things are dead weight only when I myself am too weak and lifeless to put my heart into them.

Your Church, O my God, has to be visible. Only thus is she the “vessel of the Holy Spirit,” as Irenaeus called her. And if she is to be visible, if Your Spirit is to become ever more visible and tangible in her, then she must express herself in commandments and customs, in “yes and no,” in “here and now,” in “thus and not otherwise.” And he who grasps all this with a believing heart and a vigorous love, enters through the narrow gate of the commandments into the broad expanse of Your Spirit.

[Prayers for a Lifetime, Crossroad Publishing, 1985, pp. 27-30.]


Image: Karl Rahner, S.J. (source)



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  2. I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and I challenge anyone to consistently obey all the canons that faithful Roman Catholics are obligated to obey. I’m Protestant now, and although I in no way believe that being RC and being Christian are mutually exclusive, neither can I believe that the visible Church is co-extensive with the visible RCC and all its rules and regs. If I’m to believe that the true Church coincides in some places with the RCC, or any other imperfect local institutional expression of the Church, I can only do so by something that looks very much like spiritualizing.

    • Yes, I could not agree more. I was picking and choosing in my own mind, as a Protestant, what I value in Rahner’s insights. And certainly the “visible church” in my mind is not commensurate with the RCC. I am in favor of “spiritualizing” in order to uphold the catholicity of the worldwide church across institutional boundaries, but I was thinking of the tendency in our day to devalue the visible (and institutional) in favor of a privatized spirituality.

      Rahner himself was a bit unorthodox by Roman Catholic standards, at least in regards to the particulars of Tridentine Catholicism. I doubt that he was overly anxious about mortal sins for anger, lust, coveting, etc., even though that was central to Catholic practice until recently. Of course, I know Catholics who are very serious about all of that, and they know that the most recent universal Catechism (under John Paul II) didn’t change anything.

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