MARCH 9, 2017 BY EDITOR FR. DAVID VINCENT MECONI, SJ
Fr. Karl Rahner (1904-1984) began as a faith-filled and imaginative theologian, someone who, even now, still provides unmatchable insights into the nature of divinity, and into the searching soul who longs to cleave to God. Rahner worked alongside other thinkers of the Nouvelle Théologie, greats like Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and even our own Pope Emeritus Benedict, Josef Ratzinger—a heady group, to be sure. The Holy Spirit needed these men to help Popes John XXIII and Paul VI to “update” the Church’s mission to go boldly into the world to proclaim the Reign of Christ in every classroom, laboratory, marketplace, and soul. For the most part, Rahner’s 4,000-plus different works remain faithful to this mission, and are worth picking up today (e.g., On Prayer , Encounters With Silence, recently republished by St. Augustine’s Press); yet later in his life, he began to push the edges until he seemingly took pride in watching the fissures form (e.g., sadly not using his brilliance to defend Humanae Vitae, and even calling into question Christ’s theology of priestly ordination).
I was recently reading through a collection of Rahner’s essays—again, 90% of which are spiritually edifying and theologically astute—when I stumbled across an almost eerie letter he had written entitled, “A Letter from the Pope in the Year 2020.” It is classic Rahner: full of truthful enough lines, but put in such a way that a hierarchical iconoclasm, and a hushed hubris, run throughout the piece. But what is most amazing is how prescient it is. It may not be 2020, but what’s a few years? Who cannot help but hear Pope Francis in the words of this fictitious, future Pope, who Rahner has created, when this pope states that he wishes to distance himself from the tremendous papal office of teaching and guiding the Church—the ancient munus docendi? No longer, we are told, is it fitting that the Vicar of Christ be recognized for his God-given charism to instruct God’s people in how they should be living their Christian lives. By 2020, he just wants to be known as one of the “guys,” one more stumbling subject alongside the rest of us sinners?
The awesome nature of being asked to continue Peter’s mission to be a rock has been chiseled away into the perverted delight of being mere dust. Think back to the great priests of Christ’s own Church, however, and we receive a very different tone of what this munus might mean. St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, is likened to a mighty ram bound for slaughter, as he goes to his death for his people; the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil and Gregory, liken the episcopacy to Moses’ fighting for God’s chosen people, Israel. On the anniversary of his ordination, St. Augustine of Hippo admitted to his congregation that: “Where I’m terrified by what I am for you, I am given comfort by what I am with you. For you, I am your bishop; with you, I am a Christian” (sermon 340). The office of teaching and ruling was one no saint ever felt he merited, but it was a cross he carried for the good of his flock.
In the 1960s, when all leadership was questioned, and all institutions were equated with oppression, however, a hierarchy was to be replaced with democracy, and governance was always and everywhere to be “shared.” Fr. Rahner seized such a shift to compose his thoughts on what he saw a modern-day Pope’s job description to be. First off, such a servant should promote how he is,
…even as pope, a human being who will commit faults, perhaps even serious ones, why would I not be allowed to admit this even during my lifetime? Is the mentality of people who really matter not such today that authority does not suffer damage, but rather profits, when its bearer openly admits the limitations of a poor and sinful human being, and is not afraid to acknowledge them? For the time being, at least, I am willing to listen to public discussions in my presence, eventually to learn from others, and to admit that I have learned.
Vintage Rahner: of course no one would doubt that the pope of 2020 is a man who needs to learn from others, but such an axiom is larded with grandstanding of limitations, and sin, and the need to publicize how little our leader actually knows. That is why we should:
Let people notice that a pope can err, make mistakes, be poorly informed, and choose the wrong kind of assistants. All of this is evident, and I believe that no recent pope has seriously doubted it. But why must such evidence remain hidden and covered up? And, so, we are now prepared to revel, for some reason, in this modern cleric’s confession that, “I shall not be a great pope. I do not have the wherewithal. So I will not have an inferiority complex if I look quite modest compared with the great popes of the twentieth century.”
Rahner rightly concludes this essay by distinguishing between the office of leadership, and the charism of sanctity—for there has always been, and always will be, a real distinction between one ordained for ecclesial office, and one who lives the beatitudes fruitfully in the Holy Spirit. It is nice when the pope is a saint, but let us never equate the two:
Before God, I am less than the saints who live today in the church, those who pray in silence, those who are mystically enraptured, those who perish for their faith in the prisons of the enemies of Christ and the Church, those who love unselfishly, as Teresa of Calcutta did, all the unknown and unrewarded heroes of everyday duty and abnegation.
Ironically, the very pope who seems to want to be known for his shortcomings and inability to define doctrine clearly, is the one who canonized Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Yet, let this pope also remember that Mother Teresa is now a saint precisely because she let the perfect Christ guide her, and not her fallen conscience, she lived by the unassailable doctrines of the Church, and was never beholden to the democracies of public opinion. She, and countless other holy ones of the 20th century, shine gloriously in teaching us how doctrinal orthodoxy, and personal sanctity, are never at odds, and that when we begin to think we must sacrifice one to the other, both are lost.
Rahner concludes his essay with a cheeky line that caused me to laugh out loud when I first read it, asking all of us:
Are there Christians, and perhaps popes, who remember that, when they pray the Our Father with impatient hope for the coming of God’s eternal kingdom, they are praying also for the end of the papacy?
The papacy will one day end, to be sure, but until that final day, all people of good will continue to look to that stalwart office in Rome to stand for the Gospel, in season and out of season (2 Tim 4:2). Pope Francis, please guide, please offer, your people reassurance that you, although like us as a sinner in need of Christ’s salvation, you are also his chosen representative to lead and to guide his Church. You are, therefore, called to teach what the Church teaches, and to guide as she does, modeling for us sanctity in both the heart, as well as in the mind. Honestly, Holy Father, we need you to be different than we are.
Francis believes that “to err is human,” but here, surely, the Pope is wrong—in this case, Alexander Pope (“Essay on Criticism”), that is. To err and to obfuscate and to create confusion is not human, but rather a result of the fall. To err is now part of the sinful human, but it was not always so and, pray God, it will not always be the case. To lead others astray, and relish the public cries for clarification, is not the sign of a great leader, not the gifts of one ordained to teach. The great ones know this, that the priestly munus docendi is an office in which they participate, but never possess, or as the great Bishop of Hippo, who gathered his presbyterate around him on an Easter Monday, said to his people:
And as for us, what are we? Ministers of Christ, his servants; for what we distribute to you is not ours, but we take it from his store. And we, too, live of it, because we are servants like you (sermon 229E.4).
Being a servant, being a saint, and being a spiritual leader are not mutually exclusive. So let us notch up our prayers for our Church’s leaders during this Lenten season. Let us all remember back to that Wednesday, not long ago, when we heard that we are dust. Let us, therefore, remember that we are all in need of God’s grace, and that without him, we can do nothing (Jn 15:5), that we are accountable for our own souls, and those whom God places tenderly into our everyday lives. Blessings on each of you, know of my prayers, and that you are remembered each month in the Sacrifice of the Mass,