The Individual and the Church: Karl Rahner and the Roman Catholic Perspective

To begin with, it must be noted that any individual theologian and the official dogma of their given discipline are rarely, if ever, synonymous. The perspective that Karl Rahner gives is one that is indeed influenced by, and faithful to, Catholic theology, but to quote him is by no means equivalent to stating official Catholic teaching (the same will be true with the other three perspectives discussed in this series). However, he represents a fairly large contingency of thought within contemporary Catholic theology, and has been highly influential in ecclesiological studies post-Vatican II.

Karl Rahner wrote at a time when the Catholic Church in Germany was still reeling from the aftershock of WWII; a time when profound mistrust in ecclesial authority found permanent footholds in the heart and minds of many Europeans. Prior to the twentieth century, Europeans generally existed in a psychological state of what Kierkegaard coined “Christendom,” where Christian society and society in general were nearly identical. After the World Wars, this perception of established Christendom lost credence with the masses.

Rahner, who grew up in Germany and lived through both World Wars, saw first-hand the beginnings of this transition in religious thought. He described this transition in his work entitled, The Shape of the Church to Come, saying:

Our present situation is one of transition from a Church sustained by a homogeneously Christian society… to a Church made up of those who have struggled against their environment in order to reach a personally clearly and explicitly responsible decision of faith. This will be the Church of the future or there will be no Church at all.

Rahner saw clearly that if the Church was to survive in the future it had to make radical changes in its perception of society, its place in society, and its internal ecclesiological structure.

Rahner was quick to center the attention, not on society, but on the Church itself, saying: “There is reason to ask where and how the Church in her actual life and action was and still is herself the cause of the decline of an explicitly ecclesial Christianity.” According to Rahner, the alienation of the laity (visible in its declining attendance) within the Catholic Church was not caused by events outside the Church, but rather was a problem revealed by events outside the Church. In Kierkegaardian terms, “Christendom” was finally seen for what it had been all along—a delusion. Rahner was unimpressed with large crowds at mass. So convinced was he that the Church lacked authentic Christian followers, that he made his famous declaration, saying: “It means more to win one new Christian from what we may call neo-paganism than to keep ten ‘old Christians.’” The solution for Rahner was to call for a “declaricalized Church,” saying:

A Church in which the office-holders in joyous humility allow for the fact that the Spirit breathes where he will and that he has not arranged an exclusive and permanent tenancy with them. They recognize that the charismatic element … is just as necessary as office to the Church; that office is never simply identical with the Spirit and can never replace him; that office too is really effectively credible in the sight of men only when the presence of the Spirit is evident and not merely when formal mission and authority are involved.

Seeing the tendency of the clergy to assume they were in sync with the Spirit on account of their ecclesial positions, Rahner believed it necessary to emphasize that, “God has not guaranteed that the movements of His Spirit will always … begin with the heads of the hierarchy. Rather this hierarchy has … the duty to find the Spirit.” Furthermore, for the Church to really engage in missionary activity, it must now depend on the layman to be the “apostolate” in the new and thriving areas of human existence, such as secular science, art, state, technology, and so on. Rahner recognized that since the Patristic Era, the Church had become a clerical Church in which the laity was not accepted as co-workers. This thinking had to change among the official clergy, if the Church was to survive and thrive in the future.
Rahner based his belief that the laity shared a definite position within the one consecrated realm of the Church based upon his understanding of the ramifications of baptism. Through baptism each person “shared in the vocation of the Church,” giving each person the task of making the Church present. It is clear that Rahner’s overall doctrine of the Church was thoroughly indebted to his doctrine of the individual Christian. He stated that, “Being a baptized Christian implies an awareness, so deep and so radical that it revolutionizes everything, of the fact that baptized persons are constantly confronted with the task of a Christian in that environment they find themselves and in which their lives are passed.” For Rahner, baptism, if taken seriously, was indicative of the literal indwelling of the Spirit of God within the individual and not a mere rite of passage for Church membership. The Church itself is constituted by this union of Spirit with believers. Rahner’s definition of the Church is as follows: “The union of the interior graced relationship of the redeemed and the historical, visible form of this transcendent interior union.” For Rahner, the idea of “Church” assumes individuals who have (as quoted earlier) “reached a personally clearly and explicitly responsible decision of faith.”
One final element of Rahner’s thought on the Church and the individual has to do with his doctrine of human freedom. Rahner taught that all humans had “openness” to God; an openness that was a constitutive element of human existence, or what he called a “supernatural existential.” Stated briefly, “The human has a potentia obedientialis for the revelation of God.” This human freedom has its source in God, as Richard Lennan put it: “Freedom to choose to accept or reject the capacity to transcend the finite; the freedom to choose to accept or reject God.” Furthermore, Christ became the freedom of our freedom, as Rahner described:

Without Christ, human beings would have been unable to transcend their finiteness. Without Christ, freedom of choice would have served only to multiply sin by limiting human beings to the pursuit of self-interest. Through Christ, the absolute savior, the grace of freedom—and the concomitant possibility of eternal salvation—had become constitutive of human existence.

God’s action in the ministry of Christ was an expression of grace and freedom, a ministry which persists today as symbolized by the Church. Lennan explained that Rahner’s description of the Church as a “sacrament of Christ” essentially meant that, “the Church was the site of the freedom bestowed by the Spirit. Belonging to the Church was, therefore, a call to freedom.”
According to Rahner, wrote Lennan: “the corollary of freedom was individuality. Rahner stressed that each person reflected the perfect individuality which simultaneously embraced community.” In a book entitled Mission and Grace, Rahner defined the Church as: “The supernatural community of unique non-interchangeable individuals in interior grace, in truth and love of Christ, in the self-communication of the 3-personed inner life of God.” Here again, Rahner stresses the importance of the individual Christian as a fundamental starting point for actual Church community. Without the individual Christian making a personal decision to accept Christ, and having the “radical revolutionizing” effect of the Spirit in their lives, talk of “Church community” loses any seriousness.
This is not to say that Rahner believed in a sinless Church. On the contrary, he stated: “the fact of the “Church of Sinners” is part of what the Church believes about herself.” For Rahner, the Church was a sacrament, and just as there are valid sacraments which do not produce grace in the recipient, the Church often has members who do not live within the grace intended for them. Thus, he made a distinction between the Church as a visible society, where sinfulness is inconsequential for one’s membership, and the Church Body that is really filled with grace. In short, there are two definite qualities of the Church: the visible Church, which contains both “real” and “non-real” Christians, and the invisible, holy community of “real” Christians. For Rahner, this did not mean that the Church is paradoxically “visible sin and hidden grace.” He stated: “Sin in the Church is never the expression of what the Church is in her own deepest living roots, but is rather the disguising contradiction of it; it is, so to speak, an external sickness in her body, not internal hereditary defect in her spirit.” Sin, rather than defining the Church, displays stark contradiction of her essence.


Karl Rahner, The Shape of the Church to Come, trans. Edward Quinn (London: S.P.C.K, 1974).

Karl Rahner, “The Lay Apostolate,” trans. John A. Hess, Cross Currents 7, no. 3 (Sum 1957).

Richard Lennan, The Ecclesiology of Karl Rahner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).

Karl Rahner, Mission and Grace: Essays in Pastoral Theology, Vol. 1, trans. Cecily Hastings and Richard Strachan (London: Sheed and Ward, 1963).

Karl Rahner, “Church of Sinners,” trans. William F. Gleeson, Cross Currents no. 3 (Spr 1951). ATLA Religion Database, EBSCOhost (27 October 2009).

3 thoughts on “The Individual and the Church: Karl Rahner and the Roman Catholic Perspective

  1. Rahner was a dynamic spiritually based catholic who saw has work as being pastoral in nature and necessary for the church.

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