Symposium Introduction

The term “theological aesthetics” is not a term usually associated with the theology of Karl Rahner. Rather, as anyone even mildly acquainted with the discourses of recent Catholic theology will tell you, it is a term that was utilized by Rahner’s longtime friend—and occasionally bitter theological rival—Hans Urs von Balthasar to differentiate his approach to theology from Rahner’s so-called transcendental theological approach. That Peter Joseph Fritz would seek to reclaim Balthasar’s term as a designate for Rahner’s thought indicates the extent to which the ground has shifted within Catholic theology over the last several decades, and how this shift has impacted recent evaluations of Rahner’s thought. This shift reflects a mounting suspicion of one of Rahner’s best-known intellectual achievements: his critical theological appropriation of modern philosophy’s turn to the subject. While this accomplishment was once perceived as enacting liberation of Catholic theology from the antiquated strictures of neo-scholasticism, the ensuing decades following Vatican II have (not without reason) called into question modern philosophy’s elevation of transcendental subjectivity, idealized reason, and its fundamental confidence in human agency. Consequently, Rahner’s achievement itself is now perceived as something of an archaism, dependent upon currents of philosophical discourse that are both as restrictive and out of sync with contemporary life as the very neo-scholasticism that he had sought to displace.

If Rahner’s theology, as many now suppose, can be characterized as excessively anthropocentric, subjectivist, and overly accommodating to the institutions of late modernity, Balthasar’s approach, in contrast, has been increasingly hailed as better suited to the challenges posed by the intellectual climate of “postmodernity.” In contradistinction to Rahner’s densely post-Kantian and transcendental approach to theology, Balthasar’s “theological aesthetic” finds its point of departure not in the dynamism of human subjectivity, but rather in the interruptive, counter-subjective plentitude of God’s concrete self-revelation. Moreover, and again in supposed contrast to Rahner’s overestimation of human initiative, Balthasar’s affirmation of Christocentric aesthesis likewise implies what he calls a “theo-dramatics”: a self-sacrificial vocation to freely live out one’s faith in confrontation with the world.

Fritz has spent the better part of the last decade providing a (much-needed) rejoinder to the increasingly prevalent mischaracterizations of Rahner’s theology by “carving an apologetic path through Rahner’s works” (167). To reduce Fritz’s efforts to retrieve Rahner to a kind of defensive exercise, however, reduces the scope of his achievement. Fritz has not only offered a corrective to Rahner’s critics but (more importantly) demonstrated the necessity of a distinctively Rahnerian intervention within a host of contemporary theological conversations. The most recent installment of Fritz’s dazzling aggiornamento of Rahner’s thought, Freedom Made Manifest: Rahner’s Fundamental Option and Theological Aesthetics, represents the middle panel of a planned trilogy of thematically organized monographs. The first installment of this Rahnerian trilogy, Karl Rahner’s Theological Aesthetics, utilized the category of “theological aesthetics” to clarify how Rahner’s transcendental approach articulates a radically counter-subjective view of human apprehension (aesthesis), characterized by an anticipatory openness toward God’s ultimate self-disclosure in Christ. By retrieving Rahner’s transcendentalism in the mode of aesthetic perception, Fritz at once highlighted common resonances between Rahner’s theology and Balthasar’s, while also showing how Rahner’s approach might provide a corrective to more recent (Balthasar-inflected) currents of post-Heideggerian phenomenology.

If the previous volume of the trilogy represents Fritz’s explication of a Rahnerian “theological aesthetic,” Freedom Made Manifest can be understood as a complementary attempt to delineate the central features of a Rahnerian “theo-dramatics.” In this remarkable book, Fritz situates Rahner in conversation with contemporary trauma studies, postcolonial theology, and recent currents of political theology indebted to J. B. Metz. Here, Fritz poses the question of human agency’s ultimate significance amid its constant undoing by everyday trauma, as much as by systemic violence and ecological catastrophe. More, Fritz probes what it might mean to affirm freedom when the very word itself has deployed to justify everything from the overconsumption of resources to US military throughout the world. In addressing the challenges, Fritz looks to Rahner as a theologian who recovers a more authentic sense of freedom as an “option fundamental,’ rather than as a mere exercise of choice or self-assertion. In retrieving Rahner, Fritz’s aim is at once both corrective and constructive. For just as Rahner is often misread as a theologian enthralled by the self-constituting and self-positing modern subject, so too is he frequently identified with a certain naïve overconfidence in human freedom. Against these interpretations, Fritz shows that Rahner’s view of freedom is best understood in terms of radical exposure, “always overshadowed by an unresolvable remainder of vulnerability to being undone” (23), yet ever embraced by God’s own eternal, free decision, to self-communicate and redeem. In Fritz’s words, “[For Rahner,] freedom is made most luminously manifest in the despair of an abandoned man hanging on a Roman cross, a person who has been completely undone. This paradox, not a transcendental idealist theory of subjectivity, provides the grammar and the content for Rahner’s theological aesthetic of freedom . . . a theology of freedom attuned to freedom’s exposure” (235).

In the days to come, this symposium will further unfold the questions embedded in Fritz’s remarkably creative retrieval of Rahner, and his interpretation of the fundamental option as a vision of exposed freedom. Brandon Reed Peter further interrogates Fritz’s suggestive interfacing of Rahner and F. W. J. Schelling, questioning both the extent of German Idealism’s influence on Rahner’s theological development and the nature of Rahner’s ultimate divergences from Schelling and G. W. F. Hegel. Both Annie Selak and Susie Paulik Babka each attempt to push the boundaries of Fritz’s reading of Rahner’s aesthesis of freedom in confrontation with the systemic abuse of power embedded within the life of the church. Selak probes the inherent friction between Rahner’s affirmation of the church as the very locus of our human participation in our grounding freedom and the concrete reality of the church as an all-too-frequent locus of freedom’s traumatic undoing. Babka questions the aesthetic fault lines between Rahner’s affirmation of the universality of God’s free self-communication incarnated in the world and the dehumanizing practices of the church that both obscure the reality of this self-communication and often threaten to foreclose its very possibility. Finally, Ryan Duns probes how Fritz’s view of aesthetic mediation might help to further clarify Rahner’s account of the relationship between transcendental freedom and the ambiguities of concrete, historically situated life.

These rich questions, as much as Fritz’s illuminating responses to them, stand testament to the genuinely groundbreaking character of Fritz’s Rahnerian retrieval, suggesting that the prospects for a renewed engagement with Rahner’s theology may yet prove to be transformative for the future of theological thinking.

Response

Exposed, Christ-Centered Freedom

Karl Rahner was once asked in an interview whether he had any special system for producing such a steady stream of writing (his bibliography compiled by Albert Raffelt runs 281 pp.). In response, Rahner humbly downplayed his output, saying that he has “not written so much when you consider the works of Saint Thomas, Suarez, and others. . . . Some days,” Rahner pointed out, “I write nothing.”1

Of the many things that Peter Fritz has learned from Rahner, extraordinary productivity is clearly one. In the decade since he finished his PhD, Fritz has written around twenty articles and book chapters and authored or coauthored four books. His two most recent coauthored books, Send Lazarus (Fordham University Press) and The Politics of Mercy (Herder & Herder) have been published within the last few months. I have to wonder whether there are days in which Fritz writes nothing!

His second and most recent book on Rahner, Freedom Made Manifest (2019), takes up the theme of human freedom. Rahner famously described human freedom in terms of the option fondamentale, a person’s ultimate response of “yes” or “no” to God’s self-communication in grace. Rahner’s theology of human freedom, and of the fundamental option in particular, has generated controversy. In Freedom Made Manifest, Fritz unfolds Rahner’s work in light of his critics, deftly acknowledging Rahner’s limitations, dispelling key misunderstandings, and demonstrating the promise that Rahner’s work continues to hold for Christianity today. In doing so, he invites us to consider a Rahnerian portrait of human freedom, which, in a passage that beautifully sums up much of the book, Fritz describes as

the God-given capacity for a creature—individual or corporate, even sinners—to participate in the divine action, decided from eternity, of drawing all creation into the divine life through the acts of this creation. Any other freedom is derivative from this freedom, and much of what we tend to call “freedom,” especially consumer and financial choices, is not freedom at all. The only freedom worth calling by that name is the cooperative manifestation in time and history of the divine decision to redeem, save, and reconcile. (127)

Here, I’ll first offer an exposition of Freedom Made Manifest, highlighting what I take to be some of Fritz’s most important insights. Second, I’ll offer my own response to the book, an evaluation which (1) underscores key features of Fritz’s work that I hope to see more frequently in Rahner scholarship (and in theology more generally) and which (2) poses a few questions for Fritz and other participants in this symposium to consider as we unpack this rich project.

Key Content: Freedom Made Manifest

As Fritz offers his account of Rahner’s theology of freedom, drawing on a dizzyingly expansive range of Rahner’s essays, homilies, and other writings, he structures the first three chapters according to Rahner’s sources, broadly organized by three themes: philosophy, penance, and Ignatian spirituality. These considerations set up one of the book’s most central questions, where Rahner’s theology of freedom faces a challenge in its application: What are its implications for people whose freedom has been “undone”? Does Rahner’s concept of the fundamental option in particular remain safely at the level of abstraction, the story of an ideal rational agent smoothly opting for (or against) God, thus failing to attend to the disasters of history (as Rahner’s student J. B. Metz charged decades ago) and failing to acknowledge victims of trauma whose self-realization has been deeply wounded (as Jennifer Beste has argued more recently)?

In the fourth and final chapter, Fritz addresses Metz’s and Beste’s criticisms head on. Although acting in somewhat of an apologetic role on Rahner’s behalf, Fritz acknowledges (as Rahner did in the case of Metz) that these criticisms have merit (167). Fritz’s aim here isn’t to say that Rahner’s work is without fault on these counts—indeed, Fritz agrees with Metz that Rahner’s failure to address Auschwitz directly in his work is problematic (203) and Fritz even frames his fourth chapter as a way to “recalibrate” Beste’s critique so that it more precisely hits home (181). Instead, Fritz’s aim seems to be uncovering overlooked resources in Rahner’s theology as we grapple with these problems, finding ways to exercise Rahner’s theological “legs” in ways which he himself did not. The upshot is that Rahner’s theological concepts like the fundamental option shouldn’t be dismissed in light of these criticisms, but they should be reexamined—his body of work contains notes that haven’t been sounded with sufficient volume (even by Rahner himself) and which can contribute to the conversation today.

Throughout the book, Fritz crafts a portrait of what human freedom is and what it is not. Put positively, he contends that theological ideas like the fundamental option are best understood aesthetically. For Fritz, “theological aesthetics” is not limited to discourse on something like divine “beauty” but pertains to how God’s free self-revelation arrives to us: not just in a narrowly epistemic or noetic manner, but more broadly through our senses (13). Rahner’s own aesthetic account of God’s revelation in turn “discloses the human person’s free, expressive stretching forth toward God’s ever greater glory” (14).

Thus, Fritz sets the stage for recasting the fundamental option as an idea about God’s own freedom being manifest in created, free human lives. Moreover, Fritz maintains, common portraits Rahner’s spiritual agent as an autonomous, rational individual transcendentally electing for or against God in a tidy, smooth way fail to capture Rahner’s proposal. Rahner is famous (or infamous) for his “turn to the subject,” but Rahner’s subject, as Fritz points out repeatedly, is widely misconstrued. For as much as each self-transcending Geist (spirit) is capax infiniti, it is also always embodied, exposed, and woven into the fabric of a community: it’s Geist in Welt, with all of the complications and messiness that the in Welt might involve. Accordingly, God’s freedom is manifest in finite human lives, however wounded and limited they might be.

As he considers each of Rahner’s sources in the first three chapters, Fritz gradually composes his positive account of Rahnerian freedom while countering accounts which exaggerate individual autonomy and rationality. In the first chapter, Fritz situates Rahner within the world of German philosophy, noting how Rahner was shaped by its leading lights but also how Rahner distinguished his own work from them (especially Hegelian Idealism). In his exposition of Hearer of the Word, Fritz clarifies that when Rahner uses the term “transcendental” to describe human activity, he does not have in mind “freedom divorced from materiality, but freedom expressed through materiality. . . . For Rahner, ‘transcendental’ freedom is never transhistorical, ahistorical, ideal, or invulnerable” (52–53). The spatiotemporal world is not a “stage” on which we act but is constitutive of who we are.

In addition to treating Schelling and introducing the theme of Jesus’ Sacred Heart within Rahner’s theology of the symbol, this chapter also explores Rahner’s underappreciated theology of concupiscence, which Fritz demonstrates is a crucial counterpart to the fundamental option. Briefly, Rahnerian human freedom isn’t a simple, smooth process of self-determination—on account of concupiscence, freedom occurs only with significant “friction.” Against the theological manuals of his day, which styled concupiscence as a “bodily” tendency toward evil, Rahner reimagines concupiscence as a phenomenon which applies to both body and spirit (inextricably united to one another as they are), creating “drag” upon one’s “yes” or “no” to God (66).

In his next chapter on penance, Fritz again recasts depictions of Rahner that center on his “turn to the subject” by examining those believing subjects in more detail—they are not an autonomous, self-determining monads, but sinners whose “loss of grace” requires constant conversion to God within the community. In a lovely and memorable turn of phrase, Fritz encourages us to look at Rahner’s “anthropological turn” by attending to the “anthropological turning” occasioned by (and manifesting) God’s grace and mercy (83).

Countering claims that Rahner’s option fondamentale is baptized German Idealism, Fritz argues that this theory of an ultimate “yes” or “no” has roots in Rahner’s 1936 study, “Sin as the Loss of Grace,” where Rahner examines the “early Christian conviction that freedom properly used safeguards God’s free gift of mercy, while freedom ill-used threatens to lose this grace” (89). Fritz also treats Rahner’s lectures on penance at Innsbruck during the same period, in which Rahner insisted that the sacrament isn’t about simply reconciling the sinner with God, but also—since sin has an inescapable communal dimension—with the church. With this idea, which became popular in the postconciliar period, Rahner underscores that human freedom is never a purely private reality.

The third chapter on Ignatian spirituality returns to Rahner’s reputation for overinflated and overconfident anthropology, this time shifting focus from the link in his theology between the individual and the church to the link between the believer and Christ. Responding to critics who claim that, despite Rahner’s insistence to the contrary, Christ in Rahner’s theology amounts to a superadded “illustration” of a previously worked out speculative account of human fullness (136), Fritz responds that we “must take Rahner at his word rather than explain his words away” (186, 139). The chapter, which draws from a wide range of Rahner’s writings on Ignatian spirituality, demonstrates why we should do so.

Fritz highlights a striking passage from the third of Rahner’s 1955 Canisianum conferences (“Ignatian Spirituality and Devotion to the Sacred Heart”), where Rahner explains that

our special, unique existence is a participation in the life of Christ, an imitation of our Lord and of his destiny renewed in such fashion that we are really continuing his life, not copying it for the nth time. And hence this Christian mission of ours, this special character, can only be discovered in love of the God-man, a love in which we accept his love, in which he confers existence upon us. (141)

As Fritz showed that individuals cannot be extricated from the material world (as a stage) nor from the church (as an object to which they relate, 163), this person-centered passage shows that they cannot be artificially separated from Christ (as an exemplar). The person’s freedom involves more than simply repeating Jesus’ life in an imitative reiteration—it’s a decision which continues this life, manifesting God’s incarnate self-revelation. Accordingly, human freedom is deeply Christological. As Fritz puts it, “Individual decision occurs in an economy. Individual decision happens in a matrix given prior to explicit reflection, prior to thought, prior to system. Individual decision transpires within a life: the Way, the Truth, and the Life (Jn 14:6)” (154).

This Christological focus extends into Fritz’s work in the fourth chapter, where he returns to Rahner’s beloved theme of the Sacred Heart. Far from a triumphant tale of a powerful, full-throated “yes” to God, the Christic life in which we participate in our freedom culminates in agony, woundedness, and defeat (222–23). The image of Christ’s pierced heart (John 19:34) as an expression of God’s freedom made manifest advances Fritz’s contention that our embodied, communal freedom is also exposed to the ambiguities, pitfalls, and calamities of our world. Despite failing to explicitly attend to history’s specific catastrophes and abuses, as Metz and Beste rightly point out, Rahner’s account of freedom has space for these stories, for the cries of the “undone” to participate in the prayer, even lament, of the weakened and dying Christ (223).

Reflections and Questions

My overview traces only a few threads in what amounts to a rich tapestry of primary sources, secondary interlocutors, and Fritz’s compelling arguments about both. Before raising a few questions for conversation, I want to highlight why Freedom Made Manifest stands as such an important contribution to both scholarship on Rahner and Christian theology more generally.

First, Fritz provides his readers with an invaluable, deft treatment of material which otherwise remains largely inaccessible for most of Rahner’s English-speaking readers, either on account of its notorious complexity (e.g., Hearer of the Word) or because it’s tucked away in Rahner’s Sämtliche Werke, untranslated from the original German (e.g., Rahner’s penance lectures at Innsbruck). Even for readers who have spent quite a bit of time with Rahner, like myself, Freedom Made Manifest contains original insights into dense texts and shines a spotlight on parts of Rahner’s body of work that have languished in the dark. I’ve learned a lot from the book and I’m deeply grateful for it.

Another impressive aspect of Freedom Made Manifest is the number of conversations and arguments about Rahner through which Fritz is able to navigate in a single text. Granted, Metz and Beste stand as landmarks more prominent than other interlocutors, but Fritz encompasses a host of important conversations. One which overlaps with my own work concerns Rahner’s status as (contra Balthasar, Marshall, and plenty of others) a genuinely christocentric theologian. I’ve argued in favor of such a status by interpreting Rahner’s soteriology as “person-centered,” that is, structured in such a way that Christ’s actions are geared toward facilitating union with his saving person (rather than vice versa, the constitution his person setting up a singular saving act, e.g., in Anselm’s satisfaction theory). Perhaps not surprisingly, I find Fritz’s emphasis on the Sacred Heart and especially his theme of the believer participating in and continuing Christ’s life (rather than repeating it for the nth time) to be particularly compelling parts of his portrait of Rahner.

Freedom Made Manifest also does a marvelous job with its treatment of Rahner’s sources, which thematically structure its first three chapters. According to some of his critics, Rahner is guilty of dressing up Kant, Heidegger, Hegel, or some combination of German philosophers in Catholic theological clothing, and while Rahner is sufficiently clever to couch his ideas in traditional doctrinal terms, the suspicion is that “German Idealism” or some other philosophical interloper sits in the driver’s seat while Denzinger’s Sources of Catholic Dogma is just along for the ride (27). Allegedly, then, Rahner’s theology is most honestly and directly reflected in his proposal about anonymous Christianity—he’s motivated more by an abstract “yes” or “no” to God than anything specifically Christian (28). This criticism is only reinforced by some of Rahner’s advocates who, excited by his creativity and jaded by the limitations of manualist theology, gloss over Rahner’s concern about and work on past authoritative teachings and classical theological sources.

Against these tendencies, Freedom Made Manifest provides an impressively balanced portrait of Rahner, which isn’t an easy feat since it requires an enviable command over the work of a wide array of very different thinkers. Fritz demonstrates the ways in which Rahner indeed engages with, takes cues from, but also criticizes and revises various German philosophical figures and schools. At the same time, Fritz expands upon the common, one-dimensional portrait of Rahner as engaged in aggiornamento (updating) to demonstrate that Rahner likewise cares deeply about situating his own work in a tradition, drawing not only upon Thomas but upon the Church Fathers as a ressourcement theologian (80).

Finally, Fritz’s work contains some wise advice about how to read Rahner, recommending an approach that could be extended to any classic theologian: “We must revise Rahner but also be willing to be revised by him” (25). Freedom Made Manifest offers several illustrations of this advice in action. The first is a prominent and recurring theme of the book, that “choice” has come to dominate the idea of freedom in the contemporary imagination. “Under neoliberalism,” Fritz explains, “people may, arguably, be ‘free to choose,’ but decreasingly are they free to decide” (25). In this case, revising Rahner’s account of freedom in an act of “updating” would prove dangerous. Rahner’s own emphasis on “decision” can stand as an important corrective to a reductive, consumerist mindset. A second example has to do with “individualism,” a phenomenon which Rahner himself identified as problematic but the critique of which is, nonetheless, sometimes extended to include Rahner’s own anthropological focus on the believer. Fritz warns that we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Rahner’s attention to the individual, since it may be needed more than ever precisely as a counter: “True individuality is the best antidote to modern individualism” (165, see also 142–43).

In the remaining space and with the goal of learning even more from this text in the conversations arising out of it, I’d like to pose three questions. The first concerns the compelling case for freedom as “decision,” which is something deeper than “choice”; Fritz illustrates the latter as economic realities, e.g., which breakfast cereal, latte, or stock to purchase (3, 30). While it’s clear that freedom can hardly be reduced to “choice” in this sense, I’m curious about whether the latter idea could play some positive, if derivative, role in a robust account of freedom (at least when it pertains to economic realities more serious than coffee flavors!). Having economic choices available can, it seems, be important in many situations as a matter of justice. Lack of options when it comes to food, housing, or other economic realities can function in ways which constrict freedom, serving as a painful source of “friction.” Admittedly, I have not yet read Fritz’s newly published books on politics and economic justice, so this question stands as a kind of invitation to describe how his recent publications fit together. Is “choice” (Wahl) even an appropriate term for describing these sorts of more serious economic options? How might the availability of such options relate to the deeper idea of “eternal decision” and the human opportunity to make it freely?

Second, I’m curious about whether Rahner’s writing on purgatory (together with his theology of death) helps to reinforce points made in this project. I suspect that it does. In his essays on purgatory, Rahner acknowledges the messiness of a person’s freedom, their fragmented status, and the painful “integration” of the person to their fundamental option (a process that seems to parallel the notion of “collection” that Rahner discusses in connection with German mysticism, 71–72).2

Finally, in his treatment of “The Theology of the Symbol,” Fritz includes a wonderful section on Rahner’s anthropology, which draws on Thomas’s (and ultimately Aristotle’s) hylomorphic account of the soul and body as form and matter. According to this account, there is no preexistent body or preexistent soul, since neither of the two are “foreign” to one another. Spiritual life for Rahner is embodied life (60). Explaining that disembodied souls and unsouled bodies are just “theoretical possibilities,” Fritz goes on to argue that the same goes for human freedom—that is, it must be lived out and embodied if it is to be authentic freedom at all (62). As Fritz says later, free decision is a spiritual act, but it’s not “purely ‘spiritual,’” since for human beings, there is no such thing—freedom is embodied (66). My question arises out of Fritz’s next move, where he extends this analysis to God, saying,

And based on Rahner’s teaching that reality and its appearance in the flesh are inseparable, we can push even further and say that divine freedom, as attested by Christian faith, is a mere theoretical possibility unless it is embodied. Thus we return to the Schellingian statement that God is revealed in the human only. This is not a prodigal overstatement or callous anthropocentrism, but a call to human readers, who can respond in nothing other than a human way. If we take Schelling seriously, and if we take Rahner seriously, we must actualize freedom—our own and God’s—lest we conceal it and inhibit its manifestation. (62)

I’m curious whether Fritz might expand a bit on his description of divine freedom without embodiment as a “mere theoretical possibility,” particularly with an eye toward Rahner’s critics who understand him to be excessively Hegelian. Is the claim here that God, in theory, could have acted freely without ever self-communicating to a creation (but didn’t)? Or is it something seemingly stronger and more parallel to the case of the hylomorphic human, for whom disembodied divine freedom is a mere “theoretical possibility” because there’s really no such thing—“If it is not embodied . . . it is not freedom at all” (62)?

To be sure, Rahner himself drew parallels between the hylomorphic anthropology (form and matter) and God’s self-communication, particularly in Christ (Word, humanity), situating them both as instances of the Realsymbol. At the same time, Rahner also seemed to also express some caution about the comparison. Specifically, to describe God’s free self-communication, Rahner tended to qualify “form” language with the prefix “quasi.” As I understand it, Rahner intended this somewhat awkward “quasi-formal” phrasing to safeguard God’s freedom in self-communicating, that is, to differentiate the event of God’s free self-communication from the soul’s more automatic expression in the body.3 How might this “quasi” qualifier fit (or not fit) into Fritz’s insight about divine freedom being “a mere theoretical possibility unless it is embodied”? To put my question another way, what might Fritz say to critics who would point to this statement about embodiment and divine freedom as confirming their suspicion that Rahner’s vision of God’s freedom is closer to a Hegelian one of necessary divine “emanation” than Rahner would like to admit (cf. 46)? That unless such divine freedom is “embodied” in the “flesh,” it is not freedom at all?


  1. Karl Rahner in Dialogue: Conversations and Interviews 1965–1982, ed. Huber Biallowons and Paul Imhof (New York: Crossroad, 1986), 11.

  2. I’m thinking in particular of essays like “Remarks on the Theology of Indulgences,” (Theological Investigations 2: 175–201, at 198), “The Comfort of Time” (Theological Investigations 3: 141–57, at 153), “The Life of the Dead” (Theological Investigations 4: 347–54, at 353), and “A Brief Theological Study of Indulgence” (Theological Investigations 10: 150–65, at 158).

  3. See “Some Implications of the Scholastic Concept of Uncreated Grace” (Theological Investigations 1: 297–346, at 330–31) and Joseph Wong, Logos-Symbol in the Christology of Karl Rahner (Rome: Libreria Ateneo Salesiano, 1984), 131. Not all of Rahner’s readers have found such a qualifier to be a successful solution (e.g., Paul Molnar, who sees Rahner as advancing a kind of “emanationism”; “Can We Know God Directly? Rahner’s Solution from Experience,” Theological Studies 46.2 (1985) 228–61, at 231–32).

  • Peter Joseph Fritz

    Reply

    Response to Brandon Peterson

    Thank you to Brandon Peterson for his effusively generous response to Freedom Made Manifest. I appreciate his highlighting, from his contribution’s title forward, the twin themes of exposure and christocentrism, which are important not only for Freedom Made Manifest, but perhaps even more for the volume that will follow, Love’s Terrible Radiance (God, pandemic, and my children willing). I know that Peterson’s standards for Rahner scholarship are exacting, given his own careful work on Rahner’s soteriology among other things. His book, Being Salvation, is fantastic, and I’m on record saying so on its back cover!1

    He raises three questions. I’ll respond to them in reverse order.

    To the third, regarding Rahner, hylomorphism, and Hegelianism, I would remind Peterson of the case that I make for Rahner being more Schellingian than Hegelian.2 For Hegel, were one being really polemical (which I’ve been known to be), one could say that freedom, as with much else, is epiphenomenal. For Schelling, in a way crucially different from Hegel, freedom is real.3 In the 1809 freedom treatise of which I make so much in FMM (35–42, 48–52, 68–70, 203–11), even that which appears to be necessary results from free decision, first divine, then human. Emanationism is not a concern; nothing necessitates creation nor God’s continual sustenance of it. One could worry about other things, perhaps a gnostic return in modernity, were Rahner to go further with Schelling, but he does not.4 This may seem cryptic, but space will not permit me to unfold the argument. Should one try to start, in addition to having a look at Rahner’s own extensive christological writings, particularly on divine “becoming,” I suggest tracing the Schelling-Hegel difference with the guidance of S. J. McGrath, an author who has taught me a great deal about Schelling (and Heidegger!).5

    To the second question regarding whether Rahner’s writing on purgatory could strengthen the main points of FMM, I can say, “Yes.” Or maybe I could say it the other way around: that the findings of FMM help to clarify some suggestions made in, for example, the dialogical essay, “Purgatory” (1980).6 This essay tries to think purgatory in close proximity to death, but of even more interest in conjunction with FMM is Rahner’s attempt to think purgatory along with questions of individuation, plurality, and people whose freedom is imperiled in this life. One could link these with FMM’s questions of subjectivity, concupiscence, and exposure. At one point, one of the two fictional theologians in the dialogue supposes that purgatory, were there such a state, “might offer opportunities and scope for a postmortal history of freedom to someone who had been denied such a history in his earthly life” (“Purgatory,” 191). The theologian continues, “This seems to me more probable than the idea that there are people who continue to exist and to whom God has refused for all eternity to permit this eternity of theirs to be also the finality of their act of freedom” (“Purgatory,” 191). Rahner wants to retain the Christian teaching, tacit or explicit, that the “norm” for human freedom is a fundamental option for “yes” or “no” that is somehow actualized (though with the numerous caveats discussed in FMM) in this life. But the mystery remains regarding how someone denied freedom in this life, or someone whose freedom appears somehow otherwise than the “norm” may be robustly free, and inhabit their free decision for all eternity. Purgatory, whatever its temporal-eternal conundra, may provide theological traction.

    To the first: Peterson opens the door to me commenting on the conjunction between my more recent books (coauthored with Matthew Eggemeier) on theology and social questions. Most apropos here is Send Lazarus: Catholicism and the Crises of Neoliberalism, as it takes particular aim at the variant of capitalism that I mention somewhat glancingly but had greatly in mind when writing FMM. I point readers to that text’s definition of and diagnosis of the problems associated with neoliberalism, which I will presuppose and not rehearse here.7

    No one can plausibly deny that under neoliberal capitalism’s global dominance a proliferation of goods for distribution, sale, and consumption has exploded unlike anything the world has ever seen. Standards of living have been substantially raised across the globe (though, notably, for the middle classes in the Euro-Atlantic world standards of living have stagnated and, in the aftermath of the Covid-19-induced economic crisis, may well experience a prolonged, irreversible decline). Neoliberalism has addressed human wants and needs to remarkable effect through prodigious production—creation?—of goods.

    I should remind readers that concupiscence, that important category in FMM, traditionally means (here I’m thinking for Thomas Aquinas) desire for goods, foremost which keep us alive, but also often things that please us. Thomas Aquinas, and with him Rahner, is highly realistic about this, and we should be, too: it is good and even necessary (as Peterson says) to have goods accessible, and we are right to desire them. For Rahner, as for Aquinas, concupiscence is good news in that it is part of us, as a means to seeking happiness. Concupiscence may indeed save us from ill use of freedom, a fundamental option of “no,” because it is, basically, desire for goods that reflect, in however distant a way, the Good.

    Neoliberalism holds the typical capitalist presupposition that all goods can be commodities and/or investments. Under neoliberalism, everything has been commodified and/or financialized, including life itself (the most common example is seeds). Increasingly, people around the world are given innumerable choices of commodities and investment opportunities. This advance should not be gainsaid, nor do I wish to gainsay it. One does have to ask, however, even amid advances, what we have sacrificed along the way to relative material prosperity. A possible answer? Neoliberalism sacrifices freedom, precisely as deep, penitential, and Christic, as Rahner describes it, by preceding decision and persisting against it (cf. FMM 66, definition of concupiscence).

    Much could be said in conjunction with prior analyses by political economists, economic historians, and philosophers regarding how neoliberal economics, politics, and the dismantling of civil society develops alongside and through a dismemberment of the human subject (first as an entrepreneur of the self and then as a living bundle of investments, or perhaps an “influencer”). Neoliberal subject formation attacks the very reality of freedom, attenuating it so much that rooted and original freedom (like Schelling dared to think) would disappear. The reality of freedom undoubtedly goes up in smoke as concupiscence is weaponized by neoliberalism into desperate hankering after goods that draw desire more effectively than in prior eras, aided in no small part by technologies wondrous for their ability to stoke but not slake thirst after thirst, and by a culture of capital enhancement where the “goods” of others’ regards threaten always to dematerialize, should the subject’s “market value” fall to zero.

    Though an accomplished economist, Milton Friedman is more famous for being the ideological face of neoliberalism, the one who, along with his wife Rose, convinced generations that (neoliberal) capitalism makes people “free to choose.”8 It may seem good that we’re “free to choose” under neoliberalism, whether we’re free to choose food, housing, entertainment, lamps, health insurance, whatever. But neoliberal political economy is only nominally interested in people being free to choose. Anyone who has been to multiple cities in the United States knows this to be the case. The same brands dominate everywhere. The same stores pop up next to the highway. The local utility? More often than not a(n) (inter)national conglomerate with a local monopoly. Competition is praised, but not had. Entrepreneurship is praised, but stifled, or at best funneled within preconceived channels. Milton Friedman is illustrative because he reveals that neoliberal choice implicates a desire to separate from material conditions: class, race, gender, the environment; one can simply choose products, jobs, and projects.9 Markets don’t care if you’re black or white, man or woman, poor, at least not in principle. But our current economic crisis (I write in November 2020) has revealed for whom the goods are intended—and who not.

    Real freedom’s true purpose is to opt for the mystery that abidingly blesses us;10 concupiscence resists a full option for this mystery, but nevertheless seems to feel the pull of the diffused goodness that, with hope, will eventually be grace-fully gathered toward the Source of all goodness. Under neoliberalism, concupiscence pursues a precise purpose: serving an impersonal global economy that feigns blessing, but instead feasts on the many and blesses—inconstantly and unstably—the very few. If this market-mystery gathers, it is a gathering toward something like the indifferent malice of a virus; more nearly, though, it scatters. During the Covid-19 pandemic we have seen a perfect illustration of how neoliberal concupiscent freedom functions structurally: government and economy are set up to move heaven and earth for the stock market’s recovery while the quality of life of tens of millions of people plummets, disproportionately for already poor and vulnerable communities, especially people of color, exposing them to all manner of disaster, suffering from Covid-19 without having means afford health care being just one. Purgatory in the hereafter may become their last hope to experience the full complement of freedom that the “free economy” denies them here and now.

    The seemingly boundless creativity of neoliberalized economies should, for sure, attract us; but we should also recognize the poison of their gifts. The resemblance to God’s creativity, God’s eternal decision to create, breaks down when we come to recognize the parody. Neoliberal freedom is, in the final analysis, freedom to abandon, to divide, and to destroy. God’s freedom is the decision to redeem, to save, and to reconcile.

    Yes, the contrast is this sharp. We must opt for a side.


    1. Brandon R. Peterson, Being Salvation: Atonement and Soteriology in the Theology of Karl Rahner (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017).

    2. Perhaps Rahner’s clearest presentation of why he is not Hegelian is in Karl Rahner, “On the Theology of the Incarnation,” in More Recent Writings: Theological Investigations 4, trans. Kevin Smyth (Baltimore: Helicon, 1966), 114.

    3. My colleague Joseph P. Lawrence has devoted much of his career to developing precisely this thought, which should be a guiding light for all philosophy and all consideration of Christian theology. See his translation and commentary on the 1811 draft of Schelling’s work The Ages of the World, which is a culminating point in this path of thinking. F. W. J. Schelling, The Ages of the World (1811), translated and with an introduction by Joseph P. Lawrence (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2019).

    4. Cyril O’Regan, Gnostic Return in Modernity (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001). This methodological volume sets the stage for, among other things, O’Regan’s contention that German Idealism represents a return in different forms of Valentinian Gnosticism, Schelling included. O’Regan has promised a volume that will detail this analysis.

    5. See S. J. McGrath, The Dark Ground of Spirit: Schelling and the Unconscious (New York: Routledge, 2011).

    6. Karl Rahner, “Purgatory,” in Faith and Ministry: Theological Investigations 19, trans. Edward Quinn (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 181–93.

    7. Matthew T. Eggemeier and Peter Joseph Fritz, Send Lazarus: Catholicism and the Crises of Neoliberalism (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020); see our extensive bibliography for varied treatments of neoliberalism across many fields of inquiry. For further analysis of the ruinous aspects of neoliberalism in a book that was published while Send Lazarus was in press, see Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).

    8. Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman, Free to Choose: A Personal Statement, 2nd ed., with a new foreword (New York: Harcourt, 1990).

    9. See Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, 40th anniv. ed., with a new preface by the author (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), ch. 7, “Capitalism Discrimination,” 108–18.

    10. See Karl Rahner, “Reflections on Methodology in Theology,” in Confrontations 1, Theological Investigations 11, trans. David Bourke (New York: Seabury, 1974), 104.

Response

Ecclesial Freedom & Trauma

Karl Rahner’s theology is a favorite of theologians to riff on. This is even more so true for ecclesiologists, for nearly half of Rahner’s extensive writings are on the topic of the church.1 There is a seemingly endless supply of topics, and takes on these topics, within Rahner’s writings, making it a treasure trove for researchers. Peter Joseph Fritz, helpfully, dives into a nuanced, extensive examination of freedom in this second book of his trilogy on Rahner’s theology. Fritz articulates his central question: “‘How does the eternal announce itself in the seemingly insignificant?’ Or, ‘What is the means, the ‘how,’ of God’s revelation?’” (244). In examining freedom made manifest, Fritz addresses critiques of Rahner’s engagement of freedom, namely Johann Baptist Metz and contemporary trauma theory, most clearly addressed by Jennifer Beste. As an ecclesiologist who engages trauma theory, I want to expand Fritz’s central question to consider how our understanding of freedom, particularly ecclesial freedom, is stretched when considering the presence of collective wounds and trauma in the contemporary church. The question for me becomes “What is the means, the ‘how’ of God’s revelation, in the midst of a church marked by wounds?” To answer this, I look to how our understanding of the church is stretched when we consider the church as a source of trauma, such as the sexual abuse of minors in the church. In this section, I outline major points of trauma theory in conversation with the sex abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Next, I consider what Rahner’s articulation of “loyalty to the church” looks like in the contemporary ecclesial context. Fritz’s engagement of Rahner’s view of freedom does not crumble under the pressure of these critiques. Rather, by rooting Rahner’s analysis of ecclesial freedom in the contemporary context, marked as it is by scandal and harm, we are able to see Rahner’s nuanced, layered understanding of the church and freedom.

Fritz explains the connection of freedom and the church for Rahner: “Church counteracts the potential for loss of grace (dis-grace) by mediating God’s grace to sinners. I have insisted throughout this book that for Rahner, human freedom, ecclesial freedom, and divine freedom always go together. Because of this he offers, especially in his theology of penitential freedom, a way of speaking theologically about the communal bearing of suffering” (220). It is important to call attention to this communal dimension of suffering as well as grace and freedom. At the same time, it leaves me wanting for more. What about the situations in which the church is the one wounding others? Is the bearing of suffering truly communal, or is that just a euphemism for the hierarchy to evade responsibility?

Perhaps the clearest example of wounds within the church is the clergy sexual abuse crisis. The sex abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church is not a chapter that we can put behind us. There is no door to close this section of history. The sex abuse crisis has fundamentally altered what it means to be church. The question becomes how, not if, our understanding of church is informed by wounds. To address this, I follow in Fritz’s footsteps and engage with trauma theory.

Trauma is not just a bad thing that happened, but something that is so monumental that it overwhelms the mind and body’s standard response system. It becomes unbearable. Further, the ramifications of an originating traumatic event extend much beyond the initial occurrence and initial physical healing. Responses recur through the body, mind, spirit, soul, and even genetics throughout the remainder of one’s life, extending into future generations with epigenetics. The body is intimately involved in traumatic responses, as evidenced by many trauma survivors preferring massage therapy and yoga to traditional talk therapy. Expanding Bessel Van Der Kolk’s well-known phrase, “the body keeps the score,” Erin Kidd asserts, “The body of God keeps the score.”2 Kidd’s analysis of Rahner and the body also invokes the communal dimension of trauma, a dimension that is well-suited to Rahner’s analysis of freedom. The church, the body of God, keeps score of the grace and wounds of the world, of the members, of one another.

Fritz’s deep reading of Rahner’s work, especially his often neglected works, brings to light aspects of wounds in the body of Christ. For example, Rahner argues that the church is wounded by the sins of individual members. At the same time, Rahner refuses to separate “the church” from “members of the church,” as though the church is somehow removed from its members. Instead, Rahner advocates for penitential practices to reintegrate the member into the church. Fritz explains, “To Rahner’s mind, this sense of communal wounding and the need for communal healing has been lost in modern theology and practice” (197). I argue that the Roman Catholic Church today is quicker to look to the need for communal healing, and the work that is required by all members of the church, than we are to look at how the actions of the church hierarchy harm all members of the church. It is much more common to see parishes host events examining how to move forward in the aftermath of the sex abuse crisis, than it is to see bishops repent of their role in the cover-up of sex abuse. Rahner’s call for penitential practices and reintegration is ignored by lofty seminars at best and the active and deliberate process of silencing and cover-up at worst. Rather than grapple with our wounds, we host speakers, develop university committees, and publish theological essays (like this!). Rahner’s call invites us to confront our collective complicity and harm, rather than sidestep the central wounds.

In order to understand the dynamics of trauma, freedom, and the church, it is helpful to look to a foundational parable in trauma theory. Trauma centers upon a “double wound,” a term employed by Cathy Caruth that illustrates how trauma impacts both the body and the mind beyond the originating event. She describes wounds of the body as a “simple and healable event” whereas wounds of the mind are “an event that . . . is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor.”3 Contained in this understanding of a double wound are several tenets of trauma theory, including the unable to be assimilated nature of the originating wound, the intrusion of the wound into the present and future, the repetition associated with intrusion, and the haunting nature of wounds. To illustrate this sense of double wounding, Caruth draws upon the parable of Tancred and Clorinda from Tasso’s romantic epic Gerusalemme Liberata, a foundational story in the psychoanalytic work of Freud.4 The story tells of Tancred, the hero, who unknowingly kills his beloved Clorinda in a duel where she is dressed in the armor of an enemy knight. This originating wound continues to be repeated unwittingly. When Tancred goes into a magic forest, in the midst of his devastation, he slashes a tree with his sword, causing the tree to cry out with the voice of Clorinda, whose soul was contained in the tree. Caruth draws upon this story to explain belatedness in trauma theory: “Just as Tancred does not hear the voice of Clorinda until the second wounding, so trauma is not locatable in the simple violence or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature—the way it was precisely not known in the first instance—returns to haunt the survivor later on.”5 Further, this story illustrates that trauma is rooted in an experience of death, even if the person survives. Trauma conveys the interconnection between death and life.

The parable of Tancred and Clorinda illustrates that we are bound to repeat wounds if we do not acknowledge their presence and ongoing impact. In considering how this informs our response to the sex abuse crisis in the church, let us look to Boston as an example. The impact of the sex abuse crisis in Boston has many levels and reverberations. First, there was the initial wounding of victims, their families, and communities. The release of the Boston Globe reporting in 2002 inflicted unique wounds. Some of these wounds were belated, with victims reexperiencing trauma that originated years before. Yet there was another type of wounding experienced collectively by the church in Boston and throughout the world. The harm caused by the hierarchy’s efforts to protect abusers at the expense of victims extends to this day. The closing of parishes as a result of financial distress repeated this act of wounding. Another wave of wounds reemerged with the movie Spotlight, bringing visuals to places and people that before were relegated to pages of newspapers. Personally, I had to grapple with how to walk through the halls of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry that formerly belonged to Cardinal Law,6 and reckon with my own complicity in benefitting from the privileges of studying at a university that financially rescued the archdiocese. The Pennsylvania Grand Jury report created another round of wounds with similar ripple effects. The hierarchy’s efforts to fight the repeal of statutes of limitations laws continue to wound the church.7 Is the church bound to be like Tancred, continuing to harm Clorinda? Or is there a certain moment where we can stop this cycle of repetition? It is to this question that I propose that our ecclesiology needs to be informed by trauma and needs to take the topic of wounds seriously.

Let us now return to Fritz’s work on Rahner’s understanding of freedom. In what I consider to be the high point of the book, Fritz examines Ignatian Spirituality in connection to freedom. In doing this, he draws out three of the most important features of Ignatian spirituality in connection to freedom: indifference, the “existential,” and loyalty to the church (132). For readers of Rahner, the first two are commonly discussed topics. The last topic, however, has the potential to rub against contemporary sensibilities and theological analysis. What is loyalty to the church today?

The key to understanding loyalty to the church is the connection to Jesus’ Sacred Heart. Fritz explains, “Loyalty to the church must be a love that imitates this merciful love of Christ. . . . The church in its current, pilgrim condition is ‘precisely not simply the holy, flawless Bride of Christ without wrinkle or defect.’ This means that the one who would be loyal to the church must love it (through its members, of course) with ‘long-suffering, compassionate, enduring love.’ Loyalty to the church is fidelity to an as yet incomplete church. Loyalty to the church is, in short, an imitation of Christ’s mercy” (156). This understanding of “fidelity to an incomplete” church is prophetic for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. It would be easy to romanticize this notion, but to do so would go against Rahner’s thought. Rahner consistently emphasized the importance of the church in the concrete. We can affirm that the church is a unique mediation of Christ, while also not equating the church with Christ. The church can always become more authentically the church. It is this principle to which we are called to be loyal.

While I firmly believe this, I am also left wanting more. How can I be loyal to a church that values secrecy and power over the protection of children? The relative silence of the church on issues of racism furthers this. What does loyalty look like to a church where bishops are largely silent on racism in this country? How do I live out this loyalty, even when repositioned as loyalty to an incomplete church, when it feels more like complicity in white supremacy than it does like working for racial justice? To this, Fritz would probably redirect me to freedom, once again. He explains, “Like Ignatius, Rahner sees an intimate connection, even a transparency, between ecclesial freedom and God’s freedom. This transparency is not complete, the movement from ecclesial to divine freedom not friction-free. But it exists, and it is essential for the full flowering, rather than pathological self-restriction, of individual freedom” (162).

Freedom is not “friction-free.” Ecclesial freedom is not “friction-free.” Loyalty to the church, most certainly, is not “friction-free.” This is a gift of Rahner’s ecclesiology to the contemporary church. It also is not a clear-cut solution, nor would Rahner want it to be. To be loyal to a church that is marked by white supremacy, that engaged in the extensive and coordinated cover-up of the abuse of minors, that continues to exclude the marginalized, that is quick to align itself with privilege, is at best a messy existence. Yet perhaps this messiness is where we are best suited to further explore freedom made manifest.


  1. Richard Lennan, The Ecclesiology of Karl Rahner (Oxford: New York, 1995), 10.

  2. Erin Kidd, “The Violation of God in the Body of the World: A Rahnerian Response to Trauma,” Modern Theology 35.4 (October 2019) 682, https://doi.org/10.1111/moth.12484.

  3. Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, 4.

  4. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, ed. Todd Dufresne et al., Broadview Editions (Buffalo: Broadview, 2011).

  5. Caruth, Unclaimed Experience, 4.

  6. “The residence, modeled after an Italian palazzo and appointed in marble and mahogany, had long been an embodiment of the church’s stature in heavily Roman Catholic Boston, but it had become a despised symbol in the sexual abuse crisis. As the home of then-Archbishop Bernard F. Law, the residence, in the Brighton neighborhood, represented what many perceived as the archdiocese’s indifference to its abused and angry parishioners.” Pam Belluck, “Boston Archbishop Will Sell Residence for Abuse Payout,” New York Times, December 4, 2003, https://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/04/us/boston-archbishop-will-sell-residence-for-abuse-payout.html; See also: Elizabeth Mehren, “Boston Archdiocese Sells Off Land,” Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2004, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2004-apr-21-na-boston21-story.html.

  7. Christina Capatides, “Catholic Church Spent $10.6 Million to Lobby against Legislation That Would Benefit Victims of Child Sex Abuse,” CBS News, June 6, 2019, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/catholic-church-scandal-spent-10-million-lobbyists-fight-extension-statutes-of-limitations-child-sex-abuse-vicims/.

  • Peter Joseph Fritz

    Reply

    Response to Annie Selak

    I am grateful to Annie Selak for offering an ecclesiological response to Freedom Made Manifest, in which I hoped to make modest ecclesiological contributions. Selak links the book to the ongoing crises in the Catholic Church of sex abuse and systemic racism, and expresses confidence that FMM’s Rahnerian vision of freedom offers fruitful avenues for thinking about and living through these crises. I take this as a high compliment. Her essay urges specifically theological reflection on the sex abuse and racism crises. She has set forth such reflection in her brilliant doctoral dissertation, “Toward an Ecclesial Vision in the Shadow of Wounds” (2020).1 Such work places her with Massimo Faggioli, whose relatively recent article, “The Catholic Sexual Abuse Crisis as a Theological Crisis: Emerging Issues,” lays down a similar gauntlet.2 Our theological work has only begun in responding to this long crisis. The same could be said for the crisis of racism in the Catholic Church, which Tia Noelle Pratt helps us understand is not distant or dissimilar from the sexual abuse crisis.3 Specifically theological, ecclesiological reflection on the church’s individual and structural failings must be done.

    Selak proposes that our vision of the church must change as a result of these crises. She suggests two routes inspired by FMM: rethinking church as traumagenic and reconceiving loyalty to the church in light of its traumagenic possibilities and actualities. To put it in Pratt’s terms, how can we see the church as “the one who betrayed me [who] is also the one in whom I have tremendous faith”?4

    We must look back at chapter 4 of FMM, which takes many cues from Jennifer Beste’s landmark book on Rahner, freedom, and trauma theory.5 Selak’s review helped me to recognize that the ecclesiological dimension of FMM is muted at a crucial point: the reconsideration of Rahner’s Ignatian theology of freedom under the lens of trauma. Although chapter 3 exposits the Ignatian idea of loyalty to the church (154–66), this thread is not picked back up in an apposite section of chapter 4. It could have been a final section. I focused on exposure and individuation, the traumatizability of the free subject (FMM 183, 199), instead.

    Were I to write this phantom section, I would take Selak’s advice, consider the church as traumagenic, and reconceive loyalty to the church accordingly. Rahnerian resources could be marshaled. I could link loyalty to the church in FMM chapter 3 to the sinfulness of the church in chapter 2. This would involve closely examining the power conferred by Christ on the apostles to bind and loose sins (see Matt 16:19; 18:18; John 20:23). With only slight modification to Rahner’s account of this power, one could say that the church has and uses the power to bind and loose only inasmuch as the church is holy (FMM 93), when the church is properly discharging its duty to make the Holy Spirit’s freedom manifest, especially by offering peace (pax cum ecclesia, FMM 108). But what happens when the church falls short of its given holiness? What happens when the church confers not peace, but wounds?

    The history of penance reviewed in FMM chapter 2 establishes that penitential theology has long held that the church can be wounded by the sins of its members. This is the point of the doctrine of penance as reconciliation with the church, the patristic notion that Rahner retrieves for a renewed ecclesiologically-placed theology of penance (FMM 104–13). But it seems odd and, with the sex abuse and racism crises in view, even dangerous that this would not be seen as a two-way street. Rahner often and rightly criticized the tendency in ecclesiology to perceive the church as the “flawless bride” (see FMM 156), a multiply problematic term and framework, however rooted in scripture its apologists presume it to be. Were we to talk about woundedness being a two-way street, we should take care to think about how the whole community is wounded by sin and how the whole community can wound. But, then again, so often it is in fact the “official church” that wantonly wounds. The McCarrick report (released November 10, 2020) is the latest potent proof of this.6 Furthermore, though one would hope that the church could live out its mission as a communion of shared burdens (see Gal 6:2), a church accustomed to defending the hierarchy above all seems in many cases to have transmogrified this mission into sophisticated tactics of deflection, pathological shared sacrifice (because of the sins of church officials, the faithful have to endure austerity, including parish and school closures), and victim-blaming. Episcopal seminars and required trainings for adults, while well-intentioned and often-beneficial can also be seen as analogous to victim-blaming personal-finance seminars in the wake of the life-destroying financial crash of 2007–2008. A church with a history of traumagenesis needs to examine and repent from, in the words of my colleague Karen Guth, its “tainted legacy.”7

    But if we understand “the church” properly, namely as the whole people of God, the power of the teaching of penance as reconciliation with the church, which Rahner so valued, comes to clearer light. The official church (and laypeople who defend the church based on a “flawless bride” ecclesiology) needs to seek reconciliation with the laity, survivors of sexual abuse and racial exclusion especially. Imperative would be widespread enactment of restorative justice, which the official church so often recommends ad extra (e.g., toward criminal justice systems)8 but so seldom applies ad intra. A program of restorative justice would need to be accompanied by, or maybe impelled by, a Copernican turn in ecclesiology, from looking at the church primarily as an expression of God’s power, to primarily as an expression of human weakness.9 The mercilessness of the official church’s tainted legacy could, in this turn, in fits and starts, be supplanted by an ethos of mercy (FMM 113–16); where even church officials would keep constantly before their eyes the insight from 1 Peter that the church is assembled by mercy received and undeserved, rather than by a power to dispense a mercy that it owns (see 1 Pet 2:10).

    How to be loyal to a traumagenic church, a church still marked, as Selak observes, “by white supremacy, that engaged in the extensive and coordinated cover-up of the abuse of minors, that continues to exclude the marginalized, that is quick to align itself with privilege” (Selak review)? To do so, if one faces up to reality (in Ignacio Ellacuría’s words), one would have to place concrete hope in the revelatory power of wounds, about which Selak writes so eloquently in her dissertation.10 She proposes that, in a way befitting its resurrected savior, who appears with his wounds, “the church must accept that there is no returning to a time before wounds,” and one could even add (at variance with Christ) that the church cannot return to a time before being the one who inflicted wounds.11 Here, theological aesthetics briefly enters Selak’s text, and she argues, along with Alejandro García-Rivera, that resurrection wounds and wounded innocence can constitute a sensible, embodied site where full humanity and unified human community can be revealed.12 A church that recognized its potential fullness through wounds, rather than through presumption of flawlessness, entitlement, and hierarchical power, would be a church worthy of loyalty. Loyalty would be a shared project, and a “messy” one, as Selak acknowledges. Such a common project proves as urgent as ever, while we continue (November 2020) to endure a global pandemic.

    Rahner wrote in 1977 that the church (official) should have the courage to attempt structural change of its own volition, before such change was demanded. His warning was not heeded. Now the official church, and the whole church with it, must change; demands have come, and continue to come. May the church, at long last, follow Rahner’s advice, and truly decide for the wounded, risen Jesus Christ.13


    1. Annie Selak, “Toward an Ecclesial Vision in the Shadow of Wounds,” PhD diss., Boston College, 2020. For an abstract, see https://dlib.bc.edu/islandora/object/bc-ir%3A108716. I am grateful to Dr. Selak for sharing a copy of her dissertation with me so I could read and learn from it as I prepared this essay.

    2. Massimo Faggioli, “Catholic Sexual Abuse Crisis as a Theological Crisis: Emerging Issues,” Theological Studies 80.3 (2019) 572–89.

    3. Tia Noelle Pratt, “There Is Time for the Church to Support Black Catholics—If It Has the Will to Do So,” America, September 18, 2019, https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2019/09/18/there-time-church-support-black-catholics-if-it-has-will-do-so; Pratt, “Black Catholics, Racism, and the Sex Abuse Crisis: A Personal Reflection,” The Revealer: A Review of Religion and Media, March 2, 2020, https://therevealer.org/black-catholics-racism-and-the-sex-abuse-crisis-a-personal-reflection/.

    4. Pratt, “Black Catholics, Racism, and the Sex Abuse Crisis.”

    5. Jennifer Erin Beste, God and the Victim: Traumatic Intrusions on Grace and Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

    6. Secretariat of State of the Holy See, Report on the Holy See’s Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), November 10, 2020, http://www.vatican.va/resources/resources_rapporto-card-mccarrick_20201110_en.pdf.

    7. See Karen V. Guth, “Moral Injury, Feminist and Womanist Ethics, and Tainted Legacies,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 38.1 (Spring/Summer 2018) 167–86. Also forthcoming is her book The Ethics of Tainted Legacies: Human Flourishing After Traumatic Pasts (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

    8. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, November 15, 2000, https://www.usccb.org/resources/responsibility-rehabilitation-and-restoration-catholic-perspective-crime-and-criminal.

    9. With regard to the “Copernican turn,” I recommend a turn along the lines of the turn Rahner effected in sacramental theology, which shifted the primary optic from the church as dispensary of the sacred (as if from on high) to the church as working within worldly limits to un-limit them. We can refashion this insight in ecclesiology following the lines suggested in Hugo Rahner’s book title, Die Kirche: Gottes Kraft in menschlicher Schwäche (The Church: God’s Power in Human Weakness) (Freiburg: Herder, 1957). See Karl Rahner, “Considerations on the Active Role of the Person in the Sacramental Event,” in Theology, Anthropology, Christology: Theological Investigations 14, trans. David Bourke (New York: Seabury, 1976), 161–84; and Rahner, “The Sinful Church in the Decrees of Vatican II,” in Concerning Vatican Council II: Theological Investigations 6, trans. Karl-H. Kruger and Boniface Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon, 1969), 270–93, with a footnote to Hugo’s book on 279n23.

    10. Selak joins her voice to those of Shelly Rambo, with whose early work, Spirit and Trauma, FMM, chapter 4 dialogues (Selak assimilates ideas from a book that I was unable to read before finishing FMM in November 2017, Rambo’s Resurrecting Wounds, which came out in September 2017), and Erin Kidd, whose terrific article on Rahner, trauma, and the body of Christ was published almost simultaneously with the publication of FMM, so too late for me to incorporate its insights. See Selak, “Toward an Ecclesial Vision,” 262–69; Shelly Rambo, Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017); Erin Kidd, “The Violation of God in the Body of the World: A Rahnerian Response to Trauma,” Modern Theology 35.4 (October 2019) 663–82.

    11. Selak, “Toward an Ecclesial Vision,” 267.

    12. Selak, “Toward an Ecclesial Vision,” 267–68; Alejandro R. García-Rivera, A Wounded Innocence: Sketches for a Theology of Art (Collegeville: Liturgical, 2003).

    13. See Karl Rahner, “Structural Change in the Church of the Future,” Concern for the Church: Theological Investigations 20, trans. Edward Quinn (New York: Seabury, 1981), 115–32.

Response

December 6, 2021, 1:00 am

Response

December 13, 2021, 1:00 am

Shares