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.

Brandon Reed Peterson


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).

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    Peter Joseph Fritz


    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.

Annie Selak


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,

  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,; See also: Elizabeth Mehren, “Boston Archdiocese Sells Off Land,” Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2004,

  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,

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    Peter Joseph Fritz


    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 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,; Pratt, “Black Catholics, Racism, and the Sex Abuse Crisis: A Personal Reflection,” The Revealer: A Review of Religion and Media, March 2, 2020,

    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,

    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,

    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.

Susie Paulik Babka


Freedom and Theological Aesthetics

First, I am honored to have been asked to be a part of the panel considering the substantial and excellent work of Peter Joseph Fritz on Karl Rahner. I am grateful that Peter Fritz is one of the young scholars who keep Rahner’s work alive and fresh in the remarkably different world of today from the post-Vatican II climate of Rahner’s world.

Like Fritz, I have been enamored of Karl Rahner from the beginning of academic study of theology. First introduced to Rahner at the University of Notre Dame, I was never what one might call a “conservative” Catholic, but I was a devoutly Catholic eighteen-year-old, passionately in love with the Catholic Church, save my desire to see women ordained. I had the rather naïve idea that women would be eligible for ordination in the church at some point in my lifetime; now, more than thirty years later, I realize that that is not possible. Any will within the institutional church to wrest itself from the clericalism that is the legacy of imperialism and develop further the trajectory indicated by Vatican II, is simply nonexistent. I grieve the loss of my eighteen-year-old optimism; I grieve that decades of involvement in the pastoral interests of the church, having worked in multiple ministries, result in what for me today is a “wintry season”—to borrow Rahner’s own somewhat bleak phrase—such that at present, my spiritual commitment is no longer to this church.

My idea of Christianity, however, is still profoundly Catholic in the Rahnerian sense: that God occupies the core being of every living thing, the core of the deepest experience of being human, the mediation between our optimism and pessimism, the twin and accompanying experiences of the absence and presence of the divine. The divine mystery in Christianity has been to my mind best articulated by Rahner, even if Rahner himself was too humble to realize this, because his genius was to realize that all human categories and language are infinitely inadequate. Rahner’s articulation of divine mystery has ironically led me to Mahayana Buddhism’s teaching of the interconnectedness of all things, that all things are devoid of substantial being or individualistic identity, and that liberation means non-attachment to ego for the sake of compassion. Mahayana Buddhism allowed me to see the valuable iconoclastic tendencies in the Christian tradition and the possibilities for aesthetics as a matrix for purifying the tradition of rigidity and authoritarianism dominant in the institutional church today.

Rahner was one of the rare Catholic theologians of his generation who actually contradicts the critique Paul Tillich gives of Roman Catholic theology in his Systematic Theology of 1951, that Roman Catholic theology identifies ultimate concern with the activity of the authority of the Catholic Church. I agree with Tillich that a theology that locates the “real source of systematic theology” in the propositions and authority of the Catholic Church cannot be “ultimate,” or creative, or indicative of the incomprehensible God. I think Rahner would have agreed also, but there is not much in his corpus that references Tillich; this may be due to Rahner in the 1950s has bigger fish to fry through active resistance to the neo-scholasticism that had mesmerized the church.1 Rahner’s love of the Catholic Church is indisputable, but this love is neither for the clerical structure nor for the papacy but is located in his identity as a pastor and his love of God’s people. I often wonder what Rahner would think of a church that set backward the vision of Vatican II in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and the explicit support of the Trump administration by Archbishop Dolan of New York et al. “Odious” is too mild a word to describe the American Catholic support of Trump and its continued blindness to systemic racism. Many of my Catholic relatives are one-issue voters, claiming to be “pro-life.” But their definition of “life,” and that of the bishops who support this administration, does not include the thousands of migrant children separated from their families at the Mexican border or the thousands left to die of the Covid-19 pandemic without adequate protection or those condemned to execution on death row. “Pro-life” certainly does not include Black lives when the famously pious Catholic attorney general William Barr claims that the pandemic lockdowns are analogous to slavery as “the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history,” and that the Black Lives Matter movement uses the “less than a dozen a year” victims of police brutality as “props to achieve a much broader political agenda.”2 Roman Catholics in general, and American Catholics in particular, have much for which to atone in their complicity with systemic racism. In an interest to recognize my complicity, I confess that my decades-long exhaustion with the hypocrisy of the institutional church has progressed to a separation, finally even eclipsing my concern to attend Mass. “For the many” of the Eucharistic Prayer was, perhaps, the beginning of this end.

When the Catholic Church adopted this more exclusivist approach in translating liturgical language, it obstructed the access to freedom that Rahner taught is central to the potential for human fulfillment present in all human persons, regardless of religion or belief. This is an aesthetic problem.

Fritz explains that his understanding of “aesthetic” in Freedom Made Manifest is not primarily about art theory or theories of beauty, nor is it about “aesthetic theology” as Hans Urs von Balthasar defines it, in terms of philosophical accounts of taste and the fine arts (15). Rather, Fritz demonstrates that Rahner’s “theological aesthetic” pertains more to “the human apprehension of God’s elevating sublimity” (15). I agree with Fritz here; because Rahner was actively appreciative of the historical and embodied existentials that shape one’s particular existence—à la Heidegger—the way we apprehend divine self-communication is within the housing of these particulars, and so the sensibility of reception. Words—especially the poetic words of sacred speech—are ways we manifest to ourselves the shape of our existence. Fritz writes, “Rahner contends that the word of poetry and the word of scripture mutually enhance the human person’s capacity for receiving them. These two types of words share the chief similarity of bringing the human person radically face to face with who he is, and thus to the brink of eternity—that is, to the point of the fundamental option (73)”3 Fritz’s point is that for Rahner, the criteria of what makes poetry “art,” as in a philosophical aesthetics, is not the issue; rather, Rahner is interested in the sort of transcendental conditioning—shaping conditions of possible experience and the synthetic movement of the intellect—that poetry generates for the receptivity to symbols and to what those symbols express (see 74).

The “symbol” points to the depth of divine mystery that flows through all living things. Our senses exercise the human imagination for the divine, toward the totality of possible reality. “We not only have sense organs, but we are our sensuality,”4 Rahner writes; more than tools of perception, our senses are the means by which we more deeply enter the world and its divine interconnectedness. Fritz recognizes that for Rahner, aesthetics refers to “an account of the manifestation of being. . . . If ontology asks what being is, aesthetics asks how being manifests itself.”5 All being originates in God; all that lives shares in the divine being. Divine being is then the condition by which we can know anything about the world and anything about God.

Salvation—communion with God—the objective and purpose of freedom, is for Rahner ascribed to the meaning of being human, not to the meaning of being Christian. Christianity simply reveals this ascription as a “supernatural existential.” Human fulfillment is a matter of ontological import: “The very acceptance of a divine self-communication through the power and act of freedom is one more moment of the self-communication of God, who gives himself in such a way that his self-donation is accepted in freedom.”6 Divine being is exponential: it grows whenever there is free response. For Rahner, the freedom of God to create that which is other or finite is also the basis for God’s free self-communication. Rahner places in direct proportion the freedom of God to create an other and the decision to communicate God’s very self in love to this other: the more we can understand that grace is God’s communication of God’s own being, articulated in the Grundaxiom, the more we can understand that this is, according to Rahner, “an act of God’s highest personal freedom.”7

The manifestation of divine being can only occur in freedom, because freedom itself grows the existential response. Divine self-communication, or grace, is then not a quantitative reality or an external force, nor is it restricted to efficient causality as in neo-scholasticism, but is originally part of what it means to be a human person, as God’s offer of Godself as the fulfillment of human being.8 God “does not merely indirectly give his creature some share of himself by creating and giving us created and finite realities through his omnipotent efficient causality. In a quasi-formal causality, he really and in the strictest sense bestows himself.”9 Through the supernatural existential, grace is more than merely “given” by God, as though grace is something that happens to the human person at a certain point or because of good works. Grace is rather the abiding presence of God to the human person in virtue of his or her humanity, informing every movement of the human person in knowledge and love. Grace existentially affects the human person’s openness toward the world, which, in a sacramental sense, is also toward the self-communication of God. In other words, grace conditions the human person’s ability to receive and respond to God’s self-communication prior to the person’s historical or religious experience of God. Because the offer of the self-communication of God is an existential condition of the human person, grace, while transcendent, necessarily occurs within the arena of history, and conforms itself to the particularities of a historical person in a particular time. The self-communication of God is always mediated through the existentials of human personhood.

I would like to return, however, to what I had indicated is an intrusion of clerical authority on the translation of the words said during the consecration of the Eucharist. From the pews, the first time I heard “for the many” or “for many” as translation of pro multis instead of “for all” in the consecration of the wine was very difficult for me. In a reverential moment, I heard the difference between the “blood poured out for you and for all” and “blood poured out for you and for the many” as a profound disruption and nearly cried. Technically, there had been a debate over the Latin translation for several years prior, of which I was unaware. But my sensitivity to the words, and the way I felt the liturgical rug being pulled from under me, revealed that the clerical authority which set to standardize a translation with an exclusivist intention could intrude upon the sacred and inclusive language of the Eucharist. Pope Benedict XVI stressed the importance of the “literal translation” of pro multis in a letter to the president of the Episcopal Conference of Germany in 2012. He carefully details the biblical origins of the phrase, but packs the theological wallop when he writes, “‘All’ concerns the ontological plane—the life and ministry of Jesus embraces the whole of humanity: past, present and future. But specifically, historically, in the concrete community of those who celebrate the Eucharist, he comes only to ‘many.’”10Only to many.” The “ontological plane,” mediated in history, received through the senses, an aesthetic experience of divine self-communication, now represented in language that is technical, rational, literal, exclusive. And this is only a relatively small issue in the grand stew of what I consider acute problems with liturgical language during Benedict XVI’s tenure.

Recalling this reminds me of an argument I had in a graduate seminar with a colleague student who could not appreciate why the filioque (“and the Son”) is a theological problem, why “filioque” cripples the Holy Spirit from sharing in the originating power of divine being. Tiny words, aesthetic placement, theological implications, theological obfuscations. The dictum that only Catholics are welcomed to the Eucharistic table during Mass is another aesthetic problem, a corporeal performance of exclusivism that had always troubled me. Perhaps I became more vexed to hear the words of exclusivism; such demonstrates the aesthetic power of words as symbolic. As Fritz cites the work of Stephen M. Fields, for Rahner, “language is always embodied thought.”11 Perhaps the words made more concrete my problem with what was a gesture, of those having to remain behind while those Catholics in sacramental good standing were able to participate in the Eucharist.

Fritz argues that language and symbol in general are ontological matters, because they point to the condition of divine being in which our freedom meets divine freedom and so is freedom made manifest.12 The “embodied thought” of the liturgical language in this case, as I sat blindsided in the pew, showed me something not only of clericalism’s true colors, but of how far is the contemporary church from manifesting the Reign of God. I believe that the years of participation in the Eucharist has shaped conditions for receiving divine self-communication, even when I wasn’t paying attention; though unknown directly to consciousness (nich ge-wusst), these conditions are present in every conscious human act (be-wusst). Perhaps the Eucharistic prayer declaring that the blood of Jesus is “poured out for all” shaped the very condition by which I reacted with aversion when the translation was changed to “for the many.”

Fritz points out Rahner’s notion that sin interrupts symbolic activity, concealing the freedom in which our being originates.13 The lacuna between the possibility of holiness as manifestation of divine being and the reality that the church is pilgrim and we are a pilgrim people reminds us all of our finitude, of the asymptote that is human freedom grounded in divine freedom. Our existential condition as human beings is symbolized in words that express the inclusion in the divine being, such that there is no “inside” and “outside” this ontological framework. What we are, our fulfillment and our expression of that fulfillment, is an embodied response to divine fulfillment expressed and communicated to incarnate divine fulfillment. The dynamic of this interplay between being and expression to make being manifest or incarnate holds not only for persons but for communities as well. The sin of the sort of clericalism that protects pedophile priests and denies access to ordination for women and married persons is systemic sin that distorts the symbolic power of the church as Reign of God, that distorts recognition of the freedom aesthetically mediated and so obfuscates the manifestation of divine being, the very manifestation that Fritz argues is “the central paradox of Christianity—that 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, which as aesthetic is a theology of freedom attuned to freedom’s exposure.”14

  1. Characteristics of neo-scholasticism include: a syllogistic method of argumentation in which doctrines are treated propositionally; the classification of dogma into those necessary for salvation and those that are not; a method of scriptural interpretation which tended toward “proof-texting,” taking passages out of context to support doctrinal positions; an exclusive adherence to the terminology and ontology of Aristotelian metaphysics; and the belief that doctrines manifest objective, immutable truths. “Neo-Scholasticism held itself apart not only from subjectivity and process but from a truth independent of church authority and from the history of theology and salvation history as sources of Christian faith. Thus political and ecclesial ideologies tended to replace the intrinsic criteria of truth prized by the great medieval thinkers with extrinsic arguments like the authority of the church, logical proofs, and the isolation of certain principles” (Thomas F. O’Meara, Church and Culture: German Catholic Theology 1860–1914 [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991], 33–34).

  2. “AG Barr Compares Pandemic Lockdown to Slavery during Hillsdale College Speech,” MLive, September 17, 2020, There is no reporting system in place for data on victims of police brutality, the result of lobbying for years by police unions. Vox reports that between 2013 and 2019, 1,944 police killings of Black people resulted in charges against the police officers in only 3 percent of cases, with less than 1 percent of police actually convicted. See

  3. Fritz, citing Rahner, “Poetry and the Christian,” in Theological Investigations 4 (Baltimore: Helicon, 1966), 363.

  4. Karl Rahner, The Mystical Way in Everyday Life, trans. and ed. Annemarie S. Kidder (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2010), 161.

  5. Peter Joseph Fritz, Karl Rahner’s Theological Aesthetics (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press of America, 2014), 11.

  6. Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. Joseph Donceel (New York: Crossroad, 1997), 92.

  7. Rahner, Foundations, 123.

  8. In “The Hiddenness of God,” Rahner writes, “Perfect beatitude granted to man by God consists in immediate access to God, i.e., God is himself the fulfillment of man. All communication in the created order, in so far as this can be conceived or is to be found in traditional theology (lumen gloriae), must be understood in relation to the direct access to God as communication with his immediate presence” (Theological Investigations XVI, trans. David Morland [New York: Seabury, 1979], 235).

  9. Rahner, The Trinity, 36, his emphasis.

  10. Pope Benedict XVI, Pro Multis, 14 April 2012,

  11. Fritz, Freedom Made Manifest, 34, citing Stephen M. Fields, “Rahner and the Symbolism of Language,” Philosophy and Theology 15.2 (2003) 171.

  12. Fritz, Freedom Made Manifest, 35 and 62.

  13. See Fritz, Freedom Made Manifest, 126, citing Karl Rahner, “The Church of Sinners,” in Theological Investigations VI, trans. Karl H. Kruger and Boniface Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon, 1969), 263.

  14. Fritz, Freedom Made Manifest, 235.

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    Peter Joseph Fritz


    Response to Susie Paulik Babka

    Many thanks to Susie Paulik Babka for her rich, varied, impassioned, and personal engagement with the specifically aesthetic dimension of Freedom Made Manifest. I expected no less, since I know her (but for brief acquaintance on a panel at CTSA many years ago) as the author of a haunting, arresting book on aesthetics, vulnerability, and the void.1 I first encountered Through the Dark Field when I was in the late stages of writing FMM. Babka’s brief, appreciative, and critical mention of my first book, Karl Rahner’s Theological Aesthetics, was one of many spurs I received late in the writing of FMM to make sure that I clarified my definition of aesthetic, that I highlighted the relation between theological aesthetic theory and art, and that I pointed forward to future work where art would play a greater role in my theological aesthetics (after all, I come at this area of study first as a visual artist, then as a scholar of theology). I am grateful to Babka for helping me in this way during my final revisions.

    It is singularly interesting to me that, though Babka was invited to participate in this symposium before the Covid-19 pandemic struck the USA, her intervention into theological aesthetics in Through the Dark Field suits theological thinking during a time of plague. Her book theologizes in part in response to the 2014–2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and luminously so. Theologians and others should read and learn from it given the current plague and the aftermath that we will, God willing, soon face.

    Babka’s powerful essay points to an aesthetic problem, or set of aesthetic problems, in today’s Catholic Church, particularly the US Catholic Church. We seem to share the sense that numerous US Catholics, in what may flow from genuine reverence, hew to a pathological aesthetic of authority—of power. One would be hard-pressed to construct a comprehensive account of Catholic support for the forty-fifth President of the United States, since Catholics’ reasons may be legion, but if we are honest with reality, we must acknowledge that for many this particular president seems to promise an America in which the Church can wield considerable power. A preference for him is a matter of aesthetics, of sense, of visceral commitment, more than rational deliberation. The promised power, many presume, would be a power for good, to protect the unborn, to defend religious liberty, to safeguard the Catholic faith against further erosion by liberalism, secularism, and a bevy of other to-be-feared “isms.” But, more accurately and honestly, the draw seems to be power itself. And power is, so often, power to exclude—thus the racism and xenophobia of the administration is not regarded as completely disgusting, but rather a by-product of an otherwise attractive conjugation of political freedom, where power is assumed by a sub-set of the population to be its due, its just deserts, and its private property. Babka raises the essential question of how a pathological aesthetic can drive even faithful people away from the church. FMM does not address this question, but for certain the book has it in mind. This is a chief reason why I’m venturing to compose the Rahner’s theological aesthetics trilogy in the first place.

    Rather than making an inadequate stab at this larger problematic, I would like to address just one aspect of it in response to Babka’s probing questions regarding the Eucharistic prayer—I do think that this matter relates. I shall do so by applying some aesthetic perspective from FMM to a new work by the contemporary artist Janine Antoni. (Though theological aesthetics is not art theory, it is not far from it!). I first learned about Antoni in Eleanor Heartney’s now classic book on contemporary art and the Catholic imagination, Postmodern Heretics (2004), portions of which I have taught in courses on theology and art.2 Heartney treats a broad swathe of (mostly US American) contemporary artists who grew up Catholic and retained a distinctively Catholic imagination even as their individual relationships to the official church attenuated. In their work, though, they demonstrate vibrant ways of being religious that transcend the impasses presented by the equally questionable machinations of the US Religious Right and secular liberals of various stripes alike. These artists all put forward, in their own distinctive ways, expressions of “Incarnational consciousness,” in Antoni’s case, a “knowing through the body.”3 This dimension of Antoni’s aesthetic is important to keep in mind as I reflect on a work of hers whose artifact is a framed photograph, but which was created to be accompanied by a performance (with this piece, by artists Anna Scola and Juliana Fodera) in the exhibition, I Am Fertile Ground (2020) at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.4 The earthy location and embodied performance sustain this piece; in a manner of speaking, they ground its existence.

    The piece is called I Open the Gates (2019). It presents a photograph of a white woman’s (the artist’s) bare torso, from just above the navel to just below the breasts, with the woman’s own hands on each side grasping the rib cage. The photograph is framed with gilded molds of bones, with vertebrae concealing the photograph’s middle. In her artist statement, Antoni declares, “Called by the image of the sacred heart, the artist attempts to expose the organ we identify with the emotional center. She tucks her fingers under her ribs in an effort to spread her chest apart. To counter this exposure, Antoni casts a spinal column to protect this vulnerable gesture. To encase the image, she drags two vertebrae to accentuate the gestures and shapes made by the body. At the end of this circuitous gilded path, two vertebrae remain.”5 Here we have it, a contemporary interpretation of the Sacred Heart, the symbol that FMM argues is so crucial to a Rahnerian theological aesthetic.

    Exposure is I Open the Gates’s key theme. Perhaps even more interesting, though, is the effort at “counter-exposure.” Antoni makes an artistic effort to protect the vulnerable chest, though with the fragile instrument of an uncovered backbone. This interplay of exposure and the impulse to protect the vulnerable should be taken as instructive. I tried to make the case in FMM, and Matthew Eggemeier and I made a similar case in a very different book, Send Lazarus, for the belonging-together of devotion to Jesus’ Sacred Heart and merciful action aimed at protecting the vulnerable, not primarily through acts of power (which must be the last, not first, resort), but through fragile gestures of reconciliation, restoration, and personal offering. Antoni encapsulates this case in one image.

    What often happens in the church (here I have in mind the official church in its magisterial and liturgical functions) both reflects and contravenes the exposure-protection dynamic. The lesson is taken for true that exposure should impel protection. But what sort of exposure, and who or what must be protected? And how? In the Eucharist, it seems as if Christ’s exposure to the world in the Eucharistic elements is often believed to require protection from the world. This may explain the preference for “for many” rather than “for all” in the Eucharistic prayer among some church officials, including Pope Benedict XVI. To offer Christ “for all” would put Christ in peril. Or would it? Jesus Christ, who is pictured in representations of the Sacred Heart offering his heart, openly, without the intervention of a backbone-frame or anything else—does he demand our protection? Is not the divine freedom of Christ operative here, founding in this extremity of his humanity’s exposure hope for those extremely exposed, that one day they may share in his abundant life without fear or need for protection? Does not Christ’s divine-human self-exposure provide strength to those who would mercifully address the needs of the extremely exposed? I’m certainly not advocating sacrilege or casual comportment toward the Eucharist. But I am recommending that, at the very least in prayers surrounding the Eucharist, we take seriously the open offer of Christ’s real, loving presence, rather than concealing it through circumlocutions driven by an overheated desire to “defend” the sacred. We should not second-guess God’s generosity in the gift of Christ’s body. Such an aesthetic gesture fuels our parsimony.

    So much of what I’ve written here echoes what I wrote in response to Annie Selak regarding the need for a Copernican turn in ecclesiology, which would be part and parcel of Rahner’s Copernican turn in sacramental theology. Babka herself notes that a clericalist church, the kind that would opt for an exclusive translation of pro multis, is far “from manifesting the Reign of God” (Babka review). A church that conceals the Reign of God, that hides its lamp under a bushel basket (Matt 5:14–15; Mark 4:21–25; Luke 8:16–18), is a sinful church. A church that feels the need to protect God Incarnate is a prideful church, a church convinced of its own worthiness that does not even listen to its own prayer, the Centurion’s prayer, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” (cf. Matt 8:8; Luke 7:7). The Copernican turn in this case would be a conversion, a turn from self-worthiness toward God’s generosity. The Copernican turn in this case would be a reversal of the tendency in the clericalist Eucharist to give thanks to the church, rather than thanks to God. The Copernican turn in this case would be an inversion of the Satanic habit to think not as God does but as humans do, to fall in line behind Jesus, who willingly suffered, rather than saying to him, “No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matt 16: 21–23; Mark 8:31–33).

    As an artist, I find the image of the Divine Mercy, a close relative of the Sacred Heart, kitschy and even, in my weaker moments, repellent.6 But its message is so important, so resonant with the best Rahner’s theology of the Sacred Heart has to offer: Jesus, I trust in you. We do not trust in ourselves. We are not the gilded vertebrae protecting the fleshly heart of the Second Person of the Trinity. He needs nothing of the sort. Jesus, I trust in you. Only human reasoning, not Christic imagination, would set limits on this trust.

    Babka ended her review with an extended quote from FMM. I would like to return the favor, by giving her the last word here:

    If we are truly to enter the space of the impossible and unexpected, to glimpse the trace of the divine in all that breathes and lives, human capability should be mocked in its silly, paltry timidity. To love even our vulnerability such that the very vulnerability of the Other which disturbs my complacency becomes the locus, the space of God: only the imagination can overcome the limitations reason erects.7

    1. Susie Paulik Babka, Through the Dark Field: The Incarnation through an Aesthetics of Vulnerability (Collegeville: Liturgical, 2017).

    2. The book was republished relatively recently in a new edition: Eleanor Heartney, Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art, 2nd ed. (New York: Silver Hollow, 2018), pages on Antoni are 157–63.

    3. Heartney, Postmodern Heretics, 163.

    4. For more information, see This exhibition of Janine Antoni’s work, with collaboration from several performance artists, was curated by Harry Weil.

    5. For further information and images, see

    6. For Rahner’s brief remarks on religious kitsch, see Karl Rahner, “Art Against the Horizon of Theology and Piety,” in Final Writings: Theological Investigations 23, trans. Hugh M. Riley and Joseph Donceel (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 167; this later text can be related to much earlier reflections on representations of the sacred heart in Rahner, “‘Behold This Heart!’: Preliminaries to a Theology of Devotion to the Sacred Heart,” in The Theology of the Spiritual Life: Theological Investigations 3, Karl-H. Kruger and Boniface Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon, 1967), 328.

    7. Babka, Through the Dark Field, 127.

Ryan Duns, SJ



Between Aesthetics and Poetics

There is a great deal of the poetic in Peter Fritz’s Freedom Made Manifest. By “poetic” I should not be taken to mean that the book is beautifully written or that it has a lyrical quality to it. I certainly think both are true, but neither adequately captures my meaning. By “poetic” I mean that Fritz’s book enacts a poiesis or “making” that can lead one to a deeper understanding of Karl Rahner’s theological project. There is a fitting symmetry in the way the book begins and ends with the same question: “How does the seemingly insignificant announce the eternal” (1 and 236)? For, on Fritz’s telling, the drama of human freedom unfolds as a response to God’s gracious self-communication manifested through the world. Divine disclosure occurs in the warp and woof of daily life, in the muck and mire of history, and is addressed to humans in all their fragility and vulnerability. As Fritz explicates Rahner’s admittedly “unconventional” (11) theological aesthetic, he does so in a way that remains attuned to the poetic “making” or “happening” that accompanies every human response to God’s self-offer. The human “yes” or “no” to God’s grace is an existential decision that forever shapes how one lives. Thus, far from an abstract project unmoored from space and time, Freedom Made Manifest confronts readers with a Rahner who takes seriously the human subject’s concrete situation.

Fritz’s poetic sensitivities endow the text with a performative character. Echoing the intention of Rahner’s Spirit in the World, Fritz invites readers to “relive” this theological itinerary as it unfolds.1 Unfold it does, often in interesting and exciting ways. Fritz is to be thanked for his fresh retrieval of Rahner’s thought and for “carving an apologetic path through Rahner’s works” (167).

My response raises one point and poses one question. The point intends to show how the intertwining of the aesthetic and the poetic are central to Fritz’s understanding of Rahner’s theological aesthetic. The question is not a challenge but an invitation to Fritz to respond to some concerns one might have about Rahner’s theology. I ask this question to provide Fritz an opportunity, should he like it, to deepen aspects of Rahner’s theology or Fritz’s overall argument that might be missed. There are many turns and bends along Fritz’s “apologetic path,” and it is almost certain that one might have missed a key insight along the way.

Let me start by setting the stage. In his first chapter, “Rahner on Transcendental Freedom,” Fritz executes four maneuvers. First, he offers a case for reading Rahner against the horizon of Friedrich Schelling’s philosophy, a thinker Rahner studied in a seminar taken with Martin Heidegger in 1936 (35). Second, he identifies “Schellingian resonances” (30) within Hearer of the Word2 and suggests how Schelling might have influenced Rahner’s understanding of freedom. Third, Fritz establishes a direct connection between Rahner’s concern for freedom found in his early philosophy of religion (Hearer) and his later theology as reflected in 1959’s “The Theology of the Symbol.”3 Fourth, he concludes the chapter by revisiting Rahner’s notion of concupiscence. Responding to Dennis Jowers’ critique,4 Fritz demonstrates how Rahner envisions human “transcendental freedom” as having to “contend with the ‘friction’ of historical reality” (31). Despite appearances, Fritz contends, Rahner did not think that human freedom unfolded in an easy and untroubled manner. On the contrary, freedom must always contend with the “historical friction” of concupiscence that makes the full expression of human freedom so difficult. Human freedom finds its expression not in one-off heroic acts but, rather, in the day-to-day choices one makes and lives out. Human freedom is expressed not in what one does on this or that occasion but is, instead, embodied and manifested through who one has become over a lifetime of discernment. Fritz’s retrieval of concupiscence portrays human freedom as bound to one’s historical situatedness and constrained by one’s inescapable aesthetic misapprehensions of the world. Due to concupiscence, we now “see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor 13:12) and fail to recognize the ways God is disclosed to us. Our senses, you might say, have been dulled by concupiscence’s cataracts whose film impedes our ability to perceive the God’s self-manifestations. Gerard Manley Hopkins, in “Hurrahing in Harvest,” expresses well this insight: “These things, these things were here and but the beholder wanting.”5

As he draws the chapter to a close, Fritz offers a summary that braids the aesthetic and poetic dimensions of his argument. “A theological aesthetic of freedom,” he writes,

Gives an account of at least two things. (1) The silent ground (God) who freely decides to speak, and in this decision, exists as the freedom of appearances (words are a mode of appearance), and (2) the human person, who through words (especially powerful ones like poetic words) comes to recognize the groundedness of appearances in an incomprehensible, unnamable, inaudible, invisible freedom, and on the basis of this recognition to decide whether to be gripped by this mysterious freedom or to deny it and to grasp onto (and be enslaved by) the “individual things one hears.” (74)6

Fritz appreciates how concupiscence occludes one’s apprehensions of these divine disclosures. Our senses cannot often or easily glimpse the presence of the transcendent abiding within and manifested through the immanent order. Thus it requires the graced poetics of Christian life—a life of ongoing conversion, penance, and liturgical participation—for one to apprehend, or, better, be apprehended by, God’s address. The graced poetics of discipleship do not demand that one copy Jesus Christ’s life “for the nth time” (141) but, instead, call one to one prolong the Incarnation in and through one’s life. Through the work of the Spirit, our lives become ever more Christoform. Christ, the word made flesh, aesthetically and concretely manifests in human history the shape of authentic human freedom. For both Rahner and Fritz, human freedom cannot be understood apart from the grittiness and messiness of human history but only as a part of it.

The point I want to make is that Fritz grasps how, for Rahner, the life of Christian discipleship is a progressive, and, by God’s grace, a perfective process. Fritz puts his finger on the dialectical heartbeat of Christian life, a Spirit-guided poiesis whereby one comes to recognize and commit oneself in freedom—the fundamental option—to God’s address. More the Spirit’s poiesis attunes one to God’s disclosures, the more attuned one grows to the sheer gratuity of this gift that is offered. Nevertheless, Fritz has no illusion about how fraught and fragile our “exposed” freedom is (180–235). For the aesthetic exemplar of Christian fulfillment, the one who makes “luminously manifest” (235) the form freedom takes in a world riven by sin, is the Crucified Christ. The scandalous message of the cross, “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18), can be assented to only through the work of the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit’s poiesis, we are converted from gawkers at a horrifying spectacle to beholders who discern in the broken body of the crucified “Rahner’s model for human decision, even for the fundamental option—an existence grounded in a pierced heart, overwhelmed by a concupiscent remainder, suffering unto God, uttering a silent cry” (233). The cross, in effect, is the fundamental option made concrete because it is the consequence of embodying authentic freedom in a broken world.

As a Jesuit and a theologian who is sympathetic to Rahner, I thank Peter Fritz for writing a book that is informative and transformative. The interplay of the poetic and the aesthetic enkindles a desire to take up and read Rahner with renewed gusto. Rahner’s theological aesthetics, on Fritz’s account, would appear eminently capable of making a theological “way of life” possible. Such a way of life would reflect the ways the human heart can be touched by the Holy One and drawn deeper into relationship. Human freedom is not a theory but a practice, one informed and formed by the daily routine of Christian life. Read at the right angle, what Fritz describes as an “apologetic path” transmutes into a mystagogical passage that, although opened by Rahner, has been illuminated by Fritz.

Now, before I commend myself anew to the infinite depths of divine Mystery, I want to raise a question. As mentioned above, I do so to give Fritz an opportunity to speak to lingering concerns and criticisms about Rahner’s project in general or, perhaps, his own theological project. My question is not particularly novel, but it is a query that recurs often among Rahner’s critics, so my posing it here might allow for a new approach to answering it.

As I read the chapter entitled “Rahner on Ignatian Freedom,” my Charles Taylor-sense tingled: “Individual decision happens in a matrix given prior to explicit reflection, prior to thought, prior to system” (154). To my ears, this echoes Taylor’s “social imaginary,” the unthematic yet operative background assumptions, practices, mores, and customs that allow us to go about our daily lives. We live out our lives against a historically conditioned and existentially conditioning backdrop. We are, as Rahner knew well, spirits in the world, and our mode of life cannot but reflect the historical milieu in which one lives. I agree, then, with Fritz when he claims that the “fundamental option (as a holistic manifestation or concealing of divine freedom through human freedom) must be understood within its hamartiological and ecclesiological matrix” (241). How we enact and give flesh to our “yes” or “no” to God’s offer of grace will take place within and be contoured by these matrices. Every “yes” or “no” to grace will be informed, or, tragically, deformed, by one’s ethos. In other words, the way one responds to God’s transcendentally offered grace cannot but be mediated through and conditioned by one’s categorical situation.

My question, as one might expect, concerns the relationship between grace and nature in Rahner’s theology. Some might wonder if he makes grace, and the freedom it engenders, too easy? How, for Rahner, does transcendentally offered grace enter and transform history? Rahner’s theological aesthetics may be attuned to the ways that the eternal may “announce itself in the seemingly insignificant” (237), but what is the difference between the God disclosed in a pizza on Friday night and the consecrated bread of the Eucharist? Does the aesthetic matter matter on Rahner’s account, or is grace simply grace no matter where or how it is mediated? Is the Spirit’s poesis delimited to the transcendental realm or does Rahner allow for this poesis to attune those who undergo it to see the form of the Crucified Christ as the primary analogate for the fundamental option? But to see this form, doesn’t Rahner have to account better for the concrete mode of life that makes this beholding possible?

I apologize: I wanted to offer one question and I’ve posed several. Maybe I could get at the core of my query this way: Does Rahner’s theological aesthetic have the resources to animate a radically Christian mode of life, a life that prolongs the incarnation and recognizes itself as authentically expressed in the figure of Christ? Or in universalizing grace has Rahner managed only to offer a transcendental anesthetic that dulls the world to the gospel’s call to follow Christ, an invitation that is nice in theory but has no real way of manifesting itself in praxis? Does Rahner’s grace force us to confront the darkness of history or does it cocoon us from having to enter history’s scrum?

Fritz cannot be expected to answer for Rahner, of course, but it would be helpful to hear why he thinks the Rahnerian path still deserves to be followed. Is there room in Rahner’s account for the Spirit’s poiesis to renew those called by grace not simply to see the form of Christ but, by implicating them in the drama of salvation, to allow themselves to be graciously conformed into the body of Christ?

  1. Karl Rahner, Spirit in the World, trans. William Dych (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968), li.

  2. Karl Rahner, Hearer of the Word, trans. Joseph Donceel (New York: Continuum, 1994).

  3. Karl Rahner, “The Theology of the Symbol,” trans. Kevin Smyth, Theological Investigations, vol. 4, More Recent Writings (Baltimore: Helicon, 1966), 221–52.

  4. Dennis W. Jowers, “The Conflict of Freedom and Concupiscence: A Difficulty for Karl Rahner’s Anthropology,” Heythrop Journal 53.4 (2012) 624–36.

  5. Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Major Works, ed. Catherin Phillips (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 134.

  6. Quote from Karl Rahner, “Poetry and the Christian,” Theological Investigations, 4:357–67, at 359.

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    Peter Joseph Fritz


    Response to Ryan Duns, SJ

    Recently I reviewed a book by Daniela Vallega-Neu titled Heidegger’s Poietic Writings, referring to the experimental texts (Beiträge zur Philosophie: Vom Ereignis; Besinnung; Die Geschichte des Seyns; Über den Anfang; and Das Ereignis) that Heidegger composed in the late 1930s in an attempt to refine his thinking of the history of being.1 Heidegger’s problems during this era and the years just before were, as is well known, serious; his creativity, though, even if in a direction I would never follow, was admirable. And Vallega-Neu’s stunning, probing interpretation of the poietic writings amplifies their impact. Currently, I am reading Art and Faith: A Theology of Making, by painter Makoto Fujimura, who reflects brilliantly on how the artist’s making reflects divine poiesis.2 Fujimura has taught me much, but a particular insight struck me just right: he recalls that James 1:22, conventionally translated as “Be doers of the word,” reads in the Greek, “Be, however, poets of the word (Γίνεσθε δὲ ποιηταὶ λόγου),” makers of the word, even. To hear Ryan Duns describe my work as “poetic” or “poietic,” given these conversation partners, places me in an interesting frame of mind. It is one of gratitude, for sure, to Duns; I am thankful that a scholar of such erudition and rapidly rising stature finds Freedom Made Manifest so generative as to pay this complement. But I also feel exposed in my ambition to read Rahner in an originary way (however much Heidegger unsettles me, he haunts me), precisely as a theologian of making, of freedom as, originarily, making—and this making is part and parcel of being made.

    Given this last phrase, it fits that Duns would focus increasingly in his review on the Holy Spirit’s poiesis, as grace, of the human person. Or we could say, in keeping with another perceptive focus of Duns’s review, the Holy Spirit’s remaking, metapoiesis, of the human person, the concupiscent creature, the “beholder wanting” of Hopkins’s poem “Hurrahing in Harvest”—each one of us, and I foremost (cf. Paul in 1 Tim 1:15). Duns’s review does not center overtly on Freedom Made Manifest, chapter 2, the chapter on “Penitential Freedom,” but so much of what he says draws attention to it. Another published review of Freedom Made Manifest criticizes my decision to include so much reflection on Rahner’s penance studies, since to do so, according to that author, represents a deep and unnecessary probe into Rahner’s catalog, whereas, it seems, a look at the more well-trod chapters of Foundations of Christian Faith (not, notably, the chapter on the human person radically threatened by guilt) would provide a more faithful picture of Rahner’s true project.3 Prior inattentiveness to the actual dimensions of Rahner’s writings (e.g., how frequently penance shows up as a concern in his postconciliar writings) should not be mistaken for fidelity. Rahner’s theology is, through and through, a theology of turning, of conversion, of reversal, of making (poiesis) and remaking (metapoiesis) of human persons by the Trinitarian God who is their origin and goal. Duns perceives this; his review records the insight.

    In conjunction with this, Duns also calls attention to the “apologetic path” that I trace through Rahner’s works on freedom (FMM 167n141)—he, in contrast to some others, approves of such a path. He refers to an extensive footnote in which I address a concern that an anonymous referee raised during the publication process of Freedom Made Manifest, namely that I treat a constructive interpretation of Rahner as straight exegesis. That footnote should suffice as proof that I admit to constructive aims and procedures; indeed, I have ever since I included the word “construction” in the title of my doctoral dissertation on Rahner (“Sublime Apprehension: A Catholic, Rahnerian Construction”), which was a predecessor to my first book on Rahner, in turn a predecessor to FMM.4 I also am hardly the first to have claimed that Rahner needed a corrective while also demanding sustained and detailed attention: Johann Baptist Metz, and not only he, guides me in this respect.5 Metz’s lovely meditation, “Do We Miss Karl Rahner?,” gives me a phrase that, at some risk, I wish to use to describe my position with regard to Rahner: “aggressive fidelity.”6 Metz employs this phrase to name the approach to implementing Vatican II that Rahner espoused: an active and courageous living-out of the council rather than the type of defensive rigorism that would strive to “get the texts right” but would squeeze the life out of them in the process. By no means do I freewheel it with Rahner, hence my almost obsessive quotations and cross-references from the Sämtliche Werke. But my question is always, “What can be done (gemacht) with Karl Rahner?” lest some elements in the church (including some theologians; present company excepted, of course) get their wish, and we be done (fertig) with Karl Rahner. I imitate Rahner’s aggressive fidelity to Vatican II and the long and living tradition from whose roots it sprang, in whose vine it abides (cf. John 15:5), and whose fruit it bears (even with its imperfections). I imitate him because I find him so rooted, abiding, and fructifying—precisely because he ranges so widely yet concretely, so poietically, from transcendental to penitential to Ignatian and beyond.

    I have decided, in my Rahnerian construction, which is not the only possible one but, I believe, one that distinctively illuminates Rahner’s work and the living tradition of which it is part, to offer a three-volume examination of theological aesthetics (I can now say that there will also be a fourth, companion volume on theology of art). This deserves underscoring because the whole line of questioning with which Duns ends his review is summed up when he asks whether matter—that which we sense, through aesthesis—really matters for Rahner. There is a coordinate question: whether a Rahnerian theological aesthetic can animate a radically Christian mode of life, or whether it “transcendentally anesthetizes” such radicality.

    I will answer this last phrase first. Duns and I disagree on the relative value of Immanuel Kant. I tend to be more positive, so I will say here, briefly, that though I find it an oversimplification (and Duns agrees on this) to call Rahner a “Catholic Kantian,” I will not be defensive about Rahner’s appropriation of Kantian modes of analysis, including his analogue to the transcendental aesthetic. It is worth noting that Kant directs the transcendental aesthetic against thinkers of pure reason who effectively dispose of matter’s proper role in human knowing. His transcendental analysis is not an examination of a “higher realm” of human consciousness, but rather of its distinctive characteristics or qualities (“conditions of possibility” makes people nervous): What makes human knowing human knowing? As it turns out, aesthesis has an awful lot to do with it. The transcendental aesthetic is in no wise anesthetic. Put simply, matter matters—even, yes, for Kant. Similar conditions (!) hold for Rahner.

    Along with his main question regarding whether matter matters for Rahner, Duns asks a corollary question: “What is the difference between the God disclosed in a pizza on Friday night and the consecrated bread of the Eucharist?” (Duns review). The insinuation is—and I know that Duns recognizes this, but wants to make sure that all is clear—that to suggest as I do, following Rahner, that the insignificant can announce the eternal (FMM 1, 237), is tantamount to equating all pizza dinners with Eucharistic sacrifice. Not true. For Rahner, and I agree, the Eucharist is the sacrament of the heart of Jesus, thus uniquely disclosive.7 Rahner is aggressively traditional on this question, insisting that, as a sacrament, the Eucharist both signifies and causes grace (as a way that “God works on us” in a particular, instituted manner).8 And readers of FMM should recall that I discuss at length Rahner’s attempt to retrieve the matter of the sacrament of penance (FMM 117–27), which, notably, he does not equate with long talks with friends on Saturday night.

    The sacraments’ mode of disclosure, their matter, matters. On the first page of FMM, I quote Simone Weil’s profound meditation on the Eucharist, in which she marvels that Catholic Christianity centers on “a little formless matter . . . a little piece of bread.”9 Later in the book I observe, following Aquinas as retrieved by Rahner, that the humble repentance of a sinner, self-preparing to receive God’s forgiveness, comprises the matter of penance, and I express that it is staggering to recognize this fact (FMM 124–27). The matter matters, and the insignificance of the matter matters. It matters that insignificant matter can signify the heart of Jesus Christ, all that he underwent in his suffering, death, and resurrection. It matters that seemingly insignificant gestures of mind and body can invite the forgiveness that only God can provide.

    It seems to me that Rahner’s application of a transcendental method and describing a transcendental quality to experience constitutes an extended meditation on Jesus’ saying, “What father among you would hand his son a snake if he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?” (Luke 11:11; cf. Matt 7:9–10). I know that Duns is not one to fault Rahner on the counts to which I have been responding, but there are some critics of Rahner who hold that unless, for example, the sacraments and everyday experience are wholly distinct, then we will not be able to feel the real shock of revelation, and Christian life will suffer in quality as a consequence. But the “transcendental” in Rahner aims to express that God gives us fish and eggs, meaning that the “matter” of the sacraments, which for certain is privileged in its causative function, is not so foreign to us that it may as well be a snake or a scorpion. It matters that the matter of a Friday night pizza or of a Saturday evening conversation can, by a circuitous path, lead us toward the heart of the crucified and risen One, and to the incomprehensible radiance of God that he abbreviated for our benefit, to appeal to our senses.10

    Rahner’s contribution becomes even more needed today, in the midst of what Pope Francis has famously called our throwaway culture.11 As I see it, the onus is not on theologians to establish that some things (e.g., the sacraments) are really special, but rather that we shouldn’t be throwing everything away, that even the insignificant has the capacity for revealing the eternal, that even the “lowest” dimensions of our materiality and sensation are directed toward the sublime heights of the incomprehensible and infinite God, and that Jesus Christ is the living pledge that this is so. There is nothing anesthetizing about this. In fact, it’s a profoundly aesthetic insight. And there is something radical about working, poetizing against throwaway culture. Still after two millennia we have to reckon with Jesus’ statement that the last shall be first (Matt 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30). We still fear it. Or maybe we fear that Jesus meant it, and that the Spirit animating this saying will remake us, metapoietically.

    Hans Urs von Balthasar’s (in)famous assault on Rahner’s theology in Cordula oder der Ernstfall amounts to an interrogation of the way matter matters in Rahner.12 Balthasar asks, in effect, if the Christian faith holds that a pizza dinner, even the most insignificant and pedestrian one, can signify the eternal, the incomprehensible God, then who would bother to be a poet of the distinctively Christian word? Better, who would die for this word? Fair question. Let me poetize another: who wouldn’t?

    1. Daniela Vallega-Neu, Heidegger’s Poietic Writings: From Contributions to Philosophy to The Event (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018).

    2. Makoto Fujimura, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making, foreword by N. T. Wright (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021).

    3. Henry Shea, review of Freedom Made Manifest: Rahner’s Fundamental Option and Theological Aesthetics, by Peter Joseph Fritz, Reviews in Religion & Theology 27.4 (2020) 523–26.

    4. Karl Rahner’s Theological Aesthetics (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2014).

    5. See Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans. J. Matthew Ashley (New York: Crossroad / Herder & Herder, 2007).

    6. Johann Baptist Metz, “Do We Miss Karl Rahner?,” in A Passion for God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Chrsitianity, trans. J. Matthew Ashley (New York: Paulist, 1998), 92–106, at 93.

    7. Karl Rahner, The Practice of Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality, ed. Karl Lehmann and Albert Raffelt, various translators (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 175.

    8. Rahner agrees with the traditional maxim on the sacraments, “Sacramenta gratiam efficiunt, quatenus eam significant,” in his celebrated “The Theology of the Symbol,” in More Recent Writings: Theological Investigations 4, trans. Kevin Smyth (Baltimore: Helicon, 1966), 241–42.

    9. Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd, introduction by Leslie A. Fiedler (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), 199.

    10. What exactly I have in mind here will be explained at length in the next volume, Love’s Terrible Radiance (LTR). The christological idea of the abbreviated Word, which will be somewhat of a centerpiece in LTR, comes from Karl Rahner, Encounters with Silence, trans. James Demske (Westminster, MD: Newman, 1965), 15–16.

    11. Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 24 May 2015, 20–22,

    12. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Moment of Christian Witness, trans. Richard Beckley (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994)

    • Ryan Duns, SJ

      Ryan Duns, SJ


      Ana-Rahnerian Ressourcement

      I am heartened to read how warmly my review was received by Peter Fritz. To crib from one my teachers and philosophical lodestars, Richard Kearney, Fritz’s project might be described as ana-Rahnerian. Whereas Kearney appends the Greek ana (“again”) to create the neologism anatheism—a “return to God after the death of God”—Fritz can be read as executing a project of return, perhaps a project of ressourcement, that invites readers to return to Rahner with new eyes. I, for one, have benefitted greatly from Fritz’s endeavor.

      I should add, though, that I do not dispute the importance of Kant’s critical philosophy for Rahner’s thought. Like Josef Marechal, Rahner understood well the challenge Kant posed to metaphysics. In a way, Rahner undertook an ana­-metaphysics, a return to metaphysics in the wake of Kant. I do bristle when readers interpret Rahner as little more than Kant touched up with a few drops of chrism. These readings downplay, if they don’t totally ignore, the depths of Rahner’s metaphysical commitments and his intuitive understanding of the dynamism of being.

      Thus, I affirm wholly the aesthetic in Rahner. His early philosophical work radicalizes and incarnates the Peripatetic axiom nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu (“nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses”). Thomas Aquinas, in De veritate q. 2. a. 3 arg. 19, agrees. For Rahner, the ethos of creation bespeaks a creator who creates and sustains the whole of existence not out of necessity but of love. The infinite is made manifest through the finite and, for those with eyes opened by faith, the Risen One is disclosed through the bread fractured. Knowing is not taking a disengaged look, it is no excarnate or idealistic event, but rather the result of the subject’s embodied engagement with the world. As we wander through the world, and wonder after its ultimate origin, we may begin to intuit in the everyday signs and intimations of the eternal.

      I’ve no fear of disagreements, but here I would say that it’s less that I disagree with Peter than I want to insist that readers appreciate the depth and breadth of Rahner’s background. By no means is Peter guilty of any such shallow reading that misconstrues a thinker we both venerate. As a fellow traveler with Fritz, I want to save real disagreements for places where we really diverge!

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