Rorate Caeli

Rahner's Un-Roman Epoch of the Church

The Canadian television station Salt and Light has decided to use the account of a third epoch in the history of the Church developed by the famous theologian Karl Rahner, S.J. (1904-1984) as a way of describing the current pontificate. As Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., director of Salt and Light and top English-language officer of the Holy See Press Office, puts it in an interview with America:

I really believe, with the coming of Pope Francis, that this is that third epoch that Karl Rahner talked about in “The Three Great Epochs of the Church.” In our recent Salt and Light documentary on Pope Francis, we start off the whole story with Rahner’s now-epic essay in which he speaks about the three great epochs of church history. (h/t: DJ)

Now, the essay to which Fr. Rosica refers is entitled “Towards a Fundamental Theological Interpretation of Vatican II,” and in it Rahner argues that  a new epoch of the Church began with Vatican II. The implication of Fr. Rosica's remark is therefore that up till the the current pontificate, the the Church had been held back from really entering the epoch inaugurated by the Council. And at  least this much is true: the rejection of Rahner's idea can be seen as one of the main themes of Pope Benedict XVI's magisterium. Already long before the beginning of his pontificate Joseph Ratzinger had parted ways with his friend Rahner on this question, which is essentially about the meaning of the catholicity of the Church.

Rahner's idea of three epochs of the Church has antecedents (for example in Joachim of Fiore), but Rahner's version is unique. He sees the first age as having been the very short period of Jewish Christianity before the decision of the Apostle's not to impose circumcision on the gentiles. Rahner argues that the decision not to impose the Jewish law on gentile Christians brings about a radically different form of Christianity, a form appropriate to Graeco-Roman culture. This form, the second epoch of the Church, brought about far reaching changes in moral doctrine, liturgy, etc.

He then argues that with Vatican II, a new age is begins, and that the changes that will have to be worked out for this third age will perhaps be every bit as great as those from the first to the second. In this third age, the Church becomes truly a world Church. He thinks this change began as a kind of seed in Vatican II as an event bringing together bishops from all cultures, in its opening to vernacular liturgy (thus beginning to give up the attempt to impose Roman culture on non-European peoples), in its affirmation of positive elements in world religions etc. But he argues that the process has only just begun. He asks how Christianity will change in other parts of the world if it is not seen as tied to Graeco-Roman-Jewish notions of law, morality, ceremony etc. Will African tribesmen have to accept monagamy, or will their form of Christianity include polygamy? "Must the Eucharist even in Alaska be celebrated with grape wine?" He leaves these questions open, but his idea is that one will have to perform a "reduction or return to the final and fundamental substance" of Christianity in order for it to be then adapted to each culture.

This idea that Christianity can be "reduced" to a "fundamental substance" that is separable from particular cultures is one that Pope Benedict XVI never tired of refuting. In the Regensburg Address he says:

The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance... the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith.

That is, God became man in a particular culture at a particular time for providential reasons: the elements of Jewish, Greek, and Roman culture that Christianity integrated into its own teaching are not separable from it, because they are true.

The Fathers of the Church held that Rome was providentially prepared to be the seat of the Pope—that Roman ideas of universality and law were a preparation for the true Catholic universality. And Pope Benedict often took up that theme, for example in a Regina Caeli address:

Rome indicates the world of the pagans, and therefore all peoples who are outside the ancient people of God. In fact, the Acts conclude with the arrival of the Gospel in Rome. It may then be said that Rome is the concrete name of Catholicity and of Missionarity, it expresses faithfulness to the origins, to the Church of all times, to a Church which speaks all languages and meets all cultures.

This is quite the opposite of Rahner's position. And this opposition is based on a quite different understanding of what the Christian Faith is all about. Rahner does not say what the "fundamental substance"  of Christianity is in the essay on the three epochs, but it is clear from his other works that it is an affirmation of humanity as such. Ratzinger once summarized Rahner's position as follows:

[Rahner holds that] to be a Christian is to accept one’s existence in its unconditionality. Ultimately, therefore, it is but the explicit reflection of what it means to be human. In the last analysis, this means “that the Christian is not so much an exception among men as simply man as he is.” (J. Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, trans. Mary Frances McCarthy, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987, 165–166.)

So to be a Christian is to be authentically human, but since there are different human cultures there must be different forms of the Christian Church corresponding to each.

Of course Ratzinger rejects this view, Christianity is not simply man as he is:

The main point of the faith of both Testaments [is] that man is what he ought to be only by conversion, that is, when he ceases to be what he is. (Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 166)

Our conviction is that the "third epoch" of the Church is an impossible fantasy that can never come about, because the Church's essential nature can never change. Nevertheless, the prevalence of such an illusion is likely to cause great harm.