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Theological Notebook: Rahner on an Ecclesiology (Theology of the Church) of Charisms

Karl Rahner, S.J. and I have been spending a lot of time together this week, which is weird, I suppose, given that he's been dead for 24 years. But that's the kind of thing my job makes me do. It's an obvious contrast that the man considered perhaps the most influential Catholic theologian of the 20th century should also be its most horrible writer, but I find that after several years of reading him, I've actually become rather comfortable with his style. I still read it as slowly as ever, but at least now I find that I'm pausing between sentences not because I can't figure out what he just said as much as to think about everything he's saying. He is occasionally able to pack an enormous amount of insight into a single sentence. The opener of the article of his I've been reading for my current dissertation chapter, called "Observations on the Factor of the Charismatic in the Church," from Theological Investigations, Volume 12, is a case in point:
The Catholic ecclesiology of former times from the period of the Reformation onwards was concerned almost exclusively with the institutional factors in the Church.
In a way, this is blazingly obvious. It makes perfect sense. In the wake of the Reformation, where for the first time there were other organized Christian churches in the West, it should come as no surprise that the Catholic Church should so particularly perceive itself along organizational lines: for the first time it was competing, as organization for "market share," you might say, among other organizations. But this one observation is so telling; not just for ecclesiology, but for spirituality, politics, liturgy, internal Church discipline, and more – the sheer fact of this organization emphasis in the Church's self-understanding of the next 400 years of Modernity colours, affects, and I think even dominates the rest of it. Obvious. Clear. All the evidence points to it. And yet, I don't think I so clearly saw the relationship of the whole until I read the tidy little opening sentence of his. For such an awful writer, that's good writing.

(I suppose that, for the uninitiated, after offering a reasonably clear and concise sample as that above, I might need to back up my claim about the awful state of his writing. At the very least, it might be amusing to do so. Consider this sentence, by way of contrast:
The national peculiarities of a particular local Church, and the way in which it is incorporated into the single universal Church, centralism and decentralization, freedom in theological research and certainty in matters of doctrine, devotion to the sacraments and personal devotion in the life of the individual in the concrete, interior attitudes and cult on the one hand, and Christian responsibility toward a secular world on the other, withdrawal from the world and assent to the world etc. – all these contrasting attitudes are such that each of the separate tensions involved may be maintained, preserved, or evoked either by the official institutions or by the charismatic element, and hence conflicts can arise with regard to the way in which these tensions are to be smoothed out and reconciled in the concrete.
I wish I could say that was an exceptional example, but it's pretty average, in fact. I frequently suspect that had he not become his own publisher, we might never have seen any of this stuff. And his brother Hugo, an historian of some note, said he preferred to read Karl in the English translation, which he found easier going than their native German.)

I think the key point I need to develop from this article is Rahner's development of an idea I first found in Sullivan and that is critical for my dissertation on Sullivan's ecclesiology: that is the claim that the charisms – the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the faithful – are constitutive of the Church. It might not seem particularly new or insightful. Sure. The Spirit distributes itself in us and in that common life of the Spirit, we have the Christian Church. Sullivan makes this same claim almost in passing, in Charisms and Charismatic Renewal, but I think it is critical. I do not think we have seen an actual ecclesiology formed along these lines, not since Paul's articulation of such in the First Letter to the Corinthians, and I think we tend to dissect that document so much that we largely fail to see that claim within it. An ecclesiology based upon the language of charisms, it seems to me, not only has the advantages of being strongly biblical, it then has intrinsic ties – logically, theologically, and linguistically – to pneumatology (theology of the Spirit) and doctrine of God, as well as to spirituality. To my mind, all these subjects tend not to be united by a common "key" of theology and language, but instead have become sub-fields that we pursue and articulate distinctly, and then relate them to one another in the language we devise for each particular field. I'm curious to see if an ecclesiology of charisms could be a path to a more unified theological language.

Rahner is particularly concerned to show that the idea of the charismatic is not set up as the opposite pole to the idea of the official institution of the Church, but rather that it undergirds and even enables such an idea. (And I have to point out that he uses the word "charismatic" free from the associations we have of it today, as tied into – in Catholicism – an import from classical Pentecostalism. "Charismatic" tends to be a word that today still evokes a 1970s or 1980s experience in Catholicism. I've instead come to see that as a very early phase, and limited conception of the charismatic, in that renewal. Hence my preference for the clunkier "ecclesiology of charisms" over "charismatic ecclesiology" for what I'm doing.) So what does Rahner mean by "charismatic?" For him, it seems to be an idea very much related to the idea of freedom, and of the Church being an "open system," one that open to freedom and the unexpected in being open to the movement of the Spirit, and of the development of the understanding of revelation through the ungoing presence of God in history. The spiritual gifts, the charismata, are what empower the exercise of any Christian virtues in the Church. The charisms seem to be "articulations" or "individuations" of how we receive God or the Spirit in a fundamental openness to that which is beyond us, beyond our own capacities. In that way, they cannot be easily distinguished from normal human powers or virtues because, in any given situation, we cannot distinguish where the natural in the human being ends and where the supernatural begins. There's no "control group" in reality that lets us distinguish the two in ourselves.

All the various reductionist philosophies, psychologies and biologies of history seem to be onto something: if our logic seems to insist on reducing humans to machines, and insisting that freedom is an illusion, but our experience tells us otherwise – that humans do experience and exercise freedom – then the logic of humanity having a super-natural dimension begins to look helpful. It is in this way that the notion of charisms seems to be intrinsically tied to the concept of freedom in Rahner's article, although that's not his main thrust here.
Tags: biblical studies, books, dissertation, ecclesiology, grace and freedom/nature, mysticism/spirituality, pneumatology, rahner, systematic theology, theological notebook, writing

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