“Rahner is dead, and soon his thought will also be buried.” The first part of the sentence we quote is an observation, the second an error. This drastic judgment was expressed in a letter by Hans Urs von Balthasar to the editor of a magazine on the occasion of the death of the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner (1904-84). Von Balthasar was a friend of Rahner, and he too had been a Jesuit from 1929 to 1950, but the paths of these two great thinkers had then separated. They returned to using conciliatory tones only in the last years of Rahner’s life, but a certain distance remained between them, as the opening sentence shows.
A totally different judgment on Rahner was given in 1996 by Johann Baptist Metz in a lexicon of 20th century theologians: “In many respects the Rahner who was criticized and looked upon with suspicion even in the ecclesiastical field has today become the ‘accepted Rahner.’ His bold theological statements, often superficially simplified and one-sidedly misrepresented, are on the lips of many. This should not make us forget that the name of Rahner is linked with the most significant part of the development – the ‘turn’ – of present-day Catholic theology. First of all, there is the ‘turn’ away from the world of rigid and arid formulas, typical of the neo-scholastic way of thinking and speaking, to the decisive confrontation of the best and the most lively elements of the scholastic tradition with the questions posed by recent philosophy, transcendental and existential. Then the ‘turn’ in the direct parallel between systematic theology and historical-exegetical theology, thanks to a theological hermeneutics of biblical statements and the history of theology (developed in an exemplary way, at least in some perspectives).
Then the ‘turn’ in overcoming the fracture between theology and kerygma, as Rahner himself announced in the form of a program: ‘The most solid and the truest theology, the one that is passionately attached only to its object, that always sets itself anew to research and that proves to be the most scientific, in the long run is also the most kerygmatic.’ Then the ‘turn’ in the professional faith of the theologian in favor of a fraternal faith: with the help of a theology of faith that knows how faith is in constant search of itself and always in danger; a theology therefore that understands itself as theologia viatorum, as fraternal service to the hope of all. Finally, there was a ‘turn’ in the conception of the world, away from ghettos in favor of dialogue with a world accepted in its spiritual and social pluralism (up to the talks on Marxism of the Paulus-Gesellschaft): and all this well before the word ‘dialogue’ became a fashionable term, often emptied of meaning.”