Father Rahner Weighs in on Nature of the Church

“The Church properly understands itself if it is aware not only of the duties that stem from a spirit of fatherhood but also from those inherent in a spirit of brotherhood,” a famed German theologian said here.

Father Karl Rahner, S.J., of Innsbruck University, Austria, an ecumenical council expert, spoke at a press panel under the auspices of the German bishops.

Father Rahner stressed the joint responsibility of all the bishops for the welfare of the Church and the need for doing all possible in the cause of Christian unity.

Father Rahner gave a description of the draft proposal “On the Nature of the Church”  being debated by the council Fathers. He noted that it had been accepted as the basis for discussion only after thorough revision of the original version presented at the council’s first session last year.

Father Rahner said that the proposal, technically called a schema, need not be rewritten again because it is now satisfactory from both a pastoral and juridical viewpoint. But he stated that one more chapter may be added to include references to the schema on the Blessed Virgin which, he noted, many bishops believe should not be considered as a separate unit but as part of the schema on the nature of the Church.

The main purpose of the schema on the nature of the Church, Father Rahner said, is to make the Church understand that it is “the people of God in all its component parts, both hierarchial and lay.” This concept, the German Jesuit stated, should help interfaith relations since it is now of vital importance that “no new rifts be opened, but bridges built,” inasmuch as all sincere believers should be accorded equal dignity by the Church, which should “serve everyone humbly and in the charity of Christ.”

In this light, he said, the schema stresses the joint responsibility for the welfare of the Church of all the bishops, since they are successors of the Apostles who were the partners of St. Peter. It stresses this rather than only the responsibility of the successors of St. Peter, the popes.

The concept of papal infallibility, Father Rahner said, is now being widened in this sense, as is shown by the deliberations of the council Fathers.

Father Rahner said that in his opinion this partnership between the successors of the Apostles and the successors of St. Peter should also become evident outside the council when it is applied in close concord with the Bishop of Rome, the pope. This should lead in turn, he continued, to a realization that the individual bishop may also act in the name of Christ on his own authority rather than by acting through delegated authority as if he were merely an official of the pope.

Such an understanding of true brotherhood, Father Rahner said, makes it possible to appreciate why the laity should not be simply passive bystanders, as if the Church were only the hierarchy and those it ordains.

For all the faithful, he said, are called upon to share in divine grace according to each individual’s calling.

He added that all Catholics, both clerical and lay, face the same challenge to be holy. All should equally love God and their neighbor even though their functions in the Church differ.

Father Rahner said that since every person is called to respond to Christ’s message of salvation, it is of the greatest importance that the Church realize that “it is in the world not to rule but to serve, to honor not itself but God, and accordingly, in relation to other Christian churches, to seek not what divides but what unites.”

This, Father Rahner stated, is not so much a matter of council decrees and doctrinal pronouncements as a matter of applying faith, hope and charity in daily life in a spirit of true brotherhood, uniting all those who are baptized in Christ. Only then, he said, will it be realized that in facing the great opportunities of a changing world, the Church above all must be a living mystery, which means it must constantly be aware that eternal truth must be thought through again and again.

He recalled in this connection that the Dutch Bishops in their 1960 pastoral letter stated that “the definition of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Ecumenical Council resulted in an isolated dogma, while actually this personal infallibility is part of the infallibility of the world hierarchy, which in turn is supported by the infallible faith of the whole body of the faithful.”

The translation of this statement by the Dutch bishops was at that time not allowed to be published in Italy. But, he said, now these very thoughts are incorporated in the schema being debated by the council Fathers.

The application of these thoughts, he declared, will
be examined by the Fathers when they take up the 
schema on the functions of bishops and diocesan government.

Father Placid Jordan, O.S.B.
NCWC Rome correspondent

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