The Eucharistic Theology of Karl Rahner: A Critical Survey


Karl Rahner, The Last Supper by Philippe de Champagne, 1648, Pope Paul VI

Karl Rahner is representative of a body of theologians who during the middle of the twentieth century wanted to rearticulate Catholic sacramental theology so as to make it more palatable to the modern world. Like other theologians, Rahner focused on an articulation of the sacraments as symbols, and this for a number of reasons. The emphasis on “symbol” was one means of avoiding questions regarding material causality and the traditional metaphysical philosophical commitments surrounding the term “transubstantiation.” This system was considered surpassed by the contemporary philosophical landscape, which was more concerned with phenomenology and intentionality rather than ontology and causality.

He was also influenced by a zeal for ecumenical possibilities, and perhaps saw excessively precise and metaphysical articulations of the mysteries of faith as unnecessary roadblocks to that Christian unity which, amid mid-century euphoria, was expected to be just around the corner. In this brief essay, I will articulate aspects of Rahner’s theology of the Eucharist, focusing on his concept of the “supernatural existential” which undergirds his sacramental theology and its revolutionary consequences, and the confusion that this understanding brings to the traditional articulation of Eucharistic theology. Rahner endorsed a “Copernican revolution” in sacramental theology in which “the sacraments are the historical manifestations of the grace which is always and everywhere present in the world.”1 In this scheme the sacraments are seen not as causes of grace, but rather caused by or manifestations of the grace which is already, always and everywhere, present.2

In order to understand much of Karl Rahner’s theology, one needs to return to his theory of the “supernatural existential,” which undergirds his understanding of the Eucharist. Essentially, this concept holds that man is historically and existentially always affected by grace, modally affecting who we are and what we do.3 He borrows a concept from Heidegger that man exists with certain thematic notes or qualities as a being living in time, such as guilt, worry, angst, and weaves it into his understanding of man as a being historically affected by his experience of grace. All aspects of human living, “the pangs of birth, of concupiscence, labor, toil, and death, … all this is unquestionably experienced by persons who (consciously or unconsciously) are subject to the influence of the supernatural existential.”4 Grace is understood as something which almost enters into the structure of our nature, and it is unclear what pure human nature would look like, what would be “left over as remainder when this inmost center {the supernatural existential} is subtracted from the substance of {human beings’} concrete quiddity, their ‘nature.’”5 In getting rid of the traditional distinction between actual/habitual and operative/cooperative graces, and making grace to be something quasi-substantial for man with the supernatural existential, he sets himself up for an interpretation of the sacraments and of the Eucharist which almost directly inverts the traditional understanding of sacramental causality as efficacious signs of grace.

In interpreting all the sacraments in light of his theory of the supernatural existential, Rahner understands them to be manifestations of the grace which is, always and everywhere, at work, in all times and in all places and cultures: “for the official history of salvation”—which includes the sacraments instituted by the  Church—“is nothing else but the process in which there becomes explicit and historically tangible the history of salvation and grace which pervades all of man’s dimensions and extends throughout the whole of his history {emphasis added}.”6 The sacraments are not so much seen as causes of grace but as dynamic manifestations and symbolic reminders of the grace always already operative: “We are always in spiritual communion with Christ (or we could be), whether we kneel in church or walk the dusty streets of everyday life. … The enduring sacrament reminds us to take up this task {emphasis added}.”7 The Eucharist is for him a manifestation that the supernatural existential is all-encompassing to human experience: “when the mystery of Christ always and everywhere encompasses our being (whether or not we heed it), why should this secret of our being {the supernatural existential} not be allowed to become visible so that our eye may fall on the food {Eucharist} of the Church?”8  The Eucharist becomes an event manifesting the Church’s inner dynamism, a sign of the grace already present within the Church.

Notice also the Eucharist is seen as the “becoming visible” of the supernatural existential, the secret of our being always and everywhere at work, in every good moral act, in every act of religion. It thus becomes unclear how Rahner would differentiate between a tribal religious act of sacrificing an animal to a certain deity and the Eucharistic sacrifice, as they are both manifestations of the supernatural existential. Would there be anything essentially distinct, then, between the Eucharist and the “food sacrificed to idols” which St. Paul condemns in 1 Corinthians 8? Using Rahner’s model of the universally operative presence of the supernatural existential, it would be difficult to distinguish the two.

In fact, Rahner’s theory that the Eucharist is a symbol of the dynamic manifestation of the supernatural existential always interiorly coming to be, holds true for his Christology as well: “The humanity {of Christ} is the self-disclosure of the Logos itself … the revelatory symbol in which the Father enunciates himself, in his son, to the world.”9 This charged theory of symbolism is replete with Hegelian resonances: God comes to be in man archetypally in Christ, and in the Eucharist, but this is always happening everywhere. Again, just as with the Eucharist, it is unclear that the Incarnation of Christ is different in kind (ontologically) or only in degree from the myriad manifestations of the supernatural existential present in any human reality.

There is a confusing corollary to Rahner’s thought in that he makes numerous statements which express traditional, orthodox understanding of sacramental doctrine, but seemingly interpreted through the lens of the supernatural existential. This tendency makes his theories subtle and ambiguous, because they are confusingly posited amid theologically sound statements. For example, he clearly defends the Church’s traditional articulation that “according to the words of Christ, the Lord is truly and substantially present in flesh and blood, in body and soul, in divinity and humanity.”10 But only a few pages before in the same text, he describes how the faithful “by eating the dish of God’s mercy, anticipate the eternal meal when God, no longer in earthly symbols … makes himself into the eternal meal of the redeemed,”… “and while they eat thus, they look for the day when the Lord will be entirely with them.”11 Although these statements might be interpreted in an orthodox manner so that they comply with more traditional language, they are ambiguous enough to sow confusion as to whether the Eucharist simply is the presence of the very Christ, ontologically speaking, or whether it is a particularly intense symbol and manifestation of his presence, always and everywhere, in the supernatural existential. It is certainly open to the latter, and in fact might in the context be a more faithful “Rahnerian” interpretation of the traditional articulation. He himself seems to want to move beyond traditional articulations of the faith: “It would be pitiful if we were to reconcile ourselves forever to the inadequate, and perhaps half-magical, misconceptions which we drag along with us from early religious instruction, and from the practices of our childhood.”12

It is also at least unclear in Rahner’s thinking whether the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ, or merely a symbol or event of his presence active in the Church. He describes the seven sacraments as occurring when “the Church addresses itself to, and involves itself totally in, existentially decisive situations in human life,” but apart from the problem that this implies, they were instituted by the Church instead of directly by Christ (as infallibly taught by Trent and Scripture), this description again strongly emphasizes the dynamic, event quality of the sacraments.13 Thus his tendency to describe the Eucharist merely as a symbol or event: “the sign and the promise, the sacramental presence of that toward which {Christians} are heading … the goal {which} incorporates all movement into itself and changes it.”14 “The sacraments make concrete and actual, for the life of the individual, the symbolic reality of the church.”15 Pope Paul VI specifically warned against this excessive or exclusive concentration on sacramental symbolism in his 1965 encyclical, Mysterium Fidei, an admonition considered to be directed at Rahner.16 Although the ecclesial context of the sacraments is necessary to emphasize, so is the ontologically “static” doctrine of the Real Presence. We also must recognize more in the Eucharist, as the Real Presence of Christ who is the source of all grace, than in the Church—it cannot be reduced to a manifestation of the Church’s inner life.

Rahner does defend Eucharistic adoration as something “not necessarily {leading} away from the significance of the sacrament” of the Eucharist. 17 But given his emphasis on the Eucharist as “symbol” and “event,” it stands to reason that if one follows aspects of his theology to their logical conclusions, Eucharistic adoration seems to lack the “dynamism” which he seems to make essential to this sacrament.18 Perhaps his influence had a hand in the decrease in, and even (at times) contempt for, Eucharistic devotion prevalent in the decades after the Council. He states that in Eucharistic processions “we carry through our streets the sign of the presence of him who is the way and the goal.”19 But is it merely the “sign,” the symbol of his presence, or is it really and truly his presence? He seems to want to leave enough ambiguity as to have it both ways—perhaps he is attempting to offer an explanation which would leave room for both the Reforming, and Catholic, interpretations for the sake of ecumenism. This union is a worthy goal, but not at the price of holding together two contradictory doctrines about the Eucharist at the same time.

Thus we can recognize both the slippery and ambiguous, as well as the revolutionary content found in Karl Rahner’s theology of the sacraments, in general, and the Eucharist, in particular. His doctrine of the supernatural existential tends to upend the Eucharist from being an efficacious cause and ontological presence of grace (indeed the Source of grace) to a particularly intense manifestation of that grace which is, always and everywhere, operative. In rejecting traditional distinctions between actual/habitual and operative/cooperative grace, subsuming them under his articulation of the supernatural existential, he also fails to distinguish between sacramental grace and other graces, and the manifestation of grace outside the Church.

The concept of operative, actual graces outside the Church explains phenomena that Rahner is trying to account for with the supernatural existential, but without jettisoning the causal efficacy of the seven sacraments, and the importance of the visible Church. Grace is always directed to the Eucharist and explicit Church membership, which are more intensive and perfective than grace operating outside these. In addition, his emphasis on the symbolism and dynamic-event quality of the Eucharist tends to minimalize the doctrine of the Real Presence and transubstantiation, in spite of his apparent acceptance of these doctrines according to their traditional formulations. There is always more in the Eucharist, as the Real Presence of Christ himself, than there is in the Church. In attempting to rearticulate the traditional doctrine of the Church in conceptual language—which he believes will be more amenable to the contemporary intellectual palate, and overcome divisions among Christians—whether intentionally or not, Rahner’s theology quickly slides into an unhelpful ambiguity.

  1. Karl Rahner, “Thoughts about the Sacraments in General,” Karl Rahner: Theologian of the Graced Search for Meaning, (ed. by G. Kelly), p. 288.
  2. See Patrick Burke, Reinterpreting Rahner: A Critical Study of His Major Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 47-48: “Rahner, although never actually denying the nature-grace distinction, stresses ever more their existential unity and by interpreting transcendentally given grace as revelation in itself, which is expressed categorically in history even outside of official revelation, begins to see categorical revelation as only the posterior explicitization of what man always and originally is.” Here, Burke notes the development in Rahner’s thought which sees the sacraments of particularly intense manifestations of the grace always present in virtue of the supernatural existential. The same basic thrust is present in his understanding of the sacraments and the Eucharist.
  3. He states in “Sacraments,” (Kelly, pp. 283-284), that “Grace, in the strictest sense of the word, is not a particular discrete datum within consciousness … instead it is the comprehensive radical opening up of a human being’s total consciousness in the direction of the immediacy of God.” Note some of the words he uses in describing the operation of grace: “comprehensive, total, immediacy.” Grace is everywhere with the supernatural existential, and this profoundly affects Rahner’s sacramental theology.
  4. Karl Rahner, “On the Relationship of Grace and Nature,” Theological Investigations 1 (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1961), p. 314.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, tr. William Dych, (New York: The Seabury Press, 1978), p. 411.
  7. Karl Rahner, Meditations on the Sacraments, (New York: The Seabury Press, 1977), p. 36.
  8. Ibid., p. 36.
  9. Karl Rahner, “On the Theology of Symbolic Reality,” Theological Investigations 4 (Baltimore: Halicon, 1966), p. 239.
  10. Rahner, Sacraments, p. 36. He even ends this treatise on the Eucharist by invoking St. Thomas’ famous prayer, “O holy banquet, …” on page 41.
  11. Ibid., p. 32.
  12. Ibid., p. 39. It would be one thing if Rahner was seeking a deeper penetration into the mystery as it has already been dogmatically articulated, without contradicting the articulation of the reality which the Church herself has deemed “adequate,” if not comprehensive or beyond improvement.
  13. Rahner, Foundations, pp. 412-413.
  14. Rahner, Sacraments, p. 38.
  15. Karl Rahner, “On the Theology of Symbolic Reality,” Theological Investigations 4, p. 241.
  16. See for example Mysterium Fidei paragraph 11: “it is not permissible …  to concentrate on the notion of sacramental sign as if the symbolism—which no one will deny is certainly present in the Most Blessed Eucharist—fully expressed and exhausted the manner of Christ’s presence in this Sacrament; or to discuss the mystery of transubstantiation without mentioning what the Council of Trent had to say about the marvelous conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and the whole substance of the wine into the Blood of Christ, as if they involve nothing more than “transignification,” or “transfinalization” as they call it.” {emphasis added} The encyclical is available at Servant of God John Hardon, S.J., taught that this correction by Paul VI was directed principally at Rahner—see
  17. Rahner, Sacraments, p. 36.
  18. For example, Rahner states in Sacraments, p. 31, that in the Eucharist Christ “makes himself exist in the form of bread and wine … so that all of this—his sacrificed reality for their salvation—becomes manifest and manifestly operative; it truly belongs to {his disciples} and enters into the center of their being.” Notice the existential dynamism and emphasis on “manifestation,” an inevitably subjective perspective. He also describes in Sacraments, p. 29, the Last Supper as Christ’s gift of himself to his disciples “in the event and the symbol of a meal.”
  19. Rahner, Sacraments, p. 38.
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  1. John M. McDermott, S.J. John M. McDermott, S.J. says:

    In my opinion Fr. McCusker has put his finger on an ambiguity, but there are several further steps which Rahner might employ to keep his theory within the realm of orthodoxy. First there is a type of causality at work in the Eucharist and all sacraments (as signs): final causality, the causality of causalities (to borrow from Aquinas). God intends that His grace come to corporeal, visible, social expression since man is by nature corporeal, visible, and social and grace does not destroy but elevates nature. So Rahner can say that sacraments cause grace. Naturally there is a further problem in ascribing final causality to the Eucharist. How can God intend a final symbol as the goal of His acting? Then the finite would be the cause of God. (For this reason Catholic theology has insisted that God created the world for His glory – which is not bad for us since it orients us to God and a sharing in His life.) Rahner never makes that claim explicitly, but it seems to be in his system. In any case Rahner may interpose another step: the Eucharist as symbol really intends Christ, the supreme symbol of the God-man union, the final cause of the universe. So the Eucharist lives from its relation to Jesus and already makes Him present. Jesus, he holds, is the final, definitive revelation of God as He appeared in history. He therefore serves as the norm of finite objectivity and is the One against whom we are all to be measured and to whom we are called and to whose Body we should belong. There is no doubt in my mind that Rahner affirmed the divinity of Jesus and saw Him as the ultimate symbol or revelation of God in the world. But again a problem soon arises. How can any finite symbol, specifically Jesus’ humanity, be ultimate? The finite can always be surpassed. So we all suffer through the Christologies of Schoonenberg, Haight, Johnson, Knitter, etc., who reduce Jesus to one of many possible symbols of God. They think that they are making theological progress, but are actually only repeating past heresies. One of the major flaws of Rahner’s system is his inadequate handling of the notion of person. For him the hypostatic union is reduced to the beatific vision, the closest juncture of human nature to the divine. What else does not expect when he builds upon the paradoxical “natural desire for the supernatural”? Admittedly there is a great theological problem here, but citing Thomas as an authority does not resolve the speculative problem, and a paradox is really a contradiction until it is shown why it is only an apparent contradiction. None of the transcendental Thomists, to my knowledge, ever make the attempt.
    I am not sure that Mysterium Fidei was evoked by Rahner’s Eucharistic theology. At the time the theories of Schoonenberg and Schillebeeckx were more explicit and more dangerous.
    In judging Rahner’s one should measure it against the neo-Scholasticism in which he was raised and which had many problems, not the least of which was the development of dogma. Rahner, I think, was trying to do his best to uphold in a world turning ever more to subjectivity and relativism. There are dangers in adaptation as well as in holding on to past theologies. For Rahner the Church’s faith was the norm of his faith and theology; he just tried to express the latter in new ways to solve problems and make faith more available to modern intellectuals. The final judgment on him is still out, even if many of his self-proclaimed disciples go over the edge. The real danger arises when one takes as the norm of faith a particular system of thought as the correct way of expressing the faith. Then myopic rational conclusions tend to exclude the all-embracing richness of the Catholic faith.

  2. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Excellent review Fr. McCusker The Benedictines/Dominicans do it again!

    Quote from Karl Rahner (SJ) in the article above:
    “It would be pitiful if we were to reconcile ourselves forever to the inadequate, and perhaps half-magical, misconceptions which we drag along with us from early religious instruction, and from the practices of our childhood.”

    I couldn’t possibly compare my training and knowledge to the impressive depth displayed above. All I remember is Christ saying something like…..”unless you are like these here (little children) you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven”.
    Rahner’s comment above quoted seems hubris of the worst sort