Munus Docendi

Christ Giving the Keys to the Kingdom to St. Peter by Giovanni Baptista Castello, 1598 (Fr. Karl Rahner, S.J., and Pope Francis to the left and right)

Fr. Karl Rahner (1904-1984) began as a faith-filled and imaginative theologian, someone who, even now, still provides unmatchable insights into the nature of divinity, and into the searching soul who longs to cleave to God. Rahner worked alongside other thinkers of the Nouvelle Théologie, greats like Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and even our own Pope Emeritus Benedict, Josef Ratzinger—a heady group, to be sure. The Holy Spirit needed these men to help Popes John XXIII and Paul VI to “update” the Church’s mission to go boldly into the world to proclaim the Reign of Christ in every classroom, laboratory, marketplace, and soul. For the most part, Rahner’s 4,000-plus different works remain faithful to this mission, and are worth picking up today (e.g., On Prayer [1968], Encounters With Silence, recently republished by St. Augustine’s Press); yet later in his life, he began to push the edges until he seemingly took pride in watching the fissures form (e.g., sadly not using his brilliance to defend Humanae Vitae, and even calling into question Christ’s theology of priestly ordination).

I was recently reading through a collection of Rahner’s essays—again, 90% of which are spiritually edifying and theologically astute—when I stumbled across an almost eerie letter he had written entitled, “A Letter from the Pope in the Year 2020.” It is classic Rahner: full of truthful enough lines, but put in such a way that a hierarchical iconoclasm, and a hushed hubris, run throughout the piece. But what is most amazing is how prescient it is. It may not be 2020, but what’s a few years? Who cannot help but hear Pope Francis in the words of this fictitious, future Pope, whom Rahner has created, when this pope states that he wishes to distance himself from the tremendous papal office of teaching and guiding the Church—the ancient munus docendi? No longer, we are told, is it fitting that the Vicar of Christ be recognized for his God-given charism to instruct God’s people in how they should be living their Christian lives. By 2020, he just wants to be known as one of the “guys,” one more stumbling subject alongside the rest of us sinners?

The awesome nature of being asked to continue Peter’s mission to be a rock has been chiseled away into the perverted delight of being mere dust. Think back to the great priests of Christ’s own Church, however, and we receive a very different tone of what this munus might mean. St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, is likened to a mighty ram bound for slaughter, as he goes to his death for his people; the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil and Gregory, liken the episcopacy to Moses’ fighting for God’s chosen people, Israel. On the anniversary of his ordination, St. Augustine of Hippo admitted to his congregation that: “Where I’m terrified by what I am for you, I am given comfort by what I am with you. For you, I am your bishop; with you, I am a Christian” (sermon 340). The office of teaching and ruling was one no saint ever felt he merited, but it was a cross he carried for the good of his flock.

In the 1960s, when all leadership was questioned, and all institutions were equated with oppression, however, a hierarchy was to be replaced with democracy, and governance was always and everywhere to be “shared.” Fr. Rahner seized such a shift to compose his thoughts on what he saw a modern-day Pope’s job description to be. First off, such a servant should promote how he is,

…even as pope, a human being who will commit faults, perhaps even serious ones, why would I not be allowed to admit this even during my lifetime? Is the mentality of people who really matter not such today that authority does not suffer damage, but rather profits, when its bearer openly admits the limitations of a poor and sinful human being, and is not afraid to acknowledge them? For the time being, at least, I am willing to listen to public discussions in my presence, eventually to learn from others, and to admit that I have learned.

Vintage Rahner: of course no one would doubt that the pope of 2020 is a man who needs to learn from others, but such an axiom is larded with grandstanding of limitations, and sin, and the need to publicize how little our leader actually knows. That is why we should:

Let people notice that a pope can err, make mistakes, be poorly informed, and choose the wrong kind of assistants. All of this is evident, and I believe that no recent pope has seriously doubted it. But why must such evidence remain hidden and covered up? And, so, we are now prepared to revel, for some reason, in this modern cleric’s confession that, “I shall not be a great pope. I do not have the wherewithal. So I will not have an inferiority complex if I look quite modest compared with the great popes of the twentieth century.”

Rahner rightly concludes this essay by distinguishing between the office of leadership, and the charism of sanctity—for there has always been, and always will be, a real distinction between one ordained for ecclesial office, and one who lives the beatitudes fruitfully in the Holy Spirit. It is nice when the pope is a saint, but let us never equate the two:

Before God, I am less than the saints who live today in the church, those who pray in silence, those who are mystically enraptured, those who perish for their faith in the prisons of the enemies of Christ and the Church, those who love unselfishly, as Teresa of Calcutta did, all the unknown and unrewarded heroes of everyday duty and abnegation.

Ironically, the very pope who seems to want to be known for his shortcomings and inability to define doctrine clearly, is the one who canonized Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Yet, let this pope also remember that Mother Teresa is now a saint precisely because she let the perfect Christ guide her, and not her fallen conscience, she lived by the unassailable doctrines of the Church, and was never beholden to the democracies of public opinion. She, and countless other holy ones of the 20th century, shine gloriously in teaching us how doctrinal orthodoxy and personal sanctity are never at odds, and that when we begin to think we must sacrifice one to the other, both are lost.

Rahner concludes his essay with a cheeky line that caused me to laugh out loud when I first read it, asking all of us:

Are there Christians, and perhaps popes, who remember that, when they pray the Our Father with impatient hope for the coming of God’s eternal kingdom, they are praying also for the end of the papacy?

The papacy will one day end, to be sure, but until that final day, all people of good will continue to look to that stalwart office in Rome to stand for the Gospel, in season and out of season (2 Tim 4:2). Pope Francis, please guide, please offer, your people reassurance that you, although like us as a sinner in need of Christ’s salvation, you are also his chosen representative to lead and to guide his Church. You are, therefore, called to teach what the Church teaches, and to guide as she does, modeling for us sanctity in both the heart, as well as in the mind. Honestly, Holy Father, we need you to be different than we are.

Francis believes that “to err is human,” but here, surely, the Pope is wrong—in this case, Alexander Pope (“Essay on Criticism”), that is. To err and to obfuscate and to create confusion is not human, but rather a result of the fall. To err is now part of the sinful human, but it was not always so and, pray God, it will not always be the case. To lead others astray, and relish the public cries for clarification, is not the sign of a great leader, not the gifts of one ordained to teach. The great ones know this, that the priestly munus docendi is an office in which they participate, but never possess, or as the great Bishop of Hippo, who gathered his presbyterate around him on an Easter Monday, said to his people:

And as for us, what are we? Ministers of Christ, his servants; for what we distribute to you is not ours, but we take it from his store. And we, too, live of it, because we are servants like you (sermon 229E.4).

Being a servant, being a saint, and being a spiritual leader are not mutually exclusive. So let us notch up our prayers for our Church’s leaders during this Lenten season. Let us all remember back to that Wednesday, not long ago, when we heard that we are dust. Let us, therefore, remember that we are all in need of God’s grace, and that without him, we can do nothing (Jn 15:5), that we are accountable for our own souls, and those whom God places tenderly into our everyday lives. Blessings on each of you, know of my prayers, and that you are remembered each month in the Sacrifice of the Mass,

-Fr. Meconi, S.J.


(Gen. 3:19)

I am nothing
Hence I have nothing.
That is,
My ego is nothing
So it possesses nothing.

I am nothing
Hence I do nothing.
That is,
My ego is nothing
So it accomplishes nothing.

Ego fails me.
It falls short
In its quest
To love
And be loved.

Jesus is everything
Since He is in everything.
Christ is everything
Since He does everything
For me, for us.

He never falls short
With His Power
And His Love.

−By Pat Cioni


David Vincent Meconi About David Vincent Meconi

David Meconi served as editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review from 2010 to 2022.


  1. Avatar Rosemary Therese Reid says:

    In his essay, “Munus Docendi,” Fr. Meconi SJ criticizes (almost in a footnote fashion) Fr. Rahner SJ “for not using his brilliance to defend ‘Humanae Vitae.’ ” Fr. Rahner was one of the leaders in the rebellion against Pope Paul’s V1 encyclical ( which alone should be anathema to an Order that has a FOURTH VOW to uphold the Papacy.) Fr. Rahner SJ may not have taken the Fourth Vow, but Servant of GOD, Fr. John Hardon SJ did and spoke about how much this vow cost him because of his faithful allegiance to it. How many souls have been lost because they were led astray by adopting the contraceptive mentality?
    May GOD have mercy on the soul of Fr. Rahner SJ.

  2. Avatar Glenna Bradshaw says:

    Thank you for this editorial. If the Holy Spirit accomplishes nothing else in this papacy, He has caused many of us ordinary Catholics to sink our roots deeper into the faith that assures us that God is in control of His Church.

  3. Avatar Neil Kane says:

    This is a great article. As a college student majoring in theology in the tumultuous 1970’s, Rahner was an icon for me. Fr. Meconi does a masterful job of crediting Rahner’s theological acumen and especially his writings on prayer. Father likewise points out the flaws in Rahner’s writings. I lament that Fr. Rahner did not throw his “creds” as a Catholic theologian and philosopher behind Humanae Vitae in a way analogous to his admonition to the rebellious Hans Kung following Kung’s book INFALLIBLE?

  4. If I could have written to the pope and said what I would want to say, it could not have been better expressed than this editorial. I pray that this makes its way to his chair, and that he reads it, and that he listens to it, and hears.

    Thank you, Fr. Meconi

  5. Avatar Warren Memlib says:

    Quite some time ago I attended a conference in Boston sponsored by the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation where then editor (and now editor emeritus) Fr. Kenneth Baker was one of the speakers. I forgot what he said in his talk, but I do remember a question that asked him and the answer that he gave. I knew that Fr. Baker studied under Karl Rahner at the University of Innsbruck in Austria and translated two of his books into English as well as publishing in the first issue of HPR that Fr. Baker edited in 1971, a critique by Rahner of Hans Kung’s then latest book, “Infallible? An Inquiry” (or rather, “A Denial”). I asked Fr. Baker his opinion at the time of the conference of Karl Rahner. He replied, “I think that he has become an atheist.” I knew by that time Rahner had become a thorough liberal or neo-Modernist in theology but found it difficult to accept that he had become an atheist; that is, no longer believed in God. I regret that I did not press Fr. Baker on his reply. Later a Greek Catholic priest told me (in a matter unrelated to my conversation with Fr. Baker) that in Eastern Christian theology (both Catholic and Orthodox), an atheist was one who denied at least one article of faith. Did Fr. Baker mean “atheist” in that Eastern Christian sense, which in Latin/Roman Catholic or other Western Christian sense would be called a “heretic”?

    • Avatar Peter J. Murray SJ says:

      I suppose than an atheist could be a person who denies “one” article of faith but most of them–in fact, deny many articles of the Creed or the whole notion of Faith itself. I too find it very difficult to believe that Father Rahner, a Jesuit theologian and a priest, had become an atheist in any real sense of the word. My belief is that we should leave these things to God to judge! Like many of His disciples, we struggle with “doubts” or have some hesitancy in our faith, don’t we? I always heard from my teachers (and they included the good and fine Theologian and Cardinal, Avery Dulles, SJ) that some doubting can exist within a rather vital faith. Let us tread carefully in these waters, all of us.

  6. Avatar David Scott Pringle says:

    Popes may come and go, but Truth cannot change. Fr. Rahner errored in abandoning absolutes, such as Natural Law to try to convince the world that, as is put forward in this article, relativism is valid and the Vicar of Christ should be sensitive to the changes of the weather analogous to whatever social agenda is in vogue this day. I cannot see that it is “spiritually edifying” to make morality relative. Recall that St. John Paul wrote “Veritatis Splendor” to keep the traditional teaching of mortal sin preserved which was at the core of “Humane Vitae.” As demonstrated by the Holy Apostles, the Popes’ job is not to sway with the breeze, but to hold fast to the Holy Gospel until the end, being both servant and free.

  7. In the context of this important editorial it is relevant and helpful, I think, to listen to this (given below) from a General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI,14 April 2010, titled “Munus docendi”. The burden on every priest is heavy, no doubt – it is the burden of the Cross. Many times heavier must be that of the Pope. Pope Benedict’s words can be an encouragement, I think, to every priest struggling under that burden. Pope Benedict said in his Audience:

    “The first duty of which I wish to speak today is the munus docendi, that is, the task of teaching. Today, in the midst of the educational emergency, the munus docendi of the Church, exercised concretely through the ministry of each priest, is particularly important. We are very confused about the fundamental choices in our life and question what the world is, where it comes from, where we are going, what we must do in order to do good, how we should live and what the truly pertinent values are.

    “Regarding all this, there are numerous contrasting philosophies that come into being and disappear, creating confusion about the fundamental decisions on how to live; because collectively we no longer know from what and for what we have been made and where we are going. In this context the words of the Lord who took pity on the throng because the people were like sheep without a shepherd came true (cf. Mk 6: 34). The Lord had noticed this when he saw the thousands of people following him in the desert because, in the diversity of the currents of that time, they no longer knew what the true meaning of Scripture was, what God was saying. The Lord, moved by compassion, interpreted God’s word, he himself is the Word of God, and thus provided an orientation.

    “This is the function in persona Christi of the priest: making present, in the confusion and bewilderment of our times, the light of God’s Word, the light that is Christ himself in this our world. Therefore the priest does not teach his own ideas, a philosophy that he himself has invented, that he has discovered or likes; the priest does not speak of himself, he does not speak for himself, to attract admirers, perhaps, or create a party of his own; he does not say his own thing, his own inventions but, in the medley of all the philosophies, the priest teaches in the name of Christ present, he proposes the truth that is Christ himself, his word and his way of living and of moving ahead.

    “What Christ said of himself applies to the priest: ‘My teaching is not mine’ (Jn 7: 16); Christ, that is, does not propose himself but, as the Son he is the voice, the Word of the Father. The priest too must always speak and act in this way: ‘My teaching is not mine, I do not spread my own ideas or what I like, but I am the mouthpiece and heart of Christ and I make present this one, shared teaching that has created the universal Church and creates eternal life’.”

    • Avatar Ted Heywood says:

      It is well, Thomas Richard, that you remind us of Pope Benedict’s words in responding to the effort to soften the position of Karl Rahner voiced by his fellow Jesuit above. Isn’t this ‘softening’ a way of easing the faithful into complicity in acceptance of heretical thought? Leading them into confusion? Even when done without that end in mind?

      “This is the function in persona Christi of the priest: making present, in the confusion and bewilderment of our times, the light of God’s Word, the light that is Christ himself in this our world. Therefore the priest does not teach his own ideas, a philosophy that he himself has invented, that he has discovered or likes; the priest does not speak of himself, he does not speak for himself, to attract admirers, perhaps, or create a party of his own; he does not say his own thing, his own inventions but, in the medley of all the philosophies, the priest teaches in the name of Christ present, he proposes the truth that is Christ himself, his word and his way of living and of moving ahead. ..”

      • Avatar Glenna Bradshaw says:

        Look, Ted, you are not entitled to judge the motives of the HPR Editor.
        As a Christian, which I assume you call yourself, you’re allowed to disagree with what he says but you’re never allowed to judge motives. This is what you’re doing by stating, “Isn’t this softening a way of leading the faithful into complicityin acceptance of heretical thought? Leading them into confusion? Even done without that end in mind?”

        By insinuating that you know Fr. Meconi’ s reason for writing this essay, you yourself are doing what you’re accusing him of doing. Jesus told us to judge a tree by its fruit but we’re not allowed to conjecture about what goes on in between the soul & God.


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