Questions Answered – June 2021

Rahner and Relativism

Question: Pope Benedict has responded to his critics who claim that his letter about the origin of the sexual crisis among the clergy does not present the true picture. He attributes much of it to the relativism in modern European philosophy which caused a crisis in moral theology. Is this true and are there some specific examples besides the ones he gives?

Answer: In the last few months I have dealt with several of the causes of the present malaise in moral theology in the Catholic Church. This trend was exacerbated in the summer of 2019 by the wholesale sacking of the faculty at the John Paul II Institute at the Lateran University, which clearly taught John Paul’s view of sexual ethics. This was encapsulated in his teaching proclaimed in the Wednesday audience conferences during his pontificate known as the “Theology of the Body.” The movement to replace his teaching with what authorities called a broader view of problems connected to marriage also sought to root these in something besides systematic moral theology.

The general cause of the difficulties in moral theology can be traced to the teaching of Karl Rahner. Though he is not specifically named by many of those who reject moral absolutes, his thought is nevertheless behind the bad metaphysics applied to ethics which surrounds the current climate.

Karl Rahner provides an important distinction which forms the foundation for much of the disillusionment of post-Vatican II Catholic theologians with moral absolutes cited by Pope Benedict. In his important article “On the Question of a Formal Existential Ethics” reproduced in volume II of his Theological Investigations,1 Karl Rahner introduced a distinction into the moral evaluation of the goodness or evil of actions. This is the distinction between “formal existential ethics” and “material essentialist ethics.” According to him, “formal existential ethics” must take account not only of universal norms (laws) but also of the individual historical situation before any true moral analysis of either the good or evil of an action can be considered. This is because each moral act must be something truly personal and unique, and this individuality cannot be expressed in a universal norm. “The concrete moral act is more than just the realization of a universal idea happening here and now in the form of a case. The act is a reality which has a positive and substantial property which is basically and absolutely unique.”2 Universal statements like laws can never arrive at expressing personal actions. The basic problem is between the expression of the universal idea and its application to life. “Man is destined to eternal life as an individual and someone in the concrete.”3

One must remember the traditional Thomist solution to the problem of universals. In every kind of knowledge, the concept which is universal and spiritual in the mind is a true participation in the being of every concrete individual thing which it represents. When one knows a real universal idea, in this case the laws, one is truly reflecting what is common in the powers of the human soul in action. The concept or idea is found in the mind and so is spiritual. At the same time, it is a real participation in the being of the thing which it represents and so is an intimate expression of the concrete things, whether material or spiritual. One who has a true concept of a tree participates in the being of all trees, past, present, and future.

The same truth can be applied to man. As in all nature, one understands the powers of a thing by understanding the actions of that thing. When one has a true idea of man because one understands all the powers of the soul and body and their interaction with one another through reason, one truly participates in the being of every man who has existed, does exist or will exist on earth. This foundational idea is at the root of the formation of human choices in the will because in understanding the universal, one can then guide the further participation in goods in particular. Good adds to truth and being the idea of desirability. Conclusions about human conduct must result from laws which are universal formulations of those goods which are desirable in various contexts for man based on the nature and relation of his various powers. It is precisely this idea which gives Rahner pause. The reason is because it seems to limit the personal encounter of God with each soul.

It would be absurd for a God-regulated, theological morality to think that God’s binding will could only be directed to human action in so far as the latter is simply a realization of the universal norm and universal nature. If the creative will of God is directly and unambiguously directed to the concrete and individual, then surely this is not merely true in so far as this individual reality is the realization of a case of the universal — rather it is directed to the concrete as such, as it really is — to the concrete in its positive, and particularly its substantial, material uniqueness.4

For Rahner, God’s will is discovered by man in each unique event of his life, in each unique historical situation. No universal idea or norm can adequately deal with the situational complexity of the human person. Yet, if this situation is so unique that no universal laws can be formed about it at all, then this makes all morality merely a fulfillment of the needs of the individual. Morality would be truly the greatest good for the greatest number with no objective basis. Rahner’s solution to this dilemma is to posit two ethical systems mentioned above which must be observed in every human choice. The first would be the traditional abstract system formed by universal statements in the laws which is the “material essentialist ethics” already referred to. The second is based on “individual norms”5 which will complement this traditional system based on abstraction and essences with the existential uniqueness of the individual and is the “formal existential ethics.” “The notion of this ‘existential’ ethics […] shows itself unequivocally as the counter — and complementary notion of an abstractly universal ‘essentialist’ ethics.”6 Each human act has a “non-derivable qualitative property”7 which cannot be reduced to a norm.

For Rahner, the development of the second science of ethics, formal existential ethics, is necessary for the development of the full complexity of Catholic thought.

In so far as there is a moral reality in an existential-ethic sense and of a binding kind which nevertheless cannot (in the very nature of things) be translated into universal propositions of material content there must be an existential ethics of a formal kind, i.e. an ethics which treats of the basic elements, the formal structures and the basic manner of perceiving such an existential-ethic reality. Just as, on the one hand, there cannot be any science of the individual considered as a really individual singular as such, and yet, on the other hand, there is a universal formal ontology of individual reality, so (and in this sense) there can and must be a formal doctrine of existential concretion, a formal existential ethics.8

Rahner roots this second science in the conscience enlightened by the Holy Spirit using the principles for discernment of spirits found in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Until the individual conscience confronts the will of God for the individual manifested by the Holy Spirit personally to him, the laws are merely recommendations. The universal laws are partly binding because they are a part of the discernment process. But because of a kind of “supernatural instinct,”9 the person could always discern that the Holy Spirit was leading them to preserve the basic value taught by the law but to break its letter.

Though it is true that the law cannot foresee every situation and that there is lack of mathematical certainty in human actions, this does not mean that the negative laws, the “Thou shalt nots,” are mere approximations of the good. It is also true that in the Christian past, there have been some examples of God himself inspiring people to act contrary to the second table of the Ten Commandments, commandments 4–10, as God the creator can dispense from the natural law. There are few instances of this. The examples usually given are Hosea being told to marry a harlot, the Jews being told to despoil the Egyptians before leaving Egypt, and Abraham being told to sacrifice his son.

Rahner carries this principle so far as to suggest that the law is never a true indicator of evil actions because of its very universality. One could agree, for example, that contraception was generally wrong, but discern that in the individual circumstances, it was more life-serving to practice it.

This distinction between the laws and the conscience is at the root of the difficulty expressed by Pope Benedict. He is right that it has characterized Catholic thought since the 60s.

Christ, True God and True Man

Question: There has been much speculation in recent times about the grace of Christ. Some claim he is just a good man, so good as somehow to be identified with God. What does the Church teach in this regard?

Answer: Christ is the Word of God in person made flesh in the Virgin Mary. As the Council of Chalcedon teaches: “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union.” Christ therefore is the person of the Word who has always dwelt as God within the Trinity with his divine nature. In time, he chose to add a second nature to his person so that he could act in both natures, a human one. As a result there are two natures in one person in Christ.

Heresies regarding this doctrine had three tendencies. They denied that Christ was God and so taught he was only man. They denied that he was man and so taught that he was only God. They denied that he had two unique natures and taught he was a hybrid which was neither God nor man. In the working out of the definition of what we believe about Christ, each of these had to be refuted. The best way to do this is by affirming that the union of God and man in Christ did not take place in the natures, but in the person. The word for person in Greek as representing a unique substance of rational nature is “hypostasis.” Since this is where the union takes place, it is called the Hypostatic Union.

This union of the human nature of Christ with his divine nature in the Person of the Word is unique to him. As a result, this union is source of all the graces present in Christ. As is the case with all grace, it is not due to human meritorious action. It is not the case that God foresaw how good Christ would be and so made him his son. Rather, in light of his already being his Son as the Person of the Word, God chose to redeem the human race by a greater grace that was present when Adam was created in sanctifying grace before the Fall. This grace is unique to Christ alone and is a new relation between nature and God. From the standpoint of man, it is a real relation; from the standpoint of God we only think of it as a new relation. This is why it involves no change in God but a complete change in nature. Now nature is related to God in person, not just in nature.

Because of this mystery, Catholic theology normally attributes three kinds of grace in Christ. The first is the grace already discussed of the Hypostatic Union. The second is a result of this grace. The Hypostatic Union makes Jesus as man the only-begotten and natural Son of God. His human nature reflects this as he has the fullness of grace, the virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. His humanity itself is holy or Anointed. He did not become Christ (anointed) or Messiah. He IS Christ and Messiah. He is therefore not an adopted son of God as we are. One of the principal heresies about Jesus is to maintain he is an adopted son though an especially holy one. This is called adoptionism. Coupled with this is the heresy that Jesus had only one nature, either divine or human which is Monophysitism which comes for the two words in Greek mono (one) and physis (nature). These two heresies are very much with us today.

In addition to these graces there is a third one which is the same as the second grace in Christ but has a different recipient. Nothing Christ assumed in his conception in Mary’s womb was for himself alone. Instead, it was for the human race. The human race shares in the grace of Christ, its head. When man participates in the second grace of Christ, in other words experiences sanctifying grace, the virtues and the gifts, this is called the Capital Grace because it is a result of Christ as the Head of his body the Church, indeed of the whole human race.

The answer to the question should be clear from this. To say that Jesus was a good man, so good as somehow to be identified with God, is the heresy of both adoptionism and monophysitism. It cannot be an authentic expression of the Catholic faith.

  1. Karl Rahner, “On the Question of a Formal Existential Ethics,” Theological Investigations, vol. II, translated by Karl H. Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1963), 217–234.
  2. Rahner, “Ethics,” 225.
  3. Rahner, “Ethics,” 225.
  4. Rahner, “Ethics,” 227–228.
  5. Rahner, “Ethics,” 228.
  6. Rahner, “Ethics,” 228, note 3.
  7. Rahner, “Ethics,” 228, note 3.
  8. Rahner, “Ethics,” 229.
  9. Rahner, “Ethics,” 230.
Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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