Karl Rahner,  Sacramental Humanity and the Corpus Mysticum

Against this tendency [to view with indifference people outside the Church] there are now a few passages to be noted. I am speaking only of the German situation; in general, of course, people know that everywhere. But within the German churches it is not so well known. I refer you to a very interesting treatment by Karl Rahner, "Membership of the Church according to the teaching of Pius XII's Encyclical, Mystici Corporis Christi "[ fn ] This encyclical, which first appeared in 1943, makes the most severe contraction of the membership of the church that it had ever received, insofar as here the community of the corpus mysticum is limited very strictly to members of the Catholic Church who have received the sacrament. Whoever does not have this sacramental character is not a member of the church, and since "church" is now identified with corpus mysticum, he is, so to say, not a member of the corpus mysticum.

In this situation, a theologian like Rahner has to first establish that these very restrictive formulations of the encyclical make only positive statements about this narrower membership, define only membership of the church, but—since they draw no conclusions—that they have nothing to say about the wider problem of the corpus mysticum. So, the theologian is free to go beyond the encyclical and make a series of reflections that then lead to where Thomas began in the High Middle Ages, that is to say, that Christ is the head of all men from the beginning of the world to its end.

However, a theologian like Rahner, certainly in the framework of the formulated Christian doctrinal pronouncements, as, for example, in this encyclical, has to behave himself. He must now erect all sorts of interesting constructions to make these doctrinal pronouncements compatible with his intended thesis, that Christ is the head of all men.

The worst offense is naturally the problem of the sacrament. For if, according to an explicit doctrinal pronouncement, church membership and membership of the corpus mysticum is limited to persons who have received a sacrament, how then can persons who have not received a sacrament still be members of the corpus mysticum? And arising from that, something remarkable is now achieved. From this lack of proper terms (which is precisely that of the theologian——we are not bound by such a problematic of having to start with the sacrament), he established that being a follower of Christ outside the church is not only an individual problem of personal acceptance of the word, or something like that, but, as he discreetly expresses himself, has a "quasi-sacramental" character.

So if we drop the expression "quasi-sacramental," which is caused by the lack of theological terminology, we can say what every anthropologist, every archeologist, everyone who is involved with the science of religions, and so on, knows in the secular sphere: that is, that obviously all men who are historically known to us and who have existed in historic societies have always had sacraments to express their presence under God.

So there is absolutely no reason to restrict to the church, or to any specific church, the idea of sacrament, whose general and constitutive idea holds for every community. Every primitive tribe has sacraments of divine worship, of rituals for initiation into the community, all of which always represent the presence in terms of very compact ideas of attachment to the world of the divine, in space-time reality. From the point of view of comparative religious studies and of history in general, there is absolutely no problem. There have always been sacraments; and there are only specifically Christian sacraments that have something to do with the higher degree of differentiation, of the incarnation and of the insight into the presence of all men under God.

So the problematic which Rahner tried to formulate very carefully, resolves itself in the insight that all men exist under God, and that, however, this insight into the existence under God passes through a historical process from compactness to differentiation. Therefore, the results of modern science are absolutely compatible with, for example, the Thomasic theology of Christ as the head of all men.

For, indeed, nothing else is expressed in the symbolism of Christ than the differentiated insight that all men always exist under God and under grace and salvation. And all men in all communities have always known that and symbolize it through the institution of sacraments. So we have here, from the theological side, an attempt to develop ideas that are again compatible with the contemporary level of secular science. However, one must say that secular science, since it is not bound by this balancing act between theological doctrinal pronouncements, has proceeded much further along in the understanding of what the community of mankind is.

FN. Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1963), 2:1-88. BACK TO TEXT

FN. [by fjw] But See: The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued on August 6, 2000, "DOMINUS IESUS," "On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church." One finds there:
. . . .
8. . . .Nevertheless, God, who desires to call all peoples to himself in Christ and to communicate to them the fullness of his revelation and love, "does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expression even when they contain 'gaps, insufficiencies and errors'".[fn omitted] Therefore, the sacred books of other religions, which in actual fact direct and nourish the existence of their followers, receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain. . . .
12. . . . Furthermore, the salvific action of Jesus Christ, with and through his Spirit, extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Church to all humanity. Speaking of the paschal mystery, in which Christ even now associates the believer to himself in a living manner in the Spirit and gives him the hope of resurrection, the Council states "All this holds true not only for Christians but also for all men of good will in whose hearts grace is active invisibly. For since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery".37
Hence, the connection is clear between the salvific mystery of the Incarnate Word and that of the Spirit, who actualizes the salvific efficacy of the Son made man in the lives of all people, called by God to a single goal, both those who historically preceded the Word made man, and those who live after his coming in history the Spirit of the Father, bestowed abundantly by the Son, is the animator of all (cf. Jn 334). . . .
15. . . . From the beginning, the community of believers has recognized in Jesus a salvific value such that he alone, as Son of God made man, crucified and risen, by the mission received from the Father and in the power of the Holy Spirit, bestows revelation (cf. Mt 1127) and divine life (cf. Jn 112; 525-26; 172) to all humanity and to every person. In this sense, one can and must say that Jesus Christ has a significance and a value for the human race and its history, which are unique and singular, proper to him alone, exclusive, universal, and absolute. Jesus is, in fact, the Word of God made man for the salvation of all [Emphasis Added.].

(37) Second Vatican Council,"Pastoral Constitution On the Church in the Modern World," "Gaudium et spes," December 7, 1965 § 22. [Chapter 1 The Dignity of the Human Person]: . . . . All this holds true not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way.(31) For, since Christ died for all men,(32) and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.
31. Cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Chapter 2, n. 16 AAS 57 (1965), p. 20.
32. Cf. Rom. 832.

CW VOL 31,
Descent into the Ecclesiastical Abyss
The Catholic Church,
pp 210-212.