Book Review: An Ecumenical Priesthood

An Ecumenical Priesthood:
The Spirit of God and the Structure of the Church
By Karl Rahner
Translated and with a Critical Introduction by
Jacob Karl Rinderknecht

The announcement of this volume immediately evoked interest. First, it is rare to come across a previously untranslated essay by Karl Rahner. Even more fascinating is the title, accurate from original German, that it is Rahner’s 1973 “preliminary questions” on an ecumenical understanding of ordained ministry. (Vorfragen zu einem ökumenischen Amtsverständnis). The subtitle translator Jakob Karl Rinderknecht has given it marvelously captures the very core of Rahner’s careful, sometimes dense and challenging effort to explore the possibility of an ecumenical recognition of ordained ministries. Rahner is thinking across church lines, so his own Roman Catholic communion and the churches he calls in German usage, evangelische. This is not precisely “Protestant” churches. Reformation churches would be more accurate as it would include Lutheran and Reformed bodies, and beyond Germany, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians and so on.

Almost fifty years later, we are in what some call an “ecumenical winter,” a time when the enthusiasm and energy of ecumenical dialogue has abated. All the more so then, this “thought experiment,” as Rinderkneht renders Rahner’s own description, ein Fahrt ins Blaue, is a most important contribution, maybe even a way of thinking out of seemingly interminable Lutheran-Catholic and other official dialogues, local and international, which produce libraries of wonderful essays but nothing by way of a breakthrough either in full communion or recognition of ministries. There has been the important Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification of 1999. And among Reformation churches full communion and recognition of ministries came from the 1992 Poorvoo Joint Declaration among Anglican and Lutheran churches in Europe and the Lutheran-Episcopal Concordat in 1999, among other agreements.

But while Pope Francis has made informal remarks about not turning anyone away from communion and about not understanding why a Lutheran could not commune at a Catholic mass, there has been little formal movement. Toward the end of his life, in 1983, Rahner himself, with Catholic theologian and priest Henrich Fried, authored Unity of the Churches: An Actual Possibility. Eight theses were put forward for the unity that is a command of the Lord. These included agreement in fundamental truths, the principle of faith, churches becoming true partners in life and mission, and in fraternal exchange, recognizing each other’s ordained ministries as well as an episcopal ministry of oversight. Also addressed were the question of the place of the bishop of Rome as the Petrine ministry of service to all the churches, as well as ex cathedra decisions.

Rahner’s essay on a recognition of an ecumenical ordained ministry is a crucial early step, published in the series Quaestiones Disputatae, now numbering hundreds of volumes. He acknowledges that past decisions of the Roman church have not been able to recognize the validity of the ordained ministries of Reformation churches. That said, he does not shy away from pursuing whether these decisions themselves deprive the Reformation churches of real ordained ministries and sacraments, especially the Eucharist. It is indeed a “thought experiment,” but hardly a merely theoretical or academic one. As Rinderknecht notes, theologian Josef Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, affirmed in a letter to Lutheran bishop Johannes Hanselmann on March 9, 1993 that, as continuing ecumenical work indicated, the question of legal “validity” was not exhaustive and could not deny the “saving presence of the Lord” in the Evangelical Lord’s Supper/Eucharist.

Since Rahner’s time the question of the ordination of women, widely in practice across Reformation churches has emerged. He did not take account of this or other issues such as celibacy or the admission of LGBTQ persons to ordination. Neither did he take up issues of the distinction between episcopal and presbyteral offices or even the canonical, that is legal, significance of apostolic succession in ordination.

Nevertheless, while writing as a Catholic to Catholics, Rahner wants to take into account the historical consequences of the Reformation schism. This he needs to do in order to take the Catholic tradition seriously, not simply discarding it, while at the same time respecting and recognizing the presence of the Spirit in the Reformation churches. The big however comes when he thinks out loud about grace, the Spirit, the action of God regardless of what the Roman church has said, how it behaves institutionally. Rahner takes a complicated path forward, considering how despite its past stance, the Roman church can yet today recognize the Spirit at work in Reformation churches. One turn Rahner makes is to invoke a canonical view of “radical sanation” or healing (sanatio in radice) regarding marriages seemingly lacking in necessary elements or possessing defects. These can be looked at very differently later on.

Put more directly, the Church can act differently in the present than it did in the past, taking into account God’s actions, which are not dependent on the Church’s decisions. Maybe another way of putting it would be to say that the canons and the structures of the institutional church cannot thwart the Spirit. Such was the realization of Vatican II documents Lumen gentium, Gaudium et spes and later, Nostra aetate, Unitais redintegratio and Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Catholic thinking evolved to seeing the action of the Spirit at work outside the canonical boundaries of the Roman church, meaning in the other churches, Reformation and Orthodox. It is a redefinition of the Roman church’s attitude to and relationship with these churches. Further, since unity is a command and action of the Lord, Rahner is impelled by the eschatological vision rediscovered in our time. In a divided and often non-believing world, the real unity of the churches in faith, baptism, eucharist and ministry is a potent witness to the presence of Christ and the work of the Spirit going forward in the life of the kingdom.

Rinderknecht has done us all a great service here both in his lucid translation and thoughtful commentary. This is a little sign of ecumenical spring.

Rahner, Karl. An Ecumenical Priesthood: The Spirit of God and the Structure of the Church. Translated by Jakob Karl Rinderknecht. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2022. liii+100 pages. $28.00. ISBN: 9781506484297.

REVIEWER: Michael Plekon
Michael Plekon is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Religion,
The City University of New York, Baruch College,
and has been a priest in the Western and Eastern Churches.
Community as Church, Church as Community
 (Cascade, 2021) is his most recent book.


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