They pretend it’s about language, but in reality it’s about content.

My good friend of many years, Msgr. Hans Feichtinger, has an excellent piece today at Crisis.   He puts his finger directly on the problems flowing from Germany and on the whole environment that spawned the Amazon Synod (“walking together”).

Many of the problems we face today have their tendrils back into the notions of Karl Rahner, SJ.

Here is a salient slice:

The paradigm of adapting faith and the language of faith to conform with the ways in which people already speak, think, and live can easily become misleading. It is true that we need to speak the language that people speak “where they are”; otherwise, there cannot be any communication at all. But as the process of evangelization unfolds, it must be turned around—which is another aspect of “conversion”: we need to change and adapt our lives and language to the Faith, and not vice versa.

As a theoretical distinction this may seem obvious. In reality, however, this distinction has not been maintained. Rahner left us a theology with internal tensions that often cannot be reconciled, and with a fundamental ambivalence when it comes to how the faith relates to modernity. The “balance of Rahner’s vision,” as Patrick Burke notes, has not been maintained by his heirs and followers. As a consequence, the Church in Germany today is in adaptation mode. Its bishops are convinced that, in order to be “relevant,” they need to reform her doctrines and practices so that they are less removed from “the reality of people’s lives”. Many theological discussions today are deceptive: they pretend to be about language, whereas they are about content. They claim to call for development, whereas they demand a revolution.

This is exactly right.   They pretend it’s about language, but in reality it’s about content.

You can also see the immediate results of this in our sacred liturgical worship since the Council and the disastrous reforms perpetrated under the Rahnerian “spirit” of the Council.

You must read the whole thing.


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  1. Point well taken. Words must have an objective meaning, if they are to mean anything at all. This, as opposed to being a means of social engineering, which is almost always preceded by verbal engineering.

  2. scoot says:

    I wonder if the Germans refer to the Church as “it” instead of “her”.

  3. Ivan says:

    Of course! It was and always is about the CONTENT. And the enemy, deceivers and apostates are subverting it with their misusing of – the language.

    Just look at the new, so-called modern translation of the Holy Scripture, the Holy Bible. In all languages. They subverted it.
    They did the same with the Code of Canon Law.

    To mention just a few:
    Take example of Book of Tobit chapter 6, chapter 8…
    Take example of Book of Judith chapter 13…
    Take example of John chapter 5 vers 4…

    And Many many others…

    Put side by side the true Latin Vulgate Holy Scripture, which is the only official Bible of Catholic Church, together with all modern translations of so-called neo-vulgate, especially those published last three decades, and see the difference.

    The latter ones can’t even be called Catholic.

  4. roma247 says:

    Let us take a moment to give thanks for the disaster that was the recent Pan-Amazon synod.

    It has put into high contrast the fact that it was simply a further (too far) development of the very same train of thought that gave us the Novus Ordo Mass. Chugga-chugga…choo choo! The train is pulling into the next station!

    So if we object to the outcome of this synod, the only real way to back it up, as you have said here a million times, is to trace it back to where it started and correct our course from that point.

    We MUST restore what was lost to the “spirit of Vatican II.” Morning is here, the coffee is made…time for everyone to wake up and smell it.

  5. HvonBlumenthal says:

    Rahner suffered from the typical middle class arrogance which thinks that modern people are more stupid than their ancestors and working people cannot comprehend educated people. He failed to see that his heathen ancestors had never heard of a consubstantial Godhead when they converted in droves, or that (as CS Lewis put it) Christianity is itself an education.

  6. Ted says:

    But wasn’t the program of the liturgical movement based on the same supposition, that the liturgy needed to be changed in order to be able to speak to “modern man”? Rather than adapting “modern man” to the liturgy, it was the liturgy, its content, its lex orandi, that was changed to suit what the reformers from the ivory tower thought was suitable for this abstract “modern man”, which probably spoke more about themselves than about the faithful in the pews. Josef Jungmann, who was highly critical of the TLM, wanted the liturgy reformed by making it more pastoral and intelligible so as to be palatable to this “modern man”; he even wrote a book on pastoral theology that greatly affected the Council and the liturgical reforms. Active participation of the faithful became the battle cry to change the liturgy rather than the faithful.

  7. teomatteo says:

    They pretend it’s about compassion but it’s really about truth.

  8. Lurker 59 says:

    One of the ironies about Vatican II is that the council attempted to make the teachings of the Church “relevant” but the documents were already outdated in their thinking before the ink dried on the page. There is a tendency to look at VII as a product of its time — this is true to an extent — but the theology that is contained therein is not cutting edge theology but the experimental theology of several decades prior. Additionally, when looking at “modern concerns” the produced documents, such as Inter mirifica are quite quaint even for the time period.

    Coming more directly to the article, the discussion of “what is language” and “how does language relate to the concepts and articulation/formation of the concepts behind language” is a very important, though complex, bit of discussion in early-mid 20th century accademia and needs to be fleshed out a bit more that what this article does. To get to this, let me point towards the last line of the article “it depends on whether we put Christ’s truth first in order to serve him by making him known to the world” and assume, for the sake of the argument, that the theological camps that the article divides things into.

    “Rahnerian Camp” — Language expresses preexisting concepts that are internally present in all peoples and cultures. Evangelization is about getting peoples to discover/actualize the realities that they already possess through language that is contemporary and internal to those people’s culture and experiences.

    “Non-Rahnerian Camp” — Language expresses preexisting concepts that are external to all peoples and cultures but can be discovered through reason and revelation. Evangelization is about the proclamation of these external concepts and revelation to peoples through language and cultural concepts so that those people might acquire/possess that which the evangelizer gives which necessarily transforms/replaces the language and culture of those peoples.

    (Can we see, using the first, how a bishop might say “I never baptized anyone.” “I walked with them and they taught me.” etc.)

    When we break things down this way, we can see how both camps might legitimately say “It is our task to make Christ known to others” but have completely different understandings of both how this is done and who Christ is? And also how each group is talking past each other? But also how it is not really a matter of Faith — that one group are believers and the others non-believers, even though that can be said? Really what is going on is an epistemological difference (which may be predicated upon a lack of Faith) but as such, is ultimately in the realm of reason and, therefore, one side can be falsified without recourse to the supernatural or internal judgment of persons, but instead is a matter wholly within the external forum and jurisdiction of not just, shall we say, the kingship of all believers, but of all rational creatures?

  9. Denis Crnkovic says:

    This is an excellent piece that prompted me to write quite a few observations in my journal. I do not have the time to repeat them here, but the gist is that knowing the Faith also requires hard work in understanding the concrete language of the Faith. The road from knowledge to understanding to Wisdom begins with the faith that the road is traversable even if difficult. Wanting to know is a basic human desire (Cor sapiens quaerit doctrinam); understanding is the result of activley using knowledge and then, only then, can one even hope to aspire to the modicum of knowledge we men are allotted in our temporal lives. That road to understanding is based on the hard work it takes to gain understanding, and the understanding is often based on knowing what words actually mean and have meant throughout time, not simply what they connote today or what contemporary society has twisted them to mean (cf. “gay”, “community”, and the like). When the post-Vatican II ethos turned into a “simplicity-at all-costs” movement, most of its perpetrators had no idea what they were doing, because, as G.K. Chesterton put it, “they did not know what they were undoing.” In fact they were ignorant of the concept of simplicty and its simple meaning (the Latins used it to mean “unmixed, plain, open, honest, forthright”). If you do not understand the antecedents to the English word “simple” you will easily fall into the trap that it means only what people think it means today, that is, “plain, unadorned ” or -more commonly – “not requiring any thought or work to undersatnd it.” And when you are told that simple is always better you will act accordingly and assume that you can establish a “meaningful liturgy” by taking away the beauty that requires so much hard work to create. You will, by using the excuse that simplicty is better, not have to put too much effort into making something beautiful, because that will not be “simple”. Ironically, you will probably wind up making such a hodge-podge of your worship services by adding this “simple” (read: easily accessible) thing here and that “simple” thing there (resulting in five different styles of bad music, hymns from seven different hymnals, and twenty different styles of banners all being crowded into the same Mass) that the principle of simplicty as unmixed and pure will be violated in the extreme. To be sure, misunderstanding the word “simplicity” is only one of many examples one can bring here. Many of these refusals to understand the real meanings of words have led to the far worse consequences to which Msgr Feichtinger alludes; consider only our current undersand of the words “well formed conscience” and you understand the messy state we have arrived at.

  10. Dad of Six says:

    “As a consequence, the Church in Germany today is in adaptation mode. Its bishops are convinced that, in order to be “relevant,” they need to reform her doctrines and practices so that they are less removed from “the reality of people’s lives”.”

    A satirical look (but with several grains of truth) at the Episcopalian results with that:

  11. Fr. Kelly says:

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

    From Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking Glass”

  12. Reflector says:

    Scoot: As to the German use of “it” or “she” when referring to the church, let me quote Karl Rahner rejecting (!) heavy left wing criticism against the church: “Die Kirche ist eine alte Frau mit vielen Runzeln und Falten. Aber sie ist meine Mutter. [But she ist my mother] Und eine Mutter schlägt man nicht. “

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  14. TonyO says:

    Perhaps in Germany it is socially and professionally impossible to write about Rahner without doling out at least a few items of praise for his work, while (eventually) getting around to pointing out that his work has not had the effect it was supposed to have.

    But the reality is far, far worse: there is nothing about Rahner’s theology that should have been published to begin with, nor taught in the schools and seminaries, and the world would be a better place if it was discarded and entirely forgotten (except in some dusty index of “errors not to make again”). R.R. Reno, in his book review of Fergus Kerr’s Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians: From Chenu to Ratzinger over at First Things, touted Rahner as the best of a long line of 20th century theologians who rejected scholasticism for the greener pastures of “over there” (i.e. anywhere but the traditional theology), but its all bunk. We are reaping the “benefits” of that rejection of solid theology for a mess of pottage: a Church wherein a typical parish priests – with nigh on 10 years of post-secondary training, cannot explain the sacraments, and don’t even know the corporal or spiritual works of mercy. And the ones who get advanced degrees are the worst (especially if they have an S.J. to append to their names, but we won’t go there.) Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius X exclaimed the importance of teaching St. Thomas in theology, and only 2 or 3 decades later they were ignored or abandoned galore.

    Fortunately, St. Thomas is making a slow come-back, mostly out of the limelight and in small corners of Catholicism (so far), but this is important: where St. Thomas’s works are being taught, there Catholicism is strong and making converts. There, theology is a shining light to spiritual growth and holiness. And no, it is NOT necessary to teach St. Thomas’s works through a text book by someone else who “mediates” what Thomas is “trying” to say.

    As Lurker 59’s comment indicates, the self-referential “camps” of modern categories-making are mind-twisting dead ends, born of modernism’s futile attempt to “get beyond” what the Church taught before modernism came along. It is unnecessary to try to make heads or tails of such camps, just as it is unnecessary to try to figure out if Hegel’s “corrective” to Kant is better, or Kant’s “corrective” to Hume and Berkeley better: it’s all bunk, based on crazy premises to start with.

  15. HvonBlumenthal says:

    Im not sure if it is good etiquette to comment on others’on Fr Z’a blog but not for the first time I personally find TonyO hits the nail on the head, and not for the first time.

  16. DeGaulle says:

    I wish to second HvonB.

  17. Imrahil says:

    Dear scoot,

    Germans always refer to the Church as “she”, because grammar makes them do so. The Church is feminine; so are – off the top of my head – forks (knives are neuter, spoons are masculine), fortified castles (but not representive castles which are neuter), cashiers, locomotives and so forth.

    When they speak English, some may initially be surprised at the habit of Catholic native speakers to make what they might perceive as “German speakers’ mistakes”, viz. referring to the Church as she.

  18. Chris in Maryland 2 says:

    Yes, Fr. Z, you are absolutely right: it’s all about content, and your example of the Liturgy is the best example.

    If it was about language, then “reformers” like Pope Paul VI and Bugnini would have simply have had the Mass translated, instead of making one up.

  19. JabbaPapa says:

    Is this the kind of insidious promotion of a “culture of hate” that take the form of symbols and actions that are typical of Nazism which we are supposed to be reminded therein of the speeches of A. Hitler circa 1934 & 1936 ?

    It’s super cool anyway to know that we have a wonderful Roman Pontiff willing to accuse his critics of “actions typical of Nazism“, and surely such claims can never ever amount to insidiously promoting a culture of hate …

  20. Docent says:

    Thanks, Father. It was the late, great Monsignor William Smith (not Mr. Alexander who commented above) who repeatedly warned the faithful that ‘all social engineering is preceded by verbal engineering.’ Indeed, Rahner was a master of creating incoherent terminology and phrases to conceal unorthodox, modernist views in various statements that he pretended were simply more ‘insightful’ ways to express orthodox views. Alas, many people continue to play the same game today (Pope Francis for one) in order to push their agenda.

    Thankfully, like you and Monsignor F, others have been able to see through Rahner and his present day fellow travelers. Cardinal Siri was one who clearly saw through Rahner’s game by, among other things, rightly exposing that Rahner …”in his interminable linguistic acrobatics he voices the most improbable and contradictory definitions, but without ever clearly teaching the doctrine of the Church on the Incarnation and Creation.”

  21. RLseven says:

    Of course, language expresses content. That’s why the Mass was re-written recently–why we say, “consubstantial,” for instance.

    The irony of this topic is that Jesus’ preaching was effective because the language he used was simple and direct, and the parables were designed to meet people where they were at culturally.

    [Simple and direct? The Lord’s language was often deeply layered and nuanced.
    People want to reduce Him to a kindly social worker. Nope.]

  22. TRW says:

    Here’s my pedantic rant:
    The trouble with trying to address modernity using it’s own terms is that there is not an appropriate vocabulary one can use to speak about the Transcendent. Without a proper grounding in Catholic anthropology, terminology necessarily devolves to the level of psychology, sociology and generic subjectivist spirituality. Immanentism and Modernism are implicit in the secular lexicon that was formed by the ravings of revolutionaries, men intoxicated by evil philosophies and ideologies that embraced egalitarianism as a first principle. The language employed by many European philosophers was political; it was language born of empiricism, naturalism and materialism. No evangelization, catechesis or formation can be fruitful unless it’s grounded in a truly Catholic understanding of what the person is. It is not without reason that the Church has always declared that some ideas are dangerous and such errors present a threat to the welfare of the souls entrusted to Her care. The promulgation of evil ideas is itself a great evil. In recent times, heretical notions, poorly disguised, are paraded about and presented as a means of initiating “dialogue with modern man”. In their attempt to reach “modern man” they have effectively denuded the Faith of it’s supernatural and transcendent dimension. They’ve left the modern church with nothing to engage the culture with except platitudes.

  23. JonPatrick says:

    Karl Rahner. Reminds me of a trip my wife and I made to Iceland a few years ago. We managed to find a church, not easy in a country where Catholicism is a distinct minority. In the vestibule books by Karl Rahner were prominently displayed. Uh Oh I thought. However my worries began to be allayed when we walked in and there were several nuns saying the rosary in Icelandic. The Mass itself was reverent led by a Polish priest with communion offered at an altar rail kneeling and on the tongue. Note that in Iceland a large percentage of the Catholic population are guest workers from predominantly Catholic parts of Europe such as Poland. Perhaps their presence had neutered the Rhanerian influence.

  24. robtbrown says:

    Ted says:
    15 November 2019 at 11:31 AM
    But wasn’t the program of the liturgical movement based on the same supposition, that the liturgy needed to be changed in order to be able to speak to “modern man”?

    That was the hijacked version of the liturgical movement.

    At its beginning the liturgical movement (whose father is usually considered to have been Dom Gueranger) was intended to involve the congregation chanting (cf participatio actuosa) the commons of the mass, e.g., Gloria, Agnus Dei, Credo) instead of just listening to a chorus.

    When the flight was hijacked, however, the Community of Man Ideologues took over reform of liturgy and theology and labeled what they called Ecumenical. In fact, it was oriented not toward worship but rather toward a superficial get together.

  25. robtbrown says:

    1. Modernity and Modernism are not necessarily the same thing. Modernity is a general term that can be applied variously, from architectural style and preference for word processors over typewriters to a more independent lifestyle typical of prosperity.

    On the other hand, Modernism, in so far as it is used theologically, does not consider Revelation to have Divine origin. It is considered merely the manifestation of religious instinct and categories of the mind. Totally subjective. Hello, Schleiermacher

    2. The article nails the foundation of Rahner’s approach. For good reason he had been accused of Pelagianism, which considered Original Sin to be merely personal rather than an inherited ontological change reflecting the loss of the Grace of Original Innocence. For Rahner what is passed down is the Fear of Death.

    3. Rahner’s Sacramental theology is equally a disaster. The difference between Baptism and a pagan initiation rite is of degree not of kind. Baptism merely does it better. This smacks of the Protestant (mis)understanding of the Sacraments that denies ex opere operato.

    4. Rahner’s thought is IMO a reaction to the Rationalism of Neo-Scholasticism.

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