An Ecumenical Priesthood
The Spirit of God and the Structure of the Church
By Karl Rahner
Translated with a critical introduction by Jakob Karl Rinderknecht
Fortress, pp. 100, $28

Review by Bruce Myers

In the past 50 years, ecumenical dialogue has made great strides in finding common ground on a number of historic church-dividing issues. One theological knot that continues to vex many churches seeking reconciliation is mutual recognition of ministry — acknowledging and receiving as equals each other’s ordered ministers and, by extension, the sacraments they administer.

Which is why a voice from the not-so-distant past is a welcome — and perhaps unexpected — addition to the conversation. In An Ecumenical Priesthood: The Spirit of God and the Structure of the Church, the late German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner’s reflections on mutual recognition of ministry are available for the first time in English translation.


Written in 1973, Rahner’s text was one of several responses to a proposal on mutual recognition of ministry made that same year by five German ecumenical institutes. Germany’s Catholic bishops criticized the proposal for failing to take into account the particularities of their tradition’s approach to ministry. Rahner sought to build a bridge between the two, respecting both Catholic teaching and the legitimate lived experience of other churches.

Rahner wrote primarily for a Roman Catholic audience, and so necessarily engaged with theological and canonical categories proper to that tradition, in an effort to demonstrate that “the field for possible maneuvers is much greater in this question of ministry than one is accustomed to think.”

One example of such creative theological maneuvering is Rahner’s attempt to apply the concept of “radical sanation” — a Catholic canonical provision by which a marriage considered to have been contracted invalidly, but in good faith, can be retroactively validated by the church without requiring another wedding — to Protestant ordinations.

Rahner argues that such an application would acknowledge, from a Catholic perspective, that Protestant ordinations were at one time invalid, but also recognize that 500 years after the Reformation, Catholics are more clearly able to recognize the Holy Spirit present and active in other churches, including in their ministry and sacraments.

“The lawgiver does not change the thing itself,” Rahner writes, “but redefines his own relationship to it.” It’s not unlike the provision of the Concordat that brought the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America into full communion in 2001, whereby the ministries of all ELCA bishops and pastors were fully recognized, whether or not they had been ordained by bishops in historic succession.

Rahner sympathetically admits that his theological speculations may provoke bemusement among non-Catholic readers, who likely have few doubts about the validity of their churches’ ministry and sacraments in the first place. But (in a nod to the process of reception) he stresses the necessity of the exercise, reminding us that every church’s starting point in the journey toward Christian unity is different, and humility is an essential ingredient of interchurch dialogue: “[W]hen an ecumenical bridge is to be built, each must begin building from their own point of origin if it is to be hoped that the official church will one day accept the bridge that will be built.”

This slim but dense volume includes a separate but related appendix discussing broadening the circumstances under which a non-Catholic Christian may receive the Eucharist in a Catholic setting. The whole work is preceded by an indispensable critical introduction by the translator, Jakob Karl Rinderknecht, who clearly situates Rahner’s reflections in their time and context. He outlines and elucidates Rahner’s arguments, and offers useful insights informed by developments in the churches and ecumenical dialogue in the half-century since Rahner wrote this text, such as women’s ordination and the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Having little ability in the German language, I cannot judge the quality of the translation. However, for those with the interest and capacity, Rinderknecht is conscientious in providing footnotes explaining his choices in rendering this little-known work of Rahner’s into English.

Rinderknecht is a generous (and, for me, necessary) companion as the reader tries to follow Rahner on this occasionally meandering “trip off into the blue.” The author gives fair warning that this is not a straightforward argumentation so much as a “window into the theological workshop.” So the reader will glimpse a work in progress in which, Rahner admits, “more is asked than answered.”

This rediscovery of these questions, 50 years after Rahner first posed them and nearly 40 years after his death, is welcome and timely. Mutual recognition of ministry — and the ecclesiological issues that lie behind it — remains high on the agenda of various ecumenical dialogues, such as the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, the Malines Conversations, and the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches.

This is rightly so, because mutual recognition of ministry is not some abstract theological aspiration, as I was reminded this past Christmas Eve, when I celebrated the Eucharist in a relatively remote community of about 400 people. A Roman Catholic priest also flew into the village to celebrate Mass. The Anglicans gathered at 7 p.m. and the Catholics at 10:30 p.m., in separate church buildings a short walk from each other. Because of the number of interchurch marriages in the community, several people (including me) attended both eucharistic celebrations. We read the same lectionary texts, preached the same gospel, sang the same hymns, used essentially the same eucharistic prayer, even wore the same vestments — but separately, at different times in different venues around different altars.

Those two eucharistic celebrations of the Incarnation were simultaneously, and paradoxically, testimonies to both the Church’s fundamental unity and its scandalous division. The ecumenical movement has come so far and still has so much further to go. So in expressing my gratitude to Rinderknecht for bringing this novel work of Rahner’s to the attention of the English-speaking world, I also share the hope he expresses: “that Rahner’s exploration of the byroads and countryside could help us discover another way forward.”

The Rt. Rev. Bruce Myers is the Anglican Bishop of Quebec, co-chair of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue of Canada, and a professed member of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.