May 6, 2010

Karl Rahner & Bernard Lonergan

IN recent discussions with Catholics, I have encountered what I would call an uncritical acceptance of the writings of Catholic theologians Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan. Doubtless, we can learn much that is of value from their works. However, I do not trust either writer uncritically in all things pertaining to Catholic philosophy or theology.

Philosophically, I am not sympathetic to Transcendental Thomism or “critical” realism. I am in full agreement with the eminent historian of medieval philosophy, Etienne Gilson, who amply shows that once realism becomes “critical” it is no longer Thomistic realism. But the problem of a critical realism will be a topic for another post.

For now, I will note that I am disappointed in both Rahner and Lonergan for their failure to understand and accept the Catholic Church’s teaching on artificial birth control. The Church grounds its position on artificial means of birth control in the natural law. Adherence to that most sensible teaching is morally obligatory.

How trustworthy are the philosophical judgments of Rahner and Lonergan when they dispute that interpretation of natural law? How sound are their theological judgments when they continued to dissent from the teaching authority of the Church? Humanae Vitae settled and closed the fundamental issues.

Again, this does not speak well of their philosophical understanding of natural law and Catholic moral theology, not to mention their trendy 60's style of dissing the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. Their conduct was indisputably scandalous.

Regarding their pro-artificial contraception stance, Msgr. Vincent Foy describes the "The Toronto Conference on the Theology of Renewal”:
A congress on the Theology of the Renewal of the Church was held in Toronto in 1967. It was heavily loaded with speakers who were agitating for change in the Church’s teaching against contraception. Among these were Cardinal Leger, Cardinal Suenens, Edward Schillebeeckx, OP, Karl Rahner, SJ, Bernard Häring, CSsR, Bernard Lonergan, SJ, Enda McDonagh (called by some the Maynooth Pope of Modernism),... Fr. Häring saw the teaching against contraception as coming from a pre-scientific mind appropriate to a former society. No speaker defended the Church’s teaching against contraception or sterilization. Thus again, Canada was being led down the slippery slope towards the contraceptive mentality.
That was 1967. Pope Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae on July 29, 1968.
After Humanae Vitae, pressure groups sprung up like mushrooms. Among these were the Western Conference of priests, armed with a letter of support for dissent by Fr. Bernard Lonergan, SJ, the Catholic Physicians Guild of Manitoba, Catholics in Dialogue, the Canadian Institute of Theology and 58 “intellectuals” of St. Francis Xavier University (“the cream of Antigonish” their Bishop said.) The chant of all was “Give us Freedom of Conscience."
Most significant and most disgraceful was that fifteen Directors of the departments of the Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops betrayed their offices and signed what one could call a “Pre-Winnipeg” Statement. They asked for a “Vatican II approach.” They said that a large number of Canadian priests were agonizing “in acute crises of conscience” because of the “apparent directives of Humanae Vitae.” In all my experience I never met a priest suffering from such an acute crisis of conscience.
So the stage was set for the great Winnipeg betrayal of the Catholics of Canada.
(Excerpts from Humanae Vitae and Canada: Forty Years After, by Msgr. Vincent Foy. I edited out Msgr. Foy's statement regarding Elizabeth Anscombe, as he clearly misrepresented her position, an error apparently due to his failure to check his source. I welcome any information that indicates any additional errors Msgr. Vincent Foy may have made.)

Recommended reading: Contraception and Chastity by Elizabeth Anscombe.

In regard to Karl Rahner and Humanae Vitae, Rahner maintained that it is permissible to dissent from "the ordinary decisions of the pope on matters of faith and morals." Fr. Regis Scanlon says,
Karl Rahner, however, stated that this teaching in No. 25 of Lumen Gentium " . . . is not to be propounded in such a way that in practice an absolute assent is still demanded or that there were no instance in which one might withhold assent."  When applying this teaching to a case in which a person had conscientiously decided to use contraception, against the decision of Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, Rahner commented: "Such a Catholic need not fear that he has incurred any subjective guilt or regard himself as in a state of formal disobedience to the Church's authority." Moral theologians, Ronald Modras and William May, have pointed out that Karl Rahner meant that one could "dissent" from the ordinary decisions of the pope on matters of faith and morals.
Read the complete article at Non-Infallibility: The Papacy And Rahner 


  1. It would help if you quoted what Rahner and Lonergan actually said about contraception. And what they said about disagreeing with the pope about it.

  2. The addition of quotes would have been icing on the cake, but I do not have, at least at this time, the sources available to quote. Nonetheless, when I find some choice quotes from Rahner or Lonergan on this issue I will be sure to post them in a follow-up article. Until then, Msgr. Vincent Foy's account will have to suffice.

  3. I share your reservations about Lonergan and Rahner. If, as their opponents maintain, they have developed philosophies/theologies which are incompatible with realism (as understood by classical Thomists), then it is no surprise that they would find natural law arguments unconvincing. If you are not a realist (e.g. if you are a Kantian), then you simply have no basis for judgements based on the way things are, because you cannot know that. Instead, you substitute your own construct.

  4. This is the way I see it:

    Someone proposed the following syllgism...

    Bread is made of stone
    Stone is nutritive
    Ergo: Bread is nutritive

    The premises are wrong but the conclusion is correct and may be demonstrated at any time.

    So it is that The Pope may have used a syllgistic argument based on an outdated Aristotelian Logic, but his intention was neither to teach Logic nor Biology, but a Moral Truth.

    Were Rahner, Lonergan, et alii, alive that is what I would ask them, Can you show me that The Pope is teaching something which is morally wrong?

  5. This is the way I see it:

    Someone has proposed the following syllogism

    Bread is made of stones
    Stone stones are nutritive
    Ergo: Bread is nutritive

    The conclusion of the syllogism is true, not because of the syllogism, but because it can be verified empirically.

    Lonergan's argument against Humanae Vitae seems to be based on the fact that the Pope's reasoning is based on an outdated Aristotelian Biology. But even if this is true, the Pope was not teaching Biology, or even Logic. He was teaching a moral truth.

    This moral truth stands, even if in writing the encyclical the Pope used an outdated Biology.

    Could Lonergan, and Rahner, challenge not the Biology, but the Moral Truth?

    That is what I wish I could ask him, and his confrere Rahner.

  6. To Miguel:
    While the concluding statement of the "syllogism" is true, it does not logically follow from the premisses, which are false in themselves. The argument does not represent a valid form of syllogism. (Note also that a syllogism can be valid even though it's conclusion is false.)

    Longergan's argument is strained. The truth of Humanae Vitae is solidly grounded in the natural moral law, of which the Church is the ultimate interpreter.

  7. Thomas:

    I see your point.

    The point that I was trying to make is that the truth of the moral taught by the Pope is independent of the logic and the Aristotelian biology that he used in the encyclical.

    The moral truth he taught was revealed to him by the Holy Spirit who also gave him the authority to teach it to all of us. The logic and biology he used in the encyclical he learned on his own.

  8. Monsignor Foy corrected the reference to Elizabeth Anscombe and apologized. It clearly was not an intentional misrepresentation. This correction was published in Catholic Insight.

    Here is what the corrected paragraph state:

    "The Toronto Conference on the Theology of Renewal

    A congress on the Theology of the Renewal of the Church was held in Toronto in 1967. It was heavily loaded with speakers who were agitating for change in the Church’s teaching against contraception. Among these were Cardinal Leger, Cardinal Suenens, Edward Schillebeeckx, OP, Karl Rahner, SJ, Bernard H ring, CSsR, Bernard Lonergan, SJ, and Enda McDonagh (called by some the "Maynooth Pope of Modernism"). The only speaker who defended the Church’s teaching was Elizabeth Anscombe. Fr. H ring saw the teaching against contraception as coming from a pre-scientific mind appropriate to a former society. Thus again, Canada was being led down the slippery slope towards the contraceptive mentality.

    Thus again, Canada was being led down the slippery slope towards the contraceptive mentality."

    As well, here is the Letter to the Editor of Catholic Insight, from Msgr. Foy, in which he corrects the mistake:

    Letter to the Editor

    Dear Fr. de Valk,

    Sincere apologies for a serious error in my article "Humanae Vitae and Canada: Forty Years later"
    which appeared in the July/August issue of Catholic Insight.

    In describing the 1967 Toronto Conference on the Theology of Renewal, I
    said, "No speaker defended the Church's teaching against contraception or
    sterilization." I should have said, "No speaker, except Elizabeth Anscombe, defended the Church's teaching against contraception." Instead,
    I listed her among the dissenters.

    Elizabeth Anscombe has been a fearless and consistent defender of life.
    Like our heroic Fr. Ted Colleton, she was arrested for her support of the

    In an article I wrote for Catholic Insight for July/August of 2000, I
    listed Elizabeth Anscombe among the brilliant scholars who have contributed to our understanding of orthodox teaching on life. We owe her
    a deep debt of gratitude.

    Msgr. Foy

  9. It is good to know that Msgr. Foy corrected his error. Many thanks to the person who posted the information.

  10. There is one more option between Gilson and Kant - that is what Marechal, and more specifically, Lonergan is all about. The key difference is in how we judge something to be real. For Gilson, when we judge something as real, we intuit the reality of it and thus we immediately grasp it, while for Lonergan we intend what is real and thus we grasp the reality of it in a mediated way, through our questions and answers, which results in an insight. The insight is immediate, but it only happens as a result of our questions and (correct) answers in light of all our available evidence. So, what do we do when we come to know that something is real? Do we judge it to be real by an immediate intuing? or, do we judge it to be real by a mediated intending, through our questions and answers in light of all our available knowledge? Let's spell out what we do when we come to know that something is real, and we'll see that the second alternative is the correct one. That is Lonergan's claim. Is he correct? Is he describing something real? Note what we inevitably do when we answer this question. That's Lonergan's point.

  11. It seems to me the existence of the world is given and unmediated. We can judge it to be real, but that remains a secondary cognitive act. What is already given in the initial apprehension of a thing is that it exists. Any attempt to verify the existence of the external world of things is superflous and contradictory because it is an effort totally dependent on what is already given in sense perception. If it were not given, then it could not be judged, we could have no certainty of its existence.

  12. @Anonymous. There is surely more than one option between Gilson and Kant. There is Aristotelian Thomism and Analytical Thomism.

    According to Aquinas, to know something is to become formally identified with it, isn't it? (The identification of the knower and the known). Not sure why that has to be mediated. In other words, there is the option of direct realism.

    I doubt if knowing something is the same as making a judgement about it.

  13. The identification of the knower and the known is not a direct event because we are the ones asking questions about whether something is real or not. Now, the "real" can refer to the following: (1) to some attentively experienced data, (2) to some intelligently established hypotheses (about the data), and (3) to some reasonably affirmed judgments (about our hypotheses about the data). Thus, data, hypotheses, and facts, are "real" things in very different senses. We immediately encounter data, but we do not immediately encounter hypotheses and facts. For Lonergan, strictly speaking, the real refers to facts, which are the result of our making judgments about our hypotheses.
    I have described how (for Lonergan) we come to establish something as a fact, or in other words, how we come to know that it is the case. I think that this is more convincing than saying that knowing is the same as intellectually "seeing" (directly) the already true/real/factual.

  14. "Judgment" on what is apprended by the senses or intellect is an intellectual act separate from the initial act of knowing in which things present themselves to the knowing subject, resulting in the knower and known becoming one. If a person apprehends a speeding car about to hit him, but hestitates to ask himself whether the car is real or not, it may the last question he ever asks.

  15. Experiential knowing is knowing but in its elementary form. To "know" a car is speeding towards me is an instance of experiential knowing. If we don't get out of the way, we won't be asking too many questions afterwards.

    But if I do get out of the way, I can know why the car was speeding towards me. I can also come to know what was going on in the "car event" more deeply. I can get a chance to ask questions, and come to "know" why the car was speeding towards me: maybe its brakes weren't working properly, maybe the driver was drunk or having a siezure, etc.

    The key insight is that elementary or experiential knowing while necessary, is not sufficient for knowing causes, correlations, dogma, equations, etc.

    To "know" those things, I need intelligence and judgment. Experiential or elementary knowing stimulates my intellectual inquiry into the data of experience. If I take the chance to do the inquiry, I can get an insight into the data of my experience. I can then reasonably judge whether or not I've gotten it right.

    In this context, God's love is an experience I can mystically enjoy. It also poses many questions to me; just as Jesus did to his disciples when he asked them "Who do you say I am?"

    Like his disciples, I can do the responsible thing and make the inquiry, seek out the answers, get insights, assess their merit and act upon them with integrity. Sounds pretty good to me:)

  16. How did a discussion about papal authority, dissent and contraception become one of reality and knowing?.I agree that direct quotes and corroborative efforts are necessary. Knowing at any level is getting corroboration and both sides-not just two sides-of the story besides making it more interesting. Joe Ferrara

  17. Sorry to find this a full two years after the discussion, but you'll be hard pressed to find Lonergan dissenting from Humanae Vitae. He wrote an article in defense of Church teaching on contraception called "Finality, Love, and Marriage" where he defended the traditional teleological understanding of the marital act. However, when the Pill came out, he saw it as something different, and he wrote in a private letter that Pope Paul VI's arguments misused Aristotelian science to give a faulty teleology. He probably did think that Paul VI made a mistake on the Pill, but he never publicly said anything post HV that I can find. Today, science has made more advances, and Lonergan scholars such as David Fleischacker have shown how Lonergan’s critique of Paul VI on the Pill was right and leads to a better argument to defend the Church’s teaching with.

    Secondly, Lonergan did not consider himself a transcendental Thomist and he did not see himself as doing what Rahner or Marechal was doing. Lonergan thought that his epistemology was Thomistic, in line with Augustine, and that others (although he does not use a name, I imagine he is thinking of Gilson), while right about Marechal, actually produced a hybrid-epistemology influenced on Scotus. Paul St-Amour and Jeremy Wilkins have some good articles on this, but the real text to read is Verbum.


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