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Cultural consolidation

It is a happy accident that brings together in 2005 the anniversaries of three Jesuits who worked in German: Peter Canisius, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner. The theologies of Rahner and von Balthasar, each born 100 years ago, and the Catechism of Canisius, first published 450 years ago, represent different styles of address to changing cultures.

The Catechism, commissioned by Emperor Ferdinand I, was a decisive act of consolidation in a time of religious fragmentation, enthusiasm and confusion. It presented the Catholic faith in relatively simple terms for priests, teachers and lay people. The Catechism was focused on issues debated in the Reformation, and made clear the difference between Catholic and Reformer. It became a symbol of Catholic identity. At last count, it has appeared in 1161 editions.

Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar were both born in a Catholic world. They engaged in different ways with the forces that have made Christianity marginal in contemporary Western culture. Rahner took seriously the philosophy of the Enlightenment with its emphasis on human subjectivity. He looked for connections between the longings characteristic of all human beings and the Good News offered in Christian faith. His theology was open to culture, while taking human tragedy seriously.

Von Balthasar, who left the Jesuits after being ordained a priest, engaged with high European culture, and its roots in early Christian literature. He presented Christian faith in a richly symbolic and highly elaborated form, appealing to the richness of texture of Christian truth in a thin cultural world. If Rahner treated persuasively the relevance of Christianity to the contemporary world, von Balthasar described the attractiveness of Christian identity in a world that had lost its bearings.

The Catechism and the theologies of Rahner and von Balthasar have their place and their moment. But anniversaries remind us that theologies and books are the creations of quirky people—the eirenical Canisius, the passionate Rahner, the devout and irascible von Balthasar.

But catechisms and theologies also have political dimensions. They gather groupies and goon squads. In seminaries, to take a course on Rahner or von Balthasar can be a gesture of theological partisanship. Nor do all who bury them understand them. Rahner can be used to endorse an uncritical accommodation with all aspects of contemporary Western culture. Von Balthasar can be used to insinuate that threadbare church practices are handsomely clothed.

Catechisms are also political documents. They make statements about Catholic identity in a changing world. In the Netherlands city of Nijmegen, an exhibition has been mounted to celebrate the anniversary of the Catechism. The exhibition also displays many other catechisms, among them the Dutch Catechism written shortly after the Vatican Council. It was later printed with corrective notes. Too much Rahner, perhaps, and not enough von Balthasar!

Andrew Hamilton sj is the publisher of Eureka Street.



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