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Order, Out of Order: Rahner's Tectonic Proposal for an Ecumenical Difficulty

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 November 2015

Jakob K. Rinderknecht
Saint John's School of Theology and Seminary


The sacrament of order raises important ecumenical questions, but discussion is hindered by binding historical magisterial judgments of invalidity. This article examines a mostly overlooked ecumenical proposal made by Karl Rahner in 1974 for approaching the sacrament and examines its implications by applying the insights of contemporary cognitive linguistic thinkers. Rahner suggested that Protestant order could be ruled valid by the Catholic Church through a determination analogous to the radical sanation of a marriage. Such a proposal both accepts the prior judgment that the sacrament was invalid and declares it to now be valid retroactively to its beginning. Rahner's proposal has several important implications: first, it can allow for mutual recognition of ministries without requiring either a reordination of the other's presbyters or a revocation of the historical judgments of invalidity. Potentially more broadly, it can serve as the basis for a rethinking of sacramental causality in general.

Copyright © College Theology Society 2015 

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1 Second Vatican Council, Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), chap. 3, in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils: From Nicaea I to Vatican II, ed. Norman P. Tanner (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 2:915–20; hereafter, UR.

2 For the first, see Otto Hermann Pesch, The Ecumenical Potential of the Second Vatican Council (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2006), 44–47. For the second, see the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter “Dominus Iesus” on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, August 6, 2000, §§16–17,; and Letter “Communionis Notio” on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion, May 28, 1992,

3 “Communionis Notio,” §§17–18. Throughout what follows, I will translate sacramentum ordinis as “sacrament of order” or “order” rather than the more typical “sacrament of orders” and “orders.” I do this both because it is a better translation of the Latin (ordinis, not ordinum), and because it emphasizes the relational character of the sacrament. The singular emphasizes that the church is the recipient of a single order that is made present by means of a variety of offices; the plural implies that an individual is receiving a steadily ascending cursus honorum of various orders on the pattern of ancient Roman public office. For more on this topic, see Susan K. Wood, “The Church as Communion,” in The Gift of the Church, ed. Peter C. Phan (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 163–68.

4 The idea that the church is made to be church through the sacraments is widely articulated. See, in particular, Henri de Lubac, Corpus mysticum: L'eucharistie et l’Église au Moyen Âge: Étude historique (Paris: Aubier, 1949); Paul McPartlan, Sacrament of Salvation: An Introduction to Eucharistic Ecclesiology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995).

5 These difficulties are taken up by the American Lutheran-Catholic dialogue: Randall Lee and Jeffrey Gros, eds., The Church as Koinonia of Salvation (Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing, 2005), §§105–13. See particularly their citation of Cardinal Ratzinger at §107.

6 1917 CIC can. 12 decrees that a valid baptism makes an individual a member of the Roman Catholic Church and therefore subject to the provisions of canon law. This would include Protestants, which is why former Protestants who wished to become Catholic were (and are) required to regularize second marriages before they can be received into full communion.

7 Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Apostolicae Curae, September 15, 1986, §11; also Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), §20–21, in Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2:863–65; hereafter, LG. The question of what makes order valid is somewhat different in the medieval era. In the older theology, because of a theological frame in which priesthood needed to be the summit of the orders, episcopacy was understood to be a jurisdictional difference. Valid order was therefore predicated on proper exercise of this jurisdiction (delegated by the pope to the ordaining bishop) to act on behalf of the church. The Second Vatican Council's description of the episcopal ordination as “conferring the fullness of the sacrament of order” (plenitudinem conferri sacramenti ordinis; LG §21, Tanner 2:865) changes the understanding of what constitutes a valid sacrament of order. I will return to this idea at greater length below.

8 This position might be critiqued by someone claiming that this is precisely what the separated brethren are, and so to say this is merely to speak the truth. Such a position misses the point of calling the separated brethren “ecclesial communities” and fails to understand how expression is also part of meaning. Fully rebutting this point of view is much more than can be essayed in this article, but is a worthy project. For a Rahnerian suggestion as to why the church must both emphasize its unicity and seek to engage the other in nonpolemical ways, see Gromada, Conrad T., “How Would Karl Rahner Respond to Dominus Iesus?,” Philosophy & Theology 13 (2001): 425–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 So, for example, Church as Koinonia of Salvation, §109: “We recommend that Roman Catholic criteria for assessing authentic ministry include attention to a ministry's faithfulness to the gospel and its service to the communion of the church, and that the term defectus ordinis as applied to Lutheran ministries be translated as ‘deficiency’ rather than ‘lack.’”

10 Karl Rahner, Vorfragen zu einem ökumenischen Amtsverständnis, in Sämtliche Werke, vol. 27, Einheit in Vielfalt: Schriften zur ökumenischen Theologie, ed. Karl Lehmann (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 2002), 223–85. All translations from this document will be my own; page numbers will reference the original pagination printed in the margins of the Sämtliche Werke. Rahner himself does not propose clear terms for naming the distinction he proposes. These terms are those used by Dulles, Avery Cardinal, “Toward a Mutual Recognition of Ministries,” Dialog 22 (1983): 111–12Google Scholar.

11 For the most developed reflection, see “Zur Frage des Amtsverständnisses,” in Sämtliche Werke, ed. Karl Lehmann (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 2002), 27: 215–19. That text is reprinted from Schriften zur Theologie, ed. Paul Imhof (Zurich: Dt. Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1984), 16:271–77. An earlier, less-developed version was published as “Kleine Randbemerkung zur Frage des Amtsverständnisses,” in a festschrift for Heinrich Fries: Auf Wegen der Versöhnung, ed. P. Neuner and F. Wolfinger (Frankfurt: J. Knecht, 1982), 213–19. In these articles, Rahner repeats his proposal but does not lay out his reasoning as completely as in the text of the Vorfragen from 1974. I will, therefore, refer primarily to that work.

12 Heinrich Fries and Karl Rahner, Einigung der Kirchen—Reale Möglichkeit (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1983); translated by Ruth and Eric Gritch as Unity of the Churches: An Actual Possibility (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985).

13 “As has been said, and will be said again, the answer to the retroactive question of validity or non-validity of ministerial offices in the churches of the Reformation (from the perspective of Catholics today) is not something that would have to block the future unity of the churches, even if the answers are different. But in any case, this is valid or the future: the churches are challenged, in the documents mentioned above, to test anew the possibility of reestablishing the connection with the historical succession of the office of bishop as a sign of the unity of the faith.” Fries and Rahner, Unity of the Churches, Thesis V.III, 101.

14 I have only been able to find two references to the Vorfragen in English theological literature: Dulles’ article referenced above at note 10 and Root, Michael, “Bishops, Ministry, and the Unity of the Church in Ecumenical Dialogue: Deadlock, Breakthrough, or Both?,” CTSA Proceedings 62 (2007): 1935Google Scholar.

15 UR §3 (Tanner, 2:910) stipulates that “these sacred actions … must be held capable of giving access to that communion in which is salvation.” Notice that it is the actions themselves that must be, in some way, loci of grace. As such, these actions can be called truly sacramental.

16 Rahner, Vorfragen, 15–19. The thought experiment is really a variation of the in extremis arguments by which sixteenth-century German Lutherans defended their new (and putatively temporary) practice of presbyteral ordination in the absence of a bishop. See Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, The Apostolicity of the Church: A Study Document of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2006), §§203–5.

17 Rahner, Vorfragen, 17: “Da sind getaufte Christen, sie Leben in einer Situation ihrer Existenz, zu der der ausdrückliche christliche Glaube, die Schrift, die Bezogenheit auf die Kirche als den Leib Christi als geschichtliche Greifbarkeit gesellschaftlicher Art gehören, sie sprechen die Worte des Gedächtnisses des Todes des Herrn, sie haben eine gemeinsame Feier in Gebet und Christlicher Liebe. Und so empfangen sie—auf jeden Fall—die res sacramenti der Eucharistie. Und was sie feiernd tun, hat eine Beziehung auf diese res sacramenti, und diese res sacrameni hat eine Beziehung auf die konkrete kirchliche Zeichenhaftigkeit, die sie setzen, und somi auf diese Sibirier, die hier am Ort Kirche sint (mindestens einmal so wie eine Hauskirche im Neuen Testament). Und jetzt frage ich mich: Wo ist denn da noch ein Unterschied zu einer gültigen Eucharistiefeier?”

18 It is worth noting that Rahner has in mind, under the category of Protestants (Evangelische), the Lutherans and Calvinists of Germany, who have a united church with a ministry structured in parallel forms to their Roman Catholic counterparts. How Rahner might respond to antiministerial Protestants must remain outside the scope of this article, although one could suggest that for those communities who do not intend what the church intends through ordination, Rahner's proposal would not apply.

19 UR §3 (Tanner, 2:910): “Those who are now born into these communities and who are brought up in the faith of Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church looks upon them as brothers, with respect and love.”

20 An interesting parallel to Rahner's solution, especially regarding this problematic aspect of requiring reordination or acceptance that one's ancestors were outside the church, is found among the Orthodox. Because authentic church is seen as preceding authentic sacraments (at least logically), recognizing churches entails recognizing their sacraments. Nicholas Ferencz in particular recounts historical examples of churches once deemed excommunicate (and so without valid sacraments), but later reconciled without reordinations; Ferencz, , “Bishop and Eucharist as Criteria for Ecumenical Dialog,” St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 51, no. 1 (2007): 1011Google Scholar.

21 The mythic understanding of Holy Thursday as the origin of either the priesthood or the episcopacy persists in much of the church. This is sensible only if it is understood as a fruit that later grows from the institution of the Eucharist and is part of God's will for the developing church. To insist on a direct historical foundation of either order by Christ in their final form is merely bad history.

22 Rahner, “Reflection on the Concept of ‘Ius Divinum’ in Catholic Thought,” in Theological Investigations, vol. 5, trans. Karl-H. Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1966), 239.

23 Vorfragen, 50–52.

24 Rahner is referring to 1917 CIC can. 1138: “§1. Radical sanation [sanatio in radice] of marriage is its convalidation, bringing with it, in addition to a dispensation or cessation of the impediment, a dispensation from the law requiring renewal of consent and, through a fiction of the law, retroactive canonical effects to its beginning. §2. Convalidation takes place from the moment the favor was granted; but its retroactivity is understood to go back to the time the marriage was entered into, unless otherwise expressly provided. §3. Dispensation from the law requiring a renewal of consent can be granted even if one or both of the parties are unaware of it.” Translation from John J. Myers, The 1917 or Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001). Rahner's description of the retroactive effects of a declaration of sanatio in radice is even strengthened by the revised code of 1983 (can. 1161 §§2–3), which drops the language of “by of a fiction of the law” (per fictionem iuris), leaving only the language of the retroactivity of canonical effects on the past (retrotractionem effectuum canonicorum ad praeteritum). In the new code, radical sanation is found in can. 1161–65. For a discussion of the development of radical sanation and its application in history, see Robert J. Harrington, The Radical Sanation of Invalid Marriages: An Historical Synopsis and Commentary (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1938), 15–41; John Russell, The “Sanatio in Radice” before the Council of Trent (Rome: Gregorian University Press, 1964), 39–78.

25 Vorfragen, 43: “Vermutlich ist die Sache einfach: der frühere Formfehler machte die Ehe (existentiell und auch gesellschaftlich) nicht eigentlich ungültig; die ‘sanatio in radice’ anerkennt bloß ausdrücklich, daß der der Ehe scheinbar engegenstehende Formfehler in dem betreffenden Fall die Ehe doch nicht ungültig macht; der Gesetzgeber ändert nicht die Sache, sondern präzisiert sein eigenes Verhältnis zu ihr. Auch von daher sieht man: ein und derselbe gesellschaftliche Status in der Kirche kann auf verschiedene Weise entstehen oder als bestehend anerkannt werden.”

26 UR §§19–22 (Tanner, 2:918–20).

27 See Harrington, The Radical Sanation of Invalid Marriages, 37, 99–104.

28 Vorfragen, 46–55. Because one of the fundamental necessities for schism is mala fides, bona fides, if present, would seem to be a necessity for communion, and a potential clue that the reason for the initial division no longer pertains. Regarding the necessity of the prior removal of the impediment, it is possible that the decree of radical sanation would itself include the dispensation from the existing impediment, but even in this case, its removal is logically prior to the radical sanation itself.

29 Vorfragen, 49–50. This argument might mean that the only remaining bar to communion would be sinful will to disunion on one or both sides. In light of the Joint Declaration of 1999, there seems even more evidence for arguing that within the Lutheran–Catholic relationship that Rahner has as his primary ecumenical framework, the historically “church-dividing issues” have been resolved.

30 See also Gromada, “How Would Rahner Respond to Dominus Iesus?,” 428. Gromada argues that love is more foundational than knowledge, so schism (an offense against communion) would be more damaging than heresy (an offense against truth).

31 See 1983 CIC can. 1164. A similar provision is found in 1917 CIC can. 1138 §3.

32 For a discussion of the role of decrees of legitimation in the history of decrees of radical sanation, see Russell, The “Sanatio in Radice,” 115–20, 132–36.

33 It is beyond the scope of this article to consider the broader ecumenical implications of this argument, but it is worth noting that we do something that is implicitly similar to Rahner's proposal in considering the Orthodox, whose ordinations would have been considered invalid according to the criteria of the Middle Ages, but are now considered to be full churches. Also beyond the scope of this article is the practice of the Orthodox churches of recognizing the validity of sacraments (including order) in churches recognized as churches, even if they were previously understood not to be authentic churches, without any reordinations. This practice seems to be based on assumptions similar to those Rahner is making; see note 20.

34 Rahner's argument has been appropriately summarized as introducing a distinction between a basic sacramental and a canonical-sacramental validity. So Dulles, “Toward a Mutual Recognition,” 111–12; Root, “Bishops, Ministry, and the Unity of the Church,” 34. See also note 54 below.

35 George H. Tavard, A Review of Anglican Orders: The Problem and the Solution (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990), 72.

36 Ibid., 122–23. Tavard does not leave the matter here, but proposes several ways in which the Anglican difficulty can be resolved. As it does not impinge directly on Rahner's proposal, however, I will pass over Tavard's proposals in this article. While there are many parallels between the Anglican and the Lutheran situations vis-à-vis the Roman Catholic Church, the differences that do exist produce their share of complicating details.


37 This builds on Dulles’ description cited above, in note 10.

38 Tavard, Anglican Orders, 50–52, 124–25.

39 Ibid., 142.


40 Dulles, “Toward a Mutual Recognition,” 111–12, discussing Rahner, Vorfragen, 68–69.

41 In applying the work of Fauconnier and Turner to theology, Robert Masson has called this kind of blend “tectonic” to replace their use of “metaphoric logic” or “analogy.” The term is felicitous in that it both avoids the confusion of what theologians mean by these terms and also gives an image of the kind of shifts that such blends are capable of producing. See Masson, , “Analogy and Metaphoric Process,” Theological Studies 63 (2001): 571–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar. This is further developed in chapter 10 of Robert Masson, Without Metaphor, No Saving God: Theology after Cognitive Linguistics (Leuven: Peeters Press, 2013).

42 See Mary Gerhart and Allan Russell, Metaphoric Process: The Creation of Scientific and Religious Understanding (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1984); Gerhart and Russell, New Maps for Old: Explorations in Science and Religion (New York: Continuum, 2001).

43 Gerhart and Russell, New Maps, 34.

44 Similar problems exist for “literal” as for “analogy” and “metaphor” in considering these theories, see note 41 above.

45 Gerhart and Russell, New Maps, 35–36.

46 Giles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

47 For their basic diagram, see Fauconnier and Turner, The Way We Think, 46.

48 Fauconnier and Turner, The Way We Think, 12.

49 Masson, Robert, “Interpreting Rahner's Metaphoric Logic,” Theological Studies 71 (2010): 380409CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Masson, Without Metaphor, 251–80.

50 See note 41 above.

51 Masson's usual example of the kind of tension present here may be helpful. Insisting that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah produces a tension between what we would otherwise think of Jesus and how we would otherwise describe the Jewish messiah. This tension warps our field of meanings, allowing us to say new, true things about Jesus, including the great ecumenical creedal definitions.

52 Masson, “Interpreting Rahner's Metaphoric Logic,” 400–401; Masson, Without Metaphor, 132–35.

53 See Gurrieri, John A., “Sacramental Validity: The Origins and Use of a Vocabulary,” Jurist 41 (1981): 2158Google Scholar. Interestingly, this article, independent of Rahner, proposes a distinction between validitas sacramentalis and validitas canonica, drawing on the work of B. J. Kidd in 1937. Like Rahner, Kidd was engaging the question of the validity of Protestant ministers, albeit from an Anglican perspective. Kidd, B. J., “Validity: Name and Thing,” Theology 34 (1937): 1928Google Scholar; see also Church of England, Memorandum on the Status of the Existing Free Church Ministry,” in Documents on Christian Unity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1924).

54 This might actually work better with some of Thomas’ careful parsing of the Eucharistic species. It might also work better with pre-Thomistic understandings of the corpus triforme. For a careful examination of this tradition of interpretation, see Kevin Mongrain, The Systematic Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar: An Irenaean Retrieval (New York: Crossroad 2002), 27–50. Another important outcome, which I do not have the space to engage here, is the understanding of sacramental causality. It may be that relational ontologies would produce an understanding of how sacraments work that is different from substance ontologies. Such a claim has been made by Louis-Marie Chauvet; it deserves further consideration in conversation with Rahner's proposal; see Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), 1–44.

55 The Theory of General Relativity allows for “time-like curves” (“time-like” because the two events are not related to each other in a causal manner) in which the dilation of time due to motion might allow an observer moving at a different speed relative to different objects to experience otherwise simultaneous effects in different times. It is theorized that a “closed time-like curve” could be produced such that a particle could influence itself. Nevertheless, this is a minor- and controversial-enough proposition to discount in our examination. See J. Richard Gott III, Time Travel in Einstein's Universe: The Physical Possibilities of Travel through Time (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 85.

56 There are examples of retrospective sacramental causality in Scholastic theology, particularly in considerations of the case of the sacraments of penance and of baptism. The problem to be solved is the necessity of grace to approach either sacrament in the first place. In a sense, the grace to approach the sacrament had to be “caused” by the later sacrament. See Peter Lombard, In quatuor libros sententiarum (Frankfurt: Minerva, 1967), Lib. IV, dist. xvi, Pt. I, art. 1.

57 The terminology of “the finality of revelation” comes from Rahner and Wilhelm Thüsing, A New Christology, trans. David Smith and Verdant Green (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 32.

58 Rahner, “The Historicity of Theology,” in Theological Investigations, vol. 9, trans. David Bourke (New York: Seabury Press, 1972), 67.

59 Rahner and Thüsing, A New Christology, 28, for example.

60 Rahner, “History of the World and Salvation History,” in Theological Investigations, vol. 5, trans. Karl-H. Kruger (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1966), 99–100. Similarly, the church's history cannot easily be divided between normal and infallible moments, as various historical actors who understood themselves to be acting in irreformable ways were later judged to have not been, such as the Second Council of Ephesus (449), or perhaps, Leo X's Exsurge Domine, condemning in toto the works of Martin Luther, and which some scholars have argued understands itself to be a kind of infallible statement.

61 So, for example, “Before the incarnation of the Logos no word of God had entered into world history as an event, no word which God imposed finally and definitively, no word in which God addressed himself definitively and irrevocably to the world, no word which expressed him definitively and exhaustively, no word which disclosed the ultimate and all-comprehending plan of God, no word which brought out the meaning of the real climax in the drama of world history, no word which drew this drama to its ultimate issue and brought out its ultimate meaning.… The dialogue lasted throughout the whole history of mankind from the beginning up to Christ. But the last word was not yet spoken.” Rahner, “The Spirit That Is over All Life,” in Theological Investigations, vol. 7, trans. Graham Harrison (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 196.

62 While this idea appears throughout Rahner's work, it is perhaps most clearly expressed in Hearer of the Word: “It is not only in our biological existence, but also for the very foundation of our spiritual existence, that we have to turn toward history. It follows that from the start, by our very nature, we are oriented toward the historical event of a revelation, in case such a revelation should occur. If, in supreme freedom, God chose, instead of self-revelation, to remain shrouded in silence, we would reach the peak of our spiritual and religious existence by listening to the silence of God.” Rahner, Hearer of the Word, trans. Joseph Donceel, ed. Andrew Tallon (New York: Continuum, 1994), 9.

63 Rahner, “The Old Testament and Christian Dogmatic Theology,” in Theological Investigations, vol. 16, trans. David Moreland, OSB (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 185.

64 It is worth pointing out that this restructuring of prior history is one of the effects of tectonic logic generally. The field of meanings in which a blend is made has its own prior coherence, which can be reordered by a tectonic blend such that meanings that would have been previously impossible or incoherent are now both possible and coherent. It should be remembered that this is a restructuring that happens because of the tectonic blend Jesus is LORD. From a Christian perspective reordered by this blend, it becomes clear that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises to Israel. This need not mean, however, that the prior covenant is either broken or superseded because Jews are interpreting their own history without the Jesus blend. Nevertheless, when speaking of their own history, Christians must speak of the Incarnation as the fulfillment of the prior promises that reorders them.

65 See note 24 above.

66 See Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, The Apostolicity of the Church, §§219–34.

67 This ecclesiality might be recognized as limited or, perhaps better, wounded (see Lee and Gros, The Church as Koinonia of Salvation, above at note 5), but it would remain, nonetheless, real.

68 In pursuing this question further, Catherine Mowry LaCugna's work on the Trinity as a basis for an ontology of relation and the work of Susan K. Wood, SCL, on the sacrament of order would be particularly helpful. See LaCugna, , “The Relational God: Aquinas and Beyond,” Theological Studies 46 (1985): 647–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar; LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: Harper, 1991); Wood, Sacramental Orders (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000). Also see the work of Louis-Marie Chauvet mentioned above at note 54.

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