Having just completed Rahner's Grundkurs des Glaubens I think it appropriate to make a few closing comments. Earlier posts can be found on April 12 and November 9 of last year.
After finishing the book I remembered that I had actually owned a copy of the English translation, Foundations of Christian Faith, in the late 1980's, but that, for whatever reason, I never started it and in fact eventually gave it away. I also acquired, some few years later, a Rahner anthology (I think it was called A Rahner Reader) which I occasionally picked up, but which I got very little out of and also gave away. I'm a little puzzled myself about why I now find compelling what I first found simply daunting, then pedestrian.
The closing substantive sections of the book cover Church, Christian life, and eschatology. I think it goes too far to call them "conventional." I myself didn't enter the Catholic Church until after the book was first published in the late 1970's, and Rahner's influence in the Church had long been felt (if rather controversially) since the convening of the council. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that the latter part of the book largely presupposes the grand ambition inherent in the earlier chapters' development of human transcendence and its subsequent link with the self-mediation of God in history.
Surely thousands of theological books have been published over the last half century. Rahner's Grundkurs, though, has credibly been claimed as the great Catholic Summa of the twentieth century; that is, a work that tries to integrate post-Cartesian European philosophy--up to and including the ontology of Martin Heidegger--with the Catholic faith, in the same way that St. Thomas Aquinas integrated the newly-revived philosophy of Aristotle.
Respecting that goal it seems to me that it achieves a high level of success. And, as an old philosophy major, I found it a very rewarding and provocative re-statement of the claims and core of the Catholic faith.
On the other hand, when I look out into contemporary popular culture, I don't see a lot of anxiety about keeping the faith current with Heidegger. Even "existentialism," a term that still excited my generation, has become old hat, a matter for history, not concern and engagement. What matters now is sexual ethics. That's what's dividing ancient communions, causing the shouting matches, marching forward or backward in churches, legislatures, and courts. Next to Sex, Existence has lost its luster. Everything in time ages.
In the last, brief section, Rahner unexpectedly takes up the subject of concise statements of faith, citing the Apostle's Creed as the prime example, and asks whether, and how, the material he has developed could go into such a statement. He detours into the question of a catechism, and concludes that such a thing would be fruitless because of the plurality of cultures among which the contemporary Church lives, and ends by concisely restating what he considers his fundamental assertion, under three different aspects, which he finally, neatly, correlates to the persons of the Trinity.
Now what I find interesting about this conclusion is the middle part, the skepticism about the possibility of a catechism. In fact, as is well known, a universal catechism was published roughly ten years after Rahner's death, the original French text in 1992, the final, official Latin version in 1997. Rahner was right that it couldn't be concise; the Latin version runs a few hundred pages longer than Grundkurs des Glaubens.
The Catechism, the first to come out of Rome since the Counter-Reformation, is not simply a compendium of doctrine and ethics. It is not a treatise, an argument, a systematic development of ideas, as Grundkurs is, but it's not without its rhetorical aspect; the very organization suggests a systematic whole, beginning with a mutual seeking, man for God, God for man.
So in some sense, the two volumes provide a suitable epitome of late 20th century Catholicism, first through the eyes of the critical philosophical theologian, then as the careful exposition of the curial magister.
I often think that the actual function of magisterial authority in the Catholic Church is misunderstood. For me it's well-described by a slogan I first came across in freshman Economics, as applied to regulating the money supply: The better your brakes, the faster you can drive your car.
I see the perennial conflict between theologians and bishops as one of the strengths of the whole structure. The Church has excellent brakes, and those brakes, Dottrina Fide primarily, in the eyes of outsiders, make the institution appear oppressive. But that, I think, is what allows thinkers like Rahner to flourish. It's not a comfortable place to be, and I need not list the other names, fairly well known, of those who left rather than remain subject to magisterial supervision.
Still, I admire a John Courtney Murray, who was silenced for a considerable period, but who provided the foundation for a revolution in Church/State and ecumenical relations in the decrees of Vatican II that took up where he left off. Even more can I admire someone like Pierre Teillard de Chardin, who was never allowed to publish his theological reflections in his lifetime, but remained obedient, became rather wildly popular after his death, and whose work has even been praised (if guardedly) by former Pope Benedict XVI. For myself I have many doubts and questions about the work of Teillard de Chardin, but in some ways I see that the "brakes" of the magisterium allowed his "wild surmise" to develop, sub silentio, and bear fruit over a longer period of time than any individual's natural desire for success, fame and recognition might allow.
But yes, I digress. As to Grundkus and the Catechismus, I think we can prize them, together, as a dialectic of "pushing the envelope" and "protecting the envelope," so that it still conveys the message the Church was founded to proclaim. The first without the second might consume itself; the second without the first would petrify.