Robbie Low on the strangest affair of Vatican II

His name is emblazoned across the entrance of St Peter’s, Rome. His heavily preserved body lies like a waxwork doll under a brightly lit altar by the South transept and is a major attraction to all pilgrims. His attraction is not just in the cult of his goodness but in the fact that he, more than anyone else, created the modern Roman Catholic Church. At least that is how the legend goes. Whether Pope John XXIII knew what he was doing when he called the Second Vatican Council is known to him and God alone. He may have envisaged Spirit-driven renewal and been blind to the revolutionary forces that would be unleashed as well. Certainly, dying in the middle of it, he bequeathed to his successor, Paul VI, a papacy so dominated by the theological rivalries exposed therein that Paul famously lamented, ‘the smoke of Satan has entered the Church.’ His entire pontificate was consumed with increasingly vain attempts to reorder the disorder that ensued.

Paul’s eventual successor, John Paul II, has spent his entire pontificate interpreting and clarifying the Council, its teaching and its conclusions, aided and abetted by his trusty right hand man, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. There is little doubt that this Pope’s extraordinary and extensive writings will form the coherent agenda for the Catholic Church in the new century. For his pains he has been caricatured as ‘conservative’ by much of the Western Church he has sought to discipline and serve. This is doubly ironic for both Cardinals Wojtilya and Ratzinger were very bright young things at the heart of the whole Council project for renewal. By the time Wojtilya had become Pope much had happened. The burgeoning confidence of Western Catholicism and its steady growth had gone into sharp reverse. Its doctrinal and moral certainties, while still on the books as it were, were less clearly articulated by its post-conciliar clergy embarrassed by a dogmatism with which they no longer felt comfortable. Sanctuaries and liturgies had fallen to the new brutalism and seminaries filled up with the sort of clergy who are now costing the Church dear in finance and reputation.

What had happened was not the fault of the Council per se. The problem with the Council was that John XXIII wanted a pastoral renewal with no dogmatic formulae. In consequence everything depended on the interpretation of the documents or, as the modernizers consistently appealed, ‘the spirit of the council’. In the subsequent Commissions, set up to interpret and implement the Council, the ‘spirit’ frequently outran the agreed text. (Virtually the whole reordering of RC and Anglican sanctuaries and liturgy springs from this ‘spirit’)

No one was more influential in interpreting the Council and fostering its supposed ‘spirit’ than Fr Karl Rahner SJ who, until his death in 1984, was regarded as the theologian of the Council. That this should be so is curious on two counts. First, Rahner had been effectively reduced to the ranks by Pius XII who regarded him as a dangerous liberal. John XXIII welcomed him, and the likes of the great self-publicist Hans Küng, back in to think deep thoughts.

Second, because for much of the Council, Rahner’s thoughts were preoccupied and indeed driven by an obsessional relationship wholly beyond his Jesuit vows. In 1962 he met and fell passionately in love with a twice-divorced widow called Luise Rinser. Rinser was initially a Catholic journalist, later novelist. Her Catholicism later gave way to a sort of crypto-Buddhist panentheism. Widowed during the war she next married a Communist homosexual and later the composer Karl Orff. She was clearly an attractive and highly manipulative woman as she not only bewitched Rahner until to his death in 1984 but managed to keep a senior Benedictine abbot (her spiritual director) in emotional tow as well. This curious threesome, which Rinser claims was celibate, caused agonies to the infatuated Rahner, whose two and a half thousand letters to Rinser (1,200 between 1962 and 1967 alone) were distraught because Rinser loved the abbot more than him and didn’t write as often as Rahner did. (Presumably, as she pointed out, she had to shop, cook, clean, work and look after kids as well!)

We know all this because Rinser published her autobiography (Walking the Edge) before she died and recorded some of her letters therein. (The Jesuits refused permission for Rahner’s letters to be published but their content can often be guessed from Rinser’s replies.) They had pet names for each other, ‘My fish,’ she wrote, ‘I cannot express how shaken I was as you knelt before me’, ‘[our love] was much stronger than anticipated’ etc etc. ‘Fish’ referred both to Rahner as a Christian but also his star sign of Pisces. Rahner is petulant, angry, jealous, despairing over Rinser’s love for the abbot and her preference for his celebrations of the Mass. Rahner bombarded her with letters and phone calls and was not averse to turning up at dawn to check that the Abbot was not at her place! When Rahner died in 1984 (his last telephone call was to Rinser from his deathbed), Rinser was standing as Green Party candidate for the German Presidency. She was also the leading Western apologist for unreformed communism in North Korea and a supporter of the dictatorship of Kim Il Sung. Her credentials as a feminist and environmentalist were unimpeachable. Her faith, she claimed, was a blend of Eastern religion and Christianity. She was, I need hardly add, pro-abortion and anti-celibacy.

Why does all this matter? Well, the simple answer is that Rahner and his group not only influenced the direction of the post-conciliar Catholic Church, but his theology (and interpretation of the ‘spirit’ of the times) profoundly influenced Western Christendom as a whole. Anglicans who have never heard of Rahner will recognize the symptoms and find his theological children, thirty years more radicalized, in many of the top jobs in the Church of England. Rahner is a great hero of Anglican liberals with good reason and his English mouthpiece, the Tablet, remains the meeting place of liberals from both Communions. The fact that most of this was dreamed up by an emotional obsessive striving to gain favour with a manipulative and heterodox woman is telling. In the light of Rinser’s revelations it is not fanciful to see Rahner’s priority for this mother/lover idealized relationship over his commitment to Mother Church. The latter seems to have had to conform to the former rather than the other way round. It is also a mark of the chaos that has characterized the modern Jesuits that such a relationship was never brought under discipline. That a man in such a permanent maelstrom of adolescent torment should have had such influence suggests that while the teachings of the Council may be sound, the much vaunted subsequent ‘spirit of the Council’ was what Paul VI discerned in his darkest moments – not the Holy Spirit. It is to the differentiation between the ‘spirit’ and the ‘Spirit’ that most of the present Pope’s pontificate has been dedicated.