Melvin Michalski took advantage of a semester’s sabbatical from his seminary professorship to visit and record interviews with interesting and informed German-speaking persons about Karl Rahner. With the cooperation of Andreas Batlogg, SJ, he has edited and supplemented the original recordings. The result is a delightful book that has something for anyone who has ever been intrigued by the figure of Karl Rahner; by theology before, during and after Vatican II; or by how the European Jesuits or university world operated. For someone whose acquaintance with Rahner has faded, it is an attractive refresher course.
What we have here are twenty-eight men and women talking with sometimes remarkable candor (as with Karl Lehmann and Herbert Vorgrimler) about the great Jesuit theologian (1904-1984). They knew him some as assistants, some as editors, some as fellow Jesuits, some predominantly as students of his writings. The editors supply detailed endnotes for each interview with references to the incidents or writings alluded to (lacking, leider, is an index).
Also appended (pp. 337-42) is an extract from a newly published letter that Hugo Rahner SJ, the patristics scholar, wrote to Karl on February 18, 1955. Hugo impetrates his brother not to reply brusquely to inquiries from the Jesuit general about complaints received concerning his activity as a theologian. He goes on to write that of course such complaints were baseless and defamatory, but the father general was only trying to help and needed Karl’s cooperation. His previous hurt silence about the blocking of his manuscript on the dogmatization of the Assumption had given him a poor reputation in Rome.
This is just one example of the nitty-gritty of twentieth-century history of theology that interested this reviewer. Similar allusions, with chapter and verse in the notes, have to do with his conduct at the German Synod (cf. our “Call to Action” in the 1970s) or his uneven tug-of-war with Joseph Ratzinger, then archbishop of Munich, over the successor to Heinrich Fries at the university. But as stated at the outset, there is something for everybody in this highly readable book. One can start at any point and find that the searchlight of oral history illuminates facets that one might never have suspected were even there.
In some ways, this is a complement to a book published in 1985 shortly after Rahner’s death, Karl Rahner – Bilder eines Lebens. It is a very worthy and timely sequel; while no substitute for the biographies that have appeared, it is an approach that humanizes the prodigious theologian from various angles.