SOME THEOLOGICAL OBSERVATIONS
KARL RAHNER, S. J.
We treat here of those "private revelations" which are not only related to the spiritual life of a particular individual, but which, however "private" they may be, are addressed to the Church or to an important part of the Church through the intermediary of their direct beneficiary: that is, private revelations which represent a new devotion, exhort us to penitence, communicate certain instructions, put us on guard against some doctrine, recommend a spiritual instruction or a kind of spirituality, etc. Such revelations have existed in the course of the Church's history, and they have certainly exercised an important influence.
Ordinarily, when one talks of these revelations in Catholic milieus, only their psychological aspect is fastened upon, or the problem of the criteria of authenticity and the truth of their content.
No one would dream of fighting with the legitimacy of these considerations or even calling them into doubt. We believe, however, that such a study stops short at only one aspect of the problem. It should be completed by a theological study.
It is true that it will be said, perhaps, that theology does study the problem; that it takes on all its value partly in fundamental theology and partly in mystical theology. Undoubtedly. But these studies are insufficient and do not touch upon the point of view which we want to underline here.
Mystical theology treats only of the psychological aspect of the genesis of a private revelation, its modes and its criteria of authenticity and truth. In addition, mystical theology, like fundamental theology, affirms only this: God can reveal Himself -- in the strict sense of verbal revelation -- and give to the beneficiary of the revelation a sufficient certitude of the Divine origin of his or her personal experience through some internal or external criteria. Private revelations, then, are possible; and to recognize their authenticity and the truth of their content is the work of the immediate recipient first of all; and then, if there exist any external criteria, it is the work also of others. The immediate recipient, at least, can have the right and even the duty of adhering by an act of faith to their content.
Theology, let us add, still insists on the fact that "official revelation", public revelation, was completed with the death of the last apostle; posterior revelations, then, do not belong to the revealed deposit of the Church; they are "private" revelations. There cannot be any obligation of giving to them an adherence of "Catholic faith".
In principle, the Church could not and ought not to occupy herself with them except in the measure in which she decides if these revelations are reconcilable with her deposit of revealed faith, in order to leave them subsequently to the free "human faith" of the faithful.
1 - TRADITIONAL POSITIONS
Now this traditional opinion, however just in its positive aspect, is from two points of view, incomplete.
On the one hand, this "theology" of private revelations remains in fact too negative. Because when one takes as a point of departure the fact that "public" revelation is closed, revelations called "private" are only defined then negatively. Consequently, it is difficult to develop a strictly theological theory of their meaning and necessity in the Church -- a meaning which they have certainly had throughout history. The outlines only sketched by Scripture of a theology of prophetism within the Church and for the Church are, on the whole, not developed.
Far more: it could be said -- with a little exaggeration, perhaps -- that the history of mystical theology is a history of a "devaluing" of prophetism, at least speculatively, and of putting the value on infused contemplation: that is, a "pure", not a prophetic, contemplation. As a result of unfortunate experiences, and so not completely without reason, we are more distrustful in regard to this prophetic mysticism which appeals to revelations and oracles from on high to assign itself a mission or right in the Church, and to exercise an influence therein by its warnings and directives. More distrustful, at least, than in regard to that mysticism of pure contemplation, "without images" and "ineffable". Because the first is more dangerous than the second, since it more easily risks entering into conflict with the official, permanent organisms of the Church. Yet it too has its foundation in Scripture and, in fact, its own great history in the Church; although the theorists strive to demonstrate that even without these prophets posterior to Christ, we already know all that they reveal.
Still, there is never any orthodox theology which does not interest itself in the existence of these prophets in the post-apostolic Church, as well as in the manner in which one recognizes and distinguishes their character, in the essential importance of their function, in their position with regard to the Hierarchy, and in the meaning of their mission for the interior and exterior life of the Church.
In a theology of prophetism in the Church, there should certainly be more than one useful element of a general mystical theology, and particularly, of its teaching on private revelations. Since up till now, however, mystical theology does not consider these phenomena except under their "private" aspect, neglecting the ecclesial aspect, one could not claim that it is a theology of prophetism.
In the middle ages, there was certainly a theology of "charisms"; but because there was not yet an awareness of the meaning of history, one could hardly posit with precision the question of the significance, for the birth and growth of the Church, of prophetism as a living manifestation of the Spirit.
Prophetism has existed at all times in the Church. But, as on the other side, there is danger of seeing the Spirit "quenched" if one does not take care; so theology, though incapable of giving existence to this prophetism (which has no need of theology in order to exist and act), does not prove to be a sterile reflection. It could rather be a safeguard for not allowing the Spirit to be quenched or room to be given to the complaint of the psalmist: "There is no longer any prophet." (Ps. 74: 9)
The traditional theology of private revelations is, furthermore, too affirmative.
It does not see with sufficient clarity and depth the fundamental difference between revelations anterior to Christ and those which are posterior to Him. When this traditional theology considers revelations posterior to Christ, it only applies to them the general theory of revelation such as developed by fundamental theology. It treats revelations in general with the restriction -- purely intrinsic -- that private revelation has no character of universal obligation which the recipient was transmitting to all.
This conception thus sees no intrinsic difference between revelations anterior and those posterior to Christ: the psychological process, content and criteria of authenticity are all studied perhaps in an identical manner on both sides. A reservation is made only for the case of the recipient, although this reservation is not imposed with that much legitimate evidence.
In accordance with the usual principles of theology, we cannot quite see why a "private revelation" does not impose itself on the faith of all those who have knowledge of it and admit with sufficient certitude that it comes from God; for we cannot demand for a private revelation a greater certitude than what is judged sufficient to guarantee an official revelation.
For the authenticity of the Divine origin of private revelations posterior to Christ, it is unjustified, illogical and dangerous to demand -- as is often done -- a degree of certitude such that if it were demanded for the official revelation, all reasonable basis for faith in Christian revelation would be rendered impossible.
But if, in order to admit the certitude of the existence of a revelation posterior to Christ, no more is demanded than for the common Christian revelation, we cannot understand why the Divine origin of a number of these private revelations could not be recognized by everyone; nor why this recognition would not entail, for all, the right and duty of an adherence of faith, Divine faith [fide divina].
The adherence of faith flows naturally from the fact that it is a Divine word, without failing for all that to cause a special positive obligation to intervene on the part of God. In the present case, we would not have to distinguish anymore between a general obligation and an individual obligation in the common revelation and in private revelation. The distinction would be only in this: that in the second case, private revelation, the guarding of what was revealed would not be confided to the official Church. Consequently, if the common faith, which is possible and under certain conditions even obligatory, in the content of a private revelation, was not Catholic faith, it would however always be possible and obligatory as Divine faith.
Since theologians in general admit that the immediate recipient of private revelations can adhere to the communications of God with Divine faith, "fide divina", and even ought to if there is sufficient certitude about the authenticity of the recipient's experience, we cannot see why that experience would not be worthy of Divine faith for others who have acquired the same certitude about the reality of the revelation -- a certitude which in principle is not impossible to acquire.
In brief, from this perspective we cannot find any fundamental difference between the official revelation, and private revelation posterior to Christ.
A fundamental difference does exist however; but to see it, we must pause for another consideration.
2 - PRIVATE REVELATIONS BEFORE AND AFTER CHRIST
In what regard could a revelation posterior to Christ be relevant? Since Revelation is itself a history, the Truth which God reveals to us through His word possesses a temporal dimension which is essential to it. Time is not a sort of indifferent space at each point of which everything could always happen, and where everything could always be revealed.
Before Christ, in that historical dialogue between God and man which we call the history of salvation, all remains open to each moment; all was thereby oriented toward the free historical realization of God's design, a realization not yet revealed to man and always awaited. Before Christ, there could still take place within history and without suppressing it, an event of the history of salvation as yet novel and capable of essentially modifying the situation of man toward God. A new law, a covenant concluded or announced: anger or grace -- which are free acts of God and not the simple metaphysical consequence of His nature -- could be manifested in an unexpected and unforeseeable manner. Briefly, from the unfathomable possibilities of a free God -- "of the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, not of the God of the philosophers"- - either anger or grace, sometimes the one, sometimes the other, could be realized in "revelation". These possible manifestations of the Divine activity remained unforeseeable for men, and demanded of them, in return, an always ready obedience. Man had to keep himself always ready for a new revelation of God, who could give a completely new orientation to his situation relative to salvation. However, this revelation,once given, appeared to man in retrospect as already contained in the hidden plan of God, so much so that the previous conduct of God was coherent with that which followed it.
Now, however, with Christ and since Christ, the "end of the times" has arrived; the Divine economy of the salvation of humanity has entered into its decisive, definitive, unsurpassable phase. With Christ, the "end of the times" is realized; it is not provisory but definitive; in the age of Christ we cannot wait any longer for our situation relative to salvation to be fundamentally modified. While for men who preceded Christ, such a modification not only could, but had to be awaited; the Christian can only await the revelation that will burst forth on the last day which will unveil the completion of the drama between God and man.
The existential theology of a revelation of God that was possible and to be realized within history for men before Christ, is now replaced by a theological eschatology for men who come after Him: their theology of revelation has now but one meaning -- undoubtedly important -- that of a retrospective study; not that of a tendency toward the future. The waiting for a revelation of God within history is now replaced by a waiting for the revelation of God who will suppress history.
3 - MEANING AND NATURE OF PRIVATE REVELATIONS
POSTERIOR TO CHRIST
In this "end of the times", however, there are still some revelations of God. They are not addressed only to particular individuals; they are destined for the Church, at least in this sense, that the charism of a member should serve for the good of the whole body.
Great as the resemblances may be, from a psychological point of view, between the revelations of the present, those anterior to Christ, and the revelation of Christ Himself: there should still be an essential and qualitative difference between revelations posterior to Christ and those anterior to Him, since it is necessary to maintain the proper character of the "end of the times" which can no longer admit of a revelation modifying our situation relative to salvation.
We should be quite precise about the nature of these private revelations posterior to Christ, and which have value for the Church and not just for the recipient; because these revelations should be perfectly inserted into this final phase of the economy of salvation. Is this possible?
We have seen that it is not sufficient to say: private revelations are not addressed to the Church or humanity taken as a whole, and their content is not positively guaranteed by the Church's Magisterium. To content oneself with affirming that the content of these revelations has only an accessory and quasi-insufficient relationship with the Christian public revelation, would raise the question: Can anything that God reveals be insignificant? or else, how can we know that what is revealed, if inserted into the deposit of Divine faith, will not result in fundamentally modifying the present economy of salvation? Again, to say that private revelations never contain anything but truths which one could know through the common revelation and, hence, independently of these revelations -- for example, the possibility and utility of a new devotion -- this is to pose yet another question: Why then does God reveal it, and not rather leave to the intelligence of theologians the concern of making explicit this new aspect of revelation?
After properly reflecting on it, the satisfactory answer to the question of the theological nature of "private" revelations posterior to Christ and addressed to the Church, would be this: the essential point of a private revelation does not consist in an affirmation about the content of the common revelation, a sort of accidental determination of this common revelation, and/or materially identical with it. Rather, private revelations have by nature an imperative character: namely, what is the conduct to be taken by Christendom in a given historical situation. This kind of revelation is not essentially an affirmation, but an order.
With regard to what is affirmed by such revelations, they do not say anything more, in fact, than what we already know through faith and theology. They are not, however, superfluous. They are not presented as a sort of celestial "repetition" of the common revelation, or as a maieutic for our intelligence in order to discover that which theoretically could be discovered without their help. In such a situation, what is to be realized as being the will of God cannot be deduced logically and without ambiguity from dogmatic or moral principles, not even by analyzing the concrete situation in which one is engaged.
Theoretical considerations could limit the field of a human action that is good in itself and along the lines required, even to the point that in many cases, doubtless, the "how" of acting is practically clear. Hence, such considerations are always necessary. But they cannot, in principle, pronounce which one of the decisions possible within a quite delimited field of action, is in fact the will of God and to be chosen.
A contrary conception would entail the mistake of causing the unforseeable Concrete of a man's free conduct to be determined in the Universal, and a concrete mind would become a simple case of the Universal.
With St. Ignatius, in order to know the will of God in view of a "choice", there are, in the light of faith, "times of choice" which are without reflection and before it. In such "times of choice" a man, under a special movement of God, becomes conscious of the Divine will; while reflection with the help of moral theology is only a sort of makeshift last-resort reserved for moments when the Divine movement seems to be lacking, and when the soul does not perceive clearly enough. This last-resort should not be considered as the normal case for making a choice.
By analogy, the Church receives a Divine impulse when she finds that she must make a "choice". This impulse cannot be replaced by theoretical considerations and the deductions of theologians and moralists, nor by a simple "negative per se assistance of the Holy Spirit", which would not protect these theologians from error except only by keeping them faithful to the principles of theology and to the concrete givens of the situation.
The charism of discernment of spirits in the Church should doubtless be bound to the Magisterium and to the pastoral function of the official Church. But as regards the point of application for this Divine movement through which God manifests His imperative will on the precise conduct to be taken by the Church or part of the Church: it cannot be maintained a priori that this must always come from the Hierarchy. In principle, the Spirit of God can address Himself to any one of her members in order to act upon the Church, to make known what He expects, and what precise task He assigns to her at such a moment.
Here then is what seems to us the characteristic of a private revelation posterior to Christ: an order of God inspired in a member of the Church so as to regulate the conduct of the Church in a concrete situation.
How, it may be asked, will such a private revelation addressed to a particular individual act upon the Church, or upon a great part of the Church? Will this be through a formal declaration: "The Lord says this"? or by a "living" example? or otherwise? That is a secondary question.
Just as, according to the classic teaching of the ancients, a particular individual should not be content to ask himself in his "choice": what is the reasonable thing, here and now, among the universal principles of dogma and morality, but rather should ask: what is the meaning of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; so likewise in the decisions of the Church, one should pose the question: is there not here some prophet of the Lord, that we may ask through him? (1 Kgs 22: 7)
By no means should we admit too hastily that the charism of prophetism is a privilege, now lapsed, of the primitive Church. The social and psychological forms of the prophetic charism and its intervention in the course of the Church's history can vary. But besides the official power transmitted by the imposition of hands, there should always be in the Church the humanly untransmittable vocation of the prophet. Neither of the two gifts can replace the other. Wherever in the Church, after Christ, the prophet exercises his or her specific action and communicates a Divine imperative in view of a determined situation, one has "private revelation".
All this could seem quite abstract and not very practical. However it suffices to lend an ear, for example, to the watchwords, the propositions, etc., aimed at what is considered as the more urgent work at present in the Church, in order to decipher the quite diverse tendencies and directions at play. In all these questions, those who are most conscientious, upright, and most concerned with their responsibilities will preach the precious "via media" or middle-of-the-road of Catholic synthesis. But is this not to raise the delicate question: can an imperative which bears upon a determined action, still make itself heard without ambiguity in a theoretical synthesis which integrates all? Since this action, which cannot be everything at once, must choose and decide in a manner that clearly has very little synthesis?
When the synthesizing theory is itself perplexed, then, among the many possibilities equally good in principle, should not the Christian's choice be made with the help of lights other than theoretical principles? Why could these lights not be that very enlightenment and that word of the Lord which we call -- too carelessly perhaps and with a certain disdain -- "private revelations", and which we consider as a luxury left to certain pious souls? Then it is that the theology and the psychology of these revelations -- each as indispensable as the other to a true discernment of spirits -- will take on all their practical significance.
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N O T E S
1. Karl Rahner, S.J., "Les Revelations Privees: Quelques Remarques Theologiques," Revue D'Ascétique et de Mystique (1949), Vol. 25: 506-514. [It is noteworthy that, according to an article by Jeannine T.-Blanchette, "A Mighty Mystery Develops Throughout the Ages," published in the English version of the Army of Mary periodical, Le Royaume 116 (January-February 1997): 12-14, segments of Rahner's article on Private Revelations were approvingly quoted by A. Venturoli, in an article in L'Osservatore Romano, (February 28, 1995): 8, 11 (French edition). --Trans]