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Karl Rahner and Pope Francis on Papal Ministry

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Towards an Ecumenical Ecclesiology of Communion and Subsidiarity

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Karl Rahner’s ecclesial theology remains relevant for ecumenical work and specifically for the ecumenically thorny questions about papal authority and the infallibility doctrine. Rahner’s approach offers insight for unifying Christian churches in three ways: 1. prioritizing the papal office’s unifying role; 2. interpreting the doctrine of infallibility within an incarnate ecclesiology; and 3. contextualizing papal authority within a theology of communion and a subsidiarity administrative model. With this approach, infallibility is framed as a matter of doctrine and order, but a doctrine and order rooted in and reflecting the ‘sensus fidelium’. The pope is the ‘concrete guarantor of the unity of the church in truth and love’1 and not an absolute monarch. Rahner’s call for ecumenical reforms serves the mission of the whole church – the sacrament of the incarnate God – on the personal, parish, diocese, regional, and universal levels. Many monarchical symbols of the papacy have been retired in recent years with the papacy of Francis, marking a moment ripe for Rahner’s approach. The article concludes with a reflection upon how Francis’ ministry reveals a commitment to communion theology of the Second Vatican Council and the subsidiarity principle that embodies Rahner’s epistemological tolerance.

Affiliations: 1: University of Jena, Germany, ; 2: University of Jena, Germany,


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