Dear Conty (Third Letter, Part IV)
Of course, in making that statement – that no existential description is per se incompatible with the state of grace – Rahner took refuge in an utterly wild and Cartesian theory of absolute certainty. For he said that we cannot be absolutely certain of any such describable state. Well, this is right and wrong. If we precise the description, as for instance I did above, the statement is false. For if all the conditions for mortal sin are present, then so is mortal sin! But Rahner is capitalizing on our inability to make such precisions this side of the Beatific Vision. On this score, his statement is technically correct. Only God can be absolutely certain. Only God knows the heart of the individual. Therefore, we the outsiders can be only “morally certain”. That’s true.
Of course, Rahner, it seems to me, doesn’t want us to be morally certain either. For moral certainty leads to pastoral action. For instance, it led John the Baptist to denounce Herod and Herodias. It led Paul to rebuke Peter. It leads the good pastor to denounce the “penitent” whom he is quite sure does not have a “firm purpose of amendment”. It leads the good bishop to refuse to give communion to a public sinner, such as a pro-abort politician. It leads the good priest to refuse to give the Sacred Body of Christ to a divorced and remarried person. Etc. Etc. Etc. All of these are legitimate acts. Indeed, they are just acts, loving acts. Indeed, failure to act in this way is unjust and therefore sinful, unloving. So, if Rahner, as it seems he does, wants to gut all moral certainty in these cases, he is essentially a Catholic anarchist. Trouble, for sure.
So, let’s consider the possibilities with the atheist. If we describe someone insofar as man can see, let’s say we have an intelligent man, who is poised and in control of his passions, kind and respectful in social interactions, and also an atheist. It seems to me that we have someone whom the Bible would call “fool” and whom the Church’s prayer presumes is an idolater. An idolater of what? Of knowledge, perhaps. (A benign atheist who loves learning.) Of pleasure (A polite atheist who really enjoys sex or food.) Of honor, of riches, etc. But there would be some “ultimate good” he is after, and it clearly is not God. But then Rahner comes into the room and says, “You cannot be absolutely certain of this.” Well, yes, if you compare our moral certainty with God’s vision, that is correct. In fact, it may be in fact that the person is mentally deranged with some amazingly rare mental disease, although he is ostensibly very functional in society. Chances are pretty low, however. In other words, it would be a very rare phenomenon. And we don’t “rule” by the exceptions to the rule. That is foolish pastorally.
But “ruling” by the limits set out by this wild exception is just what Rahner seems to want. It is, at any rate, what seems to have happened. By that Trojan horse of a pseudo humility and a pseudo love, Rahner snuck in all sorts of intelligent and functioning actually guilty atheists and presented them to the world as innocent theists, nay, as “Anonymous Christians,” much to everyone’s surprise—especially the atheists. All this is rather convoluted. Too much to describe in one letter. More anon.
But it suffices to say that most publicly decent, intelligent, functional atheists are free people who have made a free intellectual decision and premise their lives on it. And such a decision is necessarily sinful and such lives must be idolatrous. Therefore, the sane (but foolish) atheist, with which the world abounds presently, cannot be saved—unless he be converted. For, at present, his rational act contradicts faith.