Saturday, April 11, 2009

Karl Rahner’s secret 22-year romance

NCR Staff
New York

It is an image out of sync with the persona of a German academic: Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner on his knees before a woman, overwhelmed with gratitude for his love, for a passionate relationship with a 51-year-old widow and two-time divorcee that would produce some 4,000 letters between 1962 and Rahner’s death in 1984.

Rahner, considered by many to be the 20th century’s most creative Catholic theologian, was 58 when German novelist Luise Rinser played the image back to him in a letter dated Aug. 10, 1962. “My Fish, truly beloved, I cannot express how shaken I was as you knelt before me,” she wrote. “You were kneeling before the Love that you are experiencing and before which I also kneel in amazement, in reverence, with trembling and with an exultation that I hardly dare to allow myself to feel. We are both touched in the innermost part of our being by something that is much stronger than we anticipated.”

The passage is from letters that Rinser wrote to Rahner over the 22 years of their relationship. Published in German, the letters hold a particular fascination for Pamela Kirk, a theologian who teaches at St. John’s University in Jamaica, N.Y. While there has been virtually no public discussion of the letters in the United States, she has delivered two papers on the Rinser-Rahner relationship at the Catholic Theological Society of America.

As the relationship progressed, Rahner was petulant, reproachful, wanting greater loyalty from Rinser, who warned him that another man, a Benedictine abbot and her spiritual director, took priority over Rahner in her affections. All three parties to this apparently celibate love triangle -- Rinser, Rahner and “M.A.,” as she refers to the abbot, connected at Rinser’s second home near Rome during the Second Vatican Council. The abbot was a council participant, Rahner a theological adviser, Rinser correspondent for a German Catholic newspaper.

At times during their 22-year relationship, Rahner wrote Rinser three or four letters a day. The couple called each other by nicknames: hers “Wuhschel,” the German rendering for the Woozle character in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh (a nickname first given to Rinser by her two sons); his “Fish” for its double meaning: symbol of Christianity and Pisces, the sign Rahner was born under on March 5, 1904.

Kirk said she regards the letters as a trove of spiritual history destined to become better known. In an interview in her Manhattan apartment, she said she hopes a scholar will come forth with time to translate the letters into English.

During the past few years, Kirk’s academic interests in the lives of two literary women have spanned continents and cultures. Even as she marveled at the treasure of Rinser’s letters (the Jesuits will not allow Rahner’s letters to Rinser to be published), most of her intellectual energy has been directed southward, to the work of a 17th-century Mexican nun and poet known as Sor Juana.

Kirk’s interest in Latin American liberation theology drew her to Sor Juana. Kirk is also concerned that history has buried the reputations of significant Catholic women. Her theological analysis of Sor Juana’s work is expected to be published in January by Continuum under the title Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Religion, Art and Feminism.


The Rinser-to-Rahner letters were published in German three years ago under the title Gratwanderung (roughly translated “Journey on the Edge,” Kirk said), provoking “savage criticism” from people who accused Rinser of exploiting her friendship with Rahner. “She became the focus of ridicule,” Kirk said, because people were scandalized by the relationship.

Kirk is a Rahner specialist. She wrote a dissertation on Rahner’s eschatology to complete requirements for her doctoral degree at the University of Munich. (Her bachelor’s, in languages and literature, is from Rosary College in River Forest, Ill.; her master’s, in comparative literature, from the University of Indiana.) Kirk went to Bavaria after a biking accident to teach English to German students, putting off doctoral studies and taking up a personal journey to learn more about her Catholic heritage.

She entered the University of Munich at 24, emerging with her doctorate 11 years later, in 1985 -- a period in which she was exposed to intellectual currents in the church and “grew tremendously” in her faith, she said. Since then, she’s taught at The Catholic University, Trinity College and St. Anselm College, Manchester, Vt. She was hired by St. John’s in 1990.

Kirk presented a paper on the Rinser-Rahner correspondence to the Karl Rahner Society, a subgroup of the Catholic Theological Society of America, in 1995. She anticipates publication of her paper in Philosophy and Theology, a journal published at Marquette University. She delivered a paper on the theology in Rinser’s early work at the theological society’s meeting last summer.

Despite huge disparities in cultures, periods and lifestyles between Rinser and Sor Juana, the two women have enough in common to link them comfortably in Kirk’s mind. Both are strong women who have emerged recently as figures to be reckoned with on the theological horizon.

Sor Juana was a 17th-century Mexican nun and poet who has been heralded as a major literary figure by Octavio Paz, himself a Nobel Prizewinning Mexican poet. In his 1982 literary biography of Sor Juana (published in English in 1988), he ranked her among the five top lyric poets of the Spanish language. She wrote comedies, love poems, devotional texts, a theological treatise and a long response to the bishop of Puebla, who had criticized her for her intellectual work. With the exception of her lifetime, when Sor Juana enjoyed considerable renown, the late 20th century is “the high point of her fame,” Kirk said. A critical edition of her work was completed about 40 years ago.

Mary as powerful

“She had a lot of the insights that feminists have today,” Kirk said. For example, in her writing on Mary, “She emphasizes Mary’s strength and her moral integrity,” rather than her virginity, Kirk said. “She describes Mary as very close in power to the majesty of her son.”

Kirk discovered Sor Juana during a visit to Mexico City in 1988, where her sister, Susan Abeyta, works as a foreign service officer. Kirk’s research proved her hunch that Sor Juana, though studied as a literary figure, had been ignored by theologians. Kirk hopes that her work on Sor Juana will help to bridge the gap between U.S. and Mexican Catholics.

As for Rinser, author of more than 75 books, she was also a woman of strong convictions who wrote about moral issues, Kirk said. Her first husband, composer Horst Guenter Schnell, father of her two sons, died in 1943 on the Russian front. Two years earlier, the Nazis had banned a second printing of her first novel, Die gläserne ringe (The Glass Ring), because they thought it had an antiwar tone.

In 1944, she was sentenced to death by the Nazis after she spoke to friends about the futility of the war effort and was betrayed. During her prison years, she wrote a diary on bits of toilet paper, which she stuffed into a mattress and retrieved when the Naxi defeat saved her from execution. Her second marriage, to Klaus Hermann, a homosexual and a communist, and a target of the Nazis on both counts, was undertaken to save him from a concentration camp.

Although she was very well connected and an important figure in German literary circles, she was also something of an outsider, Kirk said, tainted for Catholics on the left as a conservative, because of her reputation as a Catholic novelist, yet troublesome for conservatives because of her outspoken opposition to nuclear arms. Except for her journals and diaries, her work has found little favor with critics. In one of her letters to Rahner, she complained that she had been asked to give readings all over the world, but never in her native Bavaria.

Relationships between women and priests figure prominently in some of Rinser’s early work, Kirk said. Among Rinser’s later work is Abelard’s Liebe (Abelard’s Love), a 1991 novel that retells the story of 12th century priest-theologian Peter Abelard and his paramour Heloise from the perspective of their illicit son.

Rahner wrote Rinser some 2,203 letters, both personal and theological, Kirk said: 110 in 1962, 123 in 1963, 276 in 1964, 249 in 1965, 222 in 1966, in addition to sending her the diary of his U.S. trip. In 1967, he wrote 252 letters, and from 1968 to 1970, he wrote more than a hundred each year. In 1971, the correspondence begins falling off: 75 that year, 50 the next, and in the ensuing years, a range of 3 to 15 per year.

Excerpts in English from Rinser’s letters, above and below, were translated by Kirk for NCR.

‘Glorious letters’

In July, 1962, Rinser told Rahner in a letter that she had been organizing his letters to her. “There are 53 of them (including the postcards), my Fish. ... And what glorious letters they are! A theology of love: from person to person, man to woman, human to God, God to humans.” Publishing excerpts of these letters, she told him could help many priests to “sanctify love.” Rinser refers in her letters to Rahner’s commitment to celibacy.

Although Rinser has Rahner’s letters in her possession, the Jesuits, as Rahner’s heirs, own them under German law. Rinser had hoped to publish both sides of the correspondence, but the Jesuits wouldn’t allow it. Some were strongly critical of Rinser for publishing her side of the correspondence, Kirk said.

A year and a half after Rahner knelt before Rinser to profess his love, his passion remained strong. On Feb. 12, 1964, Rinser wrote, “Your letter of yesterday was the most beautiful love letter I have received from you or from anyone else.” Rahner had apparently compared their relationship to eternal happiness, a notion that Rinser found “indescribably beautiful.”

Later that year, Rinser addressed Rahner’s jealousy toward M.A., the Benedictine abbot. “I have M.A. and you,” she wrote. “You shouldn’t say, write or think that you have to be afraid of the one person. ... You are part of the very fabric of my life.”

In the second volume of Rinser’s autobiography, published in German in 1994, the last chapter is devoted to her relationship with Rahner, Kirk said. There she writes of Rahner’s jealousy that “M.A.” had been the one to bless her house near Rome and had celebrated the first Mass at her chapel. Although Rahner also sometimes celebrated Mass at her home, he was troubled, Rinser said, that she attended the abbot’s daily Mass during the council years. To stake his own claim, Rahner would show up at her house unexpectedly, she said, sometimes very early in the morning. Increasingly, Rinser said in her autobiography, he wrote of his despairing love.

‘Only a friend’

“How can you be so despairing, when I’m so close to you,” she wrote him on Nov. 1, 1964. “But that is clearly the cross to which you are nailed, and when I want to pull the nails out, you say no, no, that hurts too.” A week later, she told him she had just torn up a long letter to him because she couldn’t find the right tone. “I have only more fear of hurting you,” she said. “I don’t know what to say.”

In February 1965, exclusivity was still an issue for Rahner. “But the truth is this,” Rinser told him. “I love M.A. with my whole being, for all eternity, him alone in this way. I can only be a friend for you. But what is that? Time must tell.” She added that she would not consider his proposal that they separate. “We also are forever united,” she wrote.

The final two Rinser letters were written in 1984, the year Rahner died. The correspondence was most active between 1962 and 1967. As the letters began to dwindle in number in the 1970s, they used the telephone more, Kirk said. She said the couple had spoken by phone just hours before Rahner’s death.

Rinser, now 87, was still in the relationship with “M.A.,” the Benedictine abbot, when the second volume of her autobiography was published in 1994, meaning that their love had endured for some 30 years, Kirk said.

Rinser was clearly distressed that the Jesuits had refused her editor’s request to publish Rahner’s side of their correspondence. In the foreward to Gratwanderung, she wrote, “The Jesuits should be proud to have among their spiritual leaders a great theologian who was also a great human being, a man who though vowed to celibacy, dared to love a woman and to suffer deeply in his love. Why,” she asked, “should this be kept a secret?” Rinser went on to say that their love was not “forbidden love” but an attempt to live what both she and Rahner thought of as “the divine experiment ... to be fully man and woman, flesh and blood, yet remain totally on a spiritual level.”

After the book appeared, Rinser was “savagely criticized” in the German press, Kirk said, accused by one writer of needing “the drug of publicity.”

Another critic attempted to discredit Rinser by insinuating “lax sexual mores,” referring to her “numerous involvements with men,” Kirk said. “It is also well known that the now 83-year-old Rinser ... in addition to three husbands has turned the heads of many,” pronounced Der Spiegel in 1994.

Kirk says such a sweeping dismissal is not only “inappropriate,” it “totally ignores the nature of Rinser’s marriages.” Rinser met Rahner two years after a third marriage, to composer Karl Orf, ended, freeing him to marry his secretary, with whom he was having an affair. Rinser had been married to Orf for five years.

As for the Jesuits’ criticism, Kirk said that one German journalist, Beate Kayser, writing in Tageszeitung, argued that it had been motivated less by embarrassment at Rahner’s falling in love than by concern that the letters would provide grist for Rahner’s conservative “theological adversaries.”

Kirk thinks that the correspondence, revealing as it does Rahner’s suffering for love, is an “added dimension” to his writings about the relationship of human love and love of God. “It’s symptomatic” of the problem of celibacy “that the personal life of the major European Catholic theological figure of our time is not considered particularly relevant,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, December 19, 1997

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