A Study of Karl Rahner’s Sacramental Theology on Liturgy as Symbol
黃嘉盈 (K. Y. Wong)
In this paper, we are going to study the view of Karl Rahner on liturgy as symbol. It will be based on his theology of symbol as well as his sacramental theology.
2. Background of Rahner Karl (1904-1984)
Karl Rahner was born at Freiburg in Breisgau and died
1924-1927, he undertook general, scientific, and philosophical studies at the
Berchmannskolleg. He was so deeply involved in these studies and toward the end
of this period he decided to devote himself to teaching the history of
philosophy. (especially modern philosophy). He was ordained priest by Cardinal
Michael Faulhaber in
With the energetic support of his brother Hugo, Rahner
had turned to church history, done a theology doctorate at the
At the “
3. Symbol, as explained by Karl Rahner
The reason for Karl Rahner to take up the discussion of symbol is: in the theology of devotion to the Sacred Heart, the investigations of symbol is of vital importance are lacking. Conversely, in the process of development the concept of symbol in the object of devotion, the theology of symbol becomes a basis in Rahner’s sacramental theology.
The general meaning of symbol according to the description of Rahner in his “The Theology of the Symbol” is that it is not true for symbol to has in general a clear and definite meaning in every instance. The concept of it is much more obscure, difficult and ambiguous than is usually thought and it is wrong to take the concept as an obvious one. 
Rahner introduced the ontology of Symbolic Reality in general. Firstly,
all beings are by their nature symbolic, because they necessarily ‘express’ themselves in order to attain their own nature.
Two realities (constituted in its essence and intelligible of itself) agreed with one another on a certain point, this ‘agreement’ made it possible for each of them to refer to the other and call attention to it, and hence be used by us as a symbol for the other, i.e. by reason of the ‘agreement’.
Rahner thought that a symbol is the representation which allows the other ‘to be there’ – supreme and primal representation, one reality renders another(primarily ‘for itself’ and only secondarily for others) 
Rahner raised out the necessity to distinguish genuine symbols (symbolic realities) from merely arbitrary signs, signals and codes (symbolic representations). It is not easy to say where the function of being merely a sign and indicator so predominates over the ‘function of expressiveness’ that a symbol loses its ‘overplus of meaning’ and sinks to the level of a sign with little symbolism. He made it clear that the margins are fluid.
For going further into the theology of symbol, Rahner explained essential concepts as the base for discussion. To begin, all beings are multiple, are/can be essentially the expression of another in this unity of the multiple and one in this plurality, by reason of its plural unity. Each being, as a unity, possesses a plurality – implying perfection – formed by the special derivativeness of the plural from the original unity: the plural is in agreement with its source in a way which corresponds to its origin, and hence is ‘expression’ of its origin by an agreement which it owes to its origin. One with the origin must be considered as the ‘expression’ of the origin and of the primordial unity. 
Secondly, the Thomist ontology – concept of resultance is also noted by Rahner. An inner self-realization of the total essence itself dependent of course on the creative activity of God), prior to its accidental ‘second’ acts; a ‘resultance’, an ‘out-flowing’ of the faculties from the substance. The essence as a whole builds itself up – for the faculties belong to the totality of the essence.  From the theory of the emanation and ‘resultance’ of a faculty, a power, an accident, that the starting-point for our proffered theory of the symbol is perfectly Thomist. The ‘species’, the outward form, aspect and figure, which the basic substance provides for itself, to fulfil itself, to ‘express’ itself and to manifest itself. The ‘species’ of the material thing is undoubtedly the symbol – brought about by the essence, retained with the efficient cause in a differentiated unity, constituting the necessary ‘communication’ of the self-realization – in which the material being possesses itself and presents itself to view, in the varying forms proper to its being.
All the elements which we have worked out for the original concept of symbol in a more general ontology of multiple beings; the formation of the symbol as a self-realization of the thing symbolized itself; the fact that the symbol belongs intrinsically to what is expressed; self-realization by means of the constitution of this expression springing from the essence.
The second point of he ontology of Symbolic Reality in general is that the symbol (symbolic reality) is the self-realization of a being in the other, which is constitutive of its essence.
Rahner believed no theology can be complete without also being a theology of the symbol, of the appearance and the expression, of self-presence in that which has been constituted as the other. Furthermore, the whole of theology is incomprehensible if it is not essentially a theology of symbols, although in general very little attention is paid, systematically and expressly, to this basic characteristic.
When Rahner was working out the ontology of the symbol, he formulated it so that it would be immediately applicable to the theology of the Trinity in blameless orthodoxy. The theology of the Logos is strictly a theology of the symbol, indeed the supreme form of it.
1. Liturgy (sacrament) as symbol in general
Karl Rahner described the teaching on the sacraments is the classic place in which a theology of the symbol is put forward in general in Catholic theology.
The sacraments make concrete and actual for the life of the individual, the symbolic reality of the Church as the primary sacrament, and therefore constitute at once, in keeping with the nature of thus Church a symbolic reality.
Thus the sacraments are expressly described in theology as ‘sacred signs’ of God’s grace that is as, symbols, an expression which occurs expressly in this context.
Rahner stated that if the basic axioms of sacramental theology: Sacramenta efficient quod significant et significant quod efficien are taken seriously, they point to that mutually supporting relationship which in our notion of the symbol intervenes between it and what is symbolized. Causality of sacraments in terms of symbol: the function of cause and the function of sign in the sacraments have an intrinsic connexion by virtue of the nature of things – their symbolic character, rightly understood.
As God’s work of grace on man is accomplished (incarnates itself), it enters the spatio-temporal historicity of man as sacrament, and as it does so, it becomes active with regard to man, it constitutes itself. For as soon as one sees the sacraments as the action of God on man – even though it takes place through someone who acts as ‘minister’ by divine mandate and gives body to the action done to man and so renders it concretely present and active – then the question no longer arises as to how the sacramental sign ‘works on’ God, and it is no longer possible to ask whether this sign produces grace by ‘physical’ or ‘moral’ causality. Rahner explained for at no stage can the sign be seen apart from what is signified, since it in understood a priori as a symbolic reality, which the signified itself brings about in order to be really resent itself.
Sacrament is precisely ‘cause’ of grace, in so far as it is its ‘sign’ and that the grace – seen as coming from God – is the cause of the sign, bringing it about and so alone making itself present. Therefore, the old axioms sacramenta gratiam efficient, quatenus eam significant –where this significant is always to be understood in the strict sense as a symbolic reality. The grace of God constitutes itself actively present in the sacraments by creating their expression, their historical tangibility in space and time, which is its own symbol.
2. The Thoughts of Karl Rahner on Sacraments
The thoughts of Karl Rahner on sacrament in general stems from his theology of Symbol and the idea that both Christ and the Church are sacrament. In the following, we will consider five aspects on Rahner’s thought on sacrament: opus operatum, Mass – a sacrificium visible, sacrifice of the Mass as a repraesentatio of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, sacrifice of the Mass as the Church’s sacrifice and finally presence of the Lord at worship.
2.1 Opus operatum
In the point of view of Rahner, opus operatum is not identical with the concept of a sacrament, as there are instances of it which are not sacrament. The concept of opus operatum means that
Grace is conferred on the recipient through the positing of the sacramental sign itself, and neither the merit (holiness) of the minister nor that of the recipient is causally involved.
Rahner stated that God has linked his grace once and for all to the making of this sign and that through this connection established by God himself between sign of grace and grace signified, any objection that the sacramental opus operatum is being understood in a magical way ipso facto vanishes, all the more so as the need for inner receptiveness and for appropriation in faith of the grace conferred is not only not excluded but is expressly taught by the Council of Trent.
The sacrament in its concrete reality involves, like the opus operantis (the dispositions of the recipient), and element of uncertainty about grace, of doubt about its factual efficacy. With the sacrament a person knows just as little as he does with his merely “subjective” actions performed in faith, whether it has really given him God’s grace. Conversely, one can certainly affirm that God has attached the unconditional promise of grace and help to other realities as well as to the sacramental signs. If someone prays in the name of Jesus for saving grace and for nothing else, he knows with infallible certainty that God hears him, even if perhaps the precise mode of the answer remains hidden and must be left in God’s hands.
On the other hand, opus operatum is not a concept in opposition to faith. Since it states that God sola gratia, out of pure grace, gives this faith and utters this gracious summons to man plainly and simply in the historically visible form of the sacraments. Moreover, opus operatum does not mean where a human being is capable of personal faith, this grace which is offered and unconditionally promised in the sacraments, ignores the faith of the human being. The grace is a grace of faith and love, the grace to be able and to accomplish, a grace which is realized in the loving faith of man.
In the Church, God’s grace is given expression and embodiment and symbolized, and by being so embodied, is present. The sacraments is precisely that of sign: by signifying, to effect what is signified. Church is the visible outward expression of grace.
Sacraments precisely as signs are causes of grace, that it is a case here of causation by symbols, of the kind that belongs to what by its very nature is a symbol.
By such “natural symbols” or intrinsically real symbols, the spatio-temporal, historical phenomenon, the visible and tangible form in which something that appears, notifies its presence, and by so doing, makes itself present, bodying forth this manifestation really distinct from itself. With natural symbols, the sign or symbol as a phenomenon is intrinsically linked to what it is a phenomenon of , and which is present and operative, even though really distinct. 
The Church in her visible historical form is herself an intrinsic symbol of the eschatologically triumphant grace of God; in that spatio-temporal visible form, this grace is made present.Because the sacraments are the actual fulfilment, the actualization of the Church’s very nature, in regard to individual men, precisely in as musch as the Church’s whole reality is to be the real presence of God’s grace, as the new covenant, these sacramental signs are efficacious. Their efficacy is that of the intrinsic symbol.
Rahner stated that Christ acts through the Church in regard to an individual human being, by giving his action spatio-temporal embodiment by having the gift of his grace manifested in the sacrament. This visible form is itself an effect of the coming of grace; it is there because God is gracious to men; and in this self-embodiment of grace, grace itself occurs. The sacramental sign is cause of grace in as much as grace is conferred by being signified. And this presence (by signifying) of grace in the sacraments is simply the actuality of the Church herself as the visible manifestation of grace. He further explained the relation between the Church as the historical visible manifestation of grace and grace itself, one of reciprocal conditioning, extends into the relation between sacramental sign and grace conferred.
The sign effects grace, by grace producing the sacrament as sign of the sanctification effected. This, of course, can only be said if the Church as an entity is truly and inseparably connected with grace. Only then is her act, when it is an unconditional realization of her essence, (i.e. of the Church as the presence of grace), essentially and irrevocably a manifestation of grace, so that the manifestation necessarily renders present what is manifested.
This accounts for the connection between opus operatum and the causality of the sacraments in relation to grace. Both are rooted in the same nature of the Church as the essentially primal symbol of grace inseparable from what is symbolized (grace). 
5.2 Mass – a sacrificium visible
Rahner reflected on Mass and considered it as a sacrificium visible. This states and means that the visible ritual action itself is a sacrifice. It cannot merely be the visible manifestation of a sacrifice which in itself is invisible. Besides, it is not the case that under or behind the visible ritual proceeding which is not itself a sacrifice (a mere meal, e.g., or a celebration of the mysteries), something is present in a hidden way, and this is what can be called the sacrifice. A correct interpretation of the doctrine of the Council of Trent regarding the sacrificium visible of the Mass must maintain that the sacrificial character of the Mass is to be sought on the plane of the visible liturgical action. He proposed the reasons which are supporting this interpretation. He explained the term sacrificium visible as the sacrificial character of the rite itself belongs to the visible elements of the rite. If a visible manifestation of Christ’s sacrifice, not itself a sacrifice, were to become a sacrificium visible by the mere fact that there is present under and behind it the sacrifice of Christ which as such remains invisible, then it would not really be clear why every sacrament would not be a sacrifice for Christ’s power is present in each.
Rahner believed that it is only in the Eucharist that
Christ’s humanity is substantially present. But this presence strictly as such
cannot make the occurrence a sacrifice. Nor does the presence of Christ in the
Eucharist involve a special presence of the external sacrificial action on the
Cross. It does not mean that Christ himself performs a fresh act expressive of
his sacrificial disposition in every
5.3 Sacrifice of the Mass as a repraesentatio of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross
Rahner emphasised it is the obedience to the Lord’s
anamnesis command, the Church offers in a repeated liturgical celebration the
sacrificial action of the
It is only because of this that it can unite itself with Christ’s sacrificial will realized on the Cross, through which alone the Church’s offering is possible. Furthermore, the Church offers to God precisely the gift over which Christ himself alone has exclusive power to dispose.The strict thesis of an actual new interior oblation by Christ himself would seek the decisive essential constituent of a visible sacrifice, the essential features of which must lie on the plane of the visible ritual action, in an invisible element lying absolutely beyond the sacramental symbolism.
The Church’s liturgical sacrificial action would not be a repraesentatio of Christ’s sacrifice of the Cross which he offered once and for all, but would be the repraesentatio of a liturgy perpetually renewed by Christ in heaven.Finally, that view confuses sacrificial attitude of mind and sacrificial action. At need it can explain a sacrificial attitude of mind on Christ’s part, but not a new sacrificial action. And if it is argued that this sacrificial attitude of Christ becomes visible in the liturgical rite of the Mass and so, at least on certain conditions, becomes a sacrificial action, it must be replied that the sacrificial action, it must be replied that the sacrificial attitude of Christ which becomes visible in the Mass is that of the sacrifice of the Cross. No other visible feature can be observed, nor would any such feature be in accordance with the character of the Mass as relative to the sacrifice of the Cross. 
5.4 Sacrifice of the Mass as the Church’s sacrifice
Rahner uttered the Church is commissioned to act in such a way that, because Christ on the Cross gave himself for the Church, the gift is offered as that of the Church also. He perceived Church’s offering with a double aspect: Firstly, it is the ritual offering. The Church offers the sacrifice of the Mass by validly positing the liturgical sacrificial rite in obedience to the Lord’s command. The Church posits it in such a way that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross really receives a presence at the point in space and time designated by the liturgical action.  Secondly, it is the actual personal offering. The Church offers the sacrifice to the extent that concretely and individually it gives reality to the objective meaning of its ritual action i.e. offers the Body and Blood of Christ to the Father in faith and love. This aspect does not belong to the constitutive elements of the visible liturgical rite itself. It is not a purely subjective human addition which has nothing to do with the essence of the sacrifice of the Mass. Rahner stated that general teaching of moral theology is that personal participation of that kind is so indispensable that the celebrant cannot be without a certain measure of it except by his own grave fault.The Church has been entrusted by Christ with the power to celebrate liturgically Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross precisely in order that the Church may enter by faith and love into this action of its head.It follows that the ritual action of the Mass is not the visible liturgical sign of Christ’s sacrifice alone, but also the visible sign of its simultaneous co-offering by the Body of Christ with its head.
On the other hand, the grace-giving action of God and man’s laying hold of grace in faith and love do not belong to the constitutive elements of the sacramental rite, yet essentially belong to the sacrament. For this word designates not merely the sign but also what is present in the sign and what becomes visibly signified by it. This is the offering of Christ as our gift to the Father who accepts him. Now the sign established by the Lord and posited by the Church is constitutive, it is a cause of what is signifies.
Rahner believed it is true that even at Mass a member of the Church, even the celebrant, for his own part culpably refuse to take part in the actual realization of this personal co-offering by the Church. However, but the liturgical offering of Christ as the Church’s sacrifice does not cease on that account to announce the actual concrete union of the Church with the sacrifice of the Cross. Wherever Mass is celebrated in the Church, that Mass is an effectual sign of the sacrificial attitude of the whole Church. For every liturgical offering always and essentially takes place in the name of the whole Church.
Rahner thought that the Mass as a constitutive sign in and through which the Church (the individual Christian) is united with Christ’s sacrifice. The Church’s union with Christ’s sacrifice could and can be manifested and achieved in other ways as well as in the sign of the Eucharistic celebration.
5.5 Presence of the Lord at worship
In the perspective of Rahner, the presence of Christ in the cult must be understood as single and active. 
Though the presence of Christ in the cult of the local community contains within itself very different elements. Yet it must be understood as prior to all these elements, and as unique. It is because Christ is also one in his relationship to men as sanctifying them, and man himself is also one in the midst of all the many dimensions in which he exists. The different elements in this single and unique presence must be comprehended as the intrinsic constitution of this presence precisely as single. They derive their meaning and their significance precisely from this one presence, and achieve it in this. Or these elements must be understood as different degrees in the ‘actualisation’ and intensity of this one unique presence trough which God and man become united for the glory of God and the salvation of man.
The single presence of Christ in the cult considered as an active sanctifying force and it is constituted by the several elements:
Firstly, it is by the word of the gospel. A true presence of Christ is already achieved wherever the word of the gospel is preached in power and heard in a spirit of faith. Christ imparts himself to us as the eschatological union between God and man as achieved in the Spirit and through faith, in an act of divine self-bestowal, and thereby makes himself present in preacher and hearer alike. The word of preaching as delivered with authority and heard in faith and in the Spirit is a word that has an effective and exhibitive force, one which, through a process of anamnesis, renders saving history effectively present, and already in the here and now effectively promises to man a future of salvation that is absolute. This effective and exhibitive force in the word of preaching belongs to the very nature of that preaching which is the event of grace and so the presence of Christ. 
Secondly, it is through the sacrament. Rahner uttered that every sacrament can, and indeed must, be understood as that kind of exhibitive and effective word in which Christ, through the mouth of the Church, utters himself as the eschatological ‘sacrament’ of salvation to a specific man in a situation which is significant for his life as a whole and in a form in which it can be apprehended at the level of concrete human living. Therefore, every sacrament signifies and effects a presence of Christ. 
Rahner stated a point of consideration. He said an authorised human intermediary
is involved in the dispensing of the sacraments is indeed an integral element in the constitution of the sign of the presence of Christ. Indeed the dispenser of the sacraments takes the place of Christ himself in the dimension of the sign that effects what it signifies. But since he does not himself, in any proper sense, bring about the sacramental grace, the actual res sacramenti as its effective source, he does not, in any sense take the place of the presence of Christ himself. Thus, in other words, the human dispenser of the sacraments does not take the place of an absent Christ, but rather represents Christ as present in the dimension of the ‘effective’ sign, even though it is Christ himself who, of his own power, brings about the grace in his pneuma. 
Thirdly, it is through the Eucharist. Rahner stated that in the Eucharist the presence of Christ achieves, through the sacramental word that ‘shows it forth’, the supreme and specifically distinct ‘actualisation’ of what it essentially is. 
The death and resurrection of Christ are made present and actual sacramentally (‘in the “mystery”’) and at the same time the Body and Blood of Christ are made present substantially. These two modes of a presence that is ultimately and most deeply one are achieved in such a way that this presence is related not only to the entry of Christ into the individual saving history of a particular person but also to the Church herself as such. This is made manifest in visible form in the community at worship, and in the celebration of the Eucharist it achieves its supreme fullness and ‘actuality’ both in the dimension of the ‘sign’ and at the same time in the dimension of the reality itself that is signified. This is because in the Eucharist the union of Christ the head with his body, the Church, is at its most intense, being in fact made visible in the sacrament and made effective in the grace that it conveys. Here then Christ is made present on the one hand in his relationship to the Father and the task he has received from him, and on the other in his relationship to the Church and the functions he performs for her.
Finally, we have a brief overview on Karl Rahner’s sacramental theology beginning with the investigations on his view on theology of symbol. The theology of symbol is a basis of his sacramental theology. Rahner had offered new interpretations on doctrines in response to the world. His effort has been contributing to the more intense enumentical discussion and it is obviously influential to the Catholic theology.
Lacoste, Jean-Y. Encyclopedia of Christian Theology III.
Rahner, Karl. “The presence of the
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Rahner, Karl. “The Theology of the
Symbol” , Theological Investigations IV:
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 Karl Rahner, “The Theology of the Symbol”, Theological Investigations IV: More recent Writings (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1974), 222.
 Rahner, “The Theology of the Symbol”, Theological Investigations IV: More recent Writings, 222.
 Rahner, “The Theology of the Symbol”, Theological Investigations IV: More recent Writings, 224.
 Rahner, “The Theology of the Symbol”, Theological Investigations IV: More recent Writings, 222-225.
 Rahner, “The Theology of the Symbol” Theological Investigations IV: More recent Writings, 225.
 Rahner, “The Theology of the Symbol”, Theological Investigations IV: More recent Writings, 225.
 Rahner, “The Theology of the Symbol”, Theological Investigations IV: More recent Writings, 228.
 Rahner, “The Theology of the Symbol”, Theological Investigations IV: More recent Writings, 232-233.
 Rahner, “The Theology of the Symbol”, Theological Investigations IV: More recent Writings, 233-234.
 Rahner, “The Theology of the Symbol”, Theological Investigations IV: More recent Writings, 234.
 Rahner, “The Theology of the Symbol”, Theological Investigations IV: More recent Writings, 235.
 Rahner, “The Theology of the Symbol”, Theological Investigations IV: More recent Writings, 241.
 Rahner, “The Theology of the Symbol”, Theological Investigations IV: More recent Writings, 242.
 Rahner, “The Theology of the Symbol”, Theological Investigations IV: More recent Writings, 242.
 Sacramental theology is related to Christology and ecclesiology.
 Rahner, The Church and the Sacraments (London: Burns & Oates, 1963), 25.
 Rahner, The Church and the Sacraments, 24-25.
 Rahner, The Church and the Sacraments, 26.
 Rahner, The Church and the Sacraments, 34.
 Rahner, The Church and the Sacraments, 37-38.
 Rahner, The Church and the Sacraments, 39-40.
 Rahner, The Church and the Sacraments, 40.
 Karl Rahner, The Celebration of the Eucharist (London: Burns & Oates, 1968), 18.
 Rahner, The Celebration of the Eucharist, 18-22.
 Rahner, The Celebration of the Eucharist, 26.
 Rahner, The Celebration of the Eucharist, 27.
 Rahner, The Celebration of the Eucharist, 27-28.
 Rahner explained “It belongs to the fundamental dogmas of sacramental theology that this validity does not depend on the individual priest’s actual subjective entering into the objective event.” Rahner, The Celebration of the Eucharist, 30.
 Further illustration of Rahner, it is “as a whole,is always holy church, the holy people of God, and as a totality never falls away from Christ and cannot do so, and consequently has always and authentically entered into Christ’s sacrificial action on the Cross.”: Rahner, The Celebration of the Eucharist, 31.
 Rahner, The Celebration of the Eucharist, 30-33.
 Karl Rahner, “The Presence of the Lord in the Christian Community at Worship”, Theological Investigations X: Writings of 1965-7 II (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1973), 76.
 Rahner, “The Presence of the Lord in the Christian Community at Worship”, Theological Investigations X: Writings of 1965-7 II, 77.
 Rahner, “The Presence of the Lord in the Christian Community at Worship”, Theological Investigations X: Writings of 1965-7 II, 78.
 This presence can be called ‘dynamic’ and ‘non-substantial’ : Rahner, “Presence of Lord at Christian Worship” Theological Investigations X: Writings of 1965-7 II,79.
 Rahner, “The Presence of the Lord in the Christian Community at Worship”, Theological Investigations X: Writings of 1965-7 II, 79.
 Rahner, “The Presence of the Lord in the Christian Community at Worship”, Theological Investigations X: Writings of 1965-7 II,79.
 Rahner, “The Presence of the Lord in the Christian Community at Worship”, Theological Investigations X: Writings of 1965-7 II, 80.
 Rahner, “The Presence of the Lord in the Christian Community at Worship”, Theological Investigations X: Writings of 1965-7 II. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1973), 80-81.