Sample Religious Studies Essay Paper on Personal Consciousness and Freedom in the Thought of Karl Rahner and Karol Wojtyla

Personal Consciousness and Freedom in the Thought of Karl Rahner and Karol Wojtyla


This discussion focused on the critical themes comparing the works and thoughts of Karl Rahner and Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II. The themes, which were discussed, include the character of human freedom, the structure of human consciousness, human beings as a mortal agent, and the concept of the person as well as the relationship to human nature. In the discussion, there were significant similarities in their arguments concerning the major themes. On the other hand, the differences in their approach and perspective to these themes, though irreconcilable, were significant in approach, which can be traced way back to the understanding of human nature. The discussion starts with the introduction by brief biographies of each thinker with much emphasizes on their philosophical influences to the topic. The first two sections focused majorly on Rahner’s thoughts and perspectives with regard to the structure of personal consciousness and freedom respectively. The last two sections discussed Wojtyla/John Paul II perspectives with regard to the same theme. The similarities and differences between Karl Rahner and Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II were discussed in the concluding section. In the conclusion, their understanding of human freedom, conscience and dignity were expounded in details. Their understanding of human nature also brought forward their different overview and understanding of the historicity and truth.


The state of Roman Catholic perspective with regard to moral theology is that of the deep division since the promulgation of Pope John Paul Vi’s encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968. Rather than focusing only on ethical issues (for instance contraception), the divisions within moral theology have revolved more importantly on the debate over foundational moral issues, such as principles of natural law, existence, the role of conscience, definition, and the structure of human act. The debate in the whole discussion revolves around the meaning of human life and existence as well as identity itself. The concept of morality revolves around the identity and dignity of the sina qua non of morality[1]. Morality is considered as the good of the human person and his consideration. Therefore, one’s personal stand and consideration of foundational moral issues (the object of an act, conscience, natural law) are reflected and directly depend on an individual’s ideas and personality, the purpose of one’s creation, as well as the reason for one’s human life. Consequently, one’s understanding and perspective with regard to such foundational issues greatly shape an individual’s particular stand and perspective on fundamental ethical issues like homosexuality, embryonic stem cell research, abortion, homosexual acts and cloning among other topics of contemporary controversial debates[2].

The chain of individual dependence, which can be observed from one’s human personality can be directly attributed to their understanding of basic foundational and moral issues to an individual’s ethical issues has a direct implication in the academic field mostly theology itself. In this regard, the field of morality and anthropology are directly linked, so are the moral and systematic theology. Similar categorization of moral and systematic theology implies that one’s moral theology is greatly influenced by other parts of systematics. Therefore, an individual’s anthropology should be influenced and informed by one’s theological perspective of Christology, God and theology of revelation and faith. This is based on the fundamental truth and principle that it is God who reveals himself to man[3].

More importantly, the study focused on the anthropological issues of personal consciousness, structure and the nature of human freedom. Finally, these issues are discussed and weighed in the perspective to their implications to the foundational moral theology. This viewpoint brought together the great philosophers in this field, Karl Rahner and Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II, into a single discussion[4]. Although Rahner was not a theologian, he greatly influenced the works and thoughts of Joseph Fuch who consequently influenced Richard McCormick. On the other hand, Wojtyla was a renown moral philosopher who continued emphasizing the importance of moral life encompassed in his moral theologian with reflections in other major publications and papal writings. He has been credited as the greatest contributor to the field of Catholic moral theology, especially when he assumed the papacy role[5]. His influence was felt by far and wide beyond his works stretching to his philosophical analysis of human person regarded as an “acting person.” The main thesis statement to be explored revolved around the two philosophers’ idealistic approaches of human consciousness. Despite their glaring and irreconcilable differences, they had a similar perspective to their personal consciousness and freedom. Their difference in understanding of human nature is the main cause of their irreconcilable differences they hold in analyzing personal consciousness and freedoms[6].

Intellectual Biographies

Modern personalistic philosophies and theologies are expressed by words of Paul Evdokimov as, “how are we to reconcile the uniformity of human awareness, its metaphysical universalism, with the multitude of personal centers which express it in an identical fashion?” This question was attempted by both Rahner and Wojtyla although they gave it different and completely variant approaches mostly because of different agendas and perspectives. While Rahner is a systematic theologian, Wojtyla was a Pope and a moral philosopher. Their work and writings were mostly influenced by these two distinct areas of study, which explained the differences in roles within the church. In this regard, their perspective may be summarized as; “While Rahner asks, Who and what must the human being be in order to be able to receive a revelation from God (a hearer of the Word)? Wojtyla/John Paul II asks, Who and what must the human being be in order to be a moral agent (an acting person)?”[7]

Karl Rahner

Rahner was born in 1904 in Freiburg, Germany, where he entered the Jesuit order at the age of 18 years. He completed his two-year novitiate in 1927 and studied philosophy at Feldkirch in Austria as well as at Pullach near Munich. He concentrated on modern German philosophy and prevailing neo-Thomism. It is during his stay at German Jesuit School where he enrolled for theological training at Valkenburg in Holland. He received theology training in various fields mostly in the field of Neo-Scholasticism, which was characterized Rome’s relentless battle to modernism. He further engaged in patristic theology more so in areas of sacraments, grace, mysticism and spirituality. He further studied spiritual exercises, which when combined with personal spirituality as a Jesuit greatly influenced Rahner’s theology throughout his life. He emphasized this by stating that, “I think that the spirituality of Ignatius himself. . . was more significant for me than all learned philosophy and theology inside and outside the Order[8].” Throughout Rahner’s theology, the Ignatian elements are found in his entire works, especially the concept of finding God in everything mostly his incarnational focus. This is evident when Rahner uses the phrase, “God in the world” describes to his theology, which influenced generations and students under him. Finally, Rahner attributes his own theology anchored on grace towards Ignatian spirituality mostly the experience of grace[9].

In 1932, Rahner was ordained to the priesthood and served for two years until he enrolled at Freiburg University in 1934 to study his Ph.D. in philosophy. Under the guidance of Martin Heidegger and Martin Honecker, he emerged strongly as a representative of contemporary philosophy known as existential phenomenology. He was greatly influenced by his teachers, especially Martin Heidegger, who he described as exemplary and in his own words he would state, “although I had many good professors in the classroom, there is only one whom I can revere as my teacher, and he is Martin Heidegger[10].” Rahner, however, never graduated with his Ph.D. and left the university in 1939 majorly because of the disagreement he had with his supervisor Honecker with regard to “Rahner’s interpretation of Thomas Aquinas’ theory of the metaphysics of cognition.” However, back home, Rahner published his works as unapproved doctoral dissertation titled the Spirit in the World (Geist in Welt)[11].

Summing up his interactions and influences he received from Heidegger, Rahner asserts that, “it is not specific doctrines that I have taken from [Heidegger], but rather a style of thinking and of investigating which has proved most valuable[12].”  In conclusion, Rahner never considered himself necessarily a Heideggerian. With slight influence especially in his works and philosophical perspectives of theologian issues mostly represented in The Spirit in the World. Following his various works and great writings, he was ordained as the official theologian famously known as peritus of the second Vatican council despite his trouble and controversies with Rome regarding various theological issues. Most notably, he was not in agreement with orthodoxy, which was exhibited by various Bishops, especially in the wake of Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis[13].

Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II

Karol was born in 1920 in Wadowice and he began his studies in 1928 at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow where he majored in Polish philology. Due to the second world war, he was unable to continue with his studies, especially due to the German occupation of Poland. He used the years in writing and performing in underground theater. In 1942, Karol joined the underground operations of Catholic Seminary in Cracow where he was ordained in 1946 before traveling to study his doctorate in theology at Angelicum in Rome. Before joining his doctorate studies, Karol had tried twice to join Carmelite in vain and his major intellectual influences were felt in this line. Karol undertook his doctorate dissertation under the guidance and supervision of Thomist Reginald regarding the theology of faith in ST. John of the cross[14]. While at St. john of the cross, his philosophy and thoughts were highly influenced by the spirituality of St. John of the cross especially his anthropological thinking portrayed by his direct advocacy with regard to the personalistic norm. This norm may be formulated in totality as a prohibitive action against the violation in oneself especially in others with regard to the mystery of the person. This is further demonstrated when the mystery of the personhood is held as analogous to that held and practiced by God[15].

Karol proceeded to study his doctorate and defended it in June 1948 where he graduated after successful completion of his academic work where he received the maximum number of points available for each unit. This demonstrated an exemplary performance demonstrated by Karol and his philosophy and theology were greatly enhanced and shaped during this period. The irony in his doctorate studies lies with the fact that, he left Angelicum because he could not afford payment for his doctorate dissertation to be published. When he finally returned to Poland and presented his doctorate dissertation, it was accepted and published and he graduated with Doctorate in Sacred Theology in 1948[16].

He worked as a parish priest for a period of three years where he was advised to take a sabbatical leave in order to write his habilitation thesis which was a required to be admitted as a lecturer at the University. He studied the topic of compatibility of Max Scheler’s phenomenology as well as the revealed Christian ethics. Scheler’s phenomenology was hypothesized by Novak which appealed to Karol’s artistic and dramatic sensibility as follows, He is sensitive, feels things deeply, responds instantly to persons and situations through his emotions, takes things in as wholes, and learns quickly from concrete experience. He trusts experience more than words. He likes to reflect on concrete wholes, as an artist would, in order to allow their inner form to emerge subtly and slowly. . . These dispositions led him at a very young age to find both release and congenial techniques in the phenomenological method, particularly as he found it in Max Scheler. . . the philosopher par excellence of the feelings[17].

Karol used this way in expressing holistic approach without tolerating dichotomies where they are absent or apply to human beings or their experiences. Just like Marechal and Rahner, Scheler and Karol came up with a methodology, which crossed the divide between the essence of things and knowing subjects. This notion was attributable to the fact that objects are always experienced in conjunction with repulsion or attraction. This implies that there is no emotion or affectivity since objects are always connected with a devaluing or a significant value. This may be concluded from the fact that, “Phenomenology allows us to isolate the values connected with experience . . . Ethics is shown to be a fundamental dimension of experience in general[18].”

In concluding this section, it can be observed that Scheler’s phenomenology can be categorized as an “accidentally” helpful, which is beneficial to any Christian philosopher. Nevertheless, the importance of Scheler’s work may not be underscored when describing the experience with regard to ethical realities. Karol emphasized the assertion of Scheler when he asserted that the methodologies required to test and measure the ethics are contained in the phenomenological approach. This was able to grasp the human experience content in totality including all its ethical dimension. When Karol was at Roman Ingarden, he as well supported this assertion when he observed that, consideration of phenomenology not solely as a philosophical system to be considered by or in itself but rather regarded as a method of inquiry which may be potentially compatible with various forms of philosophies[19].

Wojtyla/John Paul II has been regarded as a Thomist as opposed to primarily a phenomenologist has been lived with various debates and scholars on the issue. Michael Novak in this regard asserts that “it has often been pointed out, of course, that the Pope was a professional philosopher before he became a bishop, and that he is probably better identified as belonging to the school of phenomenology than, say, as a Neo-Thomist[20].” However, other scholars like Jerzy Galkowski insist that “despite his use of the phenomenological method in a descriptive sense when describing the human person’s self-experience, he is still and always being primarily a Thomist[21].”

The Structure of the Human Being in Karl Rahner’s Thought

The critical analysis focusing on the works and subject matter of discussion demonstrated Karl Rahner as a true systematic characteristic of the theologian. The major and crucial angle under which the works of Karl may be considered is the consideration of his work as anthropological aspects of human dignity. According to Rahner, theological anthropology may be solely described as a representation of human dignity. Rahner’s emphasis on dignity revolves around his work and writings. Therefore, theology ought to be geared towards shaping this view and aspects of human consciousness. Therefore, a creature’s dignity may be regarded and described as intrinsically and necessarily coextensive with all its aspects of goodness, which is the goodness universal to all creatures and human beings[22].

The human consciousness should always be driven by this essential issue when interaction is considered. In consideration of human dignity, Rahner held the assertion that, “Christianity is not the religion whose basic attitude is fear of its going to our head-and, not into our grateful heart—if we extol the greatness to which God has raised a man in order that he might praise God[23].” Therefore, from his consideration, Rahner’s approach to human dignity should focus on the uniqueness of humanity’s relationship with God. God’s self-communication with human beings is an important aspect when human dignity is considered. Finally, Rahner considered human dignity as comprised of two components; it is a task, which ought to be accomplished in freedom and two is the essential and necessary structure of human being given by the divine nature of God[24].

The human nature as presented by God is the aspect that can be followed, which will consequently determine the revelation of God’s path for man. This demonstrates the dignity and nature of man viewed from God’s perspective. This is the aspect that will allow us to stand and be judged before God. Thus, Rahner’s theology and consideration of human nature are embodied in the essence of humanity, which defines humanity and what it is including the elements from both historical and revelation experiences. Therefore, according to Rahner, the essence of human nature incorporates the two aspects[25]. Human dignity according to Rahner is the initial mandate, which was handed over by God to Adam in the garden of Gethsemane. The initial character of the beginning of human history is, thus, demonstrated in Genesis and sin illustrated in part as unique aspect as follows;

The beginning which has been withdrawn from our control (we might even call it the Urgeschichte) is constituted as now in force in virtue of that original stage which is prior our own freedom and hidden from us, and at the same time in virtue of the event in which freedom was first exercised, which per definition is different in kind from the freedom which we can exercise now . . . for an anthropology that is existential-ontological in character, and especially one that is theological, ‘beginning’ is from the outset not the first moment in a whole series of moments following one upon another, but rather the basis, of its very nature unique, on which the whole of history rests, a basis which . . . is itself sui generis[26].”

These assertions are as well held by Karol who views the existence of human nature as an act of God well defined and placed to ensure total obedience. In his theological anthropology and study of human dignity, the aspect originated with God and gave the mandate to human beings in their aspect of obeying God. These are some of the similarities that were highlighted in the introduction with regard to human consciousness and other human aspects which relate to human dignity. Notwithstanding the differences which viewed from various perspectives might be considered irreconcilable, the similarities are close and outweighs the differences hence, both theologies and their prepositions are always at per with their beliefs[27].

In conclusion, the scholars have explored different paths in explaining the various aspects of human existence and the responsibilities with personal consciousness with freedom of thoughts as the main area of focus. Rahner demonstrated the usefulness of human dignity as an aspect generated from the beginning at the garden of Eden. Human being were left with free will and responsibility to obey certain level of regulations which were given. They were given all the freedoms and their own independent thinking, which was to guide them in relation to God and interaction with other creatures. Karol in the study of theology and human consciousness as well identified the personal consciousness which ought to guide the interactions of human beings and other creatures living in a free will society. Unless everything in the universe upholds dignity and exercises responsible freedom of thoughts, a state of anarchy, chaotic and lawless is inevitable. This beats the state of human dignity and personal consciousness in deciding on the best thing to do. The interaction and interrelationship between various creatures is a complex puzzle though it can be solved by the exercise of freedom of thoughts guided by personal consciousness and envisioned in the human dignity that both Rahner and Karol explored in details in their theology dissertations. Finally, the aspect of human interaction and God’s guidance ought to be considered in a special consideration where human beings ought to hold God in high regard. This according to both scholars is an aspect of human dignity guided by consciousness.


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[1] Servais Pinckaers. The Sources of Christian Ethics. Translated by Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 11.

[2] Gerard Beigel. Faith and Social Justice in the Teaching of Pope John Paul II. (American University Series 7: Theology and Religion (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), 23.

[3] Tiina Allik. “Karl Rahner on Materiality and Human Knowledge.” (Thomist, 2005), 375.

[4] Robert Sokolowski. Introduction to Phenomenology. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 14.

[5] William Shepherd. “Karl Rahner and the Problem of Nature and Grace.” Ph.D. dissertation. (Yale University, 2007), 92.

[6] William Dych. Karl Rahner. (London and New York: Continuum, 1992), 12.

[7] Brennan Hill. “Karl Rahner’s Metaphysical Anthropology.” Carmelus 18 (2001), 183.

[8] Michael Barnes. “The Evolution of the Soul from Matter and the Role of Science (In Karl Rahner’s Theology.” Horizons, 2004), 93.

[9] Thomas Sheeham. Karl Rahner: The Philosophical Foundations. With a preface by Karl Rahner, S.J. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2007), 67.

[10] George Vass. The Mystery of Man and the Foundations o f a Theological System. Volume 2 of Understanding Karl Rahner. (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1985), 27.

[11] John Cawte. “Karl Rahner’s Conception of God’s Self-Communication to Man.” (Heythrop Journal, 2004), 230.

[12] Richard Beauchesne. “The Supernatural Existential as Desire: Karl Rahner and Emmanuel Levinas Revisited.” (Eglise et Theologie, 2002), 225.

[13] Herbert Vorgrimler. Understanding Karl Rahner: An Introduction to His Life and Thought. (New York: Crossroad, 2006), 17.

[14] Tad Szulc. Pope John Paul II: The Biography. (New York: Pocket Books, 1995), 19.

[15] Timothy Doherty. “The Image of God as the Foundation of a Right to Healthcare: A Comparison of Selected Papal and U.S. Texts, (1979-1993.” Ph.D. dissertation. Loyola University, 1996), 28.

[16] John Saward. “The Christocentricity of John Paul E L” Communio (1991), 338.

[17] Joseph Donceel. The Philosophy of Karl Rahner. (Albany, NY: Magi Books, 2009), 28.

[18] Panayictis Nellas. Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary’s Press, 1997), 12.

[19] Angelo Scola. “’Claim’ of Christ, ‘claim’ of the world: on the Trinitarian encyclicals of John Paul TT.” (Communio, 2001), 325.

[20] Andrew Tallon. “Karl Rahner—Philosopher (1904-1984).” Philosophy Today (2004), 103.

[21] Elizabeth Johnson. “The Incomprehensibility of God in Man according to the Image of God Male and Female.” (Theological Studies, 2004), 445.

[22] Jack Arthur Bonsor. Rahner, Heidegger, and Truth. Lanham, (MD: University Press of America, 2008), 12.

[23] Jerzy Galkowski. “The Place of Thomism in the Anthropology o f K. (Wojtyla.” Angelicum, 2008), 185.

[24] Robert Moloney. “Seeing and Knowing: Some Reflections on Karl Rahner’s Theory of Knowledge.” (Heythrop Journal, 2007), 405.

[25] Andrew Wonznicki. A Christian Humanism: Karol Wojtyla’s Existential Personalism. New Britain, (CT: Mari el Publications, 2000), 93.

[26] Ronald Modras. “Implications of Rahner’s Anthropology for Fundamental Moral Theology.” Horizons, (1985), 75.

[27] Kenneth Schmitz. At the Center of the Human Drama: The Philosophical Anthropology of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II. (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1993), 45.