Rahner's Christian Pessimism: A Response to the Sorrow of AIDS

By Crowley, Paul G. | Theological Studies, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Rahner's Christian Pessimism: A Response to the Sorrow of AIDS


Crowley, Paul G., Theological Studies


In one of his novels, Nikos Kazantzakis describes St. Francis of Assisi asking in prayer what more God might require of him. Francis has already restored San Damiano and given up everything else for God. Yet he is riddled with fear of contact with lepers. He confides to Brother Leo: "Even when I'm far away from them, just hearing the bells they wear to warn passers-by to keep their distance is enough to make me faint"(1) God's response to Francis's prayer is precisely what he does not want: Francis is to face his fears and embrace the next leper he sees on the road. Soon he hears the dreaded clank of the leper's bell. Yet Francis moves through his fears, embraces the leper, and even kisses his wounds. Jerome Miller, in his phenomenology of suffering, describes the importance of this scene:

Only when he embraced that leper, only when he kissed the very ulcers and stumps he had always found abhorrent, did he experience for the first time that joy which does not come from this world and which he would later identify with the joy of crucifixion itself .... If Francis felt drawn to the leper instead of compelled to recoil from him, it was because he saw embedded in the wounds of this outcast the priceless gem of his own nothingness. The joy which has often been recognized as characteristic of the saints ... springs right from that wound as from its original source.... What we avoid when we turn away from [the outcasts] is the original wound we have buried as deeply as we can inside ourselves. The joy of the saints comes from reopening it.(2)

In pale imitation of Francis, this article focuses on the wound of AIDS. I wish to acknowledge the sorrow of that disease but also to grasp the hope that comes only from facing its reality and its mystery. I want to suggest that Karl Rahner's theology of "Christian pessimism"(3) offers a theological hermeneutic within which the experience of AIDS can be interpreted and pastorally embraced. While other theological avenues are possible, Rahner's approach is particularly apt. The starting point for his theology is an unflinching acceptance of the full reality of the human condition, a commitment to truth -- to begin with what is the case. Furthermore, Rahner's is a solidly Christocentric theology, pushing through the central motifs of the revelation of God in Jesus and finding their focus in the interstices of human existence. A theology such as this, rooted in the real, centered on Christ, and clarified in human existence itself, can point us beyond the present situation toward a horizon of hope; it can ground a compassionate response to the sorrow of AIDS and, by analogy, to other experiences of human sorrow. If theology is an account of our hope, this article intends to be an exercise in theology in that most foundational sense.

AIDS is the point of departure for these reflections. But tens of thousands of people daily witness and suffer the deaths of loved ones and friends to a host of other devastating diseases and evil causes, such as poverty, social injustice, war, and genocide. Why, then, begin with AIDS?

First, AIDS is a major source of suffering and death on a universal scale, respecting no human distinctions. Researchers report that since 1981, some 28 million persons have become infected, and six million have died. There have been more than 540,000 AIDS diagnoses and over 300,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. Contrary to popular perceptions, this has never been only a gay disease, especially outside the West. Even in the U.S., the numbers are now rising most dramatically outside the gay community. In the 25-44 age group, AIDS is now the number-one killer of men and women combined. By the year 2000 there could be as many as 150,000 AIDS orphans in the U.S. alone. Especially hard hit are the very poor, primarily in the African-American and Latino communities, where rates of infection are dramatically disproportionate to the size of these communities in relation to the general population.

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