Father Karl Rahner, a Jesuit priest and peritus at Vatican II, was a highly influential theologian in the 20th century, holding the Chair for Christianity and the Philosophy of Religion at Munich, as well as serving as Chair of Dogmatic Theology in Münster, Germany. He also sat on the board of the International Theological Commission.
His influence on Catholic thought is incalculable — which helps to explain why the Faith stands in such ruins today, as his heterodox teachings were promoted in seminaries everywhere, infecting the minds of priests, who went on to pass on his ideas to their flocks. As a result of Rahner and other dissident theologians, what we're left with today is an almost wholesale loss of belief in mortal sin and Hell among Catholics. And if the faithful still believe in either concept, they're so diluted it's nigh impossible for anyone to commit mortal sin or go to Hell.
Rahner himself admitted it was his rejection of Church teaching on Hell that led him to develop his idea of the "anonymous Christian"; he deemed it far too "pessimistic" to consign the unbaptized to eternal separation from God.
The "anonymous Christian," according to him, is one who is "not yet a Christian at the social level (through baptism and membership in the Church)." In other words, he is "the pagan ... who lives in the state of Christ's grace through faith, hope and love, yet who has no explicit knowledge of the fact that his life is orientated in grace-given salvation to Jesus Christ."
Based on this thinking, even an unbaptized atheist who refuses to profess Christ could be an "anonymous Christian" and therefore on his way to salvation.
This may sound nice, but there's only one problem: It entirely contradicts the teaching of the Catholic Church on salvation.
The Church teaches dogmatically that baptism is necessary for salvation. Baptism removes the stain of original sin into which we all (with the exception of Our Lady) are born. This teaching has never changed. Without baptism, one remains outside the family of God, and therefore cannot experience the life of supernatural grace in the soul. Such a person is not a child of God, nor can he live "in the state of Christ's grace through faith, hope and love," as this is impossible.
For those for whom the normal means of baptism by water are impossible, the Church in Her mercy offers the baptism of desire — but the baptism of desire must be an explicit or implicit desire for baptism unfulfilled because of circumstances that make baptism by water impossible.
According to the Baltimore Catechism:
Baptism of desire is an ardent wish to receive Baptism, and to do all that God has ordained for our salvation.
"Ardent wish" by one who has no opportunity of being baptized — for no one can baptize himself. He must be sorry for his sins and have the desire of receiving the Baptism of water as soon as he can ... . Baptism of desire would be useful and necessary if there was no water at hand or no person to baptize; or if the one wishing to be baptized and those about him did not know exactly how Baptism was to be given — which might easily happen in pagan lands. (159)
In other words, there must be a desire for baptism, either explicit or implicit, prevented because of circumstances that make it impossible. A mere general desire to know God doesn't suffice.
Rahner's "anonymous Christian" guts the Church's teaching in this regard, essentially declaring that any and all individuals, regardless of baptism by water or desire, may be — unbeknownst to them — secretly Christians and therefore actually saved. As it lays waste to Catholic dogma, so it destroys people's need for the Church, their fear of Hell, their vigilance against mortal sin, leading ultimately to the loss of their eternal souls.
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