Karl Barth, arguably the greatest Protestant theologian of our times, had been invited by Pope Paul VI as an observer to the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Yves Congar, sometimes called “the Father” of the Council (because of his ceaseless, deep-thinking, courageous labor in structuring and bringing the Council to conclusion), recalls the Papal invitation to Barth for the first session. (See My Journal of the Council, p. 472.) Barth, however, was detained by illness, followed by fatigue. Although another major Protestant theologian was able to attend – Oscar Cullman – Barth’s presence would have been greatly appreciated. Barth’s influence on the evolution of Protestant theology, especially his emphasis on God as “the Eternal Other,” was then still working on his 28-volume Church Dogmatics (the folio volumes would eventually total 15), and feared that he would not finish the monumental project. Besides, as Father (later Cardinal) Congar noted, the World Council of Churches “deliberately” failed to send their finest theologians to the Roman event. (Ibid.)
Incidentally, although Barth wrote from a Protestant perspective, and although he occasionally drifted from a solid Catholic viewpoint, he was often quite helpful. More than once, for example, I have consulted his Church Dogmatics on the subject of the Virgin Birth, which he accepted, as Catholics should accept; that here was a divine act not relating directly to procreation, but rather creation.
The German explanation for the doctrine – Barth wrote in German – is a clarion call of faith: Gott; Gott allein; Gott selbst. (God; only God; God himself.) Such was Barth’s summary of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. It was his way of stating the summaries of Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger (later, Pope Benedict XVI); specifically, that the Virgin Birth was due to the truth that God vertically descended to within our midst and hence it was grace absolutely; nothing that man could do or want to do was at issue here; it was totally gratuitous.
Although Barth was unable to be on hand as an observer during Vatican II, he eventually did travel to Rome during the Pontificate of Paul VI, and (much to his own surprise) given a seat of honor, next to the Cardinals. Barth wrote a book – a monograph of just under 80 pages – about his trip, which he viewed as a pilgrimage, Ad Limina Apostolorum (“To the Threshold of the Tombs of the Apostles, Peter and Paul”). Fortunately this book is in our Transcript library, and I have pored over it multiple times.
In addition to fulfilling certain protocols governing extraordinary religious leaders visiting the Eternal City, Barth spent time in engaging “so many Christians with whom I could not only speak candidly and seriously, but also join in hearty laughter.” Granting a need for “calm, brotherly hope,” plus a “willingness…to conduct in both great and small affairs a thorough housecleaning of our own,” he returned home “just as stubbornly evangelical” (or, in his own words, “evangelical-Catholic”) as he previously claimed he was.
While in Rome, Barth acknowledged his respect for Catholic theologians (such as Father Ratzinger and Father Karl Rahner). “How I envied the Catholic theologians their skill,” he wrote, “developed from youth on, in using Latin in their lectures and discussions as if it were the mother tongue of them all.” Any future ecumenical dialogues, he added, would require that his own theological successors be trained in their Latin skills. As to whether some of the news coverage about his trip to Rome was disappointing from any human perspective, Barth noted that a report in a German newspaper, suggesting that he was not well-received by some ecclesiastics, was “the invention” of a reporter.
One important fact about Barth is that his occasional rejections of Catholic theology (e.g., his view on infant baptism) proceeded from a knowledge of precisely what Catholicism holds to be true. In other words, he evidenced a serious effort to understand what he rejected. (In the 1940s he gave a lecture on infant baptism which confused many Protestants. Barth was in error; the lecture is deeply theological, but misleading. I required many seminarians in my class on sacramental theology to read it, and rebut it.)
Incidentally, I read somewhere, some years ago, that when Barth was experiencing his last weeks or days in this life, he faithfully listened to the Catholic Mass every Sunday as broadcast on the radio.
Finally, there is the theory that the character of Linus, in the Peanuts cartoon, authored by Charles Schultz, is modeled after Karl Barth. Linus, recall, is the one who clearly points to the heavens in order to solve the mysteries of earth.
I should add that Barth began each day, while writing his Church Dogmatics, by listening to Mozart. He often dreamt that he was appointed by the Lord to test Mozart on his theology. Mozart would respond simply by smiling and pointing to his incomparable, joyful music.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.