[On Hans Urs von Balthasar]
For my people have done two evils. They have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and have digged to themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water. - Jer. 2:13
But yet acknowlege thy iniquity that thou hast transgressed against the Lord thy God: and thou hast scattered thy ways to strangers under every green tree, and hast not heard my voice, saith the Lord.... Return, O ye revolting children.... And I will give you pastors according to my own heart, and they shall feed you with knowledge and doctrine. - Jer. 3:13-15
The year 1952 saw the publication of a very small book by Hans Urs von Balthasar entitled Razing the Bastions (English edition: Communio Books, Ignatius Press, 1992). Von Balthasar himself called it a "programmatic little book." The Ignatius Press edition contains an introduction by Father (now Cardinal) Christopher Schönborn, which contains the following passage:
Von Balthasar himself pointed out, in a conversation with Angelo Scola [also now a Cardinal] in 1985, that the Second Vatican Council ("naturally without regard to me") "adopted" much of this program and "deepened it and taught it." In this same conversation, von Balthasar also said, with unmistakable clarity, that he still stands fully by the contents of Razing the Bastions.
This article will explore the contents of this book and its "program." But first, a little more background.
Circle of influence
In 1972, von Balthasar, along with Josef Ratzinger, Henri de Lubac and others established the magazine Communio as a forum for discussing and implementing this program in the Church. The Polish edition of Communio was founded by Karol Wojtyla. A sampling of some of the contributors over the period from 1974-2004 can tell us much about those involved in this movement (except for Cardinal Ratzinger, I give their current titles):
Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar, 61 articles; David Schindler (Academic Dean of the John Paul II Institute For Studies On Marriage And The Family, and currently chief editor of Communio): 42 articles; Cardinal Josef Ratzinger: 35 articles; Cardinal Quellet:14 articles; Cardinal Walter Kasper: 13 articles; Cardinal Angelo Scola: 13 articles; Fr. Jacques Servais (currently head of Casa Balthasar in Rome): 10 articles.
1989 saw the founding of Casa Balthasar by Father Jacques Servais, Cardinal Schönborn, Cardinal Quellet (all listed above) and Fr. Joseph Fessio, with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as its Cardinal Protector. Its purpose (as expressed in a statement made by Fr. Fessio in the September, 1999, edition of the Adoremus Bulletin - Fr. Fessio is also on the executive committee of Adoremus) is as follows:
The purpose of the Casa is to provide an Ignatian formation inspired by the persons and writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, SJ and Adrienne von Speyr. It is also a house of discernment, because it is intended for young men between the ages of 20 and 30 who experience a definite call to a following of Christ….
The circle of influence widens from this set of core personalities and institutions. Fr. Fessio, for instance, founded Ignatius Press (with exclusive rights to the English editions of Cardinal Ratzinger’s books, and also the publisher of over 60 books by von Balthasar, 11 books by de Lubac, and 9 by Adrienne von Speyr). He is also a co-founder of Ave Maria College, and its current Provost. Fr. Fessio wrote his doctoral thesis under the direction of Cardinal Ratzinger on the subject of the ecclesiology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Interestingly enough, the president of Ave Maria College, Nicholas Healy, also wrote his doctoral thesis on von Balthasar.
Cardinal Ratzinger, of course, has had a tremendous influence through his private writings, and also through his work as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In referring to his articles or books written before he became Pope, I will continue to refer to him as Cardinal Ratzinger. I thus leave open the possibility of changes in his thinking due to the grace of his present Office.
It is this core group of people who have determined the primary philosophical and theological orientation of the latter half of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century. And, it is incontestably Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar who are the central influences in this matrix. De Lubac is often referred to as the "Father of Modern Theology," while von Balthasar is considered the greatest spiritual writer in this movement.
If the little book Razing the Bastions is therefore declared by von Balthasar to contain the program not only of his own personal philosophy, but also that "program" which was largely adopted by Vatican Council II, we should be giving it very careful attention.
Deep and muddied waters
Much of the justifiable objection to von Balthasar and his writings has focused on his alleged Origenism, and also his aberrant theories concerning the Passion, and especially Christ’s "descent into Hell" on Holy Saturday (much of this also being related to his close "association" with Adrienne Von Speyr1).
It is a central contention of this article, however, that these subjects are only peripheral to the real problems with von Balthasar’s writings, and that his (and also de Lubac’s) deeper distortions of Catholic philosophy and theology are the primary factors in Modernist domination of post-Vatican II Catholic life and thought.
I would ask right from the beginning of this series that the reader be patient, and even re-read what he or she is about to encounter. We are entering deep and muddied waters. As Cardinal Siri said in regard to la nouvelle théologie [the new theology], "the words flee." We will make it our best effort to bring them to a halt so that they are forced to suffer close scrutiny and exposition.
Often it is a great help to our task of understanding the pernicious errors of Modernism if we begin with what is more towards the surface, and then work deeper. I will thus begin with von Balthasar, leaving it till next month to deal with that fundamental error of de Lubac which makes this whole "program" possible.
I will only mention here that de Lubac’s root distortion of Catholic doctrine (despite the fact that both he and his supporters would vehemently deny such a charge) involves the denial of the total discontinuity which exists between God’s supernatural life and human nature, and thus a denial of the absolute gratuity of any gift which in any way entails a sharing in God’s divine life.
Such a confusion of nature and grace inevitably denies, either directly or indirectly, the absolute ontological distinction between the Being of God and the being of man. This is "the beginning of all heresies." It is not however the end of all heresies; nor does it place any limitations on the ability of fallen human nature to conjure new variations for such old lies - as I hope shall become abundantly clear through both the present examination of Razing the Bastions, and next month’s companion article examining Henri de Lubac’s book, The Mystery of the Supernatural.
Razing the Bastions
I would like to begin my analysis of Razing the Bastions with a quote which is not only certain to raise the hackles of most CO readers, but which will also serve as a thrust into the heart of von Balthasar’s thinking:
To honor the tradition does not excuse one from the obligation of beginning everything from the beginning each time, not with Augustine or Thomas or Newman, but with Christ. And the greatest figures of Christian salvation history are honored only by the one who does today what they did then, or what they would have done if they had lived today. The cross-check is quickly done, and it shows the tremendous impoverishment, not only in spirit and life, but also quite existentially: in thoughts and points of view, themes and ideas, where people are content to understand tradition as the handing-on of ready made results. Boredom manifests itself at once, and the neatest systematics fails to convince, remains of little consequence. The little groups of those who have come to an understanding with one another and cultivate what they take to be the tradition become more and more esoteric, foreign to the world, and more and more misunderstood, although they do not condescend to take notice of their alienation. And one day the storm that blows the dried-up branch away can no longer be delayed, and this collapse will not be great, because what collapses had been a hollow shell for a very long time. (pp. 34-35)
There is little question but that von Balthasar’s writing is powerful, and that it has had a mesmerizing effect on a great many people. Much of this effect is due to his use of terms and phrases which I would call poetic euphemisms. Often these euphemisms carry pejorative connotations, especially when they refer to such things as Tradition, defined dogma, scholasticism, and the works of 19th and early 20th century Popes (Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X) to restore Thomistic philosophy and the Social Kingship of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as a means of penetrating into the content of a passage such as the above, it is necessary to unmask the meaning behind these terms. Referring back to the individual words and phrase which I have rendered in bold print, we might form the following glossary:
1. tradition as the handing on of ready made results: This phrase can simply be translated as defined dogma.
2. systematics: catechisms, works of apologetics, etc.
3. little groups: a group that attends an Indult Mass would be a fine example.
4. hollow shell: you and me.
The reader has hopefully noticed that I have not yet defined the first term rendered in bold print: Christ. It will take an additional passage from von Balthasar’s book to define this term. Please keep in mind that the Gospel simply says that Christ is the Truth:
The truth of Christian life is like manna: it is not possible to hoard it, for it is fresh today and spoiled tomorrow. A truth that is merely handed on, without being thought anew from its very foundations, has lost its vital power. The vessel that holds it - for example, the language, the world of images and concepts - becomes dusty, rusts, crumbles away; that which is old remains young only when it is drawn, with all the strength of youth, into relation with that which is still older, with that in time which is perpetual: the present-day revelation of God.
The name of Christ, in other words, is being use to promote the belief in on-going revelation in juxtaposition to the concept of revelation as a divine deposit already received, and closed with the death of the last apostle.
Subtlety of Modernism
Having unmasked the euphemisms, and eliminated the poetics, we are now in a position to render the meaning of the first-quoted paragraph above. Von Balthasar is saying that where Tradition (and he is talking about Tradition with a capital "T", since he is talking about Truth) is equated with defined dogma, at that point the "real" spirit and life of the Gospel die. And any catechetical or apologetical approach which is founded upon systematically imparting these truths is bound to result in boredom and failure. Those individuals and groups who cultivate and attempt to defend this Tradition against the world, and against those within the Church who are working for its dissolution, are spiritually empty - mere "hollow-shells."
Christ, in other words, is a truth which can only be discovered in terms of an on-going revelation, a revelation which is judged by its ability to commune with the modern world.
One of the things that traditional Catholics tend to do is to underestimate the subtlety of Modernism. At this point, for instance, I might choose to leave the reader with the impression that von Balthasar simply rejects any notion of that Catholic truth which professes that Public Revelation ended with the death of St. John. Such, however, is not the case. Rather, as might be expected, something much more subtle is offered:
Revelation is ‘closed’ (with the death of the last apostle) only because the infinite fullness can no longer grow, but it can radiate forth its fullness into infinity, and under its sun everything can grow to full maturity. And if conclusions seemed possible everywhere in the Old Covenant (since it was letter), then openings, beginnings and the inchoate ["being only partly in existence or operation: imperfectly formed" - JL] must show themselves everywhere in the New Covenant, since it is spirit. Every truth is now explosive: it divides itself into thousands of truths, each one of which has the force of the starting point…. The Spirit wishes to lead us into all truth, but it is not his way to deal out careful doses of ‘all truth’, dispensing only ‘some truth’ each time, perhaps in slowly increasing doses easier for men to tolerate. Ever since the dance of all truth is always on the scene, and neither an ecclesiastical nor an intellectual (geistige) order (which likewise derives from the Holy Spirit) will ever have this superabundance under its control, or ever be anything other than the vessel in which this effervescence is served to us. (pp. 36-37)
Again, in order to understand what von Balthasar is saying, it necessary to take some of the wind (and poetics) out of his sails. This is most effectively done by quoting the simple teaching of Vatican Council I concerning Tradition and the Divine Deposit of Faith:
For the doctrine of faith which God has revealed has not been proposed, like a philosophical invention, to be perfected by human ingenuity; but has been delivered as a divine deposit to the Spouse of Christ, to be faithfully kept and infallibly declared. Hence, also, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is perpetually to be retained which our holy Mother the Church has once declared; nor is that meaning ever to be departed from, under the pretence or pretext of a deeper comprehension of them. (Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Ch. 4)
The reader will note that on the one hand von Balthasar gives lip-service to the Catholic doctrine concerning the fact that Public Revelation was closed with the death of the last apostle. On the other hand, he proceeds to make this "closed" revelation "explosive: it divides itself into thousands of truths, each one of which has the force of the starting point…." This statement is simply an attack upon what the Church has always considered those "first principles" of being which are at the very foundation of human nature and intellect (and sanity): the principles of identity and contradiction.
A thing cannot both be and not be. Revelation cannot at the same time be closed and open. Revelation cannot at the same time be a divine deposit to be kept and guarded while at the same time being something which explodes and divides itself into thousands of new truths, each one of which is now subject to this same process of explosion and division.
The Church of course has always taught that there can be a legitimate "development of doctrine" - an organic penetration into the meaning and implications of that Public Revelation which was indeed closed upon the death of St. John. But there is no stretch of the imagination by which von Balthasar’s explosive, effervescent, ever-dividing notion of truth can be fit into such legitimacy.
His notion of truth is simply a shattering of all intellectual and moral certainty. We can only again contrast this perversion with the teaching of Vatican I which informs us that Christ established His Church and founded it upon Blessed Peter in order that "the multitude of the faithful might be kept secure in the oneness of faith and communion." Such "security" and surety in the faith are dismissed by von Balthasar as being Pharisaic.
Aversion for St. Thomas
Why does a man such as von Balthasar engage in such distortions of the absolutely fundamental concepts of Christian Revelation and Truth?
Quite frankly, I do not believe that we have done all that we can to understand this phenomenon if we just dismiss such a man as a heretic or Modernist. There is a passion and sincerity in men like de Lubac and von Balthasar that cannot be denied. This is not to give their distorted teachings credence; nor does it deny that they are responsible for their sins, for I am equally sure that there was a great deal of "sincerity" and passion in Judas. But I do believe there is something which must be understood here if we are to effectively combat the enemy, and also protect ourselves from self-deceit.
Pope Pius XII would agree. His encyclical Humani Generis was written for these reasons, and also to combat the particular errors promoted by the "new" theology and philosophy. Sections of it are considered to be directed specifically at some of the writings of Henri de Lubac. What it says about the basic psychological aberrations (of the authors) behind these errors may also be applied to von Balthasar. According to Pius XII, these men are "deceived by imprudent zeal for souls or by false science."
At first reading, this may indeed seem a strange combination - "imprudent zeal for souls" and "false science." Deeper inquiry into the way in which Modernist thinking has unfolded and grown over the past several centuries, however, reveals their intimate connection.
Modernist thinking, as I have reiterated several times in my articles, is the product of a capitulation to the reductionism of modern analytical science. First and foremost in the catalogue of ensuing betrayals is the retreat from the Thomistic-Aristotelian ontological understanding of being and substance, a philosophical truth which is absolutely essential to the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation and the Real Presence. And having retreated from this absolutely pivotal truth, all other concepts which give security and stability to our lives and our faith are shattered.
One finds in these philosophers and theologians, therefore, a tremendous aversion and contempt for anything which smacks of substantial being, solidity, or immutability - such things as absolute truth, defined dogma, the divine institution of the Church, closed Revelation, the indissolubility of marriage, the Real Presence, the Social Kingship of Jesus Christ. And because it is the great protector of all the theological, philosophical, psychological, ethical, and moral systems of Catholic thought which embody these substantial truths, it is the scholastic synthesis of St. Thomas which is always the primary target of their contempt and hatred (sometimes this contempt is open and vehement, but more often it takes the more serpentine forms of creating a "Neo-Thomism", "Transcendental Thomism", etc which seek to transform Thomism into its own self-denial).
Instability and flux
The primary methodology used by these men in their efforts to overthrow substantial being is to set everything into motion. All must become dynamic, striving, becoming, flowing, interconnected, explosive, effervescing, developing, and evolutionary. These "dynamic" notions of truth and being are then enshrined as being "spirit", "life", and "love"; while any clinging onto traditional formulations of truth and value is labelled as pharisaical.
All this, of course, means that our faith is never accomplished, never certain or secure. We cannot, as St. Paul instructs:
Take unto you the armour of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and to stand in all things perfect. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of justice, and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace: In all things taking the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one. - Eph 6:13-16
These words of St. Paul clearly reveal faith and Revelation as something completed, and as an inestimable treasure which we are to protect and propogate with all the armour, bastions and bulwarks which we can muster. We contrast this with the following from von Balthasar:
But when the saint (or indeed, anyone who believes and who receives grace in a living manner) compares the tradition with the immensities of revelation itself, does not all that has been attained collapse into a miserable little heap of thoughts and concepts, scarcely the ABC of revelation… the theologian who has intensively studied the endeavors of the learned divines will be overwhelmingly aware, when he contemplates revelation, that as yet almost nothing has been done [emphasis von Balthasar’s], that immense areas remain to be investigated, whole continents on this map remain white spaces. (p.28)
All this, we repeat, is the product of a surrender to "false science." As noted above, however, Pius XII couples this false science with a second cause leading to philosophical and theological error: "imprudent zeal for souls."
As the reader is probably aware, this zeal led von Balthasar to the ultimate extreme of questioning whether there are any souls in Hell. We shall here attempt to descend somewhat into the source of this thinking.
"Descent into the world"
It is absolutely central to von Balthasar’s thinking that there has been an absolutely necessary "shift in Christian awareness since the middle ages (p.68)." The Middle Ages, in his thinking, was the Age of Bastions. It was a period in history when the Church was seen as a City on a Hill, when Truth was considered as static, fixed and absolute, and when there was seen to be a profound distinction between the City of God and the City of Man, between Christ and the world, between the saved and unsaved. It was, in other words, an age which Traditionalists (and also the 19th and early 20th century Popes) believe to be the ideal, but which von Balthasar believes to be an "empty shell."
This "shift in Christian awareness", according von Balthasar, is centred on "the idea of fellowship in destiny, the dominating idea in our age." This is "the blossom that has opened in the Church", and which "will not close again." Following is the contrast which he draws between the Middle Ages and now:
If we look back to the middle ages, we see it still closed. Some things were possible then that are no longer possible today. It was possible to be a wonderfully awake Christian like Dante and yet pass through the hell of his fellow Christians [we might indeed ponder how the citizens of Hell can be called "fellow Christians"!] with a hardened heart and unmoved, contemplating the tortures of this most impressive of all concentration camps, studying them, committing them to memory, letting life-stories and tragedies be related to him and each time shaking the dust from his feet at the end, passing on, leaving behind what could not be changed and leaving it to itself. What a Christian of that era could justify [the existence of Hell, and the acceptance that there are indeed citizens of that Inferno], cannot be accepted today; otherwise, he would reveal himself to be an utter un-Christian. For in the meantime something new has been displayed among us. The medieval castle where people danced and gorged themselves [one might here think of St. Louis IX, Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, etc.] in the festival hall above the deep dungeons and torture chambers [of Hell?] has collapsed and will not be reconstructed. And no Christian today will be able to dance any longer, while one of his brothers is suffering torture [in Hell?]. (p.69. Bracketed coments mine.)
As a result of this new "awareness," according to von Balthasar, the Church is called to a "deeper and more serious incarnation" through a razing of all the bastions which were once considered as her security against the world, and a consequent "descent into the world" and a coming into fellowship with all the aspirations of the world. This, of course, is the foundation of aggiornamento and the modern ecumenical movement. And this is certainly what Pius XII would consider an "imprudent zeal for souls."
But there is something here which is even more devastating.
Changing the Christian standpoint
The reader will remember von Balthasar’s contention that what is presently known about Revelation is a "miserable little heap, scarcely the ABC of Revelation," and that in terms of exploring and understanding Revelation, "as yet almost nothing has been done."
And where is the rest of this vast store of yet unknown Revelation to be found? It is to be found in the world - in all those religions, systems of philosophy, every kind of literature and intellectual discipline that man has ever concocted. It is precisely through the Church’s and the individual Christian’s descent into this world - in dialogue, encounter, and in fellowship and unity of aspiration towards the fullness of truth (which the Church does not already possess) - that this fullness of Revelation is to grow and evolve.
Von Balthasar compares the medieval world to a flat world. Medieval man was able to stand on a pinnacle overlooking this world, taking it all in, while himself remaining unmoved. This situation has totally reversed itself:
But now that the world has become spherical, there is no longer any place from which one’s gaze can take in everything; one must set oneself in motion: the only way to explore the land of truth is by changing one’s standpoint. (p. 73)
One must therefore take one’s Christian "standpoint" (whatever is left of it) and move into the hearts and minds of everyone and every standpoint which would be considered an aspect of this world. One must move into the heart and mind of the Lutheran, the Buddhist, the African Animist, the Atheist. One must enter into the thought of Marx, Nietzche, Rilke, Baudelaire. It is only through this process of dialogue and dialectic that truth can grow and remain alive.
Nor do we go to these places and persons to accomplish conversion of these persons to Christ and his Church. We go because there are "different realms of truth" which do not "coincide," but which must be made to walk the path of unity towards the fullness of Revelation.
Von Balthasar even tells us that in so doing we are bound to experience a "double truth" between what we believe as Christians, on the one hand, and that which is taught by the secular sciences, and other philosophies and religions. And it is precisely at this point that he gives us his recipe for intellectual and spiritual suicide:
It is important to know that this feeling of a ‘double truth’, which usually comes on precisely the best and most enthusiastic students, is not the sign of something improper. The two perspectives that split apart here can no more be made to coincide with one another than can divine and human truth, Church and world, or the divine and the human natures in Christ and the manner of knowledge proper to each of these natures in him. The Christian is charged absolutely to bear this tension and extension, but also increasingly to bring it under control and to clear a path for himself through it. (p. 76)
For a true Christian, of course, such a thing is impossible. There can be no contradiction between divine and human truth. Any idea, system of ideas, religion, or intellectual discipline which runs contrary to the revealed Gospel of Christ is simply false. It has to be combated, and the conversion of its adherents passionately and lovingly sought after. The real Christian "program" which describes the Christian’s relationship to the world is that which is enunciated with passion by St. Paul:
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty to God unto the pulling down of fortifications, destroying counsels. And every height that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God and bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ. - 2 Cor. 10:3-5
This was the mission of the Gospel in the Middle Ages, just as it is our mission today.
Path of Antichrist
What von Balthasar’s philosophy has come down to in the final analysis is Averroism - the belief that there are two truths: the truth of faith, on the one hand, and the truth of reason (or the "truths" of the world) on the other. Further, these "two truths" cannot be reconciled with one another except in some possible future Omega point of synthesis (and evolution) which is beyond our present grasp of revealed truth. It is therefore absolutely essential for us, in the estimation of von Balthasar, that we descend into this mass of contradiction, confusion, and double-truths if we are to walk the path of Christ.
We are, in other words, to walk the path of unity, without it being a unity established in the One Truth which is Christ. This is the path, I am convinced, that the Antichrist will demand that we walk.
The descent into the world which is demanded of us by the philosophy of Hans Urs von Balthasar has been largely accomplished in the post-Vatican II Church. We have razed the bastions, opened the windows, thrown open the doors, torn down the walls, eliminated the "systematics" (think of the Baltimore catechism for children), prostituted ourselves to secular knowledge, and created the almost universal impression that the Catholic Church is "coming around" to the principles of the French Revolution.
If we consider the effect of this philosophy in just one area, the area of "systematics," we might well attribute the loss of millions of souls of little children to this philosophy. They were simply never taught that the possession of the fullness of absolute truth is necessary for Christian survival.
It is for this reason that I must emphasize that we are not here involved in a gentlemanly debate about legitimate philosophical and theological differences. We are at war with evil.
The philosophical and theological systems (if they can be called that) of von Balthasar and de Lubac are evil. This, of course, does not mean that there is not some good in their writings, as there is in the writings of virtually all those who promote heresy. But it is incontestable that the overall effect of their works is immensely evil, having been instrumental in the loss of millions of souls.
What has attracted so many to von Balthasar is that he appears to be promoting a new incarnation of Christ’s love in this world, in juxtaposition to a supposed rigid traditionalism which stifles love with rigid truth.
What he pathetically fails to see is that love is not opposed to absolute truth, but is its most intimate companion and fruit, and that the heart of Christ’s love for man is to be found in His descent into union with our nature in order to bring us the liberating surety of this truth.
Christ would have us put on the whole armour of God in order that we might love and convert our estranged brethren.
Hans Urs von Balthasar would have us stripped naked in order to commune with a world which, according to the Gospel, is the domain of the Prince of this world.
No more perfect description could be given of the present state of the Church in the modern world.
No more perfect venue could be laid out to welcome the Son of Perdition.