More on Balthasar, hell, and heresy.

Author:Pitstick, Alyssa Lyra
Position:Letter to the editor

Alyssa Lyra Pitstick writes:

In his reply in last month's issue of FIRST THINGS tO my investigations of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Fr. Edward Oakes says his "chief worry" is that, in the traditional doctrine of Christ's descent into hell, I have offered "an alternative vision of the gospel," in which Christ has not atoned for mortal sin. Oakes argues that if justification is not to be merely forensic, Christ needed to suffer hell, the punishment for sin. Oakes thinks this logic is the proper interpretation of St. Paul, implicit in St. Anselm and explicit in Karl Barth, and he considers the Catechism open to it.

If Oakes is right, Christ's death on the cross was insufficient for redemption. All doctrine linked to the cross as the locus of redemption is then also nonsense. Why then does St. Paul glory in Christ crucified, rather than Christ in hell? Did Christ establish a Church to preach his Word, only to have her preach falsely for most of her history ?

Oakes' first argument lacks the force of necessity. One may hold forensic justification to be false without having to hold that Christ suffered the hell of eternal punishment, as any number of patristic, medieval, and Catholic Reformation soteriologies prove--and without a resultant futile gospel or neglect of St. Paul.

Meanwhile, Oakes' second argument proceeds from authority: As evidence for Balthasar's "theological warrant," he cites the admiration of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI. But surely it is fallacious to suggest that appreciation for aspects of a person and his work means approbation of all, much less a nihil obstat. Take the most extreme case: Even those regarded as heresiarchs in the great controversies might be commended for holding fast to what they retained of the communion of faith; still, it did not take the rejection of all common beliefs to sunder that communion--only one. Add the fact that papal utterances have varying degrees of authority, and some nuance emerges.

So what did our two authorities think of Balthasar's doctrine of Christ's descent? Despite some differences, Ratzinger's descensus theology more often resembles Balthasar's than it recalls the Catholic tradition's. Nonetheless, Ratzinger has deliberately refused to venture what exactly occurred in Christ's descent. He was partly hindered by his methodology but perhaps also by an unresolved tension between his friend's proposal and what he knows of Catholic doctrine: In The Sabbath of History, Ratzinger reveals strong hesitations about Balthasar's views.

Now, unless one mistakenly ascribes retroactive infallibility to Ratzinger's work, Ratzinger's theology remains his private theological opinion. It thus bears authority only insofar as it communicates the Church's faith. So, until time proves a theologian has expressed that faith better than the apostolic tradition, tradition trumps the theologian.

The popes' situation is different, since their duty is to confirm the faith. Then it matters not how many in highest office Balthasar has influenced but only what they teach authoritatively, as, for example, the explicit reiteration of the traditional doctrine by John Paul II in his promulgation of the Catechism and in his January 11, 1989, catechesis: His nomination of Balthasar as cardinal did not stop him from clearly affirming a doctrine antithetical to Balthasar's. As for Benedict XVI, let us wait and see. His address to the Balthasar symposium said nothing with sufficient specificity or dogmatic authority to justify much anxiety or rejoicing.

Oakes' final argument is to call into doubt the traditional doctrine by implying that I misrepresented it. Thus the contrast between Balthasar's doctrine and the tradition's is merely my reading and my tradition. In fact, it is the consensus of historians of descensus theologies. My understanding of the tradition is purportedly "monochromatic." Yet the sources of Catholic...

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