Alyssa Lyra Pitstick:


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 theology consistently paint the same picture. My inadequate reading of the tradition allegedly “forces” me to hunt for influences on Balthasar outside the tradition and not to grant him due “theological warrant.” In fact, the man himself forces me to this search, since his claims to support within the Catholic tradition do not bear up under scrutiny. Oakes does my work for me by highlighting the proximate influence of Barth, a man who neither regarded himself as a Catholic ecclesial theologian nor has been assimilated as such.

Additionally, owing to certain misreadings, Oakes ascribes to me untenable positions that taint the traditional doctrine by association. He claims, for instance, that I identify the limbo of the fathers with purgatory. Rather, in my book I say it is reasonable to think purgatory was preparatory for the limbo of the fathers so long as heaven was closed. With this erroneous identification in mind, Oakes argues that a descent by Christ into purgatory, where only venial sins are purged, would not atone for mortal sin. Neither the Catholic tradition nor I hold that Christ went to purgatory to expiate sin. Instead, I believe what the tradition reiterates: that after atoning for all sin through his death upon the cross, Christ descended in his soul to the limbo of the fathers to confer heaven on the holy souls there, who were other than those in purgatory.

Oakes is also concerned that the existence of any holy souls prior to Christ’s descent implies that some were justified without Christ, which contradicts the Letter to the Romans. I hold that some were justified before Christ, though only by virtue of him who was to come. This doctrine of prevenient grace accounts for the Old Testament’s calling some the friends of God”no one in a state of mortal sin is such”and for St. Paul saying, also in Romans, that Abraham was justified by his faith. No Catholic who believes in the sinlessness of Christ’s mother can deny this doctrine. Both Oakes and Balthasar draw an ontological conclusion from an epistemological premise: If pre-Christian descriptions of the afterlife lacked structure, the afterlife itself must have lacked structure. This cornerstone of Balthasarian theology also rests on an overly selective use of Scripture, as I argue elsewhere. The basis in revelation for a differentiated afterlife cannot here be demonstrated.

Meanwhile, of my use of Scripture, Oakes suggests I am negligent of St. Paul, the Magisterium’s duty to Scripture, and the inspired human authors. He adduces the Barth-Balthasar-Oakes interpretation of Romans and one quotation from my dissertation. Let us provide some context to that quotation. In brief, as my dissertation is not a work of historical-critical exegesis, I properly used the methods appropriate to other forms of theology. In one chapter, I examine how those who believed in the traditional doctrine saw it grounded in Scripture; thus, my search for “clarity and orthodoxy” concerned non-scriptural writers. The historical-critical approach is not the only way to interpret Scripture or even the most influential in the history of exegesis. Consequently, above all I found typological interpretations”a form of exegesis employed also by the inspired authors themselves. While not inattentive to questions of linguistics and anthropology, this approach focuses on discerning the Divine Author’s intention more than that of the human authors”first, because these latter are of interest only insofar as the Divine Author is speaking through his Word; and, second, because God alone is the author of typology through his creative power and providence.

In using this and other exegetical methods, the tradition does not trump Scripture but draws out its salvific significance and embodies it in Christian life, even as Scripture originated within an already living tradition. By authoritatively interpreting Scripture and guiding tradition, the Magisterium thus serves both Scripture and tradition”which in their mutual interdependence, and not one without the other, are acknowledged as God’s revelation by Vatican II’s Decree on Revelation. Oakes follows Balthasar in setting tradition against Scripture. Likewise, both begin by acknowledging what the traditional Catholic doctrine is but end by holding it to be erroneous.

Then, too, Oakes claims I dismiss Luther and Calvin “just for being Protestant” and that I consider the genealogy from Nicholas of Cusa to Balthasar via these two “probative merely by mentioning” it. I highlighted this lineage first to indicate that the doctrine of Christ suffering in hell has relatively recent origins; from its beginnings to the Reformation, the Church believed quite the opposite. But this genealogy is also important to the question of Balthasar’s status as a Catholic ecclesial theologian: The Catholic tradition rejected Nicholas’ proposal, while the idea was deliberately developed against the Catholic doctrine in the Protestant ambience. If Balthasar takes up what Catholics rejected and what Protestants used to distinguish themselves, one may legitimately question Balthasar’s Catholicity on these grounds-for it is not what we share that separates us but precisely our differences. It is fallacious for Oakes to suggest I think non-Catholics speak no truth simply because I argue that some of them are mistaken on one point.

Perhaps Oakes might now address my original difficulties: Can one doctrine truly be the development of another if the two are contradictory? Does the tradition’s material profession (the content of belief) have as much authority as the formal profession? And since Balthasar’s theology of Christ’s descent entails a de facto rejection of Catholic tradition and its authority, what must we conclude about Balthasar’s service as a Catholic ecclesial theologian? Perhaps in the end we must say, however reluctantly, that after Luther, Calvin, and Barth, Balthasar has made a real contribution to Protestant ecclesial theology.



Edward T. Oakes, S.J., replies:


I too wish to express my gratitude for this exchange, and above all for Alyssa Lyra Pitstick’s services to theology in airing these important issues. I doubt, however, that she will much appreciate my nod of thanks in her direction, for I hold that her real service has been to argue against Balthasar so disagreeably that she will end up midwifing his theology into the mainstream of Church thinking far more than my own poor efforts have so far managed to do. Because my objections to her prosecutorial brief against Balthasar focus above all on the three issues of Protestantism, papacy, and purgatory, I shall take advantage of this accidental alliteration and cluster my response accordingly.

Let us begin with Pitstick and Protestantism. I chose the quotation from Karl Barth on the nonnecessity of hell deliberately. Knowing of her curt dismissal of the Reformers in her dissertation and book, I expected she would fall into the trap I set for her, and fall she did. But if she objects to Barth here, does that mean she holds with St. Augustine’s theory of double predestination”that some go to hell by necessity? Maybe yes, but presumably no. In which case she then agrees with Barth that no one goes to hell by necessity but only by free choice. Then why object to the statement? Just because a Protestant said it? But as Vatican II teaches, “Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments in our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren.”

At all events, if Pitstick is looking for an official statement from the Catholic Magisterium affirming Barth on the single predestination of all human beings in the predestined status of Christ as the New Adam, she may find it in John Paul II’s encyclical Dives in Misericordia : “Connected with the mystery of creation is the mystery of election, which in a special way shaped the history of the people whose spiritual father is Abraham by virtue of his faith. Nevertheless, . . . that mystery of election refers to every man and woman, to the whole great human family.” This same anti-Augustinian (and, ironically, anti-Reformed) denial of limited atonement and double predestination was reaffirmed by Cardinal Ratzinger in his book God Is Near Us , where he says, “Jesus died, not just for a part of mankind, but for everyone . . . . [God] does not make any distinction between people he dislikes, people he does not want to be saved, and others whom he prefers,” a position which he, of course, reiterated in his first papal encyclical, Deus Caritas Est.

Which brings me to the next point: Pitstick and the popes. Pitstick tries manfully to put some light both between Balthasar’s cardinalatial status and his orthodoxy, and between Ratzinger’s “private theological opinions” as a professor and his new responsibilities in the Chair of Peter to defend church tradition. In her attempt to find such light, she mentions his book The Sabbath in History . Unfortunately, I could find no such book by that title in Books in Print or in any online source, either in English or in German. So let me cite, in turn, a more accessible quotation, from Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily at Balthasar’s funeral Mass in Lucerne, Switzerland, on July 1, 1988 (printed as an appendix to David Schindler’s Hans Urs von Balthasar: Life and Work ”). Explaining why Balthasar had earlier “thrice thrust aside” the proffered red hat, and yet why John Paul II insisted under holy obedience that he accept the honor, the cardinal-homilist said: “This [refusal] was not motivated by a coquettish desire to act the great one, but by the Ignatian spirit which characterized his life . . . . But what the pope intended to express by this mark of distinctive honor remains valid: no longer only private individuals but the Church herself, in her official responsibility, tells us that he is right in what he teaches of the Faith, that he points the way to the sources of living water”a witness to the word which teaches us Christ.”

This is precisely the same point Pope Benedict made in his address before the Lateran University in October 2005, where, without knowing of her work, he ended up directly refuting Pitstick’s claim that Balthasar was dissembling when he assumed the mantle of an ecclesial theologian: “On an occasion such as this, it would be easy to fall into the temptation to return to personal memories, based on the sincere friendship that united us and on the numerous works that we undertook together, addressing many of the challenges of those years . . . . However, I do not wish to make reference to memories, but rather to the richness of von Balthasar’s theology,” said the pontiff. “Hans Urs von Balthasar was a theologian who put research at the service of the Church, as he was convinced that theology could only be theology when it is ecclesial.”

Finally, there is the matter of Pitstick and purgatory. Another reason I am grateful for this exchange comes from Pitstick’s clarification of her views on pre-Christian purgatory. I admit I initially thought she had identified the limbo of the fathers with purgatory (in her book, the point is obscurely made). But now I find out that purgatory is but the pre-Christian antechamber to limbo, a conclusion she calls “reasonable,” which it no doubt is, given her monophysite presuppositions. For I now see that, on her account, Jesus could not descend into purgatory, lest his radiant divinity come into contact with even trivial sin.

No, the only souls Jesus can meet are those already completely purged of sin (and prior to his death, to boot!), lest he extend his table fellowship with sinners in the underworld. No wonder for her Christ’s glorious entrance into hell began at 3:01 p.m. on Good Friday, since there was only an already glorious and sinless region for him to descend into. Exactly why so trivial a work of rescuing the already redeemed required a three-day sojourn (or why the Church’s liturgical tradition never celebrates Christ’s victory over death until the darkness of Holy Saturday is about to give way to the light of Easter Sunday) is never explained. But the whole point of Balthasar’s development of doctrine here rests on the fact that only Jesus’ human soul, still hypostatically united to his divine person, descended into hell. In other words, when Paul says (drawing on the earliest formulation of the Church’s kerygma) that Christ died “according to the Scriptures” and “on the third day” rose again, that duration must itself be theologically significant.

Once more we come up against Pitstick’s aversion to anything Protestantism has touched. As Stephen Greenblatt showed in his brilliant Hamlet in Purgatory , no doctrine proved more church-dividing in the sixteenth century than that of purgatory. Perhaps - ecumenical agreement (however conceived) will finally reach consensus on this issue in the twenty-first century. But what will happen if the discussants then find out that they now have one more hurdle to scale: assent to Pitstick’s pre-Christian purgatory?

None of my objections to Pitstick’s innovations will of course mitigate the anxiety Balthasar causes, both among the hostile and the friendly. Personally, I would never assert an empty hell, and not just because Origenism is a heresy, but more because I cannot make the iniquity on display in the daily headlines jibe with the idea of universal salvation.

So how then do I reconcile that position with my enthusiasm for Balthasar? By citing the French anthropologist René Girard’s recent book Celui par Qui le Scandale Arrive (the title alludes to Jesus’ saying that “scandals will come, but woe to him by whom they come”). In that book, Girard speaks retrospectively of his work in a way that uncannily mimics Balthasar’s voice: “We have no choice but to go back and forth, from alpha to omega. And these constant back-and-forth movements force us to phrase matters in a convoluted, spiraling fashion, which eventually runs the risk of being unsettling and even incomprehensible for the reader . . . .I think one needs to read [my work] like a thriller. All the elements are given at the beginning, but it is necessary to read to the very end for the meaning to become completely apparent.”

One other thing. Pitstick concludes her argument in last month’s issue of First Things by claiming that Balthasar stands not only in “a de facto [but] sometimes even conscious rejection of Catholic tradition.” By using the word conscious , Pitstick clearly means that Balthasar is lying when he professes to be a Catholic theologian. This is no mere innuendo; it is defamation, which has no place in theological disputation.


Alyssa Lyra Pitstick received her doctorate in theology from the Angelicum in Rome. Her book, Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent into Hell , is forthcoming from W.B. Eerdmans.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. , teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, and is the author of Pattern of Redemption and many other studies of Balthasar.