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Theology Notebook: Von Balthasar Before and After the Council

Got my Balthasar paper back from Fr. Gawronski, with lots of interesting and helpful notes. I think he was generous with me, giving me an AB (which is Marquette's way of avoiding quibbling over A-/B+ -type distinctions). He was very sensitive to my presentation flaws, which is where I knew would be the real Achilles' heel of the piece: it took so long to read the material that I had virtually no time to write it, and even then I had to take an extension to the week's end.

So I wrote a "response" rather than a research paper, which is stretching the assignment probably a bit too far in my favour. I wanted it to be an "inside," favourable, if blunt, set of observations, particularly when I got to the point where I thought Balthasar was vulnerable to critique. I could find myself agreeing with his conclusions, but being nervous about his methods of having arrived there. Fr. Gawronski took me as being polemical in response to Balthasar's polemic, which wasn't quite my intention. I think that that perceived edge of hostility on my part might have irritated him some. So I'll have to clear that up in conversation, and follow up all his notes with him.

So, for the two or three of you interested in Balthasar, I offer you the following for whenever you might have the leisure....

Michael Anthony Novak
THEO 384—Von Balthasar
Fr. Raymond Gawronski, SJ

Ecclesiological Snapshots:
Hans Urs von Balthasar A Decade Before and After the Council

Chronologically, one might say that Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work centers on the Second Vatican Council. The years of his productivity stretch for a few decades to either side of what Pope John Paul II has called the chief religious and cultural event of the twentieth century, and it is therefore no surprise to see that a thinker whose work may be chiefly categorised as “religious and cultural” might be found to stand in strong relation to this watershed gathering. Although shockingly not a peritus at the Council, his writing is connected to it both by anticipation and subsequent reflection. Many of his works are ecclesiological in part, but here we will reflect on two major works specifically dedicated to issues of ecclesiology: the first, published in 1952, is Razing the Bastions, which was a brief but robust call for movement on some of the very concerns the Second Vatican Council would address; the second, published in 1974, is Der antirömische Affekt—translated into English as The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church—and is an extended meditation on the sustained hostile relation to the papacy that the author perceived both within and without the Church. Published almost exactly a decade before the start of the Council and a decade after its end, the two works offer us an opportunity to consider the author’s ecclesiology both for what consistencies it may reveal, and for what changes or developments might be seen, across the events of the intervening years. These we will consider in passing, saving the bulk of our attention for a treatment of what seems to be more fundamental and problematic issues raised by von Balthasar’s ecclesiology.

Consistency of Vision and Concern

Although written with distinct intentions, the two volumes do nevertheless reveal a number of similarities worth noting briefly, as they seem to indicate consistencies in von Balthasar’s vision and concerns across the decades. What seems to be the greatest strength revealed in his ecclesiology is an awareness of the importance of the various parts of the Church. Razing the Bastions and The Office of Peter focus on what might be seen as opposite ends of a spectrum within the Church: the laity and the papacy. What is actualized in von Balthasar’s writing, though, is a treatment of each that does not downplay one at the expense of the other. His is an appropriation of Paul’s image of the Church as a body, but one where there is not a charged polarization, as one sees or feels in many current ecclesiologies, whether strongly pro-lay or pro-papacy. In von Balthasar, if one of these is the brain, the other is the heart: each integral to the life of the body. Raizing the Bastions recognizes that the time of the laity has come, in a way more vibrant than perhaps any other in the history of Christianity. However much this would impact the importance and functioning of the papacy (and we will consider this in greater detail below), it is not done in a facile one-gains-at-the-expense-of-the-other way. Both—all—parts of the Church live in a common obedience to Christ, one he sees as a distinctively Marian obedience.

This brings us to another characteristic of von Balthasar’s writing that can be seen stretching across both works: his use of what he calls realsymbolik. A core four figures in the New Testament—Mary, Peter, Paul, John and James—have a significance that goes beyond their own persons. (In Razing the Bastions he deals with Mary, Peter and John, but the principle holds true.) The four are persons, but they also become principles or poles in the life of the Church. So sometimes Peter is Simon Peter, the fisherman, and sometimes Peter is the Papacy: the nineteen subsequent centuries of the Petrine Principle living itself out in Rome, Avignon and the world. They are not simply abstracted: there is a fundamental relationship between the living, historical persons—and the “constellation” that they form around Jesus—and the subsequent life of the Church. This is perhaps the most distinctive part of von Balthasar’s ecclesiology and one to which, again, we shall find ourselves returning below.

The books are tied together also by what von Balthasar sees as the chief vulnerability and danger in contemporary ecclesiology. In 1952 he expressed apprehension of the development of an increasingly-sociological view of the Church. This would, he felt, effectively destroy any real understanding of the Church by subsuming her into categories under which she would be entirely unintelligible. By 1974 he speaks quite emphatically that this fear of his is coming to pass. The great danger of a non-theological self-assessment within the Church is simply that the Church would begun to steer by a star not her own. In assessing herself (the assessments of those outside the Church are of far less concern) solely or just primarily by sociological, political, or historical conceptions, the Church would begin to be a mere sociological, political or historical entity. At the very least, the encroachments by these alien conceptions—which are often not recognized as becoming ideologies in their own right—vastly begins to complicate the very business of speaking and understanding within the Church. With no unified understanding of what the Church is, the ties that bind the various persons and groups within the Church begin to fray.

Distinctions of Vision and Concern

Obviously the occasion and the topics of these two books are distinct. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, von Balthasar writes with an almost prophetic vision in Razing the Bastions: the emergence of the phenomenon that we today call globalism was already manifest to him. The new situation for both humanity and for the Church of a world entirely in communication with itself, of all nations and peoples increasingly tied to one another, was for him the emerging challenge in a time when most people were still reflexively moving in the “us vs. them” mentality that the war would have engendered. It’s not an entirely unique understanding—one thinks of the Marshall plan—but it does show an awareness of the “World Church” that many would only begin to perceive a decade later with the gathering of the Council Fathers at St. Peter’s. He also anticipates something of the same vision of those Council Fathers with their new articulation of the identity of the Church in Lumen Gentium: the laity are at the heart of the Church. Indeed, Razing the Bastions sounds something like a call to arms:
This is the moment when for the first time responsibility for the world and apostolate takes hold of every member of the Church as something self-evident; what the parish priest, or indeed any official representative of the hierarchy, is no longer able to do must now be done by the layman—and this “must” falls with the weight of a fundamental duty. (RB p. 62)

It is a call to arms for the laity to stand with their leaders and those who have carried for centuries the bulk of the work of the Church. The new era of communication, education, and specialization no longer permits the standing aside of any member of the Body of Christ in the work of the Church itself. There has been a change in the dynamics of the need and receptivity of the gospel in the world, and Christianity can no longer be publicly represented solely by a particular class of Christians.

Two decades later, von Balthasar is engaged in a very distinct piece of work in The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church. While he in no way is repudiating the work done in Razing the Bastions, he is focused instead on the single person who occupies the See of Peter: the Pope. There is no feeling that what he had previously written about the laity was excessive. There is simply the turning from one area that needed addressing to the next: or the reaching of the other hand over to plug the next leak in the dike. He is addressing an “anti-Roman attitude,” a hostility toward the papacy, that he sees as a significant force both within and without the Church. His work is mostly addressed to deflect that critique from within: consistent with his own worry of a non-theological articulation of the Church distorting the Church’s self-understanding, he here offers a theological examination of that anti-Roman attitude, as well as a theological articulation of what the papacy—the Office of Peter—truly is. One gets the feeling that there has been a shift in urgency, however: if the need of the hour in 1952 was an awakening of the entire Chruch to her opportunities and duties—a mobilization of the troops, as it were—in 1974 the need has changed to one of justifying and restoring confidence in the established chain of command.

This is closely related to another fundamental shift in emphasis between the two works. In Razing the Bastions, von Balthasar’s language emphasizes a kenotic attitude towards “strength” in the Church: that the Church is and will be most effective in the forsaking of its strength. The self-emptying of Christ is held up as a parallel to the self-emptying in the Church of all that had long seemed its strengths: the Papal States, the medieval structures of a broader Church-State alliance and socio-political order, the more absolutist methods and approaches toward internal discipline, and the union of Western Christendom once taken for granted. With Paul, the Church is now in a place to truly recognize and say, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Von Balthasar rightly sees this as a major step forward for the Church.

By the time of The Office of Peter, however, von Balthasar will be emphasizing the need for strength, specifically the legitimate strength of the papacy. This is not a reactionary movement to a need for a “strong Pope” to counter what has happened at the Second Vatican Council. Others have made that case, but that is not his position. His emphasis on the strength of Peter is more nuanced than that. In fact, it is consistent with Razing the Bastions’ expression for the need for caution in the face of a pluralistic understanding of the Church and/or reality, and its concern that more people would be mistakenly assessing and reacting to the Church based off of flawed, non-theological understandings of what the Church is. So von Balthasar does not call for a papacy which is granted new, “emergency powers” or the like: his focus on strength in The Office of Peter is a focus on the strength inherent in the office—a strength that he does feel is particularly needed in the new situation. The strength of Peter, however, is the strength of a crucified fisherman: it leads, but it leads without force. It leads by charism. Anyone can counter this strength. No one can ignore it.

The Fundamental Issues

There are three issues which seem to me to be the most fundamental raised in these ecclesiological moments—these snapshots—of von Balthasar’s vision of the Church across the decades. The first is his understanding of the new situation of the Church in the new world that is coming to term around it. The next is the specifics of the relation of the rest of the Church to the papacy. The last, and the most foundational, is the realsymbolik reading of Scripture that underlies von Balthasar’s entire ecclesiological endeavour. These are “most fundamental” because it is here where the theology either engages or fails to engage the reality of the situations which it attempts to describe.

The New Situation

We have already acknowledged some aspects of “the new situation” that von Balthasar addresses. The rise of a new world of global interaction is the first part of this equation. The next is the rise of the sciences that master this world, particularly the social sciences that try to make sense of it, and the consequent temptations to reduce the Church to a merely sociological, political or historical reality that can fit in the preconceptions of non- or anti-theological philosophies. These represent the crux of the challenge facing the Church.

There is also a new situation within the Church, given the Church’s new self-articulations of the First and Second Vatican Councils. While entirely approving of the Second Vatican Council and the balance that it helped effect within the Church’s self-understanding, he gives perhaps even more attention in The Office of Peter to the First Vatican Council. This he treats with a sympathy and sensitivity often missing from summaries of the Council, as he does the various crises of the 19th and 20th centuries before and after the Council. There is no going back from Vatican I, and those who play as though there can be are wasting the Church’s time and attention. He does not fail to recognize distracting abuses, like the Syllabus, but he also is not shy of demonstrating that in the midst of wildly divergent opinions and approaches, there was a definite need to articulate the place of the papacy at this point in history. With this new articulation, we come to the question of centralization.

The new situation, whose advent provoked von Balthasar to push the laity forward in Razing the Bastions, equally seems to call for a change in the dynamic of leadership in the Church.
Similarly, the changed historical situation offers the theology of the Church new access-roads which lead unexpectedly into the deepest areas. It was not only the undeveloped concept of history that prevented a development of ecclesiology during the middle ages but also the position of the Church vis-à-vis the world surrounding her at the time. She had a very summary relationship to the non-Christian world—pagans, Jews, heretics, schismatics—even as late as the period of the missionary mendicant Orders. At the level of consciousness humanity possessed at that period, an awareness of ultimate solidarity and fellowship in destiny could not yet exist, and one cannot suppose such an awareness without anachronism …. (RB p. 31)

New avenues for ecclesiology arise that go far beyond a minimum of keeping order within the Church, and these fresh challenges for order call for the leadership of the Church to respond in innovative ways. What are these new articulations of solidarity, expressed, not in sociological ways (those are more obvious), but in terms of Christian theology? What challenges for order are posed, and what new forms of order are invoked, by the present situation? If now is the hour of the laity, this would in fact seem to make the papacy all the more important. Balthasar’s call for the laity to move forward was not a call for them to move forward alone.
… the layman is beginning to take up the responsibility that is his own. The powers are so great that we must see the simultaneous emphasis of organization and centralization in today’s Church as a grace of Providence, designed to order those energies so that they do not waste themselvees in bluster. But organization and centralization are living values only when the strong energies fill the turbines and drive them round. (RB p. 39)

This seems to me to be comparatively unexplored today. Is the constant emphasis on the laity flexing their muscle so stressed as flexing against the hierarchy that we do not consider the advantages of a stronger central hierarchy for this process? Much is made of the union of modern communications technology such as email being united with a Vatican structure that seems to remain absolutist in form. And indeed a capacity to micromanage can translate into actual micromanagement. But for every bishop that is badgered by an email from the Vatican demanding an explanation for what a parishoner emailed their Curial Opus Dei contact about, there is also the small town resident who gains an insight into Catholic bioethical teaching thanks to a Google reference that landed them at a particular Vatican website. The technology itself is neutral, but the opportunity in the new situation for the dissemination of Catholic teaching is critical. If the laity is to actualize von Balthasar’s vision of rising up to seize their day in the world, every avenue of teaching and leadership will have to be exploited, whether it be the direct electronic one, or the classical hierarchical link through the local priest and bishop. Equally, in a world dominated by media, the emergence of papal leadership in the form of “chief spokesman” has been critical for the Church’s presence to be a living one on the world stage.

Von Balthasar had all the pieces in his two books for the basic realization of this need, but perhaps the urgency or timeliness of it was not as apparent to him. Even though he died as recently as 1988, the media revolution was still in a comparatively early stage. The availability of a virtual electronic soapbox for anyone to stand upon has complicated the task of hierarchy even as it gives them new access to the world. So the laity is being mobilized, but by whom? “Centralization” has been a dangerous concept for many people in discussing ecclesiology today, as it has been cast simply in the political terms of the keeping of power by an elite, but perhaps we can see that this is a more nuanced question than had been previously believed.

Relating to the Papacy

Von Balthasar’s stated intention in The Office of Peter is to conduct an examination of the anti-Roman attitude that he sees underlying much of contemporary Catholicism. In fact, he believes that it considerably antedates contemporary Catholicism: he sees it as stretching back to the New Testament itself. This is a critical presupposition on von Balthasar’s part, which is related to his understanding of a realsymbolik reading of Scripture, which we will deal with in greater detail below. But it is fair to raise a question of whether all “anti-Romanisms” are the same. Can there be an over-all, centuries-spanning resistance to leadership? (This is, of course, a sociological articulation.) Certainly. Does that necessarily make it distinctive in the office of Peter? That seems more problematic.

In any case, given his thesis, von Balthasar proceeds to develop an engaging study of the Church’s relation to “Peter,” particularly focusing in on the developments of the 19th and 20th centuries, but engaging in a comprehensive summary of the breadth of church history. He is not shy about assessing where the office of Peter comes into tension with other “tiers” of the church: bishops (collegiality), theologians (the correct articulation of doctrine), and the laity (reception).

What is the chief danger here, again, is that in each of these areas, the office of Peter would be wrongly assessed by a non-theological criterion: that in an uncritical way, one is using the methods of some sociological approach to judge the leadership of the Church without realizing that the method by itself can import an alien set of priorities. Probably most obvious example would be the democratic impulse: the Church exhibits various democratic tendencies, sometimes more in a given age than in another, the most well-known of which is the election of the Pope by the College of Cardinals. But if the idea of democracy were uncritically applied to each of the three tiers, the results would be distinct shifts in the way the Church operates and in its very self-understanding: collegiality would become conciliarism, the correct articulation of doctrine could become a matter of mere majority opinion instead of taking the “long road” of the work where today’s majority opinion may be revealed as tomorrow’s theological fad (consider the great seriousness given to the “Death of God” theologians in their day), and reception of teaching on the part of the laity is likewise held up to the foreign standards of a secular mindset. Now to some extent, these are all healthy tensions: the bishops necessarily do have weight and charism in Council, but with the Pope; theologians must follow their current insights, as those are the only new insights they can have, although they must be prepared for as many dead ends as they are for new avenues to open up; and the laity must weigh the articulation of what is taught against their own experience of the world.

It is a vast, never-ending process, with more personalities and social forces churning against one another—to say nothing of the ever-unexpected appearances and movements of the Spirit—than any sole person could ever hope to track. It is no wonder, then, that von Balthasar summarized the task given to Peter and his successors with one word: impossible. However necessary, it is too much for one person to do, and to do perfectly.
Surely it is obvious that he will err again and again at the intersection of time and eternity? Either he will betray the eternal for the sake of the temporal by trying to imprison it (putting eternal truth in “infallible statements”!), or he will betray the temporal by clinging to illusory formulas that seem to be eternal, thus missing the ongoing reality of his own time. People mock him; his mission should rather elicit laughter or weeping. (OP p. 353)

The correct path is a middle way between the Charybdis of old forms of the absolutism of the truth, with which the 19th century papacy notably flirted, or the Scylla of Enlightenment religious relativism, which has revealed itself as so powerful in our own day. But the middle path is not a compromise or “average” calculated between the two. The middle path is one of truth and attitude bound up in the Church’s mission, and it finds its visible expression in something like ‘Peter” and “infallibility.” But this mission is only articulated in a proper self-understanding of the Church and of election: that election is for the sake of the other. This is fundamental for the true understanding of the mission of Peter: not the “concentration of power in the hands of a monarchical authority,” but instead, “Feed my sheep.” Here there is a mediation of grace in the convergence of weakness and strength. Without the proper, theological self-understanding, all can quickly become distorted in the functioning of the Petrine office, or in how it is perceived outside of the Church, although, again, that is of less concern.

Given all of this, however, the question raised by The Office of Peter, but not, it seems, very satisfactorily addressed, is what is the basis for the legitimate critique of the papacy? For at times such a response is necessary in the life of the Church. But von Balthasar’s language is at its most polemical when introducing the problem at the beginning of the work and when coming back to it in his conclusion:
Our inquiry is directed solely to the strangely irrational phenomenon of the anti-Roman attitude among Catholics … (OP p. 16)

The saints knew how to distinguish between the representation of this “more” and the weakness of the representative. … Those who are not saints prefer to distinguish between the “sinful structure”, against which revolt is permitted or even commanded, and the substance which, they presume, can be directly derived from the Gospels, bypassing any ecclesiastical structure. (OP p. 20)

In discipleship of Jesus, it is unavoidable, particularly for sinners who take offense at him, to come into collision with the “Rock” … (OP p. 353)

The answer that von Balthasar offers for the question of the critique of the papacy—a critique he fully acknowledges is necessary and well-established in the history of the Church—is that right critique of the papacy comes from the saints. It is not hard to think of what he means: Catherine of Siena is probably the most blatant example of one who told the Pope exactly what was what. The problem with von Balthasar’s observation is that it just is not terribly helpful if we want to conceive of a way to engage or facilitate a right functioning of self-critique in the Church.

Again, I find myself speaking in political or sociological terms. Is this necessarily a problem? What a saint is, and how to pursue sainthood, are clear concepts. Are we to then say that something like criticism (in the best, most legitimate, for-the-sake-of-the-Church way) can only be a charismatic gift given in a moment of saintly rapture? Or does the Church’s manifestation as a holy institution allow for institutional responses from within, from the rest of the Church to the papacy, as well? To simply cast the description in terms of saints and sinners as von Balthasar is at best unhelpful and at worst reductionistic. “Unhelpful” in the sense that hindsight (in this case regarding someone’s sanctity) is clear, but may not have much to contribute to the given need of the hour, and “reductionistic” in the sense that a breaking down into categories of saints and sinners may be suspected of meaning “those with whom I agree and those with whom I do not.” In any case, von Balthasar’s contemporaries who were speaking of a need to change “sinful structures” within the Church might merit better treatment, even if they do not return the same courtesy.

Von Balthasar is clear that the Church needs challenging, that “ a tradition closed in upon itself and attributing an absolute significance to itself” must be confronted; that “there exists in the Church no holiness that is excused from proving itself by means of opposition from the forces of intertia within the Church.” (OP p. 24) It is the lack of illumination as to when this threshold of holiness is attained that leaves this observation a little limp. A solid criterion is given, however, when he points out that the great saintly challengers of the Church, and particularly of the papacy, submit themselves to the authority of the office of Peter. One thinks of the contrast in personality (and in effectiveness) between Catherine of Siena or Francis of Assisi, and Martin Luther. Or even, as von Balthasar freely acknowledges, those of his own generation such as Rahner or de Lubac who suffered under the suspicion of the Church for decades, only to emerge as heroes and even as Cardinals. In that, von Balthasar does give us a more concrete guide to assessing sanctity, but one which still applies to many of the people, it seems, that he implicitly critiques. Perhaps the best he is able to offer is that this is a situation calling for the gift of the discernment of spirits.

The Realsymbolik Reading of Scripture

Von Balthasar’s use of what he calls the realsymbolik in the reading of Scripture is the most foundational aspect of his ecclesiology. This is evident from the beginning of The Office of Peter, in which the method is more prominent and necessary than for his argument in Razing the Bastions. From the beginning he presumes the determining connection between the structure or “constellation” of the New Testament figures gathered around Christ and the situation in which we find ourselves today.
As we refer back to the New Testament to find an explanation of the anti-Roman attitude that has persisted throughout history to the present day … (OP p. 21)

In referring directly back to the New Testament to make his case he presumes that the method that he is using is a legitimate one, and the strength of his argument ends up being based increasingly on this one questionable pillar. He presumes an historical accuracy to his approach, and then assesses the historical weight and significance of conflict with the papacy in light of these conclusions.

In The Office of Peter, he attempts to clarify exactly what his use of this type of reading is, and to distinguish it from similar approaches.
Like Christ himself, Mary, Peter, Paul and John are not so much moral “examples” (how could Peter’s denial be that!) as prototypes (typos Phil 3:17; only thus are they synmimetai, fellow imitators, cf. 1 Cor 11: 1), forming the Church throughout history. Obviously this is valid even across the gulf which separates the pre-Easter, imperfect behavior of the disciples who have not yet received the Holy Spirit and the post-Easter Christians, filled with the Spirit of the risen Lord. The transgressions Peter committed before Easter, and the reprimands and correction these earned him, remain forever—with their distinctive features—signposts in the history of ecclesial office. (OP pp. 148-49)

In contrast with the approach of those like Schelling:
Typical of this approach is that Peter, Paul and John are not seen concretely as real symbols [Realsymbole] but are presented as abstract principles supposedly tending in opposite directions. (OP p. 146)

In Schelling’s use, this was an explanation for the splitting of the Church with Peter standing for Catholicism, Paul for Protestantism, and John for either Orthodoxy or some synthetic church of the future. What makes von Balthasar’s use different and presumably legitimate? He sees the early constellation of figures around Christ as having demonstrated in their own lives the tensions, poles and possibilities within the Church and that they remain as prototypes. This appears to be contrasted in von Balthasar’s mind with the “abstract principles” of Schelling, but the difference is not clearly defined. The papacy is Petrine, is Peter; the Church is Marian, is Mary. The historical figures and the principles that they embody seem to bleed over into one another in von Balthasar’s language. The result of this is the creation of a personal and sometimes beautiful schema for the life of the Church. But does this make it accurate?

Strong reservations may be held about von Balthasar’s account of New Testament history. He seems to uncritically endorse the apologetic readings of the New Testament—particularly those points concerning Peter—that were developed over the first several centuries to shore up the Roman See’s claim to authority, readings that were objected to by other Catholic bishops in good standing during those earlier centuries as innovations and distortions. As seen in the first of the previous pair of quotations, Peter is acknowledged as fault-prone before the resurrection, but after the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit, von Balthasar’s picture of Peter becomes idealized, as does his treatment of Peter’s knowledge of, and exercise of his “office.” Despite the obvious leadership role that Peter takes, and the attention given to him in the New Testament, it is likely that the situation was more vague and “human” than what von Balthasar is willing to portray. Paul’s opposition to Peter related in Galatians is glossed over and put in cordial terms not at all substantiated by the text. The exercise of authority in the Church in Jerusalem is also brushed by, although it is likely that if anyone held anything close to our understanding of a “Petrine” ministry of oversight in the early Church, it was James and not Peter. How Peter could have fled Jerusalem while “passing on” his authority to James, and not be accused of dereliction of duty, is quickly passed over in the haste to smooth the text of its wrinkles. There are many examples of this kind of glib exegetical, or even eisegeticial, move. This is not a strong foundation upon which to build an ecclesiology.

Similar moves are made in his historical exploration of the anti-Roman attitude, all of which try to reduce historical conflict with the growing power of Rome to the same sinful resistance to authority. But the content of Cyprian’s occasional opposition to Rome might well be of a very different character than that of Gallicanism or post-Vatican II liberalism. Tarring all these historical figures with the same brush is useful rhetorically for the power of the argument, but might not best reflect the historical mindset of the people’s involved.

The net effect of von Balthasar’s realsymbolik approach, one might argue, could be that of a forced schema being imposed on the life of the Church: a limitation of the principles involved in the Church’s life to a pre-determined construction of who certain persons were in the life of the New Testament. Reality, it may also be argued, is rarely even that neat. Von Balthasar’s schema is certainly not one without its inner tensions and conflicts, but there is also arguably a significant inclination to commit the falsehood of assuming one’s conclusion: if the life of the Church is determined in the original constellation of figures around Christ, and if these persons are thus, then the life of the Church therefore must also be thus. Anyone in strong opposition to this theology might call it “self-serving.” But then they might just be” sinners.” A rhetorical circle threatens to close and loop.


To be more effect, von Balthasar’s ecclesiological approach would have to be open to different constructions of New Testament history. As mentioned earlier, this is the pillar upon which he rests his entire construction. The problem is that this pillar can easily be kicked aside and all his edifice threatens to come crashing down. Instead, a language that could talk of Marian, Petrine, Pauline, Johannine and Jamesian/Jacobian principles in the Church without so strongly having to presume upon biography would remain helpful. He wants to contrast these with mere “abstractions,” as he objected to in Schelling, but he really does not have the ground to do so in the way that he desires. His reconstruction of New Testament history and biography is a legitimate one, but it is not the only one, nor, it can be argued, is it a terribly strong one. If his theology of the Church allowed for a greater flexibility on this point, it might then have a better chance of standing. As it is, it is so rigid that it threatens to snap.

Subsequent to this, however, von Balthasar has stimulating insights. The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church was easily the most challenging work of ecclesiology I have ever read. But it is so determined to avoid the pitfalls of sociological readings into the Church that it does not engage the far more difficult and nuanced question of when such readings may be illuminating and even appropriate—in the service of a theological understanding of the Church and its mission. The success of the texts together is in pointing toward an ecclesiology that keeps its own identity as theology clear and distinct, in the service of Christ. The limitation of the texts are that they fail to provide the kind of internal deductive system that von Balthasar presumes can be found in the theology of the Church. Perhaps the best that I, too, can offer is a plea for a discernment of spirit, because it seems that the reality the Church has to deal with is too messy for an all-encompassing typological system to provide perfect clarity.
Tags: ecclesiology, second vatican council, teachers, theological notebook, von balthasar, writing

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