Hans Urs von Balthasar wanted to see the Church as missionary, and to reassert the beauty of the mystery at the heart of the Christian message. He sought to reinvigorate religious life and the role of the laity by reintegrating beauty and mysticism in theology.

Born on 12 August 1905 in Lucerne, Switzerland, to an incredibly gifted family of considerable wealth, Hans Urs von Balthasar is a luminary in the history of twentieth-century Catholic theology, and “widely regarded as the greatest Catholic theologian of the century.”[1] He was educated firstly by Benedictine monks at the abbey school at Engelberg in central Switzerland, but prior to completing his secondary education, he was moved by his parents to the Stella Matutina College run by the Jesuits in Feldkirch, Austria.

After completing his high school education, he went on to study German literature and idealism, achieving a doctorate in this field. A man of considerable culture, he could have been a professional pianist.[2] This literary and artistic training was to serve his theological imagination in later years, such that for many of those involved in theology following him found literature as a locus theologicus.[3] This literary and artistic influence early in his life also served to inspire his option for Goethe over Kant, which was to significantly colour his theological output—becoming a significant point of distinction from his theological rival, the German Jesuit, Karl Rahner.[4]

In 1929, at age twenty-four, Balthasar entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) after submitting his doctoral thesis. His time in Jesuit formation saw him studying theology mostly from neo-thomistic manuals which was, in his recollection, a particularly trying a time for him. In recounting his experience he later wrote:

Teachers behaved as though man knew from the outset, before he had been given revelation, knew with some sort of finality what truth, goodness, being, light, love, and faith were. It was as though divine revelation had to accommodate itself to these fixed philosophical conceptual containers that admitted of no expansion.[5]

Despite this strict theological instruction, Balthasar was fortunate enough to come into contact with a number of other scholars who would become significant influences on his emerging theological thinking. These names included the great Erich Przywara S.J., whose work on the analogia entis became crucial in his later work, as well as the formidable patristics scholar, and doyen of the ressourcement movement, and Henri de Lubac S.J., whose vast background in patristic thought and writing served to inspire Balthasar’s own return to the Fathers. It was also de Lubac with whom in 1972, along with the younger Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), Balthasar would establish the journal Communio: International Catholic Review, which continues to operate today published in some thirteen languages.

For von Balthasar, the rigid framework constructed by centuries of manualist/Suarezian Thomism had essentially disenchanted the Catholic faith and made theology a science the practitioners of which need no particular affection for the object of their study (i.e. God).[6] Making significant recourse to the early Church fathers, Balthasar sought to reassert the role of sanctity in the theological sciences. This is perhaps best captured in his essay “Theology and Sanctity,”[7] and this reaffirmation of piety in theology is perhaps the aptest hermeneutic to Balthasar’s theological project as a whole.

Balthasar was ordained a priest in 1936, and served briefly in Munich in Germany, before the Nazi regime saw him leaving to serve as a University chaplain in Basel, Switzerland. While in Basel, he met a twice-married Protestant medical doctor in chronically poor health named Adrianne von Speyr. Von Speyr, who was received by Balthasar into the Catholic Church on All Saints Day in 1940, became an important figure in the life of von Balthasar and her many mystical experiences became an ongoing source of his theological inspiration. Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday, for instance, contained within his book Mysterium Paschale[8] is heavily indebted to the mystical experiences of von Speyr, which she relayed to him as her spiritual director.[9]

In 1945, along with von Speyr, Balthasar founded a religious society (secular institute), the Community of Saint John (Johannesgemeinschaft), for men and women. This too, along with the mystical writings of von Speyr, is considered to be a key to understanding his mission as such.[10] The secular institute became a manifestation of von Balthasar’s underlying understanding of the mission of Catholics to be holy in the world. Interestingly, von Balthasar’s decision to establish the Community of Saint John put him at odds with his Jesuit superiors, who would not assume responsibility for this burgeoning community, and consequently, von Balthasar left the Society of Jesus in 1950. He was eventually incardinated into the Diocese of Chur in 1956.

Despite not being invited to attend any of the sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), von Balthasar’s influence on the council and its subsequent reception has been, and will likely continue to be, tremendously significant. His 1952 work Schleifung der Bastionen: Von der Kirche Dieser Zeit, published in English as “Razing the Bastions: On the Church in this Age”[11], published prior to the council, is considered by many to have been a clarion call for the Church to open itself to the world, which became a refrain of many in the post-Conciliar age. Von Balthasar himself, though, was always keen to clarify his own stance on this, which always asserted the primacy of Christ and the role of discernment in the missionary openness of the Church toward the world.[12]

Von Balthasar sought to raze the bastions of neo-scholastic philosophy and theology and the coincident conceptions of a propositional revelation that had filled seminary manuals. In doing so, Balthasar wanted to see the Church as missionary, and to reassert the beauty of the mystery at the heart of the Christian kerygma.[13] He sought to reinvigorate religious life and the role of the laity in the Church by reintegrating beauty and mysticism in theology. His work in all these areas is significant and cannot be understated. His influence in a wide variety of theological circles—not least of which includes the ongoing and rigorous theology which occurs within the pages of the Communio journals worldwide—is remarkable.

Von Balthasar’s work is tremendous in scope and in volume. To attempt to summarise his contribution or narrow his wide interests would not do justice to his oeuvre.[14] Indeed, Bishop Peter Henrici, a cousin of von Balthasar, one quipped that von Balthasar “wrote more books than a normal person can be expected to read in his lifetime.”[15]

Von Balthasar died on the 26th of June 1988, aged eighty-two in Basel, Switzerland, just two days prior to the ceremony which would have seen Pope John Paul II confer upon him the cardinal’s red hat vindicating his life’s work, and honouring his tremendous contribution to the intellectual and spiritual life of the Church in the twentieth century.

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[1] Fergus Kerr, Twentieth Century Catholic Theologians: From Neoscholasticism to Nuptial Mysticism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 121.

[2] Ibid.

[3] This has become a definitive feature of many of the theologians associated with the Communio school of theology, who publish in the journal which he helped establish. See Tracey Rowland, Catholic Theology, Doing Theology (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 123-124.

[4] While Rahner was something of a theological sparring partner with von Balthasar, the two held each other’s work in high esteem. According to Peter Henrici, “Each reproached the other for being humourless, and yet the mutual esteem was just as great. At the time of their sixtieth birthdays, which fell quite close, they expressed their mutual admiration and respect in a way that went far beyond mere politeness… For all their mutual esteem [however], they never really understood each other a deep level. Rahner’s starting-point was Kant and Scholasticism, which Balthasar’s was Goethe and the Fathers.” See Peter Henrici, “Hans Urs Von Balthasar: A Sketch of His Life,” Communio: International Catholic Review 16, no. Fall (1989), 344.

[5] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Theology and Sanctity,” in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology, Vol. 1: The Word Made Flesh, trans. A. V. Littledale and Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 186.

[6] See particularly The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics V: The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 21-29.

[7] This essay is found in English in Explorations in Theology, Vol. 1: The Word Made Flesh, 181-209.

[8] Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, trans. Aidan Nichols (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000).

[9] Interestingly, despite von Balthasar’s insistence that his work must be read in conjunction with his own, Pope Benedict XVI, theological ally and one-time colleague of von Balthasar notes that, for him, the work of von Speyr has not been of particular interest to him. See Benedict XVI and Peter Seewald, Last Testament: In His Own Words, trans. Jacob Phillips (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016), 148.

[10] Of Adrienne von Speyr, von Balthasar wrote, “Her work and mine are neither psychologically nor philologically to be separated: two halves of a single whole, which has as its centre a unique foundation,” see Hans Urs Von Balthasar, My Work: In Retrospect (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 89.

[11] Razing the Bastions, trans. Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).

[12] See particularly, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, My Work: In Retrospect (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 51-52.

“The last ten years have shown inexorably that the most dynamic [Christian] program of openness to the world remains one-sided (and hence becomes exceedingly dangerous) if it does not cultivate with growing awareness its own distinctive counterpoise and balance: whoever greater action needs better contemplation; whoever wants to play a more formative role must pray and obey more profoundly; whoever wants to achieve additional goals must grasp the uselessness and futility, the uncalculating and the incalculable (hence ‘unprofitable’) nature of the eternal love in Christ, as well as of every love along the path of Christian discipleship…

Every program of mission to the world must at all times contain what Guardini called the ‘discernment of what is Christian.’”

[13] This is modeled in his magnum opus, the trilogy, which spans some fourteen volumes, beginning with his theological aesthetics, before moving into his theo-drama, before culminating in his theo-logic.

[14] A useful reference though is Balthasar’s own account of his life’s work, cited above. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, My Work: In Retrospect (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).

[15] Henrici, at 306.

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