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June-July 2007

Book Review

by Regis Martin, San Francisco: Ignatius, 2006, pp. 254 + xxvii.


As one might surmise from his subtitle, Christ's Descent into the Hell of Human Hopelessness, Regis Martin has been deeply influenced by Hans Urs von Balthasar's re-interpretation of Christ's Descent into Hell. [see CO, June/July 2004]

In this book, Martin, who teaches theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, applies Balthasar's new version of the Descent to questions of theodicy raised by the Holocaust. To the question of why God was silent when the Jews were exterminated in the 1940s, he answers that God was there as the wordless Word suffering among the damned in an ever-present Holy Saturday.

One wonders whether he would have written such a book if Alyssa Lyra Pitstick's comprehensive study of Balthasar and the Descent had been published a year or two earlier.

Catholic teaching

In the first chapters of her just-published book, Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ's Descent into Hell (Eerdmans, 2007), Pitstick explains what the Church has always taught with "exceptional consistency" about the Descent, an article of the Apostles Creed.

Since earliest times, the Church's teaching has always been that Christ came down to the holy dead in his divine Person and his glorified soul and, without enduring any suffering, liberated them from captivity. His power was felt throughout hell, but he went no further than the souls of the just, whom he led to heaven at the Ascension.

As proof that this was always the Church's doctrine, Pitstick cites ancient creeds, universal catechisms, papal and conciliar documents, scriptural passages authoritatively interpreted, the approved writings of holy Fathers and Doctors, liturgical texts of East and West, and representations in art - all showing that this has been the continuous and authoritative interpretation of this Article.

Balthasar's salvific heresy

As Pitstick shows, Balthasar dismisses this teaching as "false triumphalism" and "folk myths." His version of the Descent is that Christ endured far greater and more meritorious suffering on Holy Saturday than on Good Friday. He teaches that Christ was thrust into the depths of hell and endured there a timeless solidarity with the damned, joining them in the horror of their isolation from God.

Since this suffering was out of time, Balthasar claims the Son waits there for each one who is damned. Indeed, this is the basis of his "hope" that all men "will be saved": for after the Descent, he explains, the only thing preventing a lost soul from attaining salvation is a continued refusal to say "yes." Although universal salvation cannot be maintained openly against the condemnation of this tenet by the Church, Balthasar propounds it subtly and paradoxically, by declaring that God will not be restricted by "finite freedom's choice against Him" and that the Son's passive solidarity and disturbing presence among the damned may well, in the end, outlast their rejection.

Thus, Balthasar's Descent ushers in the belief that we can make choices after we are damned and so grounds a presumption of universal salvation.

Balthasar's neophyte

Like Balthasar, Regis Martin is dismissive of the perennial teaching about the Descent. In a note on page 175, he says "this view lacks any ballast at all from Scripture in order to lend it credibility" (so much for two millennia of Tradition!), and it does not "communicate" to those "forced to endure the hell of meaninglessness" (are we to revise the deposit of the Faith to suit contemporary agnostics?)

Suffering of Love consists of a prologue, three chapters, an epilogue, and a hundred pages of notes, a large number of which refer to Balthasar. In the prologue, Martin writes that "the alleged silence culpably imputed to God [in the Holocaust] may in fact be seen as the deeper silence of the Son sent into that state of lostness and apparent final Godforsakenness in order, paradoxically, to redeem its hellish and everlasting hold." This is pure Balthasar, only now it is used to vindicate God's supposed absence from the death camps.

Since there's no support for the new Descent in the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church, Martin leans on an earlier "compilation of Catholic doctrine" published by a German bishops' conference as The Church's Confession of Faith: A Catholic Catechism for Adults (Ignatius, 1987). In a note, he cites these German bishops calling the "present version" of the Descent (i.e. the Church's perennial teaching) not only "particularly unpalatable," but also "unintelligible and foreign to most Christians." (What about better catechesis?)

Darwinian blindspot

In the first chapter, Martin presents the Holocaust as occurring "in the heart of Christendom" and puts a thoroughly theological cast on the anti-semitism of that age. He never once mentions the craze for Darwinist eugenics that existed from the 1870s to the 1930s, under which atheistic ideology the Jews were seen as a degenerate race.

Martin cites many post-Holocaust authors who say the Jews were hated not for what they did, but "simply because they were." Yes, but at the time what they "were" had mostly to do with race, not religion.

In America, as well as in Germany, eugenicists cast a baleful eye on Jews. See Angela Franks', Margaret Sanger's Eugenic Legacy (2005), especially what she says on the American Eugenics Society, whose ideas influenced Hitler. Also, part of the eugenic ideology in Germany included the notion that "scientific" improvement of the "race" could not be achieved without mountains of corpses. The evidence for this is found in Richard Weikart's excellent work, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany (paperback 2006).

Among those who embraced Darwinist eugenics before Hitler were some of the top German philosophers and scientists. Regis Martin ignores all these pre-Holocaust writers and instead quotes scores of post-Holocaust authors (a good number of them atheists) who naturally want to blame the Holocaust on Christianity, rather than on Darwinist atheism, which they very likely still embrace. And so, ironically, it is God and the Christians, not the atheists, who end up in the dock for the Holocaust, though the evil of those times was precisely anti-God, anti-Christian, and wore the mantle of progressive evolutionary materialism.

In one subsection (pp 75-78) Martin mourns the rise of atheism in the West and the other "holocausts" it has brought about, including the mass slaughter of unborn children, but he fails to see that the Holocaust of the 1940s was also the result of ideological atheism.

"Fantasy fiction" as orthodoxy

Martin's second chapter begins to apply Balthasar's Descent to the Holocaust. Conceding that God was silent in the 1940s, he says it was the silence of the Son suffering on Holy Saturday "among wicked and twisted men free to do their worst" and experiencing the "infinite and hateful violence against the good." He then urges us to accept Balthasar's "breathtaking claim" that "Christ freely suffered all the punishments intended for the unrepentant sinner, including even that condition of definitive separation from God which marks the soul of the damned forever.... And what is that place which Christ assumed in our stead if it is not the land of the lost, of the Godforsaken, of men cast out by sin from all that is living and true?"

It is still possible to speak of God after Auschwitz, he asserts, provided we start here with the Son's experience of timeless God-abandonment. Sorry, but I think we can still speak of God after Auschwitz without mutilating an article of the Creed!

I find it very strange that the invisible suffering of Christ on Holy Saturday is suddenly supposed to be more salvific for us than our Saviour's crown of thorns, lacerated body, pierced hands and feet, and wounded side. This looks like iconoclasm. Why are these unheard-of invisible sufferings now the sine qua non? In her new book, Alyssa Lyra Pitstick rightly calls Balthasar's version of the Descent "fantasy fiction." True, but it is fantasy fiction now taught as Catholic orthodoxy all around the globe.

Private revelation

In the third chapter, Martin speaks of how Adrienne von Speyr experienced a "mysterious descent into hell" each year starting in1941. What she endured, Balthasar said (for he stayed by her side taking notes), was "being engulfed in the chaotic mire of the anti-divine; the absence of faith, hope and love; the loss as well, therefore, of any human communication."

Balthasar's version of the Descent is based on this purely private revelation, rather than on the Church's consistent teaching since antiquity, for as Pitstick shows in her new book, Balthasar declared that Christ lost faith, hope, and love in his Descent. Moreover, he said of Speyr's vision that it was "a muted echo" of what the God-Man endured, the timeless abandonment of "God from God."

Spurious claims

Martin speaks of the Church's "unbending insistence upon Christ's real descent into hell" and how the descensus was "expressly defined by two ecumenical councils" (p. 105), but he does not make clear that Balthasar's Descent is a radical departure from what the Fourth Lateran (1215) and Council of Lyons (1274) defined. They never spoke of Christ suffering passively among the damned without even having the theological virtues.

A few pages later, Martin refers to "the truth of the Church's solemn affirmation of the descent" (p. 130), again with the implication that the Church approves of Balthasar's version of the Descent. This is misleading.

At two points Martin suggests that if we reject Balthasar's Descent, we will be choosing Docetism. A good offense is the best defense: instead of trying to exculpate Balthasar's newfangled doctrine from heresy, he puts the burden on the rest of us who follow the Church's perennial teaching to prove we are not Docetists! This reminds me of the kind of accusations the Jesuit Edward Oakes, a great defender of Balthasar, raised against Alyssa Lyra Pitstick in the pages of First Things (where a controversy raged over Balthasar's Descent from December to March 2007).

Rival magisterium

Are we to kowtow to the private judgment of Balthasar and the private revelations of Speyr against the entire Tradition of our Church on the descensus - just for fear of being called Docetists by theologians who follow Balthasar?

Are we now to heed the voice of a rival magisterium of theologians and, without further ado, to believe that Christ in the "paradoxical form of the wordless Word," always "encamps alongside" the souls in hell, "accompanies" the damned "in the wordless gesture of just being there, into their final loneliness" that they may ultimately be saved? (pp.118-19).

What this amounts to is the substitution of Balthasar's mind-boggling paradoxes, which disguise a radical change of belief, for a mystery of infinite beauty and depth left us by the apostolic Church. Would there be such an infatuation with Balthasar if John Paul II had not named him a cardinal? (Of course, he died on his way to receiving his red hat.) Was his being named a cardinal necessarily proof of orthodoxy?

Papal silence

What does it say about our age that such a radical re-interpretation of an article of the Creed can been embraced by Catholic theologians far and wide for two generations, be taught in seminaries, published in books sold by Ignatius Press, and promoted in the Balthasar Institute in Rome right in the shadow of the Vatican without so much as a rebuke from any Pope?

God was not silent in the death camps in the face of atheistic violence. He spoke there through his saints, as we see in Rev. John M. Lenz's Christ in Dachau, or Christ Victorious (Roman Catholic Books, 2006). Sadly, several Popes have indeed been silent in the face of the violence perpetrated upon the perennial doctrine of Christ's Descent - all for the sake of a presumption of universal salvation.


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