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Pell and von Balthasar: Works by two warriors in later years

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 01, 2020 | In Reviews

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Primer for “Unsettled Laymen”:

Vision Book Cover Prints

Ignatius Press has just published a new edition of what must be Hans Urs von Balthasar’s shortest book, fittingly entitled A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen. It is a noteworthy achievement because von Balthasar’s theological work has always been fairly difficult to assimilate properly, but in this little book he wanted to give clear guidance to ordinary Catholics so that they would not be seduced or fooled into embracing the secularized “Catholicism” which was so frequently on offer in the last third of the twentieth century.

Admittedly, the problem continues, but it is not for lack of effort on von Balthasar’s part. He died in 1988, after he was named a Cardinal by Pope Saint John Paul II, but before he could actually be installed in that rank. Though his own deep and rich theology—which had a significant influence on John Paul II, and continues to influence Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI—sometimes occasioned misunderstanding and debate, von Balthasar was appalled by the radical secularization of theology which was by the mid-1980s evident throughout the Church. For von Balthasar, this was nothing less than a fundamental rejection of the Faith, which rendered theology utterly useless.

Von Balthasar realized that the men and women “in the pews” were generally ill-equipped to distinguish what was so very wrong with this process of Catholic intellectual secularization, and so in 1985 he deliberately set out to write a clear outline of what it means, conceptually-speaking, to be a Catholic, and what theology must avoid to remain Catholic. The result is a brilliant little book which covers a series of provocative topics in just a few short pages each, making crystal clear how the current intellectual apostasy can be identified and why it must be rejected.

Thus, after introducing the contemporary situation and explaining what it means to possess a “whole” Christianity of Christ, Scripture and Church, von Balthasar considers such issues as Enlightenment, Progressivism, Liberalism, Pluralism, Exegesis, Theological Freedom, Reinterpretation, The Cross, Mary, Intercommunion, Authority, Obedience, Traditionalism, Ecumenism, and Political Theology. Just because the author covers each topic briefly, however, does not mean the book is simple, for von Balthasar is a profound thinker who ties everything to the essential nature of the Church. Because he carefully eschewed the human deceptions of both liberalism and traditionalism (just as CatholicCulture.org does, I might add*), he explains everything instead from a fundamental understanding of Catholicism as the sole authentic religion, which must be accepted in an act of Faith before theology can even begin to perform its task.

In other words, this “primer” can be deceptive. The reader does have to think, does have to follow the argument. Von Balthasar’s purpose is not so much to give us watchwords and “so there” pronouncements as to root us as Catholics in what it truly means to be part of that Church which is the very Body of Christ Himself—as willing participants in the great drama of our salvation.

George Cardinal Pell’s Prison Journal

Everybody knows now that charges of sexual abuse were deliberately manufactured against George Cardinal Pell (very likely to discredit his work on financial reform in the Curia), and everybody knows that Pell was convicted in an anti-Catholic Australian jurisdiction despite overwhelming evidence that he was not guilty. Hopefully everyone also knows that he had to endure solitary confinement in jail for over a year before finally having his conviction unanimously overturned on appeal by Australia’s High Court. What many people may not know is that during his imprisonment, Cardinal Pell kept a daily journal, recording his experiences in jail, his spiritual reflections, his interactions with both the prison system and those working to free him, and his prayer intentions.

The first volume of this journal, Prison Journal: The Cardinal Makes His Appeal, is available for pre-order now from Ignatius Press. I was fortunate to have received an “uncorrected proof”, and while I have only read about twenty percent of it at present, I find it fascinating. The journal reveals a great deal of what Pell suffered, though without many complaints on his part. It also reveals a prelate full of Christian hope, and charity toward his keepers, while profoundly aware of his own shortcomings and continuing Catholic growth over the years.

Pell does not, perhaps, strike the reader as in the same class with, say, St. Thomas More in the Tower, but then More always suspected (and eventually knew) that he was awaiting death, and his personal reputation was not really in question. In contrast, Pell was in disgrace but not on death row; of necessity he kept one foot firmly in this world: different situation, different time, and different place. But Pell is a man of our times and our sensibilities, and I suspect he stands with and for the very best of us today, in his genuine grace under immense stress.

There will be another volume, as this one covers only the first five months of Pell’s imprisonment. But the 350 pages need not discourage anyone, as each day’s entry averages just two pages in length. This means the journal can be taken easily in short bits, without stealing too much time away from other duties—but perhaps often reading “just one more day”, because of the compelling character of the Cardinal’s plight.


* Perhaps it is best here to dispel some confusion. As opposed to Sacred Tradition, which is a living repository of Divine Revelation protected and mined in unity with Sacred Scripture by the authority of the Church, “traditionalism” is always a rival form of secularization, which reacts against the secularism of the present moment by freezing religion in a different but still essentially human guise, drawn out of some imperfect and merely partial historical moment. Von Balthasar knew, as do we here at CatholicCulture.org, that Catholicism embodies in its essence the Divine-human whole, and that all other “isms” are distortions drawn from particular components of human reality, and therefore always in fundamental opposition to the Church of Christ. Von Balthasar consistently refused this game—this charade, on one side or the other, of addition by subtraction from the fullness of truth, which is really a form of “special pleading”—that is, “an argument in which the speaker ignores aspects of the whole that are unfavorable to his particular point of view.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Primer for Unsettled Laymen. Ignatius Press, 2020. 142pp. Paper.

George Cardinal Pell, Prison Journal: Volume 1: The Cardinal Makes His Appeal. Ignatius Press, 2020. 348 pp. Paper.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Dec. 03, 2020 11:00 AM ET USA

    edenjohnson364256: While a Jesuit priest, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) became the spiritual director of Adrienne von Speyr (1902-1967), a Swiss medical doctor. Von Balthasar met von Speyr in 1940 and brought her into the Catholic Church, after which she began to have profound mystical experiences. Von Balthasar continued to serve as her spiritual director, and von Speyr eventually would dictate to von Balthasar a total of some 60 spiritual works based on the intuitions provided by her mystical experiences. Von Balthasar also collaborated with von Speyr in the foundation of a new secular institute, the Community of St. John, but his Jesuit superiors suggested that this project was interfering with his work as a Jesuit, and asked him to discern one path or the other. Von Balthasar made a 30-day retreat and concluded, with the support of his superiors, that he was called to leave the Jesuits and continue working with the Community of St. John. The relationship with von Speyr was certainly an unusual one. For a time, von Balthasar lived in the same home with Adrienne and her husband, and Adrienne quite probably influenced von Balthasar spiritually as much as he influenced her. However, I emphasize that all of this was done under the watchful gaze and with the approval of the proper ecclesiastical authority, and all of the books von Balthasar put together from von Speyr's experiences were published with the Imprimatur. In other words, the relationship was unusual, but in no way either suspicious, un-monitored, or unapproved. In the end, it seems to have been an incredibly fruitful collaboration.

  • Posted by: edenjohnson364256 - Dec. 01, 2020 5:34 PM ET USA

    Would you clarify the relationship between Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne Von Speyer?