Tag Archives: vatican II

Mosebach on the tridentine rite

By Augustinus

The great German writer Martin Mosebach wrote an essay on the tridentine rite a couple of years ago and that essay is now reprinted in First Things. See https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/04/return-to-form

Mosebach points out that the second Vatican Council did NOT proscribe the old tridentine rite but instead instructed and prescribed continued use of Latin and never assumed that ad orientam worship would change. Still less did the council fathers envision a new “iconoclasm of the altars” that took place after Paul VI endorsed use of a new missal. The smashing of the altars and the destruction of traditional catholic imagery and statuary in numberless churches across the world was every bit as destructive as the protestant smashing of the altars that took place centuries earlier in the wake of the furies of the protestant revolution. The fact that these iconoclastic outrages were occurring from within the church itself must have made non-Catholic onlookers believe that the protestant revolution had been right after all. Perhaps the Bishops that promoted this iconoclastic spasm were thinking that this second protestant revolution would convince our protestant brothers and sisters that catholics were serious about dialogue with them and then protestants would flock back to the one true church and we would be united again!

But alas; the envisioned rapproachement between catholics and protestants has not happened. Instead the numerous protestant sects have continued their inevitable dissolution into Unitarianism and the catholic church has slowly begun to follow the same, disastrous  “liberalizing” path as the protestants. That path we all now know leads to heresy…a kind of no-offense-to-anyone doctrine that ends in Unitarian pablum where Jesus is depicted as a milquetoast and perhaps interesting ancient rabble rouser and moral leader but certainly not a divine being who demands obedience.

Mosebach argues that an organizational change in the catholic church abetted the protestantizing of church since 1968: namely the organization of the Bishops into national Bishop conferences which directly contradicts ancient canon law on Bishops rules and procedures. Nationalism inevitably begins to rule the conferences rather than the universal church.

In any case I highly recommend Mosebach’s book and this essay.

Review of: Benedict XVI Last Testament. In his own words with Peter Seewald

By Augustinus

Peter Seewald is a German journalist who has interviewed Pope Benedict several times and published these interviews in the past. The current book contains transcripts of interviews conducted shortly before, but mostly after the Pope’s resignation. So the questions were all designed to have the Pope emeritus look back on his life and his service to the church and thus we get Benedict’s reflective perspective on many things from Vatican II to the “Gay Lobby” scandal in the Vatican. The things he most regrets are his lifting of the excommunication on Bishop Williamson of SPXX due to the claims that the Bishop was a holocaust denier; his inability to handle the narrative the press was constructing after Vatican II and the priest sex abuse scandal that began under Pope John Paul’s reign but lingered into Pope Benedict’s reign as well. His, regrets, however, do not in any way dominate his reflections.

I always thought–and these interviews confirm for me, that the thing that most characterized Pope Benedict’s service to the church was his constant insistence that the revelation of Christ was that the GODHEAD or the deity or God was the WORD or the logos, and thus that the inner nature of Christ and Christianity was essentially reason/rationality-not just love. That was the message of Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg address which touched off fanatical muslim riots all over the world –namely that Christianity was not like other religions; that it was not a religion at all since it was so wedded to reason at its foundation…

Benedict’s parents were devout Bavarian Catholics. His father passionately opposed Hitler and subscribed to a paper/journal that was Catholic and anti-Hitler so these sentiments were passed onto to his son. His two sons went into the priesthood with the future Pope doing his dissertation on Augustine-not Aquinas. He rose rapidly through the clerical ranks becoming Bishop of Munich near his hometown in Bavaria while his theological works were attracting attention far and wide. When Vatican II arrived the future Pope became an advisor to some of the most “liberal” Bishops attending but neither he nor they thought of themselves or the council as “progressive”, “liberal” or “innovative”.  They saw themselves as re-expressing traditional positions of the Church. For example the council fathers recommended an expansion, not the elimination of Latin in the church and in the liturgy. He blames the subsequent disastrous effects of Vatican II on “progressives” outside the church who controlled media interpretations of what the council documents were otherwise saying.

“The bishops wanted to renew the faith, to deepen it. However, other forces were working with increasing strength, particularly journalists, who interpreted many things in a completely new way. Eventually people asked, yes, if the bishops are able to change everything, why can’t we all do that? The liturgy began to crumble and slip into personal preferences. Since 1965 I have felt it to be a mission to make clear what we genuinely wanted and what we did not want.” (p. 141)

but for Benedict, Vatican II was not disastrous, it was a world historical landmark for the church and the world. Its effects were not only disastrous. In the theological realm they were fruitful and revelatory. Reading these interviews, one gets the sense that Benedict’s first vocation was as a thinker and a theologian. Like every great philosopher he loved to take long walks especially walks alone. From his perspective the landmark’s in his life were not career markers like when he became Bishop, then Prefect, then John Paul’s right hand man and then Pope. No his landmarks, were his intellectual breakthroughs. The things that gave him strength despite his many and serious health issues and the crushing responsibilities of his offices was his theological work. that was how he prayed.

His explanation and description of his abdication was succinct and convincing: he was not laying down the cross associated with the papacy just the work. He could not perform the functions of a Pope given his brain hemorrhage and other very serious health issues.

Remarkably, people see this intellectual Pope as a traditionalist who opposed all things progressive and modern. While it is certainly true that he opposed all versions of the modernist heresy he did not oppose modernity per se. In these interviews he talks about the good things modernity has brought humanity including science, wealth for many, better health, global communications etc but especially the philosophical and theological insights. Like any reasonable person he wants to accept and use these good things for the betterment of humanity while opposing the well-known bad things modernity brings in its wake. its up to us to own the theological insights into the original Christian revelation that modernity gives us but no-one has yet been able to do that convincingly. There is a new world trying to be born but it has not found its midwife yet.

Do you see yourself as the last Pope of an old era?

“Between the times I would say…I don’t belong to the old world anymore, but the new world isn’t really here yet” (p. 232)


To save the West

By Augustinus

As Europe, North America and South America breezily jettison the Christian foundations of their political orders the “west” such as it is, spirals into further decline. To save the West you need to look to the Church for a rennaissance …but the Church itself, as in past epochs, is in crisis. What therefore is to be done?

Renew the church and you will save the West. So how do we renew the Church? As everyone knows, everyone has an opinion about how to do that. Some want to continue down the route of Vatican II and “liberalize” the Church even further (e.g. Gary Wills and Hans Kung, Richard Rohr and the National catholic Reporter folks etc). Some want to reverse Vatican II’s “reforms” (the traditionalists).  Some want to accept Vatican II’s reforms but then stabilize the ship by interpreting Vatican II documents conservatively (Popes John Paul and Benedict and some prominent “theocons” like George Weigel and the folks at First Things etc).

I do not agree with any of these positions.

Its not about Vatican II. like every other ecumenical council down through the ages this council did some bad things and some good things. I have posted on Vatican II previously so won’t go into that issue here. There is always going to be debate about development of practices, doctrine and church. There always has been such debate and always will be. The cause of the crisis in the church today is not about Vatican II or development of doctrine (understanding the so-called “sexual revolution” including feminism, gay marriage and so forth) or development of practices (such as Latin vs Novus Ordo rite etc)….though, of course, these issues are important. My point is that these issues are NOT the source of the crisis in the Church–they are symptoms.

What then is the source of the crisis in the Church today? If we could pinpoint that source we would also gain a deeper understanding of the crisis of the West more generally. In my opinion the source of the crisis is partially found in what the 19th century Popes called “modernism”. It is a heresy much like the ancient heresy of Arius. The Arian heresy claimed whole countries, most of the eastern Church, most of Northern Europe, most political leaders. It took centuries to defeat.

While the 19th century Popes were onto something when they decried modernism they left out the most crucial task for the Church then and NOW: How do come to grips with the rise of science. Modernism is so potent a force because it claims that it is allied with science. To solve the modernist crisis the church needs to embrace science and become a leader in the scientific enterprise–just as it was in the days of the Church Father and in the middle ages.

The ambiguous legacy of the 1960s

By Augustinus

  1. Conservatives blame the 60s as the source of everything retrograde in the world today while liberals celebrate the 60s as the coming of age of many of the struggles of those oppressed for centuries like women, sexual minorities, black people, Native Americans and others. But neither of these narratives are correct. The only way to truly understand the 60s is to understand its most important event—the Second Vatican Council. Vatican for all its failures also very briefly offered the world a new paradigm called “personalism” that if followed by Catholic interpreters of Vatican II would have prevented the destruction of the Church in its liturgy, culture and laity. If the World had taken up the personalism offered by Vatican II its politics would have followed a quite different trajectory than the state worship route most of the world in fact took after the 60s. To understand personalism and that Council we will need to recall some basic history concerning the 20th
  2. The beginning of the 20th century saw the fall of all of the European monarchies that had governed Europe and the rest of the world for over a thousand years. The era of the divine King was ended and the era of the ‘people’ had finally begun. The ‘people’ promptly soaked themselves in an orgy of blood during the two world wars whose aftereffects lasted well into the late 1950s. It is arguable that the bloody 20th century ended with the 1960s. The controlling ideas, good and bad, of the 20th century had their last efflorevsence in the 1960s. The idea of the West had destroyed itself in the Nazi concentration camps of WWII. Europe had disqualified itself from moral leadership of the world by the crimes it inflicted on the Jews and others. The world drifted without leadership in the 1950s and then one by one the ideas that competed with the west for leadership of the world were tried and found wanting.
  3. As is well known two world powers emerged from the bloodbath of the two world wars: the Soviet Empire and the American empire. Both empires were hostile to the old political order of the monarchy. At the center of that order was the person of the divine King who (however poorly) modeled true individuality and thereby kept alive the idea of sacred dignity of the person or true individual in community. The monarchies of Europe—especially the Hapsburg monarchy in central Europe ruled over truly diverse empires and it is within this kind of true diversity that you find true individuality. Witness the cultural rennaisance in the Austro-Hungarian countries during the 17-19th The Hapsburg monarchy defeated a massive muslim army at the gates of Vienna in 1529 and then for the rest of its existence explicitly espoused old world Catholicism but promoted within its borders all kinds of diverse religiosities including vibrant Jewish and Muslim communities. The Hapsburg monarchy created the conditions for the development of modern forms of personalist thought in its respect for the ordinary man while upholding aristocratic forms of excellence and virtue. Its populace was the most educated in Europe and they were exposed to a very wide array of cultural forms and ideas.
  4. In the modern world both the American and Soviet empires on the other hand purported instead to be on the side of the common man in his efforts to gain the good life. Both claims were partly true and mostly false. Democracy may be better than monarchy but only if it is done right—when it refuses to place sovereignty in the “people” and instead keeps sovereignty in a transcendant realm. But both empires made the state instead of God the absolute Sovereign.
  5. The default operating system for statist forms of democracy is the herd. Democracy is therefore typically hostile to the appearance of true individuality and personalism. Nevertheless, democracy also facilitates (simply via the law of large numbers) conditions for true diversity and personalism flourishes under conditions of true diversity. Due to the recent catastrophes of stock market and financial system crashes herding behavior has finally come under the scrutiny of the scientists and thus we are beginning to learn about the factors that can inhibit herding and promote diversity. Diversity can occur when the costs of forming an informed private opinion on some issue of importance decline. The easier it is for an individual to get good quality information on an important issue or topic the greater the likelihood that diverse opinions will be expressed and prevent herding behavior—particularly herds due to informational cascades. Informational cascades develop when the costs of developing high quality private information sources is too high.
  6. In that case people are forced to rely on the opinions on just a handful of informed individuals. If those individuals pronounce on an issue or topic most other people will adopt their position on the issue because the costs of forming one’s own opinion are too high. All this is OK when the ‘experts’ make the right call or decision but most of the time they do not and thus adopting the position of common sense means adopting the position of a tiny group of experts who made the wrong call. Under those conditions the social system or network is operating as a herd and heading for trouble or outright disaster.
  7. Through a confluence of many chance events the United States in the 1960s witnessed optimal conditions for a brief appearance of real diversity. Costs of information gathering were at an all time low given the fact that for the first time in history an entire generation of people (the baby boomers) were able to receive a higher education. In fact they had to go to college in order to obtain jobs. At college they were given the tools to gather information on a huge range of issues. They formed their own opinions on these issues and the expert consensus on a whole range of issues began to break down. What followed was a massive increase in diverse opinions on everything from lifestyle choices, to religion, economics and politics.
  8. As we all know the brief period of experimentation lasted only a few years and then was co-opted by left wing authoritarian ideologues spouting false “revolution” that destroyed the personalist aspects of the 1960s. They replaced personalist ideas with victim ideologies. Dorothy Day and the catholic worker movement of the 1960s resisted this victim ideology and stuck to its personalist principles proving that it was possible to do so in the 60s.
  9. Authoritarianism always comes in the form of righteous indignation against ignorance and injustice. Reform always seems absolutely reasonable and long overdue but the only true reform is the one that gives individuals the tools of attaining to knowledge. The injustices the left wing authoritarians and reformers addressed in the 1960s were real and they were courageous in their efforts to right the wrongs but they erred in adopting the victim ideologies instead of personalism as the philosophical base for the reform. Note that Martin Luther King Jr never made this mistake. He explicitly called himself a Christian and a personalist. Nor did Ghandi in India. They both explicitly invoked catholic personalist ideas and frankly named the injustices they were fighting against but they refused to see themselves or the people they were fighting for as victims.
  10. What were the historical and cultural conditions that led to the emergence of a brief moment of real diversity in the 1960s?
  11. I have already mentioned the availability of universal higher education to the generation of the baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s. That is why much of the dynamism of the 60s came from young people. These were the individuals who had broken free of the many informational cascades then prevalent and leading the US into disaster with the Viet Nam war topping the list. Unfortuntely their intellectual freedom did not last long as they began to adopt ersatz revolutionary ideas such as ‘sexual liberation” utopian peace projects and the like.
  12. In addition, the 1960s represented an interim period between the death of the old world order when monarchies reigned and the birth of the new world order of herd driven empires. There was a period when no-one was in charge. The resultant power vacuum and memories of the order of the old divine kings created opportunities for experiment in new political arrangements. The monarchies received a mortal blow during World War I but they were not definitively destroyed until World War II. After the end of World War II the old empire associated with the monarchies were dismantled while the new empires based on the herd began their rise to power but this rise was uneven and left room for experiments around new political ideas and arrangements. More than anything else the 1960s must be seen as the era of political ferment and experimentation. Cultures all over the world participated in the experimentation due the power vacuum.
  13. The pace of political and cultural experimentation was breathtaking in the 60s both in the realm of popular political debates and gambits (think of the many hippie communes and related utopian schemes) and in the realm of popular music where the Beatles (despite their decadence) outpaced them all. The facts are well known. In the space of about 5 years the Beatles evolved from bumble gum pop songs with very little complexity to the extraordinarily complex yet still melodic compositions on Sgt Peppers/White album/Abbey road years. While the early songs relied on 2 guitars and a steady drum beat, the later songs contained multiple instruments and musical ideas from multiple cultures spanning multiple centuries.
  14. Aside from this cultural experimentation going on all over the world political experimentation also occurred at a breakneck pace. The Hungarians in 1956 initiated the defeat of the idea of the Soviet empire. The Kennedy-Kruschev stand-off over the bay of pigs invasion and the attempt to place Soviet missiles in Cuba made it clear to all that the two empires were dangerously reckless and needed to be replaced. The further demise of the Soviet empire continued in the 1960s with the Czechoslavkian Spring in 1968.
  15. While the cultural revolution in China during the 1960s became a major disaster with many criminal massacres of innocents it too began with real experimentation in alternative political ideas. There was a brief opening up to diversity. However, once Mao and the communist party began to see that they were losing control of the spontaneous actions of the people they intervened and used the red army to intimidate popular leaders and to massacre opponents of communism in China. The idea of real Chinese popular democracy was destroyed by the Mao-inspired psychoses that gripped the country during the 1961-2 great leap forward and the cultural revolution of 1966-9.
  16. Africa began to stand up against Western colonial interests in the 1960s with many political experiments occurring across the continent. Later these began to degenerate into endemic tribal warfare. The countries of Latin America also began to assert control over their own economic destinies in the 1960s but no leading idea emerged from these efforts and most of the liberation movements devolved into military dictatorships of both the right and left.
  17. After the middle-east six or seven day war of 1967 the Muslim world and Israel became locked together into an embrace of mutually assured destruction that continues to this day. The entire Muslim world underwent repeated political upheavals that mostly devolved into military dictatorships while Israel became an occupying power.
  18. India and Pakistan fought pointless and indecisive wars over Kashmir and other issues during the 1960s while both countries were mired in socialist-inspired economic stagnation.
  19. In short the world looked for state-sponsored leading ideas in the 1960s but found all available ideas wanting.
  20. A crucial event of the 1960s was the convening of Vatican II. This event carried world historical significance because some of the ideas that permeated and informed all the deliberations of the council were personalist through and through. This is due to the fact that several of the theologians who served as experts at the council were influenced by the personalist philosophies developed within the Hapsburg monarchy and indeed throughout the world.
  21. Vatican II cannot be considered a Roman Catholic event only. Here all other Christian communities found a voice as did the other religious traditions of the world.
  22. When the world was drifting for lack of moral leadership in the 1960s Vatican II put on the world agenda personalist ideas. Subsequent Popes who have argued for the correct interpretation of Vatican II have carried these ideas forward since then-none more so than John Paul II and Benedict the 16th.
  23. John Paul II did his dissertation on the great Jewish-Catholic personalist philosopher Max Scheler. Personalist ideas informed all of John Paul’s encyclicals and much of his social policies. Same with Benedict. Pope Francis’s intellectual heritage is less well known.
  24. John Paul II’s ability to inspire the Polish people with courage helped to create Solidarnosc and to bring down the soviet empire in the 1980s and Poland briefly exemplified what a personalist political culture could look like.
  25. Vatican II’s personalist message to the world was well received—at least at the popular level. The Christian democratic parties in Europe and south America took up some personalist ideas but were ultimately muscled out of the system by local political elites who worshipped only the state. When it appeared that the personalist message would not find realization in the political sphere it went underground and re-appeared at least briefly in some aspects of 1960s popular culture. Those ideas however were quickly crushed by left wing statist “revolutionaries” representing official victim groups. A person can never be a victim as he or she would never consent to such an identity
  26. The last 30 years of the 20th century were a period of reflection—largely on the fall out of the 1960s. The realignment of historical forces did not take place till the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989 and the rise of religious ideas right after turn of the century due the crimes of 9/11/01.
  27. Nevertheless there is still no living political force that can lead humanity into the 21st century and that is because no living dynamic political force has taken up the cause of personalism after Pope John Paul II and the fall of all the Christian Democrat parties in Europe and South America. Indeed no political entity could do so and survive as a political entity..


Christ or Chaos?

By Allan Gillis

It seems that it has fallen to me to bring the content of others to this site. I don’t necessarily mind finding gold that others have mined and bringing it to you, our dear readers. It is still gold.

I really respect Michael Matt and his Remnant TV/News organization.  Here is a salient bit of pleading on behalf of those who urge us all to think in terms of “Christ or Chaos” for the future as we watch our culture burning out of control.  I guess I’ll have to start a folder here titled “I couldn’t have said it better myself”!

Have the courage to watch this…  and be intellectually honest enough with yourself as a Roman Catholic to ask yourself: “Do I hear anything that I can really disagree with?”


I Couldn’t Have Said it Better Myself!

St Paul

By Allan Gillis

In the U.S., a 2014 Pew poll found that 57 percent of Catholics support gay marriage, including 75 percent of Catholics age 18 to 29 and even 45 percent of regular churchgoers. (In the same survey, 70 percent of Catholics said homosexuality should be accepted, including 60 percent of weekly churchgoers.) In April, a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found support for gay marriage among U.S. Catholics at 60 percent.
So, what’s up with my fellow American Catholics? This is the kind of statistical information on modern Catholicism that turns my guts.  I just want to throttle those who find themselves moved to defend the absolute degeneracy, corruption and depravity that has hobbled and stained our beloved Holy Mother Church.  The post Vatican II generations have been starved of liturgy AND catechesis!!! The statistics above confirm this!!!  Again I say; “lex orandi – lex credendi”!

I found a piece on the wonderful blog Rorate Caeli that I wish I had written. I couldn’t have said it better myself! I check this blog out regularly and I am regularly treated to some very well-written (even if translated into English) discourse that sometimes delights and sometimes infuriates me.   Here’s a taste:

“They were anticipating a new Church, and so they set about changing the Mass. They wanted a Church with new dogmas and new morality, so they had to tinker with the Catholic Mass and make it into a skeleton of itself. And a skeleton Mass corresponds to a skeletal Church, made up of skeletal dogma and morality.

We said this last month: the new liturgy presumed to skip two thousand years of Christian history, in the illusion of reconnecting to a mythical beginning of Christianity. The men of the post-council reform said that it was necessary to simplify [the Mass], so that the noble essence of the Catholic Rite would emerge. They believed effectively negative, all the Church’s work of centuries and centuries to make the Catholic Rite increasingly more limpid and edifying . They continued to eliminate and eliminate, retaining negative all that had been added [over the centuries] and a skeleton Mass was what emerged.

A Mass of empty things and the unsaid – empty things and the unsaid were then filled up by the fantasy of the celebrant and the faithful. And the fantasies have become as numerous as the churches in the world because it is obvious one cannot live off a skeleton: men fatten-up the skeleton, but the flesh and the blood are not of God, but usually that of the dictatorship of the mentality in vogue. So, according to the seasons, we have had socialist Masses, poetic masses, happy-clappy masses, wordy masses, catechesis Masses, healing Masses, Charismatic Masses, missionary Masses, quick Masses and so on and so forth. In short – you can construct the Mass so that it matches you and your Christianity. A Mass so impoverished no longer gave nourishment, and so it became necessary to turn to the various ideologies in vogue to fatten it up. By eliminating much that was due to God, the Mass had to be filled by the things of men, so that it could still be considered of some use: a tragedy [which amounts to] the loss of the Catholic heart, that is to say, the redeeming work of Christ Crucified.

And the tragedy has been propagated right through the entire Catholic organism: the new skeletal Mass, filled of empty things, has become so ambiguous so as to produce a skeletal Christianity, skeletal dogma and morality: the result: ambiguous Catholicism.”

Whoa!  baby!   …and he’s just getting started!

I will also say this; I believe that there were (and are) men in high places in The Church that intended exactly this state of affairs we as Catholics find ourselves in today. I also agree with Radicati Nella Fede…  the newsletter of the Catholic community of Vocogno, Diocese of Novara, Italy (from where this piece emanates – tho’ originally offered in Italian but translated for us by Francesca Romana) .  There, they warn us that the future Pope to actually turn things around will most likely face martyrdom.

Saint Michael the Archangel, pray for us!

please read the rest over there:


The triumph and tragedy of Vatican II

by Augustinus

Conservatives and liberals are united in their claims that the crisis of the modern church can be traced back to Vatican Council II. Conservatives claim that the crisis is due to the fact that some people in the church hijacked council documents and read them as justification for wholesale jettisoning of numerous revered catholic traditions, while liberals claim that the crisis is due to the fact that the true intent of the council fathers was thwarted by the papacies of Paul, John Paul and Benedict.

It is now 50 years since Vatican Council II closed its proceedings so now is as good a time as any to take, partial, stock of its contributions and failings. I think it has to be said that the opening to ecumenical dialog with non-Roman Catholic Christians and churches as well as other religions entirely was a major accomplishment. The step away from any traces of anti-semitism was a good thing. The apparent endorsement of democracy (as long as it is understood that sovereignty cannot rest in the “people” considered en masse…a “chosen” and schooled people maybe but not the undifferentiated mass or horde) likewise was and is a good thing. The endorsement, more implicit than explicit, of the philosophy of personalism was also a major accomplishment as it put authentic individuality on the modern international political map. John Paul II later made the endorsement of personalism more explicit. Likewise there was also an implicit endorsement of a more profound philosophy of history—one consistent with holy scripture—namely that history was not mere decline from some past golden age. Instead there was decline but also expectation of fulfillment in the Parousia. Therefore history had to be going somewhere—it was not a merely random process. Progressive improvement was possible as the great enlightenment philosophers had argued. Unlike these philosophes however the church wisely retained its sense that it is a sojourner through history-not completely at home in any one epoch. All epochs are relativized compared to the coming fulfillment. Another accomplishment of Vatican II was that it supported the efforts to make Catholics engage Holy Scripture on a daily basis…it opened up the riches of scripture to lay Catholics like never before–a trend we have to thank our Protestant brothers and sisters for it seems to me. And finally Vatican II opened the eyes of all to the plain fact that catholicism was no longer a European religion–it was now a global religion. Europe’s commitment to the Church has been decaying and Asia and Africa have been discovering the faith and that is where, (Asia and Africa along with the US), the future of Catholicism lies.  So all of these things—the opening to dialog with other religions, the end to mere denigration of Judaism and thus a better understanding of the nature of post-Christian Rabbinic Judaism, the opening to learning and dialog with other world religions, endorsement of rightly understood forms of democracy, the endorsement of personalism, the new appreciate of scripture and the acknowledgement that catholicism is now a global religion etc were all great accomplishments.

But there were three great failures at Vatican II it seems to me. One was the adoption of the vernacular rite with the priest facing the congregation at the expense of the old Latin rite. Why we cannot have both the vernacular and the rite with the sacred language Latin (or Greek) is beyond me. A second failure of the council concerns human sexuality. It simply failed to address the issue probably because it would have forced the church to confront a whole host of issues it did not wish discussed including homosexuality amongst its priests and in the curia; women’s ordination, birth control and abortion. Paul VI’s post council encyclical against contraception was in my view a mistake. The peadophile scandals in church and the resultant attempts at cover-up underscore the urgent need for open theologically informed discussion of all matters pertaining to sex including the so-called sexual revolution, same sex attraction and marriage, celibacy, women’s ordination, contraception and the meaning of sex beyond its procreative function more generally. But I do not wish to discuss those issues here. Instead I want to discuss the third major failure of the council—the failure to make a definitive statement about the church and science.

The sorry history of the catholic church’s relation to science is too well known to recount here. It is tragic that the council did not take up that sad history and chart a better course and relationship with science but it did not seize the moment. In my view a huge source of the crisis in the church today is its pathetically poor theology of science. Most theologians including especially catholic theologians simply have no theology of science. The honorable exceptions have not been too successful in their efforts.

But a moment’s reflection demonstrates that the church will not be able to perform its duties in the modern world well unless it has a very highly developed theology of science. That is because such a theology would be foundational for all other theological topics.

To its credit one of the documents of Vatican II (Gaudium et Spes, 15) makes this clear when it says: “Man judges rightly that by his intellect he surpasses the material universe, for he shares in the light of the divine mind. By relentlessly employing his talents through the ages he has indeed made progress in the practical sciences and in technology and the liberal arts. In our times he has won superlative victories, especially in his probing of the material world and in subjecting it to himself. Still he has always searched for more penetrating truths, and finds them. For his intelligence is not confined to observable data alone, but can with genuine certitude attain to reality itself as knowable, though in consequence of sin that certitude is partly obscured and weakened.”

To say that my ‘intelligence is not confined to observable data alone, but can with genuine certitude attain to reality itself as knowable’ is to say what the Church has always held that reason and faith do not contradict one another and that reason in its most developed form (i.e. science) must be a foundational source for theological work.

But in what way is science a foundational source for theology? Can we say that scientists are inspired by the Holy Spirit when they do their work? With respect to scripture most theologians endorse the incoherent view that neither the individual, nor the community can be the loci of inspiration. The individual cannot be the focus of inspiration because most books of the canon were and are amalgams of several writers or compilations of long and anonymous oral traditions. Same with scientific tradition, and the scientists working within those traditions. A scientist always builds on the work of others even when he or she is tackling some new subject not previously investigated by others. In that case the scientist borrows paradigms and tools from other disciplines and imports these into the new area in order to begin to probe its mysteries. Similarly with respect to scared scripture, the ‘communities’ or associated traditions could not be the foci of inspiration because they do not exist in any material form to receive inspiration. Again it must be the same with scientific communities and traditions: they are not the loci for inspiration. Instead inspiration is always the experience of a lone individual working within and often against a community. This was true of the scriptural writers and it is certainly true of scientific workers.

To inspire an individual whether he is a scientist or prophet, God does not suspend the free will or intellectual faculties of the individual. Respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual rules out mechanical/instrumental views of inspiration where the author is merely an instrument of the spirit’s Will or where the individual merely takes dictation from the Spirit. The motto in science is that scientific breakthroughs are 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Insight comes to those who are ‘prepared’ to receive it. Inspiration is the product of two wills and two Minds: God and individual. It can never be the product of a group or a community. Instead God illuminates the Mind of the individual to the extent that the individual cooperates with such illumination. Of course in special cases God can and will illuminate a Mind regardless of the readiness of the individual to receive such illumination. But even in these cases God does it in such a way as to not harm the individual or to violate the individual’s freedom. When that illumination reaches a certain level of intensity and the individual translates that illumination into service for others then that individual is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

By the criteria of inspiration summarized above we can say that some scientists are inspired when they do their work and that therefore scientific knowledge should be treated as a foundational element for Catholic theology. Again that conclusion is consistent with the treatment of the relation of faith and reason by the council fathers in Gaudium et Spes and by more recent Papal encyclicals such as Fides et Ratio by John Paul II. In Section Two paragraph 57 of Gaudium et Spes the Council Fathers based themselves on other foundational elements of theology such as previous councils and reinforced this teaching on faith and reason by solemnly proclaiming: “This Sacred Synod, therefore, recalling the teaching of the first Vatican Council, declares that there are “two orders of knowledge” which are distinct, namely faith and reason; and that the Church does not forbid that “the human arts and disciplines use their own principles and their proper method, each in its own domain”; therefore “acknowledging this just liberty,” this Sacred Synod affirms the legitimate autonomy of human culture and especially of the sciences…All this supposes that, within the limits of morality and the common utility, man can freely search for the truth, express his opinion and publish it; that he can practice any art he chooses; that finally, he can avail himself of true information concerning events of a public nature.

To say that there are two orders of knowledge—faith and reason—and that these orders are autonomous but not opposed to on another is to say also that each can inform the other and that the book of nature must inform theology. It cannot be otherwise as to do theology while ignoring the physical nature of Man is to invite Gnostic style errors into our theological reflections. Men are not angels. Instead we are created in the image of God and thus possess reason and freedom and these capacities establish a dignity that requires a linking up to theology and sacred doctrine. As Gaudium et Spes (12) put it “For Sacred Scripture teaches that man was created “to the image of God,” is capable of knowing and loving his Creator, and was appointed by Him as master of all earthly creatures(1) that he might subdue them and use them to God’s glory.(2) “What is man that you should care for him? You have made him little less than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, putting all things under his feet” (Ps. 8:5-7).” Note here that the Council Fathers based their assessment of the nature of man on the foundational element of holy scripture but they could have equally well have derived man’s capacity for ‘knowing’ the truth from that other foundational element of catholic theology: the sciences.

Despite these magnificent endorsements of the scientific enterprise that one finds in Guadium et Spes we do not find an explicit discussion in any of the Vatican II council documents of the potential contributions of science to theology and church. This despite the fact that the Council was considered to be pastoral in nature. For example the council Fathers announced at the beginning of Gaudium et Spes that they wished to address themselves to the world in order to tell the world how the Church sees man’s predicament, man’s condition and man’s path to salvation. The sciences should have been discussed as part of that picture as they enter crucially into man’s predicament, man’s condition and the common effort to improve man’s condition.

That Vatican II missed the chance to integrate the natural sciences and theology is confirmed by perusal of the 15 other official council documents. There is a brief mention of the need to include science in the education of a catholic mind in Gravissimum Educationis, the declaration on Christian education. In paragraph 10 on catholic colleges and universities, the Fathers write: “The Church is concerned also with schools of a higher level, especially colleges and universities. In those schools dependent on her she intends that by their very constitution individual subjects be pursued according to their own principles, method, and liberty of scientific inquiry, in such a way that an ever deeper understanding in these fields may be obtained and that, as questions that are new and current are raised and investigations carefully made according to the example of the doctors of the Church and especially of St. Thomas Aquinas, there may be a deeper realization of the harmony of faith and science. Thus there is accomplished a public, enduring and pervasive influence of the Christian mind in the furtherance of culture and the students of these institutions are molded into men truly outstanding in their training, ready to undertake weighty responsibilities in society and witness to the faith in the world.”

A little further in this section of Gravissimum Educationis 10, the fathers argue that “Since science advances by means of the investigations peculiar to higher scientific studies, special attention should be given in Catholic universities and colleges to institutes that serve primarily the development of scientific research.” Note however that while these brief mentions of science reinforce the traditional teaching of the Church that there is a harmony between faith and reason, there is absolutely no reflection on the implications for theology and for the church of that fundamental truth. Nowhere do the fathers appear to treat science as a foundational element for Catholic theology-despite the fact that the early church Fathers did so, the mediaeval Fathers did so, and the renaissance and Tridentine fathers did so.

Science is mentioned in one other Vatican II document but not in a positive way. In Apostolicam Actuositatem-the decree on the apostolate of the laity, the fathers missed another chance to discuss science as a vocation. To treat science as a vocation, as an apostolate, is absolutely crucial to bringing in more scientists to the church. Most scientists in fact see their work as a calling. These are men and women who have a devotion to truth as revealed in the book of nature and the talent to pursue that truth. If there is a harmony between faith and reason these scientists have a right and duty to expect to come to the beginings of revealed truth if they faithfully pursue the path of reason. Catholic faithful with vocations to science however are not addressed in Apostolicam Actuositatem. Instead the council fathers in Apostolicam Actuositatem 7 warn of the dangers associated with deformations of the scientific vocation: In the course of history, the use of temporal things has been marred by serious vices. Affected by original sin, men have frequently fallen into many errors concerning the true God, the nature of man, and the principles of the moral law. This has led to the corruption of morals and human institutions and not rarely to contempt for the human person himself. In our own time, moreover, those who have trusted excessively in the progress of the natural sciences and the technical arts have fallen into an idolatry of temporal things and have become their slaves rather than their masters.” While it is certainly of utmost importance to warn against the dangers of slavish dependence on science and technology, this statement leaves out the enormous contributions science has made to human welfare (thus concretely fulfilling the explicit charge of the council fathers for the apostolates to serve suffering humanity). And again this document on the apostolates of the laity says absolutely nothing of the scientific vocation-never mind of the relation of that vocation to Catholic theology.

Despite the ringing endorsements of reason as integral to the theological enterprise that we find in Gaudium et Spes that claim is nowhere followed up on in any of the other council documents. None of the contributions of science to the issue of the Liturgies of the Church are found in Lumen Gentium (on the mystery of the Church), Sacrosanctum Concilium, (on reform of the Roman rites) and Orientalium Ecclesiarum (on the Eastern rites). It is clear that the science of ritual and of liturgies in particular just did not enter the consciousness of the Council Fathers. These latter three documents are centered on reflections on the nature of the central Christian rites such as the Eucharist. It is reasonable then to ask: In our human attempts to receive, comprehend and faithfully perform the great rite given to us by the savior does it not behoove us to consult the relevant sciences? There is after all a science of ritual and a psychology of ritual and so forth. Are the results of these scienecs relevant to an understanding of and performance of the Eucharist? Clearly the council fathers did not think so as they nowhere discuss empirical studies of ritual.

Nevertheless their own statements on the central rite of the Church make it clear that they should have brought in scientific findings on ritual in order to deepen the Church’s capacity to receive, perform and pass on the revelation entrusted to them. Take for example Sacrosanctum Concilium’s proclamations on the sacred liturgy. In the opening pargraph1the council fathers declared that “This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church. The Council therefore sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy.”

All of these are eminently practical, pastoral aims. The fathers could have been immensely helped by consultation with experts on ritual. Some of the reforms suggested by the fathers have been interpreted by subsequent generations to de-emphasize the sacrificial language and theology traditionally associated with the Eucharist and instead emphasize the rites associated with the communal meal of the early Christian communities. This move has created decades of conflict in the church as some have seen the de-emphasis on sacrificial aspects of the mass as a move toward Protestantism and a decreased awareness of sin and the need for the atonement. The theology of the atonement itself has since come under severe attack. But much of this conflict might have been avoided if the council fathers had used distinctions in the scientific literature on ritual that allowed one to distinguish an array or variety of ritual forms each associated with varying functions. The ritual of blood sacrifice for example is associated in most cultures with purification and then communion with the deity, while rituals of communal meals are most often associated with celebration and thanksgiving. Clearly the catholic mass contains a variety of ritual forms and theological discussions of these ritual forms in counciliar documents might have forestalled deformations in the reform of the liturgy and then the ‘reform of the reform’.

The council fathers seem to have approached this strategy of distinguishing among ritual forms in some areas of the document. In paragraph 6 and 7 the council fathers wrote: “His purpose also was that they might accomplish the work of salvation which they had proclaimed, by means of sacrifice and sacraments, around which the entire liturgical life revolves. Thus by baptism men are plunged into the paschal mystery of Christ: they die with Him, are buried with Him, and rise with Him [16]; they receive the spirit of adoption as sons “in which we cry: Abba, Father” ( Rom. 8 :15), and thus become true adorers whom the Father seeks [17]. In like manner, as often as they eat the supper of the Lord they proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes [18]. For that reason, on the very day of Pentecost, when the Church appeared before the world, “those who received the word” of Peter “were baptized.” And “they continued steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles and in the communion of the breaking of bread and in prayers . . . praising God and being in favor with all the people” (Acts 2:41-47). 7. To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross” [20], but especially under the Eucharistic species.”

It is clear that in these passages the fathers distinguish between baptismal rites and other sacraments and further distinguish rites within the mass itself. For example there is the sacrifice of Christ with Christ himself as the priest offering the divine victim and then there is the ‘eating the supper’ which functions to ‘proclaim the death of the Lord…”

But nowhere is the dearth of scientific knowledge concerning ritual performance more detrimental than when the council fathers make the claim in paragraph 11 (nowhere supported by facts as far as I could tell from study of the documents and its footnotes) to the effect that: “But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain.” So far so good. The faithful should not receive the Eucharist in a state of sin or in a state of community discord as St Paul argued. But then the fathers go on to argue in paragraph 14 that this means that the faithful must actively participate in the mass! “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.”

Note that the fathers in pursuing the aim that is ‘to be considered before all else’ do not base their argument on those foundational elements of catholic theology such as sacred tradition or past councils because this would imply that all those generations of past faithful catholics who supposedly did not actively participate in the mass were somehow deficient! Note too that they authors of this document base their argument on the claim that participation by the people at the mass is demanded “…by the very nature of the liturgy”. This is an empirical claim is it not? What in the liturgy demands the verbal participation of the faithful? It is not clear. Literalist interpreted these pronouncements to mean that the faithful must verbally participate throughout the mass. But of course there are many ways to participate at mass and verbal participation is probably the least praiseworthy. Nor does the scientific literature on ritual form support verbal participation as conducive to piety or religious sentiment. Rapaport (1999) in his monumental comparative study of ritual forms emphasizes the fact that the most powerful forms are acts done by the deity to the people and the response by the people is reverential awe and that when this primary religious feeling of awe breaks down so does the surrounding culture.

The church fathers themselves emphasize this primary religious fact in Lumen Gentium-yet they seem not to see links between the church as primary, awesome mystery and the liturgy as primary awesome mystery. In paragraph 39 the fathers proclaim: “The Church, whose mystery is being set forth by this Sacred Synod, is believed to be indefectibly holy. Indeed Christ, the Son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit is praised as “uniquely holy,” (1*) loved the Church as His bride, delivering Himself up for her. He did this that He might sanctify her.(214) He united her to Himself as His own body and brought it to perfection by the gift of the Holy Spirit for God’s glory. Therefore in the Church, everyone whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness, according to the saying of the Apostle: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification”; And in paragraph 48: “The Church, to which we are all called in Christ Jesus, and in which we acquire sanctity through the grace of God, will attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven, when there will come the time of the restoration of all things.(237) At that time the human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and attains to its end through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ.(238) Christ, having been lifted up from the earth has drawn all to Himself.(239).

These sentiments are deeply mysterious, revealed divine truths. They cannot be better appreciated by verbal participation in the mass. They must be mediated upon-especially when receiving the Eucharist. In Orientalium Ecclesiarum the council fathers state their high esteem for the ancient rites of the eastern churches. It should be noted that participation by the people in these ancient rites is muted at best and that instead mysteries like the transfiguration are celebrated and mediated upon. People understand that they are participating with Christ in a sacrifice-they are not there to talk-they are there to kneel.

In summary, I have discussed Vatican II council documents in terms of the relation between science and catholic theology. I would like to make the argument that science be construed as one of the foundational elements of catholic theology—equal in dignity to tradition and the writings of the doctors of the church-though not equal in dignity to holy scripture. Nor should science or scientists take precedence over the magisterium. Instead I have argued something more modest—that science should inform catholic theology more than it presently does and that it should be considered a foundational element for catholic theology. If we can consider the arts as foundational then we can surely do so for science as well. I have shown that Gaudium et Spes in particular appears to support parts of my argument-though it must be admitted that the other council documents do not. The fathers never argued against using science to inform theology. It appears that that thought was simply not on their radar screens during Vatican II. At some point the church and catholic theology in particular must explicitly come to terms with science. Pope John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio went some way in that direction but the language in the encyclical was largely philosophical rather than scientific so more is needed. Gaudium et Spes was an advance but it was never followed up upon. In its failure to address science Vatican II failed to “modernize” the church in the only way modernization could make sense. Science is about the only valuable thing the modern world has given humanity. Most (not all) other cultural innovations are disasters and signs of decadence.


Nichols, Aidan, O.P. (1991). The Shape of Catholic Theology: An Introduction to Its Sources, Principles, and History. Collegeville, Minnesota, Liturgical Press.


Rapaport, R. (1999). Ritual and religion in the making of humanity. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University press.


Vatican II. And Trouve, M. L. (1998). The Sixteen Documents of Vatican II (Ecclesial Classics)

NY: Pauline Books & Media.


Acknowledgement: This piece is excerpted and modified from a longer work by Augustinus submitted to St Joseph’s College in 2012



To reverse the crisis in the modern church you need a Marian renewal: On the Marian Ecclesiology of Hans Urs von Balthasar


By Augustinus


Introduction: Vatican II’s ambiguous legacy

Where ever Mary is venerated there you will see the Church’s enemies scatter. Perhaps that is why Marian devotions are so scoffed at by the modern world. Marian devotion is invariably associated with hard identity Catholicism. It is held in contempt by the modern world. It is considered a throw back to pre-enlightenment times–a sure mark of superstitious idiocy. The protestants point to it as a sign of corruption and idolatry and the scientists jeer at it (though they of course “respect” the rosary beads in the hands of a Buddhist…when the Buddhists do it its cool but when the catholics do it its idiocy). It seems to me that if we want to save the church in the modern era we need a revival of hard identity Catholicism –especially in the form of Marian devotions. There is excellent scriptural and theological support for the special veneration the Church shows Mary.

Ever since the Fathers of Vatican Council II decided to place their discussion of Mary, the Mother of God, in the 8th chapter of Lumen Gentium (LG), their document on ecclesiology,theological discussions of the significance of Mary in salvation history have linked that significance, to the nature and mission of her Son’s Church (Jelly 2000).  Although the Council Fathers made it clear that Mary could not be given the prerogatives and functions in the history of salvation that belong solely to her Son, the council Fathers did not specify how the Church’s Marian devotions, liturgies and dogmas, should be interpreted relative to the Marian ecclesiology sketched out in Lumen Gentium. The council Fathers endorsed the idea that Mary’s link to the Church consisted mostly in her being an exemplar of piety for, and Mother to the faithful (LG 65-66). Like Mary, the Church is a Mother to those seeking to give birth to love of Christ. In LG 66 we read “The Church indeed, contemplating her (Mary’s) hidden sanctity, imitating her charity and faithfully fulfilling the Father’s will, by receiving the word of God in faith becomes herself a mother.”

Thus, the overall accent of the 8th chapter of LG tended to militate against maximalist interpretations of Mary’s role in salvation history as the exalted one of Co-redemptorix and Mediatrix. She was instead “… hailed as a pre-eminent and singular member of the Church, and as its type and excellent exemplar in faith and charity” (LG 54). As if to underline the downgrading of her status as co-redemptorix, the post-Vatican II reforms of the liturgy entailed a great reduction in Marian liturgical celebrations (Thompson 1989). Some Marian feast days were renamed to de-emphasize the role of Mary (the Annunciation of the Lord, the Presentation of the Lord). Other feasts such as the Immaculate Heart of Mary that had previously been obligatory were downgraded to optional status. Still other feasts were dropped entirely, such as The Holy Name of Mary and Our Lady of Ransom (Thompson 1989).

Although she was “Placed by the grace of God, as God’s Mother, next to her Son, and exalted above all angels and men…” (LG 66), Mary’s former titles of co-redemptorix and mediatrix, surely the object of most of the faithful’s devotions to her, were very tightly constrained by the council Fathers. The faithful were reminded in LG’s chapter 8 in no uncertain terms that Mary’s efforts at mediation between humankind and God flow solely from “…the superabundant merits of Christ, relies on his mediatorship, depends completely upon it, and draws from it its entire efficacy (LG 22, 60). Although Mary was exalted as “Queen of Heaven” (LG 59), she had no special privileges in heaven beyond the honor bestowed on her as one of the foremost disciples of Christ. Mary like every other human being was redeemed by Christ and was just another member of Christ’s Church.

But even these changes left some questions unanswered. If Mary is merely the foremost disciple of Christ, as the council Fathers seemed to argue in LG, why was it necessary for her to be born without original sin? Surely no other members of Christ’s Church were born without original sin. If she, like the Church, was mother to Christ and His disciples in the Church down through the ages, how could she be merely first among equals in her Son’s Church? Who would Mother her? If she was the “Woman clothed with Sun” (Rev 12) who crushes the serpent’s head, does that mean any member of Christ’s Church could crush the serpent’s head, even though scripture ascribes that role only to the woman clothed with the sun?

The desire of the council Fathers to “dialog” with Protestant churches and to treat Mary as a non-unique church member in need of redemption like everyone else, while suggestive, was not entirely successful (Balthasar/Ratzinger 1980/2007). How could she be both exalted above all other men and over all angels, and yet still be what the protestant churches required—just another sinful human being in need of redemption? How could she be ordinary and exalted at the same time? Chapter 8 of LG failed to answer that question satisfactorily in my judgment. The council Fathers themselves seemed to recognize this failing when they noted that the Council did not

“…have it in mind to give a complete doctrine on Mary, nor does it wish to decide those questions which the work of theologians has not yet fully clarified. Those opinions therefore may be lawfully retained which are propounded in Catholic schools concerning her, who occupies a place in the Church which is the highest after Christ and yet very close to us …” (LG 54).

Thus, it was left to subsequent theological debate and to the further inspirations of the Holy Spirit, to more precisely delineate, within the broad outlines established by the Council, the role of Mary in salvation history and in Church.

Enter Von Balthasar

One of the first theologians to address the doctrinal lacunae on Mary noted by the Council Fathers at Vatican II was Hans Urs von Balthasar. A Swiss theologian most well-known for his hundreds of books on philosophy, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) also published studies of literature, aesthetics and theology. Perhaps his most famous work was his systematic theology “The Glory of the Lord”, the multi-volume theological aesthetics (Balthasar 1983). He was considered the most cultured man in Europe by none other than the great theologian Henri de Lubac (Ratzinger 1991), and this opinion was seconded by Joesph Ratzinger, now Pope emeritus Benedict XVI (Henrici 1991). He was not only fluent in multiple languages (ancient and modern) but he was also an accomplished pianist (Henrici 1991). He knew and loved all the works of Mozart but gave up the fame of a musical career for a vocation to the priesthood. He entered the Jesuits in 1929 but left the order in 1950. He co-founded a lay order (Community of St John) with the mystic Adreinne von Speyr (1902-1967), and let some of her mystical insights inform many of his theological works. In particular, Von Speyr’s mystical experiences most definitely informed much of Von Balthasar’s Marian speculations and devotions (Roten 1991).

Although von Balthasar did not participate in the Second Vatican Council, he took the work of the Council seriously, calling his theology a “kneeling theology”—obedient to the teaching authority of Mother Church (Henrici 1991). He, like many Council Fathers themselves, did not think that the Council had adequately addressed the theme of Mary. While he welcomed the linking up of Marian theology with ecclesiology, he thought that the council Fathers did not provide the full rationale for taking this step. Nor did they spell out what this step meant for our understanding of the Church itself. He attempted to address these lacunae in some of his most important theological works. In recognition of his many labors, He was made a cardinal by John Paul II in 1988, the year he also died.


Von Balthasar’s Marian ecclesiology

Balthasar had a very definite, if highly speculative, answer to the question as to what the Marian idea had to teach us about the Church. I will first state Balthasar’s general argument concerning Mary and the Church and then unpack that argument in the paragraphs to follow. The central set of concepts that Balthasar contributed (or he would say recovered) for a Marian ecclesiology is, in my view (see also Leahy 2002), the following (see pages 200-206 von Balthasar 1974/2007, and Balthasar/Ratzinger 1980/2007): Given that the Church has a Marian dimension, we must believe that the Church, at least in its Marian inner mystical core, is immaculate, without sin or stain, holy, pure, virginal and incorrupt. That is because Mary as the new Eve has become one flesh with Christ the new Adam. The Church in its truest reality is rooted in the Trinity, and as the mystical body of Christ, is one incorrupt, pure and holy flesh;–derived from the nuptial union of the new Adam (Christ) and the new Eve (Mary).

The primary biblical text that Balthasar refers to again and again in arguing this vision of the Marian Church is Ephesians 5: 25-27 “…just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

Given that Christ made the Church His mystical body, the origin of the Church must be within God Himself and outside of time. The Church must pre-exist in the Trinity from before the foundations of the world (Balthasar/Ratzinger 1980/2007). The Church therefore is immaculate, holy and spotless because it finds it source in the Trinity itself. The “People of God” metaphor or the “Pilgrim Church” metaphors, therefore, cannot be the full story about the Church and if made the sole metaphors would reduce the Church to a mere sociologic entity (Balthasar 1972/2007). The Marian core of the Church is instead supernatural, spotless and without sin.

Balthasar says that the real Church, the true, holy, immaculate Church is composed partly of the communion of saints, that exists across all time epochs, visible on earth and invisible in heaven—an eschatological heavenly city, Jerusalem, spoken of by the Church Fathers and in the apocalypse. In addition, the church is the “woman clothed with the sun” (Rev 12) which is also the sign of this eschatological entity because she gives birth to the savior and she does battle with the serpent. In his forward to “Mary, the Church at the source” an ecclesiological treatise, he states: “The Woman of the Apocalypse (Rev 12) who bears the Savior in the pains of childbirth, is the indivisible unity of God’s entire community of salvation: Israel-Mary-Church.”

While Mary points to this supernatural, immaculate and incorrupt core of the Church, the visible Church is composed of several dimensions that derive their life from the mystical Marian dimension which is always primary for Balthasar (Leahy 2002). The eschatological sign of the woman clothed with the Sun who reigns as Queen in heaven is not the whole story. The heavenly city is only a part of the communion of saints, the invisible part. To get Balthasar’s full story we need to step back and look at Balthasar’s exposition on the various pillars or dimensions of the visible Church. After we have in view these various pillars of the Church we will be better able to see Balthasar’s Marian dimension of the Church in clear perspective.


The pillars of the Church

Balthasar cited Mary as the central pillar of the Church with Peter or the Petrine office as the earthly visible pillar and John the beloved disciple as a mediator between the visible and invisible pillars (Balthasar 1972/2007). To understand the Petrine and Johannine pillars we need to briefly recapitulate some of the Marian themes cited above.

Central to Von Balthasar’s Marian ecclesiology is the Vatican II endorsed notion of the Church as mystery, communion or sacrament (LG chapter I; Wood 2000, Trouve 1998). Interestingly Von Speyr cultivated a special devotion to the Marian mysteries, especially to Mary “Our Lady of the Mantle” (Rotin 1991), the Mother of Jesus shrouded in silence and sorrow, and standing at the foot of the Cross. One of Balthasar’s favorite metaphors for Mary’s role in the Church is that she covers the visible Church with her mantle promoting its hidden works of love, healing and redemption (Balthasar 1972/2007). The signal contribution of chapter 8 of LG for Balthasar was that it raised once again the memory of the Marian mystery as the central pillar of the Church’s life.

Before the Church Fathers restored the link between Mary and ecclesiology the practices of the faithful were realizing this fact in their daily popular devotions to her (Jelly 2000). In these popular devotions to Mary she was deemed immaculate, holy, spotless and supremely close to Jesus. She was treated as a co-redemptorix, along with her son Christ. In the modern era, when the Protestant churches were losing memory of this Marian supernatural purity and mysterion at the center of the Church, popular devotions to Mary were picking up among the Catholic and Orthodox faithful. Marian apparitions, the spread of the rosary, novenas, confraternities and cathedrals devoted to our Lady were all picking up from the middle ages right up to the dawn of the cataclysm of the 20th century. Both Balthasar and Von Speyr attached great spiritual and theological significance to these popular Marian devotions.

Balthasar also attached great theological significance to the spate of Marian apparitions that began to occur throughout the world after the colonization of the world by the European empires. For example, Mary appeared to Juan Diego in 1531 telling him to get the Bishop to build a church in her honor. As the world became one world and entered the modern age, Mary began to appear to other lowly and oppressed peoples, and she had a message for the Church and the modern age. She told Bernadette in 1858 at Lourdes “I am the immaculate conception”. Many more such apparitions were to follow and they were often associated with outpourings of Marian piety among the faithful.

For both von Balthasar and Von Speyr the apparitions meant that Christ wanted to communicate some of his mysteries via the popular devotions to Mary (Rotin 1991). Central to Mary’s message in these apparitions has been to recall that the Church, at its core was like Mary, immaculate, supernaturally incorrupt, holy, pure and spotless. Marian theology had to accommodate these “facts on the ground”. “To the extent to which immaculateness of Mary becomes confirmed…, it can become the original core of that church which remains virginal in relation to her Lord, even in wedded fruitfulness, and which has an all-embracing motherly role in relation to the Church’s paternal and official sphere and in relation to the people as a whole” (Balthasar 1974/2007, 210).

When Balthasar began his mature theological reflections on Marian doctrine after Vatican II, he had the bloody 20th century as background, Von Speyrs mystical experiences, the Marian apparitions and the ambiguous legacy of Vatican II’s reflections on Mary to work with. For Bathasar, Mary’s role in salvation history has to be linked up with the Vatican II idea of Church as sacrament and mystery (Leahy 2002). The triple mystery of Mary’s life as virgin, bride, and Mother is also the mystery of the Church. Like Mary the church is a virgin “spotless and without wrinkle”. She is the bride of Christ and therefore constitutes a nuptial mystery between Christ and His Church, where the two become one flesh. Finally, like Mary the Church is Mother. She gives birth to those reborn in the spirit, now capable of divine filiation.

But the Church in this world is not holy and incorrupt. If the supernatural reality is that the church is holy and incorrupt, its earthly members surely are not. For Balthasar we simply cannot rest knowing that the gates of hell will not prevail against the immaculate invisible Church. We men live in history and a bloodstained history at that. To be in the world but not of it we need the sacraments. For the sacraments we need an apostolic succession and a priesthood, and for these latter charisms and institutions we need a Petrine teaching office. This is the pillar that is counterposed to the Marian mystical core of the Church for Balthasar (Balthasar 1974/2007, 219).

The Marian dimension of the Church, however, comes before the Petrine dimension. This is a key point: If you put the Petrine dimension first and de-emphasize the Marian or the Johannine dimensions you will enhance tendencies for crisis in the church. Balthasar says “Mary as the handmaid of the Lord is in one sense placed on a level with everyone else in the Church…and yet she cannot be put completely on the same level as other believers because only she was Jesus’ physical mother and thus “pre-redeemed”….she is pre-redeemed so that she can give birth to the Redeemer…this is true already from the first moment of the incarnation…” (Balthasar 1980, 139-140), i.e. before the historical last supper and Christ’s crucifixion. Given that Mary’s yes/Fiat was the beginning of the incarnation and given that this was the moment of the birth of the Church itself, it follows (for Balthasar) that “the Church already existed from the time of the incarnation.” The immaculate Church existed before the 12 apostles were called and the Petrine office was instituted by Christ. “The realized idea of the Church comes at the beginning; everything subsequent, even ecclesiastical office with its sacred functions, is secondary…In Mary the Church is embodied even before being organized in Peter” (Balthasar 1980, 140). Thus the Marian element of the Church is prior to its Petrine element. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church put it: “Mary goes before us all in the holiness that is the Church’s mystery as “the bride without spot or wrinkle.” This is why the “Marian” dimension of the Church precedes the “Petrine” (CCC #773).

Von Balthasar added to this a dimension perhaps overlooked? A third pillar of the Church is the Johannine dimension derived from the beloved disciple, John. “In none of the gospels do the Marian and Petrine spheres touch directly. But John is intimately linked with both of them and understand this bond as something laid upon him” (Balthasar 1974/2007 241). The Johannine dimension of the Church plays a mediating role between Peter and Mary. Interestingly, the Marian mystical core of the Church is not given to the Petrine office for protection but is given over to the beloved disciple. At the foot of the cross in John 20, Jesus gives His Mother Mary to John the beloved disciple and he gives John, and in John, all of us, His mother Mary as Mother to all of us in Christ (Balthasar 1972/2007).

To fill out Balthasar’s rich conception of the pillars of the Church we only need briefly mention the Pauline and the Jacobite dimensions-despite their huge importance for the history of the Church. The Pauline dimension mediates the various charisms in the Church and is counterposed to the Jacobite/James, ‘Brother of the Lord’ dimension which mediates the ‘handing down of tradition’ dimension in the Church.

We have now reviewed the essentials of Balthasar’s rich conception of the Marian dimension of the Church. It interacts with the visible dimension of the Church via the Johannine and Petrine offices. If the Petrine dimension loses touch with the Marian the Church draws near to the danger of sinking into a mere sociological organization. If the Johannine dimension loses touch with the Petrine pillar it draws near to the danger of overly mystical excesses and hyper-spiritual Gnostic deviations. In addition if the Johannine dimension loses touch with the Petrine office the Petrine office will lose the ability to protect and serve the Marian dimension. If the Jacobite dimension is neglected the Church will unduly adapt to current circumstances rather than pass on what was given to it intact. If we neglect the Pauline dimension we will get a liturgy without spirit and with empty formalisms. Balthasar never clearly answers who implements the Johannine functions in the Church. He tends to say that these people are the hidden ones and the great doctors and saints of the church. Same with the other dimensions but they all invite further theological investigation.



            If we want to reverse the crisis hitting the Catholic church in the modern age we would do well to reinvigorate the Marian pillar of the church. Renewing the Marian dimension recalls the attention of the Church to the supernatural core of the Church. While the Church has never really lost touch with its central immaculate core there was some tendency after Vatican II to emphasize the ‘People of God” metaphor at the expense of the ‘mystical body of Christ’ metaphor and this in turn tended to treat the church as a mere sociologic organization that needed to be democratized and rationalized like any other organization (Ratzinger 2008). For Balthasar, when fathers of Vatican II recovered Mary’s links with ecclesiology they also provided the hints at a corrective against the over-literalizing of the ‘People of God’ motif laid out in other sections of Lumen Gentium. On the other hand all they provided were hints—not a complete theology of Mary and the Church. Indeed the language of chapter 8 of LG tended to treat Mary as merely another member, no matter how foremost, of the Church. Paul VI’s attempts to restore Mary’s mediatory titles in his 1974 exhortation (Paul VI 1974) did not completely address the need for a full Marian ecclesiology either. Balthasar’s effort to meet that need seem to me to be much more successful than earlier efforts.

Balthasar’s fundamental contribution in my view to Marian ecclesiology is that he teaches us to take the incarnation seriously. Just like the Cross, the incarnation has been a stumbling block to people both within and outside the Christian orbit since the days of Jesus himself. The ancient world could not believe that God could become a man. Neither did Jews believe this. Gods could possess human beings and human beings could become godlike but God did not stoop to become man. Flesh was bad and disgusting. Why would God honor it so? But He did, and Bathasar reminds us that certain consequences for Mariological doctrines follow from the central fact of the incarnation.

The flesh that God became was Marian. It depended on Mary’s Fiat. Once she said yes the incarnation began. She gave her flesh so that the Word could become flesh. Her Yes reversed the disobedience exhibited by Eve. Balthasar asks whether any of our Yes-es when we receive the Eucharist would have been possible without Mary’s ability to say Yes (Balthasar/Ratzinger 1980/2007). Before the other pillars of the Church were even aware of Jesus, the Marian pillar was busy at work—though hidden and obscure. Jesus came to self-reflection via reflection in Mary’s consciousness. He came to maturity under Mary and Joesph’s protection and tutelage. To take the incarnation seriously we must grapple with the status of Mary.

Mary cannot be just another creature in need of redemption. She cannot be God either. She is higher than the angels and she is unique among humans given her immaculate conception and glorious assumption into heaven. She is greater than any of the prophets—again because of the incarnation. Her status is therefore unique.

Perhaps the best metaphor or category that the Church theologians and Fathers have come up with to understand Mary is the New Eve. She is, along with Jesus, the first of a new creation. She is an entirely new category of human being. Her flesh is like Jesus’ resurrection body-divinized, -yet still human. She is not to be worshipped. God alone deserves that. But she like all other Mothers deserves veneration. Her status as first of the new creation also gives her powers. She has the ability via her connections to Jesus, to facilitate our re-birth into the new creation as new beings. Devotions and supplications to her, therefore, are legitimate.

As the first of the new creation Mary has a special role to play in the Church. She covers it with her mantle and keeps it spotless. She gives birth to the sons and daughters of the new Jerusalem. She crushes the serpent. Most importantly perhaps she communicates with the saints and doctors of the Church, those members of the Johannine community/pillar, that help the Petrine and other pillars of the Church guide the faithful through the bloodstained fields of history so that they arrive ultimately together at the heavenly Jerusalem.




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Acknowledgement: This piece is excerpted and modified from a longer work by Augustinus submitted to St Joseph’s College in 2012