He is not a household name and was a marginal cleric for many years, a Swiss Catholic priest who had to leave the Jesuits in 1950 after he became friends with a female mystic and founded with her a lay community.
However, through his prolific writing, the late Rev. Hans Urs von Balthasar became a theologian who greatly influenced the church, including the last two popes and prominent cardinals such as Canada’s Marc Ouellet and Italy’s Angelo Scola, both runners-up at the last conclave. His politics are in the eye of the beholder – conservative and even anti-modern to some, a welcome source of simplicity to others – but his behind-the-scenes impact has been profound and undeniable.
Now, as Francis leads his church through the first Easter of his papacy, scholars have been parsing his words and deeds for signs of Father von Balthasar’s sway on the new pontiff.
“In order to understand what Benedict XVI was about, and what John Paul II was about, one must recognize the impact of Balthasar on their thought. Balthasarian themes are woven all through their papacies,” said Carolyn Chau, a theologian at King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario. “I can certainly see some continuity in terms of Balthasar being received by the current pontiff.”
She said Pope Francis’s frugality and emphasis on serving the poor links him to a key facet of the Swiss theologian’s work. “Balthasar has written about the need for the church to shed some of the riches that have become more of a burden than a witness. There is much in Balthasar’s theology that also speaks of the simplicity of holiness.”
To a church struggling in an increasingly secular world, Father von Balthasar’s themes strike a chord. A highly cultured man, he was concerned about the secularization of the modern world and spoke eloquently about beauty and truth and authenticity, as ways to commune with God and witness the gospel, Dr. Chau said.
But he has also been criticized by some as an anti-modern thinker whose words have been used, for example, to justify the refusal to ordain women.
In his view, being male is to be active and giving, to be female is to be receptive. Thus, God is masculine in relation to the world and Christ is masculine in relation to the church, so the priesthood, which represents Christ, has to be masculine, too, said University of Nottingham theologian Karen Kilby.
“He’s clearly, consistently anti-modern, a kind of strong rejection of modernity, from a cultured, broad and sophisticated starting point, with huge amounts of philosophy, culture and poetry, in a synthesis which is quite critical of modernity,” she said. “He represents for conservative Catholics an intellectual, respectable way to articulate their outlooks.”
In a 2005 essay, Tina Beattie, a professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton University, castigated Father von Balthasar. “A growing number of conservative Catholic thinkers have been turning to him as the church’s answer to feminism. … This wholesale appropriation of von Balthasar’s theology is potentially disastrous for the church’s understanding of human sexuality.”
At the same time, it is hard to pigeonhole Father von Balthasar as a conservative. “Von Balthasar was also a sharp critic of an inward-looking, self-referential church,” said Peter Casarella, a theologian at DePaul University.
Dr. Chau said he influenced each pope in a different way, and what seems to resonate most with Pope Francis has been the Balthasarian emphasis on how the church encounters the world.
When he was still cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the new Pope cited Father von Balthasar when he visited Quebec City for the 49th International Eucharistic Congress in 2008. “The holiness of the church does not arise from personal or social privilege but rather from service,” he said. “The world has the impression that the church is always defending its power. It may be that in certain personal cases this is true, but generally it is not the case. By defending its identity and infallibility, the church defends the conduit through which the gift of life to the world passes.”
He then quoted a Balthasar passage about God’s and his son’s acts of self-giving.
“There’s a connection between von Balthasar’s emphasis on the attractiveness of Jesus Christ and these gestures of Pope Francis, about a way of life that’s simple and humble, that can be attractive,” Dr. Caserella said.
The most unconventional part of Father von Balthasar’s work came after he met Adrienne von Speyr, a medical doctor who had mystical visions. From their encounter came one of his most disputed ideas: that on Holy Saturday, Christ didn’t go to the realm of the dead as a victorious liberator of righteous souls but as one who suffered so others wouldn’t. The claim triggered an academic row, with one theologian branding it quasi-heretical, Dr. Kilby said.
In 1988, John Paul II named Father von Balthasar cardinal – but he died two days before his elevation, at age 82.