By Larry Chapp
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time.”
Saint Paul. 1 Timothy 2:1-6. (emphasis added)
Allow me to begin with a crazy assertion: there are far worse things that a Catholic can be than a universalist. Indeed, I would rather have dinner and a bourbon (or two) with the local universalist next door than I would with some hyper traditionalist who tells me, while sipping a Diet Coke out of his “Team Vigano” mug, that he cannot take the Gospel seriously, or have the motivation to evangelize, or even to live a life of consistent virtue, unless there are people in Hell. Not that they want people in Hell mind you, but that unless there are a goodly number of people in the infernal regions then the “threat” of Hell is just a toothless warning devoid of gravitas. In this view, apparently, a fulsomely populated Hell has to be maintained in order to take the threat of Hell seriously in order to avoid having people fulsomely populating Hell. In other words, Hell must have people in it in order that we can keep people out of it. Or something…
I find this line of reasoning odd, to say the least. There might very well be people in Hell (truly), but these are altogether the wrong reasons for thinking so and betray a forensic and transactional notion of the moral life as something not truly oriented to the good, but rather as a self-interested desire to simply avoid punishment. Furthermore, despite the fact that a hard universalism has been condemned as heretical by the Church, at the very least it evinces a commendable faith in the hope that God’s universal salvific will can indeed come to pass, even if it goes too far by claiming to know for certain that such will be the case. And it does go too far and conflates the orders of hope and knowledge and was, therefore, rightly condemned. Nevertheless, I myself do indeed hope, strongly, that everyone eventually makes it to Heaven. And you can call me a hippie and send me to bed without my medicinal cannabis and my rainbow tambourine, but I think God wills this too because He says so in Scripture through Saint Paul. More on that in a bit.
Allow me then to make another assertion: the view opposite to the universalist position, namely, that we can know for certain, based on the words of Jesus, that there are, and will be, people in Hell, is also deeply problematic since it also claims to know too much. What? I don’t believe what Jesus plainly states? Of course I do, but I also think, along with many sainted Fathers of the Church, that the Dominical statements on Hell have to be placed in the wider interpretive context of the New Testament as a whole – – a whole which also contains more universalist statements from Christ and in the apostolic letters – – and that this wider context argues for a more epistemologically humble approach to what we can truly know about the population of Hell. Therefore, what links both universalism and infernalism together is the claim that we can know for certain from Revelation as such that either everyone makes it to Heaven or, alternatively, that there are definitely people in Hell, even if we cannot know which individuals in particular are there. The Church, historically, has seemed far more comfortable with the infernalists than with the universalists, having never condemned the former and for centuries flirted with Augustinian exclusivism and its concomitant doctrine of the massa damnata.
But superficial readings of the Tradition can be deceiving and even though the Church at first glance seems to have favored the Augustinian view, a closer inspection reveals that even though the Church taught the Augustinian view as an authoritative theological opinion, it never proposed that view as the only possible interpretation of the Gospel. The Church has always rejected the view that we can know for certain that anyone in particular is in Hell and has even included prayers for the salvation of all, without qualifications, in both her Eucharistic liturgy and in the Liturgy of the Hours. Furthermore, what has most definitely not been condemned is the notion that we can hope for the salvation of all. Thus, the real debate in these matters resides in the breadth and depth of what it is that we are allowed to hope for with regard to salvation. Along these lines it is unfortunate that Balthasar’s book on the topic was given the English title “Dare we hope…” since the actual German title – – “Was dürfen wir hoffen?” – – should actually be translated as “what are we allowed to hope for?” The English title gives the impression that Balthasar is engaged in a bold and daring stab at envelope-pushing theological speculation, when in reality the title implies a serious theological investigation into what Revelation allows us in these matters. As such, far from being an esoteric exercise in rogue speculation, it is rather a humble attempt to place his speculations under the judgement of the Church.
So let us examine what it is that Balthasar actually claims in order to diffuse the mischaracterization of his views as “virtual universalism,” as Ralph Martin, among others, claims. And when we take a serious and non- polemical look at his views it becomes immediately apparent that it is precisely the dual assertion of certain knowledge on such matters (universalist and infernalist) that Balthasar explicitly and repeatedly rejects. Therefore, the accusation by his critics that he is a virtual universalist betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what the word “universalist” means in the sense of that term as condemned by the magisterium. What has been condemned is the notion that we can know from Revelation with certitude that all shall be saved. What has been condemned is the conflation of hope and knowledge on that topic, not individual guesses or hunches as to the eventual outcome of the eschatological census.
Therefore Balthasar’s careful distinction between the two orders of hoping and knowing is entirely in keeping with the Church’s magisterium. Nor is this a mere subterfuge on Balthasar’s part, as Ralph Martin implies, in order to avoid the heresy of universalism since any careful reading of “Dare We Hope” makes it clear that the idea that we simply cannot know who is saved is central to his position and not tangential. To imply otherwise is to engage in a fundamentally uncharitable reading of Balthasar’s stated views since even if he held, as a matter of private opinion, that most likely all will be saved, he never claims to “know” this, as a universalist does, and directly rejects, repeatedly, any such interpretation of his views and gives strong theological arguments for why his views are as they are. Therefore, the fact that he is so often misunderstood on this matter is no fault of his since, as I said, he makes it very, very clear why universalism as a form of certain knowledge is theologically untenable. A theologian who is so very clear as to what his position actually is cannot then be faulted for the lazy ignorance of so many who claim to know what it is he teaches without, most likely, ever bothering to actually read him, and who form their opinions from talking points picked up by folks like Taylor Marshall. Or, even if they do read him, to do so with such an agenda-driven motivation and jaundiced eye that they cannot avoid mischaracterizing his views. Finally, many of the hyper traditionalists who claim that Balthasar’s views are “unclear” and open to the very mischaracterizations he explicitly repudiates, are the very same people who are the chief purveyors of the misinformation and who continue on with the misrepresentations even after Balthasar scholars make it clear to them how wrong they are. Therefore, an element of malicious mendaciousness is quite evident in many of the more vitriolic attacks.
Balthasar argues, not for universalism, but that there are two definite strands of thought expressed in the New Testament: one that implies judgement and the eternal perdition of the damned and one that implies a universalist outcome. These must be held in creative tension with one another so that they can mutually condition one another, and enter into the other, in order to draw out the deep Christological contours of what we mean by salvation and damnation in the first place. Therefore, it would seem that the very pedagogy of the New Testament argues in favor of an approach that refuses any reduction of the problematic through some kind of resolution where one end of the tension is simply dissolved in favor of the other. This is hardly a crypto or virtual universalism. In fact, it is one of the harshest criticisms of universalism imaginable since it cuts it off at its theological taproot, i.e. the claim that Revelation teaches that we can know all are saved with epistemological certitude, and actually deepens the force of Christ’s warnings about Hell by removing them from the realm of eschatological census taking and into the realm of a deep, and quite real, existential possibility for all, and not just those “wicked goats.” Indeed, the census taking approach often leads to the very presumptive self-assurance of salvation so feared by the infernalists since it is quite easy to think that since I am a “Catholic in good standing” that the Dominical warnings do not really apply to me because I am on the “narrow path” of sacramental salvation. I am “safe” and only those “others” are the ones Jesus is targeting.
In fact, the accusations from his critics become risible after a while since it becomes apparent that what they are really saying is that it is okay to have the theological virtue of hope that God’s will will be done (on earth as it is in Heaven!) and that all will be saved, but that one must not take such hope too seriously as a real possibility or to hold it too deeply. We are told by his critics that the universal salvific will of God as expressed in the New Testament is an expression of his absolute will but that we must take into account his conditional will that permits sinners to rebuff his overtures of grace. Therefore, the critics say, our hope must be conditioned by those limiting conditions, and that we can otherwise “know” from other parts of the New Testament that it is certain that some are in Hell, which should further limit the scope of our hope. But where in the New Testament are we provided with a clear hermeneutic that says the universalist statements must be read in the light of the infernalist ones? In other words, where does Scripture say that we must take the universalist statements as merely conditional while the infernalist verses must be taken literally as absolute statements in a strictly predictive mode? This is Balthasar’s objection to those who only pay attention to one set of statements and privilege them over the others. And Balthasar most certainly does not privilege the universalist statements over the infernalist ones and allows the words of Jesus concerning the possibility of eternal perdition (e.g. Matthew 25) to stand on their own merits and without qualification. For Balthasar, the Dominical warnings about Hell must be allowed to stand as real warnings and he in no way fosters the view that those warnings are “merely admonitory” so we can ignore them. Balthasar is not preaching a message of cheap grace as anyone who has ever read his bracing and shocking descriptions of the divine judgment can attest.
It is, of course, possible to privilege the scriptural verses concerning eternal perdition as predictive and to interpret the universalist statements as merely conditional. And those who do so are many and are perfectly within their rights to make such exegetical claims. However, to then proceed from that exegetical stance to the view that it is the only possible interpretation of the words of Jesus is demonstrably false since the tradition contains many fine theologians, especially among the Fathers, who interpret the words differently. And the Church allows for both exegetical postures to be considered. Furthermore, many who do hold for the more predictive interpretive model go on to question the legitimacy of hoping for the salvation of all and seek to limit this hope as pertaining only to our knowledge of the spiritual status of particular individuals, but not to the race as a whole. Many further claim that our hope for the salvation of all is purely conditional (since we cannot know who is saved and who isn’t) and that such a hope does not extend beyond such epistemological ignorance and into a genuine theological hope for all. However, Balthasar is the more Thomistic here since Thomas, arguing against Augustine’s view that we can only pray for the saved, but imperfected, argues instead that the hope for the salvation of all is a binding matter of Christian charity which must extend to the entire human race as befits the universal scope of God’s salvific will and of Christ’s death for the sins of “all.”
At the very least we can lay to rest the view, expressed by so many ignorant traditionalists in social media statements, that Balthasar is heretical since he is contradicting the “clear words” of Jesus. This is an exercise in inquisitorial question begging since it presumes, once again, that there is only one “proper” and “allowable” interpretation of the words of Our Lord, which is precisely the matter that is being contested. You might think that there is only one allowable way to interpret Christ’s words, but you would be wrong, since the interpretive tradition surrounding those words in the Church of both East and West is far from the unanimous consensus that the infernalists erroneously assert with great force and frequency.
And it is also most certainly wrong to use the words of Jesus as a pretext for limiting the full scope of Christian hope. If our hope is to be thus limited then why does the Church herself enjoin us to pray for the salvation of all without any caveats or qualifications? Why would the Church admonish us to pray for something that is, on the level of human calculations, improbable if the Church were not pointing beyond such worldly deductions and toward a deeper soteriological and Christological truth? Namely, that given the breadth and depth of the soteriological act we can realistically hope for the salvation of all on this deeper plane of thinking. This admonition to pray for the salvation of all would be an act of deep mendacity if it were just an insouciant nod toward “kind thoughts” all the while “knowing” that it is unlikely in the extreme. Our Lady at Fatima told the children to pray that God will “lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy.” Had she not already shown the children that there are lots of people in Hell, mainly because of sins of the flesh? Was Our Lady therefore being cheeky here in this prayer? Was she contradicting herself? Was she leading the children into a satanic deception? Why would she ask them to pray for something she knew from her heavenly vantage point to be untrue and impossible? To pray for the salvation of all is to hope for the salvation of all. But perhaps we are meant to pray this way with our fingers crossed and with the wry smile of “one who knows better.” Perhaps we are not meant to really take the Church or Mary seriously here and must add our own “qualifications” and “distinctions” that neither the Church nor Mary make, lest our hope for “all” really be construed as a hope for all. We can’t after all, allow our hope to be overly exuberant and joyous here can we? We can’t really entertain the hope that God’s universal will to save all will actually bear fruit, can we? Ralph Martin accuses Balthasar of falling prey to the satanic “deception” of the notion that we can realistically hope for the salvation of all. Was Our Lady also guilty of falling prey to such deceptions? Or the Church in her Liturgy?
This is no small point but is rather the central point. Martin’s accusation that Balthasar is a crypto universalist simply because he takes seriously such hope, betrays a fundamental category error in his thinking, as we have seen, insofar as he mistakes hope for “certain knowledge” and labels as deceptive any attempt to distinguish between them. For Martin any really serious hope for the salvation is simply indistinguishable from “certain knowledge” no matter what Balthasar says to the contrary. And anyone who entertains such a deep hope in the soteriological reach of the Paschal event is “nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more,” obviously a universalist in the strong sense and we all “know it.” Actually, we don’t know any such thing and the truth of the matter is that those who make such claims are guilty of severely undervaluing the true depth of one of the theological virtues: hope. Oh sure, they say they hope in God’s promises, but then claim to know that those promises are going to be rebuffed in most cases. Some hope.
However, one could just as easily flip the script and accuse Martin, and those who agree with him, of being crypto Feeneyites since he clearly holds that it is difficult in the extreme for non-Christians to get to heaven. One could say that Martin is merely being “clever” here in saying that there is salvation outside of the visible Church even as he thinks there isn’t and is simply saying such things in order to avoid censure. See how this game works? At the very least Martin holds to a view of the massa damnata as most probable, as well as to an extremely narrow reading of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, which places him dangerously close to the Feeneyite camp. And such an approach also puts him at odds with Saint Pope John Paul II as well as Pope emeritus Benedict, both of whom admired Balthasar greatly, and who taught a view on these matters closer to Balthasar than to Martin. Were they too victims of deception? Martin positions himself as a champion of the older tradition, and indeed he is, but without apparently the slightest awareness that the Church herself has developed her doctrine through a purified Christological awareness that eschews the theological “equality” of the path to heaven and the path to Hell, and has moved away from the notion of the massa damnata as well as Martins’ crypto Feeneyism.
I will develop this “purified Christological awareness” in my next blog post on the topic, but it needs to be pointed out in the current context that any attempt to view our freedom as equally oriented toward either Heaven or Hell, betrays a fundamentally modernist understanding of our freedom as a kind of tabula rasa which must then choose between two equally possible and competing options. We are made for Heaven and not for Hell and in a proper Thomistic theological anthropology we are all first and foremost, and in deeply constitutive ways, oriented to the ultimate Good, which is God. The options are not equal and God has stacked the deck in the direction of salvation and therefore, at the very least, the path of deep hope for the salvation of all is more in keeping with a Thomistic theological anthropology than is the contrary view that most will eventually end up in Hell. Martin is quick to reject the Feeneyite position, and affirms the teaching of Vatican II that there can be salvation outside of the Church. But he then proceeds to emphasize that even though it is “possible” it is very hard and lays out a series of caveats and roadblocks to that very possibility. In America’s racist Jim Crow era there were many who affirmed that “all” had a “right to vote.” But they then engaged in voter suppression through the development of things like “poll tests” and “poll taxes” in order to severely limit that right to the privileged classes. In my view, Martin and others are guilty of this on a theological level as they affirm the possibility of salvation outside of the Church even as they erect theological poll taxes for the many. It is a form of “salvation suppression” and all in the service of some benighted notion that an expansive view of the regime of grace will lead to the “de privileging” of the Church as the sole means of salvation.
Finally, there is the stubborn fact, alluded to above, that the Church has moved away from this kind of virtual exclusivism and has now moved toward a more expansive Christological inclusivism. One can decry this fact, along with Vigano and his acolytes in the angry trad movement, and use it as evidence for the perfidy of Vatican II and the papacies of John Paul and Benedict. But at least such accusations make it clear in which direction the Church has moved and that Balthasar’s views on hope, far from being on the fringe of orthodox discourse, are increasingly central to it.
Along these lines, it is becoming exceedingly hard to reconcile a strongly negative view of Balthasar as having succumbed to a satanic deception, as Martin alleges, with the deeply positive appraisal of Balthasar’s theology from John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I am not appealing to an argument from authority here so much as I am calling into question this narrative of deception and the charge of Balthasar being a crypto universalist. Because since universalism is a heresy then Martin is actually saying that Balthasar is a crypto heretic. But John Paul made Balthasar a Cardinal in order to pay homage to the greatness of his theological achievement so if Balthasar was a crypto heretic then John Paul must have missed the memo. Martin’s accusations therefore are like a scatter shot Blunderbuss that wounds not only Balthasar but also everyone else standing in the room with him. And that includes Benedict. Here is what Joseph Ratzinger said in his homily at Balthasar’s funeral:
“What the pope intended to express by this mark of distinction [of the cardinalate], and of honor, remains valid: no longer only private individuals but the Church itself, in its official responsibility, tells us that he is right in what he teaches of the faith.”
Also, after becoming Pope, Benedict said the following in a speech given at the Vatican in 2005:
“I had the joy of knowing and associating with this renowned Swiss theologian. I am convinced that his theological reflections preserve their freshness and profound relevance undiminished to this day and that they incite many others to penetrate ever further into the depths of the mystery of the faith, with such an authoritative guide leading them by the hand. . . . Hans Urs von Balthasar was a theologian who placed his research at the service of the Church, because he was convinced that theology could be defined only in terms of ecclesiality. . . . I encourage all of you to continue, with interest and enthusiasm, your study of the writings of von Balthasar and to find ways of applying them practically and effectively.” (Thanks to Word on Fire for this quote and others which can be found in their wonderful post on the same topic here:)
So disagree with Balthasar all you want. Many reputable theologians do on this matter and I tip my hat to them as viable theological interlocutors. But enough with the charges of heresy and universalism. Enough with the calumnies about satanic deceptions. Enough with the click baiting vitriol from ignorant internet provocateurs seeking to gin up their base of angry, pitchfork brigade inquisitors. Enough with the self-appointed Google Torquemadas. Disagree all you want, but if the traditionalist movement wants to be taken seriously as a viable corrective to much of what is going on in the Church today, then they need to stop talking damn nonsense.
In my next post in this series I will examine the Christological roots for this view and discuss further what it means to be “saved” and what if further means for the vocation of the Christian as one who suffers vicariously for the sins of the world, in union with Christ.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.