My Response to Dr. Ralph Martin’s Response

July 12, 2021
Defense of Vatican II

About a month ago, right before I left on vacation, Dr. Ralph Martin responded on his blog to my recent post on his irresponsible accusations against Adrienne von Speyr and Hans Urs von Balthasar.  I had decided not to answer him since his blog post is a short one and isn’t much of a response at all to any of the substantive arguments I raised.  I also don’t want my blog to descend into the muck of a back and forth debate and, quite frankly, I have already said about as much as I want to say on the topic.  Nevertheless, at the urging of many friends I have decided to offer the following response.  

Martin’s response, as I said, is a brief one and really answers none of the substantive arguments I raised. It is an empty exercise in deflection wherein he ignores my arguments and focuses instead on my tone and accuses me of engaging in an emotional attack simply because he dared to challenge my “theological hero,” Hans Urs von Balthasar.  He further claims that this is the typical response he gets from “Balthasarians” without naming names or citing a single example.  Sadly, this paucity of concrete examples pervades his response.  He goes on to say that he is not going to answer my “wild charges” – – again without reference to any single “wild charge” other than to quote a few of my words out of context to prove how “emotional” I am – – because he says does not have the time to do so.  You can read his response here and judge for yourself whether he answers any of my substantive claims.  

I will begin with his accusation that I am reacting emotionally due to the affront to my theological hero.  In short, this is deflection at its finest since he has no way of knowing what my motives are or whether it is empirically true that Balthasar is, indeed, my “hero.”  In point of fact, I have no theological heroes in the emotional sense in which Martin is using that term. Nor am I, strictly speaking, a “Balthasarian” with a vested professional interest in defending him at all costs.  I am a Catholic theologian of the ressourcement school of thought and Balthasar is merely one example among many from that school of theology who I admire.  And I admire them, not for emotional reasons related to my own idiosyncratic whims, but because I judge this school of theology to be the best that the modern Church has to offer and the key to understanding the Council.  Nor do I get hot under the collar when theologians dare to have disagreements with Balthasar.  I have quibbles of my own with Balthasar, do not agree with all of his positions, and therefore welcome any and all genuine theological interlocutors, as my entire career as a professional theologian demonstrates.  My beef with Martin isn’t that he disagrees with Balthasar, but that in doing so he engages in some “wild charges” of his own wherein he develops ad hominem arguments against Balthasar and von Speyr’s character.

Martin ignores my arguments and focuses instead on my “inflammatory” rhetoric which is what I have come to expect from folks on his side of the theological aisle.  I do indeed write with a certain pugnacious bravado since I think a blog should be, among other things, a bit humorous even while making substantive theological points.  And, as I have stated before, what is to one person “inflammatory rhetoric” is to another person “spot-on satire.”  The response almost always depends upon one’s antecedent views of the target of the satire. Therefore, I make no apologies for writing as I do and will continue to do so.  Furthermore, and contrary to what one might surmise from Martin’s response, I do forward actual arguments in the midst of my flamboyance, which traditionalists, and conservatives like Martin, ignore as they try to evade the gravamen of my arguments in favor of a “you are so mean!” defense.  Therefore, if Martin wants to ignore my arguments on the grounds that they represent an “all-too-typical” Balthasarian response, then I can counter with the same:  his response to my serious arguments is an all-too-typical example of the kind of deflection I have come to expect from his camp.  Furthermore, his claim that I have “grossly misrepresented” his views is also the typical response of the traditionalist/conservative who, when called out, immediately claim that a straw man has been set up for attack.  This is never more apparent than in social media when their views are criticized and the red flag of “straw man!” is tossed into the conversation, only to have 300 comments in the thread confirm the original criticisms.  A straw man? It would seem rather that the various scarecrows are simply afraid of a little fire.

Take for example Martin’s claim that I have misrepresented his view that most people will end up in Hell and my further claim that he holds that we need a populated Hell in order to have the motivation to lead holy lives and to evangelize.  He does not make any substantive argument against my claims but simply denies the charge and directs readers to his various writings on the topic – – writings which do nothing but confirm the criticisms I raise.  And when one reads Martin’s writings one is struck by how often he loves to quote the words of Our Lord about the “narrow and the broad paths.”  He uses that verse to argue against Balthasar and states that Balthasar’s views go against the clear meaning of Christ’s words on the topic. In other words, Martin is claiming that the verse in question is predictive and not merely “admonitory.”  Well, Martin cannot have it both ways.  He cannot cite the verse as predictive and then turn around and claim that he is not advocating for the view that most will be damned.  Because if it is predictive then we need to pay attention to the fact that Christ must be saying that most people are destined for eternal perdition.  And if he rejects that implication then he is admitting that Balthasar’s views on such verses as admonitory have merit.  

Furthermore, in a video response to a sermon from Bishop Barron, Martin criticizes Barron for not emphasizing enough how difficult it is for non-Christians to be saved.  He accuses Barron of ignoring those passages in Lumen Gentium that imply the same and then goes on to pitch his book on the topic – – a book that has merits and deserves a hearing, but which is, nevertheless, expressive of a narrow reading of “extra ecclesiam nulla salus.” Indeed, his entire response to Barron is one long argument about how the views of Barron, and those who think like him, are undermining our motivation to evangelize since their Christology is just too dadgum inclusive. And so, I am sorry Dr. Martin, but your own arguments definitely trend in the direction of a doctrine of massa damnata. Once again, Martin cannot have it both ways.  He cannot say in one breath that Christ’s words about the broad path are predictive and not admonitory, and that we need to affirm the Church’s post-Augustinian Christological/ecclesiastical semi-exclusivism as magisterially definitive once and for all, and then turn around and say that he is being “misrepresented” as an advocate for the view that most are damned. Because that is the only theologically consistent conclusion that one can draw from his premises – – premises he uses to criticize Barron’s more inclusive Christology.

Indeed, in most of Martin’s writings he lards his arguments with many quotes from Church documents, saints, mystics, and various “signpost” theologians in order to support his claim that his views are in line with the Tradition and Balthasar’s are not.  Setting aside the question of whether or not that is true, it should be noted that the very Tradition Martin appeals to, as Cardinal Avery Dulles pointed out in a small essay in First Things(which you can read here), has indeed emphasized a very narrow reading of extra ecclesiam nulla salus and, therefore, has also emphasized that most people are destined for damnation.  The two ideas go together, as Dulles notes, and was one of the reasons why the document Martin so often quotes – – Lumen Gentium – – opened the door for a less exclusivist Christology and a more expansive view of the possibility of salvation for those outside of the Church. Therefore, once again, Martin cannot have it both ways. He cannot say that he does not hold for a doctrine of the massa damnata and then turn around and claim that his views are completely in line with those of the pre-modern Tradition. Thus, far from being a “gross mischaracterization” of his views, my claim is a thoroughly justified one given his theological premises.

Martin also accuses me of misrepresenting his views when I claim that he holds that we need to postulate a fulsomely populated Hell in order to be motivated to live holy lives and to evangelize the unbaptized.  He says he holds no such position and then offers his “guess” as to the population of Hell.  He says that his view is that many will be saved and many will be lost, but in numbers known only to God. Fair enough, but there is an interesting admission in that statement.  In criticizing Barron and Balthasar he sounds like someone with a great deal of certitude, a certitude putatively rooted in Scripture and Tradition, that we can “know” that at least some are in Hell.  This is why he is critical of the so-called “hopeful universalism” that he sees everywhere in the Church and which he labels a “satanic deception.” However, if the numbers of those in Hell, as Martin himself states, is known only to God, then the corollary of that statement is that Martin himself has no idea how many are in Hell, which is why he says he is just “guessing.”  But one of the further implications of this statement is that Martin cannot therefore “know” if anyone at all is in Hell.  Because by his own admission all forms of eschatological census taking are merely speculative guesses and if that is true, then the milder version of that census taking – – namely, that we can know that at least some are in Hell — is equally problematic.  We simply do not know the answer to that question nor are we given to know the answer to that question.  Which is why the Church asks us to pray for and to hope for the salvation of all, which is, after all, God’s will. The Church teaches that we cannot know if any particular person is in Hell, and the Church allows us to hope for the salvation of all so long as we do not assert it as a dogmatic certitude (universalism as such).  Therefore, it is hard to see how it is theologically justified to condemn theologians who teach that such a hope is real as having fallen prey to a demonic lie.

Furthermore, Martin says in his response that he is troubled by the “pastoral implications” of Balthasar’s hopeful universalism.  What pastoral implications?  That people will now live profligate lives of moral dissipation unless they think Hell is a real possibility?  Or that we won’t evangelize anymore since “everyone goes to Heaven anyway?”  In many of his other writings he seems to hold to both of those views to one degree or another.  I won’t elaborate on this point since I have already done so in my previous posts, but it goes without saying that I reject both of those assertions since they are demonstrably false.  Only someone devoted to a narrow theological ideology would make such claims and Martin offers no empirical evidence in his broader writings of a historical or sociological nature in order to buttress his patently absurd idea that people won’t pursue the moral good with any real salvific fervor unless they are threatened with eternal punishments. And it is an idea which is not only silly but runs afoul of the Thomistic notion that we are all constitutively oriented to the Good.  I personally have known atheists, agnostics, indifferentists, Hindus and Buddhists (who have no notion of an eternal Hell), and Christian universalists, who all led lives of moral uprightness. Indeed, even C.S. Lewis, in his great book, “The Abolition of Man,” notes the universality of the moral law etched in the hearts of every human being and which is ensconced in every major world religion. He also uses this universal moral “instinct” at the beginning of Mere Christianity as the linchpin of his argument for God’s existence. But according to Ralph Martin this universal moral impulse will fall on hard times unless we start to get serious again about eternal damnation. As I have said before… his mantra seems to be “more Hell cowbell please” lest the song of salvation lack a proper percussive punch.

I will grant one point in Martin’s response as hitting the mark.  In my original blog post on the topic I lumped Martin in with what I loosely describe as the “traditionalists.”  My point was that the traditionalist movement seems determined to return to some version of the doctrine of the massa damnata and, therefore, this is why they loathe Barron and Balthasar. They don’t care whether those two thinkers are orthodox and profound.  They don’t care if they both have had an impact on the Church that is overwhelmingly positive.  And most of them have never read either one to any great extent.  All they know is one thing: Barron and Balthasar hope that all are saved and view such a hope as a real one.  And that is a bridge too far apparently.  It is shocking to see the depths to which they will descend in order to excoriate both thinkers simply because they dare to hope for what it is God says he wants, and the Church asks us to pray for. Oh the horror!  Martin feeds that beast.  And so I included him in their ranks.  However, Martin is not a traditionalist as that term has come to be defined of late, and so I stand corrected.  But I do so grudgingly since he seems, despite his protestations, to be far more sympathetic to that wing of the Church than to Barron’s or Balthasar’s.

In many ways all of the foregoing is kind of beside the point. I merely raise these issues because Martin brings them up in his response. In reality, in his response Martin has missed the main point of my blog post which was a deep criticism of his placement of von Speyr and Balthasar in the chapter of his latest book that deals with satanic influences.  (By the way, in his response he repeatedly misspells the name of von Speyr as “von Speyer” which is an embarrassing mistake for someone who claims to have studied her carefully.)  He does briefly mention my criticism of his “satanic influences” allegations, only to double-down on his claim that von Speyr was, in so many words, a fraud or a fool, and that she led Balthasar astray into the world of satanic universalist deceptions.  I really do not care all that much, as I said in my post, about Martin’s disagreement with Balthasar on the question of salvation.  Which is why in my first blog post on the issue I did not dwell on Martin’s book on that topic.  It is a legitimate attempt at theologizing, and worth a response, even though I obviously disagree with its premises.  

My sharp disagreement, rather, comes from his inclusion of two Catholics held in high esteem by no less than John Paul and Benedict (among many others) in a chapter dealing with everything vile and putrid and of Satan. That does not mean that her charisms were valid or that she is immune from critique since even great popes can be wrong sometimes.  But when popes of their intellectual caliber and personal holiness see great merit in her writings and her life, then it should at least give one pause before one launches into accusations that she was Satan’s stooge on the matter of Hell. And if she was the victim of a satanic deception on this issue then so were many sainted Church fathers of high standing. It would come as a great shock to Gregory of Nyssa, to cite but one example, to find out that his views on Hell were a deception from the Father of Lies. The thesis Balthasar develops in “Dare We Hope” might be incorrect. Many fine theologians think so and I am open to that debate.  But to condemn all such speculations as a “satanic deception” does violence to the Tradition since many fine, sainted, theologians and Church fathers rejected the doctrine of the massa damnataand argued for views roughly similar to Balthasar’s.  Therefore, the nature of the debate is not about adjudicating between satanic ideas and non-satanic ideas, but rather, it is a debate about what the Tradition does or does not allow on the topic.  And that is a properly theological debate worth having, minus accusations that one side is in league with El Diablo.

And I stand by my “inflammatory” claim that Martin’s accusations of satanic influences on von Speyr and Balthasar amounts to a despicable act of deep uncharity.  I do not see this claim of mine as inflammatory at all.  If anything, it is too tepid and reserved.  Because such accusations from Martin really are a hyperbolic and hyperventilating over-response to both thinkers simply because Martin disagrees with their views on Hell. I highly doubt that Martin would have given either one of them such a treatment had they shared his more traditional views on Hell, which is why I claim that his accusations against them are not rooted in any real evidence, but rather in a theological agenda.

And as for the “evidence” that Martin does claim in this regard he completely ignores my defense of the legitimacy of believing in von Speyr’s charisms based on the Church’s traditional criteria for adjudicating such matters.  I do not claim to know if her charisms were genuine or not, but I do claim that there is nothing in what she wrote or how she lived that would invalidate anyone’s judgment that her charisms were valid. Especially someone who knew her as well as Balthasar did.  I think her charisms were valid and there is certainly nothing in her life or writings that should lead one to claim that they can detect the stench of Satan therein.  THAT is my problem with Martin’s treatment of her and not that he does not think her charisms were genuine.  He is free to believe whatever he wants to believe on that score and I don’t give a fig one way or the other.  But to claim that she was a satanic deceiver who “nagged” Balthasar out of the Jesuits is just – – dare I say it – – inflammatory rhetoric.  In point of fact, not only did she not nag Balthasar out of the Jesuits, but she repeatedly asked him not to leave the Jesuits on her account.  A fact that a putative “expert” on her relationship with Balthasar should know.  I await Martin’s affirmation that to accuse someone of being a dupe of Satan, without strong evidence, is about as inflammatory as you can get.  Don’t let Martin’s smooth, dulcet tones and avuncular demeanor fool you:  his attack on von Speyr and Balthasar as influenced by Satan is as inflammatory as you can get.

Finally, Martin also ignores my explication of Balthasar’s spiritual direction of von Speyr as essentially Ignatian in character.  He says that he reached the conclusion that her charisms were “not of the Holy Spirit” by “applying principles of discernment found in classical texts of mystical and ascetical theology.”  Which texts he does not say and what schools of mystical and ascetical theology to which he is referring are also left unreferenced.  But the school of discernment most notably absent in his various writings with regard to von Speyr is the school of Ignatius, and it is an omission that was either deliberate or the product of ignorance.  In my post I explained that what Martin calls “spiritual channeling” was in fact her engaging in the Ignatian spiritual prayer form known as the “colloquy,” and what he calls Balthasar engaging in the practice of “recovered memories” in his direction of her was in reality the Ignatian life examen.  Martin’s unnamed sources of spiritual discernment might be generally valid (who knows?) but to ignore the Ignatian dimension of von Speyr’s spiritual life borders on theological malpractice.  But hey, Martin has read two books by Balthasar on her and so now he is an “expert” even though he seems ignorant of the Ignatian roots of her spirituality and seems to have forgotten how to spell her name correctly. (Ok. To be fair he does spell her name correctly in his major works and his misspelling in his response to me was probably the result of haste, but still… it speaks to how little thought he actually gave to his response to my post and rushed something out because he felt like he needed to say something. But if I am an “expert” in something I would not make such a mistake even in haste.  It is the equivalent of me cranking out a blog post and talking a lot about this guy “Balthazar.”)

In closing I will just say two things.  First, this will be my last post on this topic even if Martin responds again, which I doubt he will.  And that is fine by me.  Quite frankly, I did not start this blog in order for it to descend into endless debates about Balthasar and Hell.  The topic just gets boring after a while, and I am sure my readers will agree.  And so, as the Italians say, “Basta!”  Or, in the words of Penny Wharvey in the movie “O Brother where art Thou?”: “I have said my piece and counted to three.” Second, I want to be clear that I hold absolutely no personal animus against Dr. Martin.  I do not know him personally, but I am told by friends of mine who do know him that he is a true gentleman and a good friend.  And I will take that to be accurate since I trust those who say so.  And I have been an admirer of his work for a long time until he took this recent turn toward irresponsible and uncharitable allegations.  If I have been “sharp” in my response to these charges it is because those allegations are also sharp, no matter how calmly they are presented.

And so, as I said, I am done with this topic.  I will be blogging soon, once again, on Vatican II and the universal call to holiness and the challenges we face in today’s world as faithful Catholics. I look forward to that.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

Related Posts

Subscribe to the Blog

Thank you! Your submission has been received!

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form