Universalism, Balthasar, the Massa Damnata, and the Question of Evangelization

May 12, 2021
Ressourcement Theology

If you want a dog whistle guaranteed to summon a pack of barking traditionalists just mention the names of either Hans Urs von Balthasar or Bishop Robert Barron. The former more than the latter and the latter only to the extent that he expresses sympathy for the former.  Balthasar and his alleged “universalism” (all are saved) is definitely the boogeyman in this narrative and is so, ironically, because of his great devotion to theological orthodoxy.  If he were a garden variety liberal theologian the traditionalists would pay him no mind and just throw him on the dung heap of modernist heretics without much further thought.  But it is precisely because of his orthodoxy that his influence is strong among orthodox Catholics – – indeed, even upon some popes of recent memory – – which makes his fulminations on the eschatological census particularly dangerous, according to many of the leading traditionalist provocateurs.  The same goes for Robert Barron. As one Facebook friend of mine once said, in response to my question as to why he did not go after quislings like Cardinal Cupich instead of Barron: “Because nobody expects orthodoxy from Cupich anyway.”

My concern here is not so much with the intense debate that swirls around Balthasar’s views on Hell as it is with what I consider to be a misguided fixation on the topic by so many traditionalists who seem to think that unless we believe that many folks are in Hell that we won’t have any motivation to evangelize or to pursue holiness ourselves.  I think this is a somewhat misguided view that masks a deep misunderstanding of the Christian vocation. More on that in a bit.

But with regard to Balthasar’s views on Hell let me just mention before I proceed that I can honestly say that it is not an issue that I dwell upon or care that much about because it is not a topic that I think is central to Balthasar’s overall theological project but is rather a piece of highly speculative theologizing which is downstream from the main current of his thinking.  As a scholar of Balthasar’s theology I am drawn to the profound truth and beauty of his christology, trinitarian theology, ecclesiology, and theological anthropology.  His massive trilogy is a monumental achievement that has drawn the praise of many fine, orthodox, theologians, too numerous to mention, as well as Saint Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict.  I do not share all of Balthasar’s conclusions with regard to the topic of Hell (nor does Bishop Barron for that matter) and consider his assertion that it is “infinitely improbable” that human freedom can resist the divine offer of grace in the long run a bridge too far.  He might be right, but it is not a position that I am willing to defend.  I share his view that we can reasonably hope that all will be saved given the depth of Christ’s soteriological action, and that we should pray for that to happen, but beyond that I prefer not to speculate for a variety of reasons.  Nevertheless, it is not something that keeps me awake at night and it most certainly does not rob me of my enthusiasm for Balthasar’s broader project.  Even the great Aquinas got some important things wrong, but that fact does not send me into a screaming tirade against his dangerous perfidy whilst tossing his Summa into the bonfire.

And it is precisely this hyperventilating overreaction to Balthasar’s views on Hell that I think is deeply instructive as to what the deeper issues really are and what is really driving the traditionalist train.  By way of illustration, Ralph Martin, in his recent book “A Church in Crisis” engages in a shocking and truly despicable discussion of Balthasar in chapter eight which is entitled: “Powers, Principalities, and Organizations.” The chapter is devoted to the manner in which the modern crisis in the Church is being fueled by various Satanic deceptions, among which he includes Marxism, the Enlightenment’s rejection of God, Feminism, secular elitism, sexual deviancy, false near death experiences, Nazism, Planned Parenthood, the Gay agenda, and … Balthasar.  The mere inclusion of Balthasar in a chapter devoted to all manner of Satanic deviancies is bad enough, but he actually leads off his carnival of carnage with Balthasar, which can only lead one to the conclusion that Martin is asserting that Balthasar’s views on Hell were of Satanic origin.  To treat a thoroughly orthodox theologian of Balthasar’s stature in this manner – – a man who spent his entire life devoted to explicating the truths of the faith, and who was made a Cardinal by John Paul in order to signal the Pope’s deep respect and appreciation for this theology – – is simply execrable. And all because Martin disagrees with Balthasar’s view on Hell. A better example of hyperbolic and uncharitable traditionalist overreaction to Balthasar’s stance on Hell cannot be found and shame on Ralph Martin for being so driven by his vision of the massa damnata that he would stoop to such calumnies. It is one thing to simply disagree with this single point in Balthasar’s theology, and many fine theologians do (but with charity), but it is another thing entirely to label it all as Satanic and to lump Balthasar in with the Nazis and abortionists. This is not how Christians should treat one another.  There is indeed the stench of Satan here, but it isn’t coming from Balthasar.

And if that is not bad enough, Martin then focuses his attention on Balthasar’s “unusual” relationship with the mystic and seer Adrienne von Speyr with a not so subtle insinuation that there was something not proper going on.  Balthasar did indeed move in with Adrienne and her husband (when Adrienne was older and not in good health and largely bed ridden) in order to be better able to document her various charisms, which Balthasar, who knew her best and was her spiritual director, thought to be genuine.  And they did indeed develop a close working relationship that influenced Balthasar’s thinking on various topics.  But so what? The history of the Church is littered with mystics and visionaries who had close working relationships with their spiritual directors which was actually a sign of their desire to remain within the ambit of the orthodox faith and to not get carried away into various enthusiasms.  However, Martin asserts without the slightest shred of evidence that both Adrienne and Balthasar lost their ability to think critically about each other’s thoughts. How he knows this he does not say (how could he?) but it is important to his narrative of Balthasar having succumbed to satanic deception that he “establish” her Svengali like hold on Balthasar’s thought processes on the topic of … you guessed it … Hell.

Martin clearly thinks that Adrienne was a fraud and cites her various alleged communications with Saint Ignatius as his chief piece of damning evidence.  That is particularly irritating since it takes a particular kind of chutzpah for Martin to cast a shadow over such charisms without any evidence whatsoever since Martin himself is a Catholic charismatic who has in the past frequently mentioned various “prophecies” that have come out of his involvement with that movement – – a movement characterized by people speaking in “angelic” gibberish and who get a new “word of knowledge” every morning while munching on their granola.  A movement, by the way, which has its origins in Protestant Pentecostalism with its deep anti sacramentalism and quasi Gnostic views of ecclesial affiliation.  So if Martin wants to find Satanic deceptions at work in the Church he should have looked in his own backyard.  But hey, charismatics tend to think lots of people are in Hell so they are safe and their charisms given the benefit of the doubt.

Martin’s entire treatment of Balthasar and Adrienne is highly selective in the facts he chooses to emphasize and is clearly designed to do nothing but insinuate that her alleged charisms were satanic in origin.  It is not surprising, therefore, that Martin mentions not one word about the truly profound body of theological writings that Adrienne produced. Nor does he mention that Pope John Paul initiated a conference in Rome devoted to those writings – – a conference which he addressed and in which he encouraged people to study her writings more.  Here is how the theologian Regis Martin (no relation to Ralph) described the conference:

“Presented in terms of her “ecclesial mission”, the conference attempted to show the immensity of von Speyr’s gifts and service to the life of the universal Church. Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger interrupted their own busy schedules to offer powerful and prayerful witness to the character and achievement of this truly extraordinary woman. Yet it can fairly be said that most of the Catholic world knows nothing at all about her.” (You can find Regis Martin’s entire essay on Adrienne and the conference here.)

I guess Pope John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger did not get the memo that this was all from Satan. But you know what is from Satan? Calumny. I don’t care if one thinks that von Speyr’s charisms were questionable.  Lots of people do and that is their right.  Personally, I think her charisms were genuine, but like many mystics before her the basic message was also mixed in with purely human errors as many theologians of mystical phenomenon affirm.  For example, I accept the legitimacy of Fatima. I think Mary really did appear there to those little kids.  But I do not believe for one minute that she told them that most people are in Hell because of sins of the flesh.  I could be wrong about that, of course, but it is a message that does not sit well with my conception of the hierarchy of deadly sins.  The messages of Fatima, or of Sister Faustina, or Akita, or Medjugorje, or of Adrienne von Speyr, are not holy writ.  They are capable of containing an admixture of error which is why a discernment of spirits is required in all such alleged charisms.  But to label them as of satanic origin simply because they run afoul of your own personal theological agenda is tendentious and unfair.  Call then “wrong” or “garbled” or whatever, as I just did with Fatima, but to allege Satanic influences requires more evidence than one’s own theological preoccupations.

To be sure, some alleged mystics are of satanic origin.  But you also need more evidence to assert such a thing than the fact that the alleged mystic claimed to talk to saints.  Sister Faustina claimed to talk with Jesus himself.  Was that Satanic too? Clearly, for Martin there is only one metric worth paying attention to. Namely, what did the alleged mystic say about the number of people, if any, in Hell? Martin has spoken favorably of certain aspects of the alleged messages given at Garabandal, even as he acknowledged that this apparition does not have ecclesial approval and has some sketchy elements to it.  But he affords no such charity or latitude to Adrienne von Speyr and clearly treats her differently simply because she undermines his theological commitment to a densely populated Hell.

My point in all of this is not to dump on Ralph Martin, although his scandalous treatment of Balthasar and von Speyr richly deserves it, but to highlight the extent to which the traditionalist movement has become obsessed with eternal hellfire.  As I have mentioned before, their mantra should be “more hell cowbell please.” Martin’s book, “A Church in Crisis,” is an otherwise decent book with which I am in deep agreement on many points, which only underscores the oddity of his sudden flight into hysteria and calumny when it comes to the question of Balthasar and Hell.  And that really was the main point of all of the foregoing. Namely, that the retrieval of some concept of the massa damnata is so important to traditionalists that they are willing to eviscerate, and then to draw and quarter, even orthodox theologians of great stature who they deem to be too soft on the question.

So why this obsession with a densely populated Hell? The reasoning they employ is not complex and boils down to three assertions.  First, the charge is made that the soft universalism of so many in the modern Church has led to a diminishment in our fervor for evangelization.  Second, it is alleged that a great deal of the laxity one finds among Catholics themselves is also attributable to this alleged universalism.  As one very dear friend of mine who is a devout Catholic and a devotee of Michael Voris put it to me: “if everyone goes to heaven anyway why should I bother to bust my chops to be morally good or to go to Church?” A third charge, more theologically sophisticated than the first two, claims that this soft universalism robs the Gospel of its dramatic, existential seriousness since it presents us with salvation as a fait accompli.  What all of these points have in common is their proposed solution: an evangelical style that once again places the threat of damnation front and center as the linchpin for any effective strategy for conversion.

But are any of these assertions true? Is it really true that the desire to avoid Hell is the primary motivation behind the desire to convert to the faith or to embrace it with more vigor? And is it really true as well that the primary motivation for wanting to bring people to Christ is to make sure that they avoid Hell? My answer might shock you because my answer to those two questions is yes.  But I do not mean by that answer the same thing the hyper traditionalists mean and my answer thus comes with one important caveat:  Heaven and Hell are not “places” where I might end up “in the future after I die” depending on whether or not I checked the right box on the religion survey, but present realities in the here and now.  They are spiritual conditions of the soul which every human being has intimations of and which give us a participatory foretaste of eschatological realities.  Sin is the dis-integrative power of dissipation and entropy, the power which grips us like a vice even as it rips us apart from within.  It alienates and annihilates and is the source of our deepest existential anxieties and creates our deepest miseries in life.  It is the libido dominandi that lives in us all and which creates the despair within us where, try as I might, I cannot escape the furies of my own decrepit soul and the self-inflicted horrors of my incessantly compromised choices.

We can experience a foretaste of Heaven in this life as well in all of the various joys that come our way through our participation in all that is true and good and beautiful.  We naturally desire all of these things and move toward them to the extent that we see them properly, and in their proper hierarchy, and with a sincere hope that they will bring us happiness, which is, as Aquinas noted, what we all most deeply want. But these joys are often lost due to our ignorance of what is truly good and of our disordered desire to sacrifice higher goods to lower goods, which is the very essence of sin and its idolatries which is why only an affirmation of the true God as the highest Good can save us from these counterfeit substitutes.  But the joys of this life also run up against the ultimate barrier: death.  Which is why in this life even our deepest joy will be tainted with the patina of the loss of everything in the final dissolution of all things in death.  It is the blunt and brutal reality of death that hollows out our experience of the good from within our terror – – a hollowing out that empties the good of its goodness and leaves us with the haunting suspicion that there is no deeper good at all, but merely passing pleasures. This is why Saint Paul referred to death as Satan’s sting and the greatest generator of sin since the realization of our terminal finality is what robs us of the motivation to seek the higher goods and the greater joys they bring since death seems to call the reality of those higher goods into question.  The higher goods and the deeper happiness are hard to achieve and require a death to the libido dominandi which alone appears “real” to us. Sin thus whispers in our ear, “it is all a sham and there is no God so live within the shallow waters of proximate procurements.”

This is why Christianity burst upon the ancient world with an explosive and liberating force. It was presented as the “euangelion” (good news!) which was a Greek term used by imperial Rome to announce a great victory for the Empire but redeployed by Christians to announce an even greater victory accomplished by one greater than Caesar.  It was presented as a liberation from the oppressive spiritual principalities and powers that capriciously and arbitrarily ruled this world through death and force and coercion.  The message was not “believe this or you will go to Hell” but rather “believe this and you will come out of Hell.”  The greatest evangelist the Church has ever seen, Saint Paul, rarely spoke of the eternal torments of Hell that awaited those who rejected his message of the crucified and risen Christ. Such talk is foreign to his manner of approach. Instead he preached the risen Christ as the conqueror of death and sin and thus as the great liberator from our chains of bondage to the regime of decay. What he preached was that the Hell in which they were living was not their truest destiny and that the higher spiritual goods were now eminently attainable in the new Kingdom of life and grace.  In other words, Paul preached a message that emphasized that the new Christian ordo was an ordo of eschatological rupture with the worldly world and the breaking in to this world of a supernatural light that had the power to transform everything from within as it healed the broken bonds of our fractured and despairing souls.

And this was the message of Balthasar as well who most certainly believed in Hell and judgment but who also believed that we experience that Hell and judgement even in the here and now and that the true power of the Gospel was its evangel of Christological liberation from our bondage. Anyone who thinks Balthasar preached a message of cheap grace has manifestly never read him, or if they have, were too obtuse to understand him.  Or, as in the case of Ralph Martin, are too beholden to a flat-footed theology of massa damnata nightmares to read Balthasar’s writings on Hell within the broader context of his entire theological project – – a project that is saturated with the Gospel message of sin, judgment, redemption, and cosmic consummation. Balthasar might be wrong about Hell, but only a theological blunt axe would accuse him of being a stooge for Satan. And if he was, then so were/are John Paul and Benedict who, though not entirely on board with the totality of his views on this matter were, nevertheless, deeply sympathetic to it and were most decidedly closer to Balthasar’s view than Martin’s clear predilection for a return to a dangerously narrow interpretation of extra ecclesiam nulla salus.

My point in all of this is that it is precisely this experience of integrative liberation that should be the prime mover of our evangelizing, as it was with St. Paul.  In my 25 years of teaching theology, in both high school and university, I never once walked into a classroom thinking to myself, “these kids are sinners in the hands of an angry God and are in danger of suffering eternal torments in Hell and so I must save them from God’s just wrath.”  Rather, I said to myself, “I am in possession of a great treasure, the truest Beauty, and the most liberating narrative the world has ever known or will know, and I want to release these students from their bondage to the honey laced arsenic of our culture and to show them the only path to the deepest happiness.” And, to toot my own horn, I was damn good at it.  And I don’t mention this to build myself up but to point out that this message still works, as it did in the days of St. Paul, and that some kind of reversion to a hyper Tridentine emphasis on mortal sins, Hell, damnation, and the superficial “litmus test” orthodoxy of pinched-up neo scholastic inquisitors, is not only a recipe for pastoral disaster, but is also deeply contrary to the Gospel Paul preached. Indeed, it is an anti-Gospel of pharisaical anxiety wrapped up in the laced surplices of sanctimonious sadists.

It is both instructive and ironic, is it not, that one of the greatest evangelists of our time, Bishop Robert Barron, is also a man who shares the real hope that all will someday be saved, and who teaches what the Church teaches with regard to the possibility of salvation outside of the visible confines of the Church.  This gives the lie to the notion that one will not be properly motivated to evangelize unless one first believes in some version of the massa damnata.  It is my contention that the infernalists who get so hypoxic over his approach are not so much afraid that his evangelizing style won’t work, but precisely because it does. Because his success invalidates their thesis that a Church that does not step forward with its eternal damnation foot first is a Church of relativists and indifferentists.  Likewise with Balthasar whose views on Hell do not seem to have robbed him of his fervor and who spent his entire life explicating the Gospel in profound ways.  One would think, in other words, that if Martin’s thesis is true – – namely, that only a message that most will be eternally damned will motivate us to evangelize – – that Barron would close up shop over at Word on Fire and Balthasar would never have written a word, and both would have retired to life on a tropical island in order to sip relativist Pina Coladas on the beach of indifference.

One could counter by saying that Martin and others do not teach that most will be damned and that, therefore, I am mistaken in my assertion that they are advocating for a return to some version of the massa damnata.  But one of the favored talking points in almost everything I have read or watched from these folks is to quote the words of Jesus concerning how wide the path is to Hell and that most are on that path, and narrow is the path to Heaven and there are few who take it. And Martin sternly and repeatedly criticizes the view that this verse, and others like it, is merely admonitory and not predictive.  Martin clearly thinks these are predictive statements from Jesus and it is one of the chief weapons in his arsenal of rebukes. And so I am thoroughly justified in my claim that Martin teaches the doctrine of the massa damnata.  Indeed, and not to put too fine a point on it, Martin, in a recent YouTube video criticized a recent homily from Bishop Barron on the topic of salvation outside of the Church wherein Barron alluded to Lumen Gentium as his guide in these matters.  Predictably, Martin, Taylor Marshall, and a wannabe celebrity priest of limited theological acumen named Fr. Mark Goring, all came out with response videos.  The common theme in all of them was that Barron did not emphasize enough how very difficult it is for non-Christians to get to heaven.  That he did not emphasize enough the moral culpability of their ignorance of the Gospel, and how steeped in error they are. One cannot escape the conclusion, therefore, that here once again we see a doubling-down on the notion that it is more probable than not that most are going to Hell and need to be told so.

As I said, I too believe that we must appeal to a message of liberation from the bondage of the Hell that is within us all, but that is far different from a message of a not so latent “insiders versus outsiders” logic where the insiders have the proper union card and the outsiders don’t.  Of course, I am not denying that the Church provides us with all the means of salvation and that, therefore, faithful inclusion in her life does afford us great treasures of grace.  Because it does.  But don’t tell me that there isn’t a strong element of a very superficial understanding of what it means to be “saved” and “unsaved” in their thinking. There is a strong forensic tone to it all and a strong tone deafness to the movement of the Holy Spirit outside of the visible structures of the Church. The Church is necessary for salvation insofar as she is the conduit of those graces of the Spirit. But the vocation of the Christian is not to draw neat lines in the sand between the saved and the unsaved, but to offer up their prayers, supplications, penances, and sufferings in solidarity with those still awaiting liberation from bondage.

The fact of the matter is that Martin and other like-minded traditionalists get something very wrong. Namely, that the indifferentism and lukewarm laxity that afflicts the modern Church has been primarily caused by a loss of belief in the reality of eternal damnation for most. In reality, the laxity in the modern Church has not arisen from a lack of faith in the eternal horrors of Hell.  Rather, the laxity comes from a lack of faith in the existential reality of Heaven. In fact, it comes more specifically from a generalized lack of faith in the eschatological power of supernatural realities in the first place.  Because if people really and truly believed in the reality of our liberation from bondage and the joys of Heaven, and truly understood what these realities mean, then the very real possibility of eternal loss would be powerful and palpable.  Furthermore, if people had a deeper grasp in faith of what such liberation means then the question of why I should strive to be morally good even if all end up in Heaven someday answers itself.  We seek moral goodness because it is liberative and integrative.  It opens us to beauty and a holistic happiness. And the more we are on that path the more we begin to realize that Heaven isn’t a Disney World in the sky, or an undifferentiated “reward” for having been a “good person,” but is rather a nested hierarchy of souls that have differing capacities for love, and thus beatitude, depending on what one has done in this life. Jesus says that in his Father’s Kingdom there are “many mansions.”  I think this is what he meant.  Finally, none of this will come without purgation, in this life or the next.  And that purgation will be painful and difficult.  Even among those Catholics who feel confident of their ultimate salvation there is still a rigorous desire to do penances now, to lead a life of holiness now, precisely in order to avoid such purgations later.  Therefore, I do not need to believe that anyone is in Hell in order to desire the highest and most luxuriant of Heavenly mansions and to avoid the fiery cauldron of purgatory.

What all of this points toward is that our style of evangelizing needs to focus first and foremost on the true, the good, and the beautiful. It needs to build on our natural desire for happiness and our natural desire for the higher spiritual goods of life.  It needs to build on the natural thirst for Transcendence that all people feel.  And then it needs to show how Christ is the fulfillment of our deepest and most inchoate and hidden desires.  It needs to show how we do not even know what it is we should desire and that Christ points the way.  It needs to show that Christ has overcome the tribulations of this world and is the only person who holds the key to unlocking our chains.  It needs to foreground the positive aspects of the Gospel message as our liberation from the bondage of sin and death in the eschatological present.  Only then can it speak of the real possibility of an eternal loss because only then will people truly appreciate what is at stake.

But by all means … continue on with the eschatological census taking.  I hope one of those so engaged will apprise me of what they find. Because so far nobody has ever really figured it out. Not even the saints. Perhaps, most especially the saints.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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