Some time ago, when I found it necessary to wrestle with the theological debate over natura pura (the “Ur-debate” in Catholic theology, as one social-media acquaintance put it), I advanced the point that contemporary Catholics had moved from the question, “Was Henri de Lubac right?” (about pure nature and an assortment of other things) to, “Lubac can’t be wrong.” I have seen on more than one occasion Catholics treat the suggestion that Lubac failed to properly understand St. Thomas Aquinas and his Scholastic interpreters as treasonous, even quasi-heretical. Why? Because, as the story goes, popes such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI thought well of Lubac and even cited him in both their formal papal statements and private theological works. A similar tactic has been employed to defend another “new theologian,” Hans Urs von Balthasar. When Alyssa (Lyra) Pitstick’s Light in Darkness (Eerdmans) hit the academic shelves in 2007, it set off a tidal-wave of hyperbolic criticism against Pitstick and anyone who dared agree with her that Balthasar’s theology of Christ’s Descent into hell was, well, defective. Perhaps no one led the charge against Pitstick with greater fury—and less charity—than the late Fr. Edward Oakes, though in the end neither he nor his intellectual cohorts managed to rehabilitate Balthasar’s twisted account of Christ’s infernal suffering. And so instead Pitstick’s critics threw John Paul II and Benedict XVI against her, and by doing so attempted to create the impression that Pitstick was little more than a retrograde, reactive theologian whose own thinking may be incongruent with the Catholic Faith.
Now comes Lyra Pitstick with her long overdue follow-up to Light in Darkness, entitled (in full) Christ’s Descent into Hell: John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Theology of Holy Saturday (Eerdmans 2016). Written in a slightly looser style than her previous work, Pitstick sets out to undercut the myth that John Paul II and Benedict XVI (both before and after his papal election) endorsed Balthasar’s theology in toto, particularly Balthasar’s contestable account of what transpired on Holy Saturday. Relying on copious citations from the Church’s catechism (Trent and the contemporary iteration) and the works of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Pitstick demonstrates once again where Balthasar chooses to deviate from Holy Tradition and, just as crucially, where the pontiffs consciously opted not to follow the Swiss theologian when it came to Christ’s descent. As an aid to readers, Pitstick provides appropriate appendices demonstrating what the Church actually professes concerning Christ’s descent, including an excerpt of John Paul II’s catechesis on the subject. By the close of this thin volume, there can be little doubt left in the reader’s mind that one of the most controversial elements of Balthasar’s already controversial theology is neither a part of the Church’s official doctrine nor a fixed element in the thought of the two popes who held Balthasar in the highest regard.
The implications of Pitstick’s new book are important. First, Pitstick gives a needful assist to all theologians who have found good reasons to disagree with the “giants” of the previous century. Instead of being pressured into feeling as if disagreeing with Balthasar, Lubac, etc. is tantamount to disagreeing with Holy Mother Church, theologians following Pitstick’s approach should feel emboldened in their disagreements when those disagreements in no way, shape, or form oppose the clear tenets of the Catholic Faith. In fact, where the “new theologians” themselves made statements contrary to the Faith, those statements should be identified, scrutinized, and charitably corrected so as to prevent further doctrinal confusion within the Catholic Church.
Second, Pitstick’s study ought to remind readers that popes are not infallible, or even magisterial, in their private theological opinions. While neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI endorsed Balthasar’s Holy Saturday theology, their personal high praise of the man’s theological work as a whole is not binding on the Catholic faithful. In other words, no Thomist of the Strict Observance is out-of-sorts with the Catholic Church because he happens to find many of the methods and findings of “new theologians” such as Balthasar problematic or flat-out erroneous. So long as disagreeing with Balthasar does not lead to disagreeing with settled points of doctrine as enshrined in creeds and catechisms, then there should be no issue with that disagreement.
And last, Christ’s Descent into Hell gives readers an important reminder of what the Universal Church—East and West—actually professes. The perverted idea of Christ’s hyper-suffering in hell as advanced by Balthasar is outshined by the reality that Christ delivered his Divine Light to the souls of the just on Holy Saturday before His physical Resurrection where He laid waste to death. Christ did not submit to the power of the devil after the Cross; instead He proclaimed his power and authority over Satan and the underworld.