Review: Christ’s Descent into Hell

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.

Cardinal Burke on Amoris Laetitia

I am still not commenting on Amoris Laetitia (AL) — I’m just helpfully directing your eyes, dear readers, to some of those who have. Today, Cardinal Raymond Burke weighs-in on the exhortation for the National Catholic Register. Here is a snippet of what he has to say:

The only key to the correct interpretation of Amoris Laetitia is the constant teaching of the Church and her discipline that safeguards and fosters this teaching. Pope Francis makes clear, from the beginning, that the post-synodal apostolic exhortation is not an act of the magisterium (No. 3). The very form of the document confirms the same. It is written as a reflection of the Holy Father on the work of the last two sessions of the Synod of Bishops.

. . . .

In other words, the Holy Father is proposing what he personally believes is the will of Christ for His Church, but he does not intend to impose his point of view, nor to condemn those who insist on what he calls “a more rigorous pastoral care.” The personal, that is, non-magisterial, nature of the document is also evident in the fact that the references cited are principally the final report of the 2015 session of the Synod of Bishops, and the addresses and homilies of Pope Francis himself. There is no consistent effort to relate the text, in general, or these citations to the magisterium, the Fathers of the Church and other proven authors.

What is more, as noted above, a document which is the fruit of the Synod of Bishops must always be read in the light of the purpose of the Synod itself, namely, to safeguard and foster what the Church has always taught and practiced in accord with her teaching.

In other words, a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, by its very nature, does not propose new doctrine and discipline but applies the perennial doctrine and discipline to the situation of the world at the time.

Beyond the controversy surrounding AL, Cardinal Burke’s words warrant careful attention from all Catholics, many of whom remain confused about the magisterial status of various papal documents and public statements (e.g., interviews given at 30,000 feet). In this unfortunate era of the celebrity pope and neo-ultramontanism, it is all too easy for Catholics and non-Catholics alike to view the pope not as the Vicar of Christ but the Oracle of God. Moreover, simply because a document is “official” and gets released with all sorts of bells and whistles attached does not mean that it automatically binds the faithful in conscience. Given the free-roaming nature of not just Francis’s writings but certain writings of his predecessors, it can be difficult, even painful, for the faithful to discern just exactly what they are supposed to believe and profess. Of course, even though Burke is correct about the non-magisterial nature of AL, that doesn’t mean its contents — or the contents of many statements made by this pope — can’t undermine settled Church teaching. This is exactly what conservative and traditional Catholics have been worrying about for some time now, and it seems that their worries are well-placed.

A Tale of Two Marks

Neo-Orthodox around the blogosphere and social media outlets have been offering up glowing praise for Moscow Patriarch Kirill’s recent Sunday of Orthodoxy homily. (For those unaware, the Sunday of Orthodoxy commemorates the Church’s triumph over Iconoclasm and is celebrated on the first Sunday of Great Lent.) The homily, which can be viewed over at the Byzantine Texas blog here, denounces “false union” with the Catholic Church while upholding Mark of Ephesus as a true champion of Orthodoxy. No doubt Kirill’s words were inspired in part by intra-Orthodox panic over his recent meeting with Pope Francis and the upcoming discussion of ecumenism which will be held at the Great and Holy Council this summer. According to the neo-Orthodox, Mark of Ephesus is a hero for his alleged anti-Latin stance and refusal to cave to “Latin innovations.” Mark, so the story goes, wanted nothing to do with the corrupt, heterodox Latin Church nor did he hold the Petrine Office in any particular esteem. While few neo-Orthodox have ever read a single word penned by Mark, almost all of them are 100% sure of what Mark stood for and why.

Complicating — or, rather, overturning — this simplistic and ahistorical image of Mark is Fr. Christiaan Kappes, professor at Ss. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Seminary in Pennsylvania. Kappes latest effort to clarify Mark’s thinking for contemporary audiences, “Mark of Ephesus, The Council of Florence, and the Roman Papacy,” is included in the new SVS Press anthology, Primacy in the Church, and available online for free here. While Kappes stresses that Mark of Ephesus would have serious qualms about the nature of the present-day papacy and the over-centralization of ecclesiastical governance, Mark’s ecclesiology is hardly anti-papal. Moreover, as some of Kappes’s other studies on Mark make clear, the saintly bishop of Ephesus displayed a great deal of charity and respect toward the Latins during the tense debates at the Council of Florence, far more than many Orthodox feel compelled to offer toward their separated brethren today.

Hans Küng’s Appeal on Infallibility

I am no fan of the German heterodox theologian Hans Küng, but I did want to make mention of his newly released appeal to Pope Francis to reexamine the question of infallibility, particularly papal infallibility. Since Opus Publicum draws a contingent of both Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic readers, I would be curious to know what they think of Küng’s appeal. Here is a brief excerpt:

It is hardly conceivable that Pope Francis would strive to define papal infallibility as Pius IX did with all the means at hand, whether good or less good, in the 19th century. It is also inconceivable that Francis would be interested in infallibly defining Marian dogmas as Pius XII did. It would, however, be far easier to imagine Pope Francis smilingly telling students, “Io non sono infallibile” — “I am not infallible” — as Pope John XXIII did in his time. When he saw how surprised the students were, John added, “I am only infallible when I speak ex cathedra, but that is something I will never do.”

Whether Catholics want to admit it or not, the question of infallibility will have to be examined in more detail going forward, not necessarily to upend or erase the dogma, but to further contextualize and clarify it in the light of 2,000 years of Church teaching and witness.

Pitstick Contra Balthasar – Round Two

Lyra Pitstick, who rocked the (neo-)Catholic theological world with her towering critique of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Light in Darkness, returns to the ring later this spring with Christ’s Descent into Hell: John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Theology of Holy Saturday. Here’s the book description from Eerdmans:

Pope John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) both held Hans Urs von Balthasar in high regard. Many assume that their praise of Balthasar implies approval of his theology of Holy Saturday, but this book by Lyra Pitstick shows that conclusion to be far from accurate.

Pitstick looks at what John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar have said regarding the creedal affirmation that Christ “descended into hell,” and she shows that there are radical differences in their conclusions. She then addresses some important questions that follow from these differences: If they disagree, who is right? If John Paul II and Benedict XVI have lauded someone with whom they disagreed, are there implications for papal infallibility? Finally, whose theology best expresses the Catholic doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell — and how can we know?

This careful, concise exploration of what three of the twentieth century’s most famous Catholic theologians had to say about Christ’s descent into hell provides an accessible take on a difficult point of theological debate.

Pitstick’s decision to expand her critical analysis of Balthasar by incorporating the thought of John Paul II and Benedict XVI is a clever one. Those accustomed to pro-Balthasar apologetics know full well that the admiration of both pontiffs for (some of) Balthasar’s theology is often used as “proof” that his theology is not only without serious defects but ought to be placed on a pedestal next to the contributions of Ss. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Now Pitstick wishes to cast light on the divergences between Balthasar’s theological account of Holy Saturday and the accounts endorsed by the previous two popes, a project which will no doubt lead to much weeping and gnashing of teeth among contemporary Catholics who believe Balthasar can do no wrong. Further, as the description suggests, Pitstick sets out to correct popular misapprehensions about what it means when even popes bet on the wrong theological horse while also reminding readers of the importance of Catholic tradition. It should be a good one.

Disconnected Thoughts on “Holy Rus,” Revival, and Current Conditions

19th C. Russian Orthodoxy—Holy Rus!—is often romanticized by contemporary American Orthodox Christians suffering from an inferiority complex, triumphalism, or both. Even so, it would be unfair to dismiss the genuine religious revival which took place in Russia leading up to the Soviet Revolution, a revival which was as spiritual as it was intellectual. Although it would take some decades before their presence was truly appreciated by the institutional Russian church, the 1800s housed the Optina Elders, St. Theophan the Recluse, St. Philaret of Moscow, and Bishop Ignatius Bryanchaninov. Ss. Seraphim of Sarov and John of Kronstadt serve as spiritual bookends for the century while the ecclesial careers of Metropolitans Evlogy (Georgiyevsky) and Anthony (Kraphavitsky)—two of the most important figures in the history of diaspora Russian Orthodoxy—began. Theologically, most know the 19th C. as a time when “Russian Scholasticism” (for lack of a better term) began to yield some turf to such different currents as a nascent Patristic revival and, much more controversially, German Idealism-inspired mysticism such as Sophiology. Much of this good work would be either destroyed or dispersed during the first half of the 20th C. and arguably it failed to fully refresh the present-day Russian church despite the heroic attempts of some churchmen to reconnect 21st C. Russian Orthodoxy with the possibilities present in the 19th.

Katechon – Part II

I do not believe that any historical concept other than katechon would have been possible for the original Christian faith. The belief that a restrainer holds back the end of the world provides the only bridge between the notion of an eschatological paralysis of all human events and a tremendous historical monolith like that of the Christian empire of the German kings. The authority of church fathers and writers, such as Tertullian, Hieronymus, and Lactantius Firmianus, could be reconciled with the Christian transmission of sibylline prophecies, in the conviction that only the Roman Empire and its Christian perpetuation could explain the endurance of the eon and could preserve it against the overwhelming power of evil. For German monks, this took the form of a lucid Christian faith in potent historical power. Anyone unable to distinguish between the maxims of Haimo of Halberstadt or Adso and the obscure oracles of Pseudo-Methodius or the Tiburtinian sibyls would be able to comprehend the empire of the Christian Middle Ages only in terms of distorting generalizations and parallels, but not in terms of its concrete historical authenticity.

This arresting paragraph, found on pg. 60 of Carl Schmitt’s The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, offers more depth on the importance of the katechon (restrainer) in Schmitt’s thinking and, indeed, in Christian history. The katechon, in Schmitt’s interpretation, injects meaning into history by justifying the political form it had inherited from the Roman Empire. Politics did not end at the Ascension; they took on a new, vastly more important, shape. Political authority was no longer an alien imposition upon the faith of the true believers it Christ. It became the means by which that faith could be sustained, even transmitted, to as many men as possible before the age of antichrist and the triumphant Day of the Lord.

As I noted in yesterday’s post on this subject, it is fashionable for Christians today to decry politics. The most vocal are the young, but there are several generations now of “enlightened Christians” who find it imperative to shed the history of their Faith of all Constantinian elements. They are as embarrassed by Justinian’s cult in the East as they are of Charlemagne’s in the West. They prefer the idea of liberal democracy to everything else because it gets them, and their religion, off the hook for war, destruction, and death. They say that they will die for their “faith in Jesus Christ” but they want nothing to do with the actual faith of Jesus Christ which came into the world at an actual moment in time, when Augustus ruled the earth, and was upheld and delivered throughout all lands by innumerable Christian kings.

Now the Christian authorities of the earth have been displaced and yet the end of the eon has not come to pass. We do not think about the kathechon explicitly anymore, but it must still exist, yes? Something must be holding back the antichrist, as St. Paul tells us. It is not the Roman Empire. It is not the Christian European polities. And it is almost certainly not the United States, one of the greatest affronts to true Christian authority ever conceived by man. (The advent of atheistic communism is only a footnote to the explosion of a thoroughly anthropocentric politics in the 18th Century.)

Maybe it is best not to meditate on this matter too deeply, for it may lead some to conclude the restrainer is no longer present and the End is closer than our pornography-saturated, iPhone-obsessed culture could ever dare contemplate.


In his posthumously published journals, entitled Glossarium, Carl Schmitt provocatively stated the following: “I believe in the katechon; for me he is the sole possibility for a Christian to understand history and find it meaningful.” The term katechon, which is found II Thessalonians 2:6-7, has been interpreted by theologians as the restrainer that holds back lawlessness or the coming of the antichrist before the Second Coming. Who or what the katechon is has been the subject of fierce debate for centuries, and it is possible this restraining force has never been static throughout history.

Why did Schmitt put so much stock into this (originally Biblical) concept? Henrich Meier, in his controversial work The Lesson of Carl Schmitt: Four Chapters on the Distinction Between Political Theology and Political Philosophy pg. 162, offers the following answer with brief quotes from Schmitt’s writings:

The notion of the katechon achieves three things. First, it “explains” the delay of the Parousia, it offers an answer to the question of why there is still “history.” For that purpose, Paul’s expression was originally introduced. Second, it protects historical action from despondency and despair in the view of a seemingly overpowering historical process that is progressing towards its end. Third, and conversely, it protects historical action from the disdain for politics and history in the certainty of promised victory. Thus for Schmitt, the katechon is simultaneously the complement and correction of the “genuine, ever-present, and necessary eschatology.” For the “living expectation of the immediately impending end seems to rob all history of meaning and gives rise to an eschatological paralysis, of which there are many examples in history.” The figure of thought of the “restrainer” forges a link between eschatological faith and the consciousness of “historicity.”

It could be said that the concept of the katechon has receded from Christian memory, particularly in these time where “enlightened Christians,” most of them young and suffering from a nasty case of Weltschmerz, claim to either no longer believe in politics or, laughably, exist “above” politics. This phenomenon can often be detected in Protestant circles, though Catholics are hardly immune. Why demonstrate any political allegiance at all when the only thing that matters—the only thing worth living for—is the End of Time? St. Augustine viewed history as the great boredom before the eschaton, and he was partially correct. Compared to the Day of the Lord, what are the days of history? But that observation does not necessarily rob history of meaning and purpose, not if there is evil to be held back in the time that remains.

There is an obvious tension in belief in the katechon and it is this: Is not the “benefit” of restraining the antichrist come at the “cost” of delaying the return of the Son of God? And yet it might be argued that due to the perennial difficulty in identifying the antichrist will always compel serious men to seek that which they perceive contains any genuine outbreak of lawlessness rather than suffer desolation for nothing. That is anything but a comforting thought for Christians will thus be tempted to throw their allegiance behind all sorts of authorities (political, moral, theological, etc.) who seem to hold the promise of being a katechonical force in whatever epoch they happen to inhabit. Only the Pope can save us from Protestantism; only capitalism can save us from economic ruin; only Vladimir Putin can save us from cultural decadence; only Donald Trump can save us from the Islamic State; and so on and so forth.