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.



  1. Janet Baker
    March 9, 2016

    I can’t see how a critique stemming from two liberal popes can enlighten us on Balthasar. Again we see liberal pitted against liberal, to the great confusion of the sheeple. Could you offer a conservative critique of Round Two?

    1. Gabriel Sanchez
      March 9, 2016

      Pitstick is very traditional in her approach. I don’t believe she is trying to vindicate JP2 and B16’s views, but wants to engage in a comparative analysis that demonstrates JP2 and B16’s views are more in line with tradition than Balthasar’s. Keep in mind that the focus is only on the theology of Holy Saturday; it’s not a comprehensive analysis of all three men. If it is true that neither JP2 nor B16’s understanding of Holy Saturday aligns with Balthasar’s, it puts to rest the commonplace pro-Balthasar apologetic that Catholics “must” or at least” should agree with Balthasar because he has the endorsement of two popes.

  2. antoninus72
    March 9, 2016

    It would be interesting to read an Eastern Christian (Catholic or Orthodox) analysis of Von Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday. From the little I read of his views on this, the theologies are 180 degrees from each other.

    1. Gabriel Sanchez
      March 9, 2016

      I read Pitstick’s book when I was in Eastern Orthodox (and studying for the bar exam) in 2007, and I found Balthasar’s theology to be both disturbing and heterodox. She makes reference to the Eastern tradition in parts of the text which helps bolster her over-arching claim that Balthasar’s Holy Saturday theology is off kilter, if not heterodox.

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