Originally Published in The Catholic Thing. Click HERE to see the original artcile
The great modern Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, considered the plight of the believer who is out on the front line. For him, the believer represents “the unabridged role of the Church in a non-Christian or anti-Christienvironment.” (Theodrama) In such a situation, the baptized believer represents Christ.
Those who do this include the saints and many others yet to be canonized. The history of the Church is replete with great men and women who faced up to the challenge. So that “even in so-called Christian ages, an individual like Otto of Bamberg can show the emperor and Christendom the real meaning of mission.”
Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz. Madeleine Debrel under communism. Such wonderful people and many others “have given testimony in concentration camps, in trials, in the gulag Archipelago to the innermost essence of what we mean by ‘Church’; they have done this with a clarity of word and action that reduced even the most malicious adversary to silence.”
Terrible possibilities also arise, however, “where the witness has to accept a commission to give testimony from a Church that no longer utters a clearly discernible call.” Of course, there are the experiences of the great figures like Athanasius and others. But von Balthasar turned specifically to situations that are “reminiscent of that in which Kierkegaard found himself; in a national Church that had fallen into liberalism.” This latter condition can arise because the Church authorities have made “a pact with anti-Christian power structures.” Or it might be due to a situation of terror where the authorities cannot act.
In this context, von Balthasar posed the very salient question: “with whom is the individual to align himself in such a situation in order not to fall into the danger of being a martyr to his own cause or for the sake of his own imaginary orthodoxy?” He was very clear that this does not apply to someone who refuses to accept the decisions of a council or particular papal teaching. That is a personal problem and not what we are considering here. But going back to the question, von Balthasar’s own answer is: “it must suffice if there is the will to keep a lookout for [the word and the Cross] and steer by it; under such circumstances, this will must serve the Catholic as a compass.”
Practically, this means “the individual has to represent the Church without being adequately seconded by the Church herself.” He went on to expand his description of the position with eloquence.
Hans Urs von Balthasar
He speaks of “the bitter experience of individuals who find themselves deprived of. . .companionship, not as a result of external force, but because of a substantial, inner lack of genuine Church fellowship.” That has, for example, driven the founders of new religious orders. In their cases, what their activity resulted in, often in the face of resistance by the authorities, was the concrete establishment of Church unity. The authorities represent the Church’s formal authority that “in itself is indispensable” even if it not being exercised at that point. Von Balthasar noted that in practical terms, the Church authorities might in fact become acquiescent when confronted by a hostile culture and cease to exercise their leadership.
Returning to the individual: “understanding himself within the context of Christ’s act and message, the Christian individual has the perspective from which he can ‘move the world’, even if he perishes in doing so.” In other words, the Christian is equipped with the standard of authentic life and is facing modern men “who have lost sense of measure and standard.”
It’s interesting that such an individual takes the fullness of Christ seriously and in the process discovers the meaning of his/her own life too. This is the only understanding that can adequately respond to what von Balthasar calls the “fallen notion of ‘freedom’.” Conceptually, this modern notion starts in the wrong place when it starts with a kind of “inert autonomy” in which “there is no path to the religious dimension.”
In fact, real freedom, true mastery over oneself involves “genuine religious awareness.” It includes these elements even if “they have been consigned to neglect and oblivion.” As it becomes more defined, “there is the awareness … [of] having been addressed by a free, loving Thou” who calls us to respond.
This divine Thou is the one with whom we live life. The culture or individuals who confront us are not divine and so will pass away. They do not have the measure of life that appeared in Christ. And we know that a the end of the day: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be my witnesses. . .to the end of the earth.”(Acts 1:8)
Thank you Hans Urs von Balthasar!
Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI PhD is the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. His books are Laity: Beautiful, Good and True, The World of the Sacraments, and, most recently, Catholics Read the Scriptures: Commentary on Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini.
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