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Unity, Plurality, and the Papacy | Hans Urs von Balthasar | From the Introduction to The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church

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Pascal says in his Pensées: "If one contemplates the Church as unity, then the pope who is her head is also the whole. If one perceives her as plurality, then the pope is only a part. From time to time the Fathers of the Church thought of the Church in one way or the other... but they emphasized both; they excluded neither. A plurality that cannot be integrated into unity is chaos; unity unrelated to plurality is tyranny." (And he adds: "Only in France can it be said that the council is over the pope.") [6]

In this book we, too, will concern ourselves with unity and plurality, but we want to take a new approach. We do not claim to give practical directives in Church affairs, and because of this some readers may lose interest. Our main aim is to argue theologically, and adhering as closely as possible to the gospel of Jesus Christ, that the role of the office of Peter--even as defined at Vatican I!--is both indispensable and, at the same time, relative. The anti-Roman animosity rests, today more than ever, on a narrow view of those fundamental doctrines laid down in the New Testament which should be self-evident to Catholic eyes. More profound thinking will reveal the office of Peter as one of several indispensable elements in the ecclesiastical structure, thus freeing it from the pyramid-like isolation to which it consented, partly involuntarily, by permitting itself to be modeled on the pattern of Imperial Rome and, partly voluntarily, in reaction to the encroachments of medieval emperors.

The tension between primacy and collegiality seems to me insufficient to describe the force-fields that bear upon the Church. Translating these into categories of "monarchy" and "democracy" is even less satisfactory. Much deeper, more fundamental tensions are in play, and only by perceiving these--if Christian theology would deign to do so--can the atmosphere be rid of poison.

To be truly of service, our thinking should delve into the theological depth of ecclesial reality. It is not sufficient to survey the papacy in general, from a cultural-philosophical or sociological point of view. Nor can attempts to explain the reigning pope with a dose of depth-psychology clarify the situation and repair the damage done. Such personal "disclosures" can be sensational, but they are basically injudicious even if they are written in praise of the pope, as were the conversations of Jean Guitton with Paul VI, [7] in which the author admits that he put much into the mouth of the Pope which the latter had not said. Such publications may claim to provide informative criticism, as the book by the two authors who call themselves Hieronymus. [8] Or they can attempt to shed light on the tragedy of the papacy by applying a professional stethoscope to the souls of three recent popes, from the ivory tower of a world-historical viewpoint (as did Reinhard Raffalt). [9] Or, finally, as Fritz Leist did in The Prisoner of the Vatican, [10] they can stir up past historical trash to muddy the presently clear waters. We name these authors only to state emphatically that we will not do what they have done. What we want to do is to revive a theological understanding of the constellation given in the New Testament in which every pope--including the present one--has his ordained place; he can only represent this constellation together with the whole Church and can only fulfill his role in obedience to Christ.

There will probably be complaints that we are hiding behind abstractions to avoid hard and dramatic personal problems. But the set of tensions with which we intend to deal--and which have existed from the very beginning--seems to us much more dramatic than the small, passing and unavoidable tensions between personalities, their abilities and competencies. We ourselves are inserted together, inexorably, in the real "Body" of Christ. We can no more shrug off coresponsibility than we can distance ourselves from the Catholic Church's past as something alien that does not concern us. How could we renounce solidarity with the "structure" of the Church, as does, for example, Regina Bohne, when in reference to the Day of Judgment, she has the temerity to say: "This day... must be feared more by the structure... much more than by us, the 'flock'." [11] We will not deny the uncomfortable past during which, no doubt, the papal power and rule were not always understood in the light of evangelical service. But who among the Church's present critics can be certain that his criticism is made purely for the sake of the gospel, of bringing about the unity which Christ desired?

That in the New Testament the concept of exousia means both supremacy and service, or rather supreme power given for service, does not need to be repeated ad nauseam. Ultimately every citizen, from the President down to the most insignificant civil servant, understands that giving effective service to the community requires not only professional competence but also officially assigned and socially accepted authority. And why cannot Catholics really understand St. Paul's distinction between "bodily weapons" that he rejects and "spiritual weapons" that he certainly is empowered to use against every stronghold of pride that raises itself against the truth of God (2 Cor 10:4-6)? The exousia that Jesus entrusts to the Twelve on choosing them can be expressed in Latin only as potestas, in English, as "fullness of authority". It is the means by which they are empowered effectively to help the People of God whom they are to "judge" (Mt 19:28; Lk 22:30). Is this incomprehensible? It seems so, at least to some, since, according to Frau Bohne, Jesus wanted a "church of 'free brotherhood", "anarchical", "free from any authority..." [12]

Since the network of tensions in the Church is visible--as was the man Jesus--she has naturally a sociological and psychological exterior which should not be underestimated, because we cannot (adequately) separate the visible from the invisible Church. Nevertheless, the Church is first of all a mysterium (as Jesus is God's only begotten Son first of all and not as an afterthought), and as this mysterium she is Christ's Body and his Bride. And only by being this mysterium does she become the People of God, a socio-psychological reality. Therefore the tensions which we will describe all point to that mysterium; they are its necessary expression, not shortcomings on the part of the Church that need to be corrected by "changing the structure". The mystery of God cannot be manipulated. The visible contours of the Church's structure might perhaps be somewhat modified, provided we do so while obediently contemplating the mystery underlying the system, but only to bring out in bold relief the form that, from the very beginning, has been a stumbling block. We could even put it like this: our aim should be to remove the unreal stumbling blocks so that the Church's real stumbling block can become more evident to the whole world. Insofar as the Church is the fullness of Christ that has been given to us, we are not the Church: the Church precedes us; we have been raised in baptism in her and through her. We can no more discuss and control the Church as if we were "above" her than we can control God. We receive the word and the sacraments. We cannot change, increase or decrease them. In the same way we also receive the fundamental constellation of Christ which we shall come to in the second part of this book. This constellation precedes us, and we cannot make it more or less than what it is; we cannot manipulate it.

But we hope to accomplish one thing: to reintegrate what has been isolated from the wholeness of this constellation--and what in such isolation may seem abstract, unreal, even grotesque--"into the mystery of the whole. The reconciliation of primacy and collegiality, announced by Vatican II, is one aspect of this integration. It has other aspects, too, which up to now have not been given sufficient attention, perhaps because they are more difficult to express in concepts and proportions that can be grasped immediately.

Let us set aside for the moment the much-talked-about tension between office and charism, because it cannot be adequately resolved. "Office" in the New Testament clearly has a charismatic aspect. But who has taken the trouble to look at great personal sanctity (the charism that is unique and a gift but which has to be genuinely accepted and lived) in its theological tension with the principle of ecclesiastical office? Who has looked at it, not polemically, but constructively, so as to integrate it into the total theology of the Catholic Church? If we think that this is impossible, we must at least admit that the current theology comprehends only partial aspects of the mysterium of the Church. Only a person who has grasped this can try--nonpolemically, impartially--to show how the tension-filled facets of Christ's one truth mirror each other: the truth of an objective teaching and the corresponding objective leadership; the truth of a personal, unique call, the truth of an original, intuitive theology (which in some aspects might be ahead of and not always in conformity with the Church's theological stock-in-trade); the truth of a simple faith that trusts, in darkness, not wishing to know any other truth than that of God's guiding .... All this cannot be looked upon as unconnected and unrelated, as a tired "pluralism" maintains. We should rejoice over the richness of the Church's perspectives and be challenged by it to see in three or more dimensions what is usually presented rather flatly.

It is precisely in this multi-dimensional reality, which is much richer than our textbook wisdom ever dreamed of, that the essential form is safeguarded from sinking into a purely external, and therefore "changeable" or even dispensable, "structure". Spiritual Platonism or sterile structuralism cannot comprehend the living form of the Church. Indeed, the struggle against external structures is the last stage in the process of an illness diagnosed correctly by Madeleine Delbrêl: "A world which once was made Christian seems to be emptying itself out from within: first it gets rid of God, then of the Son of God, then that which he mediates of divinity to his Church, and frequently it is the façade which is last to collapse." [13]


[6] Pensées (ed. Chevalier), 809.

[7] Gespräche mit Paul VI (Fischerbücherei 966, 1969). Much more serious and with more content is the well-balanced book by David A. Seeber, Paul, Papst im Widerstreit. Dokumente und Analysen (Herder 1971). Seeber attempts to develop a psychology of the Pope which does justice to his complicated personality. On the other hand, in view of the incredible complexity of the situation, one would like to ask the author whether in the instances where he expresses a prudent reserve -after allowing for all circumstances--he would have had the courage to make different decisions. Is it at all, possible in a world such as ours to expect an individual, whoever he may be, to find a solution that suits everyone and that he can put into practice all by himself?

[8] Vatikan intern (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1973).

[9] (Munich/Zurich: Piper-Verlag, 1973.)

[10] Der Gefangene des Vatikans (Munich: Kosel-Verlag, 1971).

[11] Das katholische System, Kritische Texte 11 (Benziger 1972), 46.

[12] ibid., 9.

[13] La Joie de croire (Seuil 1967), 29.

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Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) was a Swiss theologian, considered to one of the most important Catholic intellectuals and writers of the twentieth century. Incredibly prolific and diverse, he wrote over one hundred books and hundreds of articles. Read more about his life and work in the Author's Pages section of IgnatiusInsight.com.

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