Why I Am a Catholic
Hans Urs von Balthasar
(Hans Urs von Balthasar,
well-known Swiss Catholic theologian, wrote this essay in German.
The present abridgment and translation was made by Augustine
Valkenburg, 0.P., and first published in the Irish monthly, The
Furrow, for March, 1972; and I have included a few passages from
the longer piece, as given in "Elucidations", London
SPCK, 1975 - translation of Klarstellungen: zur Prufung der Geister,
The reason why I remain in the Church is certainly not that I
have succeeded in seeing that the Church corresponds a) to my
expectations, or b) to God's expectations.
Should not the question implicit in a) be turned around to read:
do I correspond to what the Church
expects of me? And should not b) read: can the Church, which
even the unenlightened see is made up of sinners, ever correspond
to God's expectations?
Still less so, if forgetting her ancient wisdom she decides,
with almost comical earnestness that she does correspond to these
expectations, and proceeds accordingly to program herself by
her unaided wits. Down through the centuries the sinners in the
Church, that is, all of us, have behaved more or less
idiotically; but never more so than when they believed they could,
by dubious manipulations, establish
God's Kingdom on earth.
Why then do I remain
in the Church?
Because, despite the high degree of idiocy we have displayed,
the Church has miraculousy managed to
survive. Indeed, the greater the violence used against her the
more radiant her inviolability; the more
the Church is humiailiated so much more clearly is she seen to
occupy her proper place. Jesus and his
apostle Paul often speak of the "lowest place."
I do not greatly mind what outsiders do, but there are those
within the Church who think they do a
service to God by belaboring the Church as they would a dusty
mattress. Let them beat away by all
means, provided they strike their own breasts and with each blow
identify themselves with the
If they refuse, I fail to understand how they can assert they
are in the Church and not outside fighting
against her. However, let us leave them to their fate or, better,
to a gentle Providence who may open
their eyes to this truth: a sinless, all-knowing Church that
would sell off the old dusty one would be no
Church at all but only a Montanist-Donatist-Pelagian sect not
worth remaining in and having nothing in
common with the Church of Jesus Christ. We leave them to draw
that simple conclusion, and proceed to positive argumentation.
1. I remain in the Church because the old catholica still resembles
the Church which leaps to the eyes
from the pages of St. Paul's Epistles and the Acts. Indeed, the
resemblance is so striking as to be
offputting. The very Corinthians whom Paul lauds "for the
grace of God which was given you in Christ
Jesus, be-cause in everything you have been enriched in him"
(I Cor.1 ff.), he proceeds to denounce in
chapter after chapter for forming cliques, for their arrogance
and their incontinence, for loveless
behavior at the Eucharistic party (the expression comes from
a Swiss parish bulletin), finally for their
denial of the Resurrection by attempts to rationalize it.
This community whom the apostles wished "to espouse to Church
as a pure virgin" had overnight turned into a respectable
little huzzy. How did Paul recall her to order, to her true self
? Naturally by
preaching the cross of Christ, the folly of God. But in addition
with an almost painful importunity he
painted a more than life-size picture of himself, the humiliated
holder of Church authority.
Let the brotherhood look there to see, however unwillingly, the
cross of Christ and the folly of God
actualized, and their own true countenance. Whole chapters could
be quoted, a few sentences will
suffice. "I think God has set forth us the apostles last
of all, as men doomed to die, seeing that we have been made a
spectacle to the world, to angels and to men. We are fools for
Christ, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak but you are strong.
You are honored, we are without honor ... we are become as the
refuse of this world, the offscouring of all, even until now"
One should note that "until now." Again, "we preach
not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and
ourselves merely as your servants in Jesus ... always bearing
about in our body the dying of Jesus so
that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our mortal
flesh ... thus death is at work in us, but
life in you" (2 Cor.4:5,10,12). Bitter irony underlines
the calm assertion of a rule, which is the
definitive structure as it existed "to this day": what
the Church ought to be (and in God's grace
actually is), what she de facto makes of that grace and, mediating
between these as "the offscouring of
all," humiliated church authority.
Paul was, perhaps, not the most sympathetic of men and this,
together with the insistence upon his
authority, roused the charismatic progressivists against him.
Had not the Apostle, however, asserted his authority in Corinth
and insisted that charismatic gifts find their place within the
unity and love of the whole Church which forms the Christian,
(1 Cor. 13), and at the cost of his life preserved unity between
the mother Church and the communities of the diaspora (Acts 21
sq.),then humanly speaking the una catholica would never have
The question at issue today is not one about the limits of the
Pope's or the bishops' jurisdiction, but
about the established structure which persists (not of its own
strength, for it is weak and 'crippled',
but because it has been established) precisely at the point where
it is humiliated. In the gospel Peter is
often in the wrong, and every occasion is taken to reprove him
in order to train him in the true position
of an office-bearer.
It is edifying that Boniface VIII 'deserved' to be so demonstratively
humiliated. And if today Paul VI
is, in the eyes of the world, as a result of so many mistakes
which today are inevitable as a consequence of the absurd overloading
of the papal office, a deeply humiliated man, then I can only
breathe a sigh of relief as I catch a scent of fresh air. For
this makes him to me far more credible than the pontificating
cardinals, whose democratic ecclesiastical politics earn them
the plaudits of the masses (headed by the theologians).
One speaks of the visibility of the Church but one should take
care, for the 'structure' of the Church is
always only visible together with her humiliation. And it may
be that, in an age where both inside and
outside the Church structures are built up, pulled down and reconstructed
with an increasing ease and
speed, that in such an age the structure, the form of the building,
may not be able to attract attention
to itself, that this element may perhaps be reduced to a minimum
while the other side the humiliation,
precisely because of this shrinking process, may shine out all
the more brightly in its mysterious
visibility and thus may show us which of the many possible structures
is really and truly intended.
Indeed it might perhaps be very much to the point if the Pope
were to turn the Vatican into a museum
and were to take up his seat in one of the many administrative
buildings of some pious society at the
gates of Rome, buildings which were superfluous when they were
built and are now ready for sale. It
could be a sign; and Paul VI has already given many such signs.
At any rate it is not of great importance. But it might also
happen--and this would be more important--that, as a consequence
of the humiliation of the Catholica, the apparent sublimity of
its structures would show themselves in their true lowliness
and that thereby the unification of the divided Christian denominations,
under the archetypal image of the crucified Lord and the humiliated
apostles, might be brought nearer.
It is, I think, correct to say that in recent times nearly all
attempts to reach a closer agreement have
come actively from the side of the Catholic Church, whereas the
others have looked on more or less
curiously, if not with a certain maliciousness (how far will
it condescend to abandon its position of
supremacy in its diplomatic moves towards unity?); but it is
also correct to say that such
'condescension' will only achieve true credibility for all if
it can show itself unambiguously to be
humiliation, at least for those who are prepared to see it (for
there will always be the others). There
will be those who will laugh, but for the others it will then
be high time to examine themselves and the
manner in which the head of the Church and the serving office
of the Church exists.
2. Why do I remain in the Church?
Because being the Church of the Apostles she alone knows what
commission by, and service of, the Lord means, and can give to
me the Bread and Wine of Life. "Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you have not life in you."
I do not allow myself to be put off by assurances that condensed
food preparations are available as
substitutes, love of the neighbor in particular, without which
the other has no effect. No. It is the blood
of life I want to receive, the giving of God's own self, who
antecedently to everything else gives me in
His Son the outpouring of His love, and that regardless of behavior
of mine, the recipient ... I must
remember that the words of St. John that God is love may not
be separated by the recipient from the
message of the Cross and Resurrection of the historical Jesus.
Between Him and love of my neighbor there can be no proportion.
No synthesis can gradually be formed of the love I bear my neighbor
on the one hand and, on the other, the love of God for us in
Eucharist.... Neither love of the neighbor nor the union of prayer
in common gives the Body of the Lord. ... Numbers are irrelevant,
good will insufficient. Only what is in the Church from the beginning
until now, what is greater than the sum of her members, what
transcends the vagaries of subjectivism, that alone makes available
the Body of the Lord. And once again, that is the ministry, Church
That is something which the Eastern Church knows very well, as
to a large extent does the Anglican
Church. And it must be clear to anyone who gives thought to these
matters that it is only in this way that the worm of sectarianism,
namely of subjective, self-judging charismatics, can be kept
out of the wood of the Church. This worm ravages its interior
until it reaches the point when the gift of God, the peace of
Christ which passes all understanding, is overcome by the quarrels
and controversies of the
charismatic. By their fruit ye shall know them.
3. Why do I remain
in the Church?
Because she is the Church of the saints, both the hidden ones
and those others who have been pushed into the limelight. It
is they who refute the silly assertion that Christians are so
engrossed in receiving their God that they can never forget themselves
to engage in feats of courage and imagination.
The saints know well that God is never the stranger, never the
other. When He calls He is nearer to me
than I am to myself. Urged on by the gift of God Himself they
go forth to achievements that are
unknown to those who remain within themselves.... Though selfless,
the saint remains his own self, he
makes a reality of what others merely plan to do or deliberately
forget: Peter Claver, Las Casas, Filippo
Neri, Don Bosco.... They are the true realists, they make allowances
for the hopelessness of man as he is, and do not shirk the present
by taking flight into the future. They are the real Utopians;
they set to
work and hope against hope. Clear-sighted they may be but not
calculating, they live by the love of God in the Eucharist.
And the saints are humble, that is to say, the mediocrity of
the Church does not deter them from
expressing once and for all their solidarity with her, knowing
well that without her they could never
find their way to God. To bypass Christ's Church with the idea
of making their way to God on their own initiative would never
occur to them. They do battle with the mediocrity of Christ's
Church not by
protesting but by enkindling and encouraging the better. The
Church causes them pain, but they do not
become embittered and stand aside to sulk. They form no dissident
groups but cast their fire into
Your genuine saint never points to himself; he is no more than
the reflection. It is the Master Flame that
counts. This pointing away from self is an exact criterion. "He
was not himself the light, but was to bear witness to the light"
(Jn.1:7). But of the same saint it is written that he was "to
shine on those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death"
When you come to think of it, is not this pointing away from
self perfectly and uniquely realized in the
Church herself? She is more than community, more than "a
sociological phenomenon," she is "the
handmaid of the Lord" (and that includes the humiliated
holder of church authority) who points away
from herself and is filled with all fullness, not of herself
but with "the fullness of Him who is fully
fulfilled in all" (Eph. 1:23).
To conclude: Why then
do I remain in the Church?
Because it is the only chance there is of freeing myself from
this curse that is the deadweight of self, so
that in loving my role I fall in love with myself; to be rid
of that but not alienated from man, because
God became man not in a vacuum but in the dimensions of community,
in the Church.
I do not doubt for one moment that God's incarnation envisages
all men and that He is sufficiently God to attain to all whom
He wills. But God set up in the middle of mankind's history of
abominations a bridal bed, shining and unsullied, which is described
in the Song of Songs. And the
endless problem of the history of the Church is not so murky
that the light of love does not come shining through again and
again in the lives of her saints.
There is a counter-test and this is, unfortunately, the most
irrefutable experience that I have had in my
life in the Church. Nobody need attach to it any greater importance
than that of a report based on
experience. There are vocations in which men are called into
the sphere of the fire. They always demand the whole person.
And such vocations are refused, though one can only speak of
refusals where men consciously resist the call (for a thousand
unimportant reasons). Such refusals are more numerous than one
Those who have said 'no' remain marked. They burn but they consume
themselves. They become cynical and destructive, they smell each
other out and hold together. It makes no matter whether they
officially leave the Church or remain within her. Anyone who
has some facility for distinguishing spirits can recognize them.
They are, of course, not identical with the so-called 'enemies
of the Church', nor with what Ida F. Gorres has referred to as
'God's demolition-squad in the Church'. These latter can perform
the rough but necessary tasks; unsentimental, straight-forward.
The work of the former is much more insidious and I do not wish
to portray it here; enough to say that
its negative form provides the irrefutable, because involuntary
witness for the positive form of what
may be called election and sanctity in the Church. In the desperate
exhibition which they make of
themselves, those who have rejected their call show what disappearance
into pure service could have
Of course the Church 'should' ... It 'should' do everything and
much more than it ever can. I would
simply like to know whether all those who leave the Church because
it does not fulfil their expectations
of it find satisfaction elsewhere.
Of course the Church "should do this, should do that."
She "should do" everything, and much more than she
is ever capable of doing. But should not the words "the
Church should do this" mean "I should do it?"
All the more so, seeing I receive from the Church far more than
I deserve and far beyond the giving of
any person or human organization. Therefore it is my concern,
the concern of all of us, that the Church
should more perfectly correspond to what she is in actuality.
Obtained from: http://praiseofglory.alabanza.com/huvbcatholic.htm