Balthasar and Social Justice: Some Holy Week Thoughts

As the liturgical marathon of Holy Week sets in (an Orthodox friend of mine once referred to the Triduum as “The World Series of Church”), let’s take a cue from the theologian of the Paschal Mystery, Hans Urs von Balthasar, on the relationship between liturgy and action on behalf of the world. You may be thinking that Balthasar has nothing to say, at least positively, about action in the world. You might also be thinking that for that, you have to go to Rahner, Metz, Johnson, Boff, or any number of more ‘progressive’ – and hence socially concerned –  theologians. You may know, for instance, that Balthasar has become the symbol of theological conservatism. And rightfully so,  at least to a degree. He opposed women’s ordination, he was wary of historical-critical biblical scholarship, and he defended the preferability of celibacy over married life. He criticized the movement of the altar from the apse into the assembly. Given all this, we might expect Balthasar to have a similarly ‘conservative’ view regarding the relationship between liturgy and social justice. We might expect him to think that the Church should be about a truly sacred liturgy and the promotion of devotions like Eucharistic Adoration – all leading us back to God, rather than into the world through a misplaced emphasis on social justice.

All true…to an extent. It is true that one of Balthasar’s primary contributions for contemporary theology is his theological aesthetics. This approaches theology through beholding the glory of God, revealed in the incarnate Logos.  The act of beholding God’s revelation brings about a response of love and adoration on the part of the viewer. Passivity, or rather, receptivity, seems to be given value over activity, contemplation over action, liturgy over social justice. His writings in Prayer demonstrate this priority well. For instance:

We do not build the kingdom of God on earth by our own efforts (however assisted by grace); the most we can do, through genuine prayer, is to make as much room as possible, in ourselves and in the world, for the kingdom of God, so that its energies can go to work. All that we can show our contemporaries of the reality of God springs from contemplation: Jesus Christ, the Church, our own selves…But who nowadays speaks about Mount Tabor in the program of Catholic action? Who speaks of seeing, hearing and touching? Of the ineffable peace of eternity above all earthly struggles, but also of the unutterable weakness and powerlessness of crucified Love, so “emptied” that it becomes “nothing”, becomes “sin” and “a curse”, and yet, in this “emptying” becomes the source of all power and salvation for the Church and for mankind? Such things cannot be proclaimed and propagated, however intense this “action” may be, unless they have been known in experience. (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer, 105-106)

Balthasar seems to place the emphasis on the event of the Incarnation as the beginning of our return to God, and hence away from the world. Liturgy, including all the accoutrements of ‘traditional’ liturgical style, would be the highpoint of this movement toward an eschatological and transcendent reality.

But that’s only half the story. Just as Balthasar possesses a strong sense of the return movement of the human person to God, he has an equally strong sense of the movement of God into the world for its sake. Indeed, this movement of God into the world is so great that it extends right into the furthest reaches of creation estranged from God – that is, even into Hell.

If our life as Christians is marked by our unity with Christ, then it cannot possibly ignore this Paschal descent of Christ into the world.  We too must join in Christ’s movement to the poor, the lost, the sick, the dying and even the dead.  Without this movement, the communion achieved in liturgy is stillborn. Christ’s descent into the world and unto death served to reveal in creation the infinite expanse of God’s triune love. It is our task, as those united in Christ by the Holy Spirit, to live as icons of this Triune and boundless love. Action in the world on behalf of our brothers and sisters for whom Christ died is not opposed to liturgy but its necessary fruit.

As we approach the liturgical celebrations of the Paschal Mystery, let us not forget how our own lives must come to reflect, however imperfectly, Christ’s life; how, through our love and compassion to our neighbors, we can manifest God’s compassion and his infinite, Triune love. I give the last word to Balthasar:

The final point of the outpouring of God’s love is not at all the point furthest from the primordial source (as in Plotinus), so as to necessitate a ‘turning round’ and ‘reverse movement ‘ back to the centre; the final point is no ‘end’ at all, but is itself endless and infinite. It is the dawning of the divine love in what is not God and what is opposed to God, the dawning of eternal life (as ‘resurrection) in utter death: not the dawning of the divine ‘I’ in the non-divine ‘Thou’, but the dawning of the divine I-Thou-We in the worldly, creaturely I-Thou-We of human fellowship…In Christian terms, no further stage lies beyond this incarnation of love…The divine love which is bestowed vertically by God on sinful men is glorified ‘horizontally’ in the love of human fellowship… (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Glory of the Lord VII: Theology of the New Covenant, 432-433)

Brendan McInerny defended his master’s thesis, “The Incarnation of Divine Love: A Theology of Prayer and Action in the Work of Hans Urs von Balthasar,” this past fall as part of his Master of Arts in Systematic theology at St. John’s School of Theology•Seminaryy. He is currently a candidate for the Th. M. degree at St. John’s and plans to begin Ph.D. studies at Fordham next fall.


  1. Many people wrongly think that the Church had no concern for the world prior to Vatican II because her liturgy was so “other-worldly.” But tell that to Dorothy Day. She would disagree in a heart-beat. Tell that to all the religious orders that opened schools, hospitals, social service agencies. Tell that to Catholic Action leagues of the 1950’s. The number of laity joining religious orders and the priesthood was inspired by the Liturgy of the day, not inspite of it.

    Yes, the Church after Vatican II called the laity to be more involved in all of this and they are today, but I think if we had kept the same liturgy and just called for more lay involvement the same could have occurred with the Extraordinary Form of the Liturgy.

    But with that said, the Ordinary Form of the Liturgy is our normal Liturgy and it should direct us to God at Mass and to one another when we depart Mass and go home, to work or to play. Balthaszar is more relevant for us today because his prophetic stance is so needed.

    1. On the other hand, I wonder whether someone like von Stauffenberg would have been willing to do what he did if he had grown up with the novus ordo as it is commonly celebrated.

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