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Channeling theology?

 Over at First Things, Maureen Mullarkey raises some long overdue questions about the relationship between the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr, the woman whom Balthasar considered a mystic and whose insights he incorporated into his own vast and controversial theological project. Mullarkey’s essay is illustrated with a late-eighteenth-century print depicting a mesmeric exchange between a man and a woman, and she wonders whether Balthasar might have influenced her mystic states at least as much as her visions influenced his theology. Von Speyr seens to have dictated a second autobiography in what sounds an awful lot like a trance. Mullarkey writes:

A hyper-suggestible female susceptible to the ascendent will of an authoritative male is the classic stuff of the literature of parapsychology. In this instance, it is also an invitation to consider the power of theology to seduce and the ways of an eminent theologian to mesmerize. At the same time, it beckons a glance at the corresponding fascination of a theologian with a living mirror of—and prod to—his own transformative ambitions.

It has always puzzled me how a man of such prodigious learning as Balthasar could be so credulous when it came to von Speyr’s effusions. In her book Balthasar: A (very) critical introduction, Karen Kirby also wonders about the relationship. On the one hand:

What other theologian of the twentieth century has been so profoundly influenced by a woman, and acknowledged that debt? As we have seen, Balthasar described von Speyr’s thought and his own as two halves of a single whole; he put tremendous effort into transcribing and publishing vast amounts of her work; and at her prompting he left the Society of Jesus and made himself, for the central period of his intellectual life, something of an ecclesial and theological outcast.

On the other hand:

One could say, very briefly, that he is the channel [sic] through which she is available; we have almost no access to von Speyr except through Balthasar. And we can presume that her understanding and her articulation of her experiences was to some extent at least–perhaps to quite a significant extent–shaped by his intervention.

When in 1988 Cardinal Ratzinger gave the Erasmus Lecture for Richard John Neuhaus, he stayed around for a couple of days of conversation about the historical-critical method. During a coffee-break I expressed my reservations about some of Balthasar’s speculations and exegesis, especially his claim that Christ’s descent into hell meant that he suffered the pain of the damned. The Cardinal replied, “Oh, he got all that from Adrienne von Speyr and you know, she used to be a Calvinist.”

I have a further interest in a possible diagnosis of parapsychology.  My maternal great-great-grandfather Charles Partridge, a very successful New York City businessman, was a leader of the spiritualist movement in the mid-nineteenth century; he even founded a weekly newspaper, The Spiritual Telegraph, in which to publicize the messages received from the Spirit-world either by rappings on tables or by trance-communications.

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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It is odd -  besides his interest in Adrienne von Speyr's visions, there was also his interest in the tarot ....

Karen Kilby seems to have opened the floodgates. Meanwhile the English translation of Theologik has the groupies murmuring "a work of genius!" In reality its first volume is a reprint of a mediocre 1947 work, the kind of philosophical rambling about transcendentals (truth, beauty, freedom; subject and object etc.) that German speakers can write in their sleep and the other two volumes don't look much better. 


The Tarot book with the afterword by Hans Urs von Balthazar is recommended by other renowned men in Editorial Reviews:  Bede Griffiths, Thomas Keating, OCSO, RIchard W. Kropf in NCR, et al.

(I'm almost tempted to read it.)

I think tarot cards, like opening a bible to a random page, can be useful in finding the answers to questions we have.  Nothing magic about it or "occult".  We know the answers already.   

I prefer the Inner Child Cards.


As to von Balthazar's "channeling" a female mystic?  To each his own.  I've always had a hard time understanding how anyone can believe the private revelations of people like Margaret Mary Alacoque, Catherine of Siena, the visionaries of Lourdes, La Salette, Knock, Woonsocket, RI, etc., etc., etc., but if those claims help people along the way, fine.  


I like this paper on von Balthazar and St. Cordula by Philip Endean, SJ.


Crystal --

Hmmm.  Interesting.  Another important 20th century Catholic intellectual who was actually the world's authority on the history of Tarot was Michael Dummett (a sometime contributor to Commonweal and one of the great logicians of the 20th century).  He wrote extensively on Tarot.  He said that he wasn't interested in the "fortune telling and occult" aspects of it.  

His research revealed that that originally the Tarot figures had no occult meanings.  It was just a popular card game.  It was invented in the 15th century, and the occult meanings appeared only in the 18th century.  Tnis strongly indicates to me that they were not based on any sort of visionary or "mystical" experience of any sort. 

Von Balthasar was a tremendously learned man.  I wonder if he knew Dummett's work onTarot.,  If so, it seems quite naive of him to use the Tarot figures as theological hermeneutic devices, no matter how sincere the author of that Meditations book was.  True, all of Nature reveals the Lord, but Tarot cards?

Hi Ann.  I actually have a pack of tarot cards from back in college  :)  Perhaps von Balthasar saw the cards in a Charles Peirce/semiotics kind of way as possible  icons, signs, symbols of Christian meaning?  Thomas Aquinas seems to have tried to address the divination issue, given that it's practiced a lot in the bible ...

Tarot is still a popular card game, at least in France, for 3 to 5 players, of a style similar to whist or bridge, with trumps, bidding, and partners. It involves strategies and probability. I have a couple of decks and re-learn the game every time I go on vacation with people who like to play cards.

T S Eliot also used Tarot in "The Waste Land".

Von Balthasar wasted the time of students of theology for 30 years by teaching them an idiosyncratic, reactionary method that is the polar opposite of the more sober, empirical, world-open, dialogal, biblically grounded method of Vatican II.

Huffing and puffing about recondite theologoumena such as the Descent into Hell does nothing to make Christianity more comprehensible or credible in the horizon of modernity. Balthasar saw modernity as a Promethean revolt and expected an imminent eschatological event in which modernity would be overthrown.

His trinitarian theology is the framework of his system, and it is tritheistic, as Rahner saw, and fantasy ridden. The sterility of Balthasar's method is clearly on view in the vast sprawl of his trilogy, which simply fails to produce the goods. What a contrast with Barth's magnum opus!

Some claim that von Speyr's writings have intrinsic merit of their own. I have not read them, but Kilby suggests that it was actually Balthasar who wrote them.

Ratzinger ascribes the Descent into Hell stuff to von Speyr's Calvinist background. Calvin offered a metaphorical and spiritual reading of it, but today we see it as a piece of legend that has fallen by the wayside.


"His trinitarian theology is the framework of his system, and it is tritheistic, as Rahner saw, and fantasy ridden. The sterility of Balthasar's method is clearly on view in the vast sprawl of his trilogy, which simply fails to produce the goods."

I wonder which bits of theology are not "fantasy ridden".  

Not enough people understand how Balthasar, deLbac, Rahner and others catapulted to pressure to return to orthodoxy. It really hurt theology and the renewal of Vatican II. One of the main reasons theology went in the tank for forty years. Ironic that Balthasar who criticized Kung for his unorthodoxy became somewhat of a "theological outcast" in his interaction with this mystic woman. Was there any romance in this? Rahner had a long relationship with a woman for over 20 years. 

In my opinion mystics are highly overrated. If we spent as much time dissecting the Sermon on the Mount the church would thrive. Flowery stuff seems to be more attractive than calls to action.

Crystal --

Interesting Aquinas text.  He's clearly against astrology, but casting lots is sometimes OK and sometimes not, depending on one's intentions.  For instance, people who draw straws leave the determination up to chance or, possibly, to God's influence.  

In my mother's family when two or more heirs want an object, drawing straws is used as a means of determining which heir will get it,  No hocus pocus involved in that.  St. Thomas, according to the first part of the text, would approve because the matter is left to chance -- no prayers involved.  But later he says that to cast lots with prayers asking that God influence the outcome is wrong, because, says Augustine, that's too trivial a matter to ask God's influence.  Hmm.  Then what about all our other trivial prayer requests?  Are they improper too?

Good to see that he explicitly dispproves of torture even for a good end :-)  Wonder how Torquemada got around that.

Bill Mazzella:

Re: romance between von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr. Who knows?

Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.  claims that von Balthasar was her confessor.  Her biography online indicates that she came from a rather troubled family system.

I do not understand how von Balthasar could have such a following: JPII and BVI. Could if have something to do with "Communio"?

Rahner’s relationship with Luise Rinser as indicated in their letters is pretty steamy. Interesting that she wrote a novel entitled, “Abelard’s Love”. 

I had better stop now lest I descend to “National Enquirer” gossip.

"I do not understand how von Balthasar could have such a following: JPII and BVI. Could if have something to do with "Communio"? "


As long as one is loyal to Rome and give unconditional assent,  theology does not matter as much. Rome turned Rahner, deLubac, Von Balthasar and other progressives,  against Kung. As Avery Dulles turned toward orthodoxy Rome began to bestow honors on him. It was the only reason he became a Cardinal. Paul VI kept saying to Kung: "Give me a sign" un segno, that he was returning to orthodoxy. If he did he would have easily made bishop and Cardinal. (This was Ratzinger's path) The terrible treatment by Rome of Bernard Haring, a true saint and prophet, says it all. 

John XXIII and Francis are different. 


"I do not understand how von Balthasar could have such a following: JPII and BVI. Could if have something to do with "Communio"? "

Maybe because von Balthasar, unlike Rahner, was very conservative on all the doctrine stuff - for instance, to read what he has to say about women and their place in the church is depressing.

Thanks, Crystal, for those useful links. Although Karen Kilby reports perceptions of Balthasar's writing as "oozing sex" his pontifications on the role of woman sound like a zombie:


To the allegation that Rahner, too, is fantasy-ridden, I would say that in the specific area of Trinitarian theology he is remarkably sober; the only other theologian I have read who keeps trinitarian fantasy so firmly in check is Newman. Both agree that there is nothing much to be said about the Trinity -- except that the Church discerns that within the One God we must distinguish three instances, named Father, Son, and Spirit. All Rahner adds to Newman is that these instances may be called "modes of subsistence" (the Cappadocians' tropoi tes hyparxeos). This restraint drove Balthasar crazy, but it is the price of sanity aka orthodoxy. Why could Balthasar not be happy with what Scripture says about Father, Son and Spirit? Why did he need the superstructure of a fantasy world?

Of course there are a lot of theologians from Greek and Russian Orthodoxy who abound in fancy trinitarian speculations; I venture to suggest that a bit of Roman discipline would be good for them.


correction, "there is nothing much to be said about the Trinity" should be "there is nothing much to be said about the immanent Trinity".

What a fascinating thread, Fr. K.. Who would have thought?

Please keep going JOL, Gerelyn, Ann, Crystal, Bill M, et al. Such an education.

There have also been a lot of articles on von Balthasar and hell .... ... Why Von Balthasar Was Wrong About Holy Saturday ...  Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy: An Exchange ... More on Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy ...  Responses to Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy  ... The Population of Hell ...  The Inflated Reputation of Hans Urs von Balthasar  ...  Will All Be Saved?

I take vigorous exception to Bill Mazzella's comments about DeLubac, et al's obedience to the Church. It may well be that their silencing was unjust. Their accepting it as part of their service to the Church remains to their credit.


Nice of you to refer to me in the third person. I am not quite sure what  your point is. DeLubac, as well as many others, were restored by John XXIII and then stifled again by subsequent "Supreme Pontiffs."  Hans Kung, Congar, Schillibexx and others chose to fight for what they believed was right, albeit in different modes. When Kung was censured by JPII many theologians at Tubingen, and other places, signed protest letters. When pressure came on the professors at Tubingen, practically all of them backed down. DeLubac, as well as others, chose to conform also. DeLubac became a Cardinal, the ultimate reward for orthodoxy. Some may say that Congar became a Cardinal also as to justify the others. But Congar suffered from a nueralgic disease for six years before he was named Cardinal. To me it was a cheap publicity stunt captitalizing on a frail person. 

The definition of the Church goes beyond the hierarchical church. Service to the Church must always include obedience to one's conscience. 

Bill, sorry that I did not refer erlier to yo in the second person. I intended no slight. But let me say again that I find no reason to think that the scholars to whom you refer were failing to follow their consciences. That you disagree with what they did is one thing. To charge them with a far from trivial moral failing is another thing. Mercy, love, and compassion always have a place when we are assessing the conduct of other people. There is nothing about these virtues that make them incompatible with a devotion to truth.

Yves Congar's neurological disease afflicted him for much longer than the last six years of his life. His Vatican II journal is filled with references to it.  He himself gratefully regarded the cardinalate as a recognition of the importance and value of his work, however late it was in coming. 

Joe K, 

We have had this discussion before. Congar did have the disease from the 1930's. It became more acute the last six years,which he spent in Hôpital des Invalides. In these last years he became more and more frail. How capable was he when he was named Cardinal just before his death. If you can provide documentation for your remarks Joe, I would appreciate it. Depending on who writes, the Cardinalate is considered a forgiveness or reward. It is hard to consider Congar considering the Cardinalate as a recognition since he saw so many incompetents become Cardinal. 

"To charge them with a far from trivial moral failing is another thing. "



Let me put it this way; Rare is the theologian who has not sold out. You can include Augustine of Hippo and Bernard of Clairvoux in that bunch. The lack of conscience of theologians is a large reason for the corruption in the church. The Vatican has killed or censured those who acted according to their conscience. Augustine said the age of martyrs was over which was true since officials began to compromise their faith rather than live it. Why else would Emperors call the first seven Councils. Marcus calls this the "Age of Hypocrisy."

We certainly have a whiff of that now with Catholic Justices who don't give a damn about the poor. As far as judging we all depend on the mercy of God whose mercies endure forever. Jesus said "if they persecuted me they will persecute you because the servant is not greater than the Master." Centuries of bishops have tried to be greater than the Master. Augustine, and others, have even used the state to kill other Christians. 

"Mercy, love, and compassion always have a place when we are assessing the conduct of other people."


Bernard --

True about conduct, but when it comes to thinking,  professional scholars have to be willing  to criticize and be criticized.  Unhappily, logic is merciless, and we all hate to be shown to be wrong.   Most unfortunately, that seems to be especially true of the CDF.

Have you seen the latest on the rapprochement between the CDF and some of the liberation theologians?  Nothing like a new pope to make the CDF reverse itself.  Nothing.  Sigh. 


Bill:   I passed on what I was told by a member of Congar's community at the Couvent saint Jacques in Paris.

It is, of course, quite rich that you would ask someone else for "documentation" after the string of unsubstantiated and highly judgmental comments you've been making about a whole bunch of theologians. 

"quite rich"!!!

Is that from Holden Caufield or Vanity Fair?  As far as Congar's community you know that is what is called hearsay. One sparrow does not make a summer. As far as documentation, Joe, you and I both know that if I make an error you are the first to cite chapter and verse.  

Oh, now I get it!  Guilty until proven innocent!

On this post, it would have been interesting to see comments by Cathy Kaveny, Lisa Fullam, Fr Imbelli, Lawrence Cunningham, or other theologians.


One member of Congar's community's comment does not mean that is what Congar felt. Especially in his advance illness. 

But as you know I am quite serious about theologians. If anything they have to be serious witnesses to the faith. The constant quoting of Augustine,  who declared that it was moral to kill Christians, is an indication that too many theologians do not understand how the violent history of Christianity stemmed from that. Likewise with Bernard of Clairvoux who did not just approve of the Crusades but clamored for them. We are talking centuries of theologians. The worst wars came within our lifetime. So these are serious problems which too many in Christianity avoid or stand on the sidelines uttering pieties but avoiding witnessing. 

Bill M.:

The Dominican I referred to was a close associate of Congar at Le Saulchoir, unlikely to prettify anything he said. In any case, my source is a lot closer to him than anything you have offered in defense of your speculations.

Another rehearsing of all the bad things ancient thinkers did does not justify your sweeping comments about several 20th-century theologians whose hearts and good faith you call into question, as if only theologians who agree with you act out of conscience. You never seem to consider the possibility that someone could disagree with you without being either ignorant or cowardly.

Joe K

Quod gratis asseritor, gratis negatur. You can take all the cheap shots you want. That you do not back it up with facts is the issue. My opinion that Congar did not value the Cardinalate may make more sense than any spin. Here is Congar's letter to his mother. How he could change to value this vainglorious title warrants disbelief:

     "What I am blamed for is usually very little. Most of the time, whatever problem is raised about an idea in my work is explained in the preceding line in that same work. What has put me in the wrong (in their eyes) is not having said false things, but having said things that they do not like to have said. I have touched on problems without always aligning myself to the one point of view which [Rome] wants to impose on the comportment of the whole of the Christian world and which is: to think nothing, to say nothing, except what they propose.

There is one pope who thinks everything, who says everything, and the whole quality of being Catholic consists in obeying him. They want to be absolutely the only ones to think or say anything, except on a small area of inconsequential topics. It is absolutely required to repeat and orchestrate their oracles, declaiming, "Ah, isn't this wonderful!" [Rome] has attributed to me an audience and an influence that I know very well I have never had. But they will listen to nothing about that.

The present pope [Pius XII] has (especially since 1950) developed almost to the point of obsession a paternalistic regime consisting in this: that he and he alone should say to the world what it has to think and what it must do. He wishes to reduce theologians to commenting on his statements and not to dare to think something or undertake something beyond mere commentary; except, I repeat, in a very small and safeguarded area of inconsequential problems.

The French Dominicans have been persecuted and reduced to silence because they have been the only ones who have had a certain freedom of thought, initiative and expression. In all cases this has been a matter of a freedom within orthodoxy, but an orthodoxy whose sources are the Bible, the Fathers of the Church, etc. The first warning I was given, perhaps the only clear one, came in 1938 or '39; Pere Gillet [the Dominican master general] said to me: "They complain about you for calling for a return to the sources of theology." And of course there are others who have also lived and worked in this same direction. Indeed, there are many, perhaps more and more. But we know that it is in large part thanks to us (the role of Editions du Cerf [the Dominican press in Paris], etc.) that we are so visible. And above all, we are the only group as a group to be free in the service of truth, the only ones to put truth above everything else.

It is clear to me that Rome has never looked for and even now does not look for anything but the affirmation of its own authority. Everything else interests it only as matter for the exercise of this authority. Except for a certain number of cases dealing with people of holiness and creativity, the whole history of Rome is about insisting on its own authority and the destruction of everything that cannot be reduced to submission. If Rome, 90 years late regarding the initiatives of the liturgical movement, now takes an interest in this movement, for example, it is so that the movement won't exist without and won't be able to escape its control. And on and on.

Practically speaking, they have destroyed me as far as it was possible for them. Everything I believed and had worked on has been taken away: ecumenism, teaching, conferences, working with priests, writing for Temoignage Chretien, involvement in conventions, etc.

They have not, of course, hurt my body; nor have they touched my soul or forced me to do anything. But a person is not limited to his skin and his soul. Above all when someone is a doctrinal apostle, he is his action, he is his friendships, he is his relationships, he is his social outreach; they have taken all that away from me. All that is now at a standstill, and in that way I have been profoundly wounded. They have reduced me to nothing and so they have for all practical purposes destroyed me. When, at certain times, I look back on everything I had hoped to be and to do, on what I had begun to do, I am overtaken by an immense heartsickness."

Bill:  I didn't think you had any evidence.  Certainly a letter written thirty years before he was made a cardinal, before Vatican II and the great contribution he made to its success and the great changes in the Church, doesn't ground the hypothesis you offer--and, please, it is nothing more than your hunch.

Henri de Lubac was indeed annoyingly conservative in later years, but his development is perfectly consistent with his earlier self. At the Council he was increasingly critical of what he saw as the excesses of the progressives; see To picture him as a careerist of any kind is ridiculous.


I saw de Lubac many times at Chantilly and chatted with him once in Paris -- he lived a modest, disciplined Jesuit life, and I am pretty sure thought as little of red hats as Congar. Congar hardly sighed for a red hat but its late arrival was greeted by thousands of people with relief, because the refusal to grant it was interpreted as meaning that his theology (in John Paul II's time) remained under a cloud (and of course Rahner was never considered as a potential Cardinal, not to speak of Schillebeeckx). Congar was pretty outspokenly critical of Vatican authorities -- he not the wisest course if you want a red hat. He was quite a scold and even at times a whiner. Congar denounced the Vatican's "morality of the sacrosanct semen" while de Lubac wrote a glowing preface to Karol Woytila (John Paul II)'s "Love and Responsibility". I saw Congar at a meeting of Communio chatting with the also uncardinalized Von Balthasar.

Stanislas Breton (passionist philosopher) boycotted a meeting with John Paul II at the Institut Catholique in 1980 and asked why the pope saluted de Lubac and not Congar (this was before de Lubac become cardinal). He wrote a brilliant essay in Esprit at that time on "de la netteté dans l'Eglise" referring to Catherine of Siena's call for nettezza. 

Nobody ever accused Maritain of being a toady, but after Vatican II he wrote bitterly about some of the "liberal" changes.  

It isn't uncommon for people to turn conservative as they age.  The poet Robert Frost said, "I never dared to be radical when young. For fear it would make me conservative when old.  " :-) 

Kilby's 167 pages opened the floodgates???  now that is fantasy...

Endean is an excellent Rahner scholar; but on Balthasar he is quite sophomoric...


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