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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Pitstick the Theologian

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus on the Pitstick/Oakes controversy

There has been intense interest in the exchanges between Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Fr. Edward Oakes on the theology of Hans von Balthasar and the meaning of heresy, which will conclude, at least for the time being, in the March issue of First Things. Although a few readers of this site have grown impatient. As one puts it quite succinctly, “I don’t give a d— about Balthasar or what Catholics think is heresy.” Well, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

The work of Balthasar is without doubt one of the most impressive theological projects of the past hundred years. Anyone not interested in Balthasar is not interested in theology. Or in much else–for he wrote very suggestively about culture, literature, the role of classical Greece in contemporary philosophy, the possibilities of historical change, and the strange relationships between the beautiful, the good, and the true. So not to be interested in Balthasar is not to be interested in the questions that are the reason for the existence of First Things.

In his contribution here earlier this week, Fr. Oakes concluded by quoting Pope Benedict, who urged theologians to study Balthasar with an eye to his thought’s “efficacious application” in the Christian tradition. Benedict, as usual, is very careful in his choice of words. The statement cited by Fr. Oakes is hardly an endorsement of Balthasar tout court. Dr. Pitstick, too, is obviously interested in the efficacious application of Balthasar’s thought, and in guarding against applications that are not efficacious.

In talking with people and looking over the large and lively correspondence in the March issue of First Things, I am struck by the oddity that many people assume that Oakes is on the liberal side of this exchange and Pitstick on the conservative side. Now Dr. Pitstick is undoubtedly conservative in the sense that she is defending what she views as the mainstream of the received tradition, especially on the meaning of Christ’s descent into hell. But note also that it is Fr. Oakes who is regularly invoking what authoritative figures such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI have had to say about their personal and intellectual respect for Balthasar. Dr. Pitstick is in a venerable tradition of theological inquiry when she is not intimidated by ad hoc tributes, even when they are offered by popes. In fact, her contributions to First Things and her book, Light in Darkness, which will be out at the end of this month and develops her argument more fully, exemplifies the task of the theologian as described in the 1990 instruction from Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian.”

She is–as the instruction says theologians should– helping the Magisterium of the Church to clarify a hotly disputed question of doctrine. A very distinguished and indisputably orthodox theologian of my acquaintance said after reading an advance copy of her book that he didn’t know whether to be more impressed by Balthasar’s scholarship or by Pitstick’s critique of his scholarship. For a young woman with a newly minted doctorate, Dr. Pitstick has done a very daring–some would say impertinent–thing in taking on a figure so venerated as Hans Urs von Balthasar. Agree or disagree with her, she is a first-rate theological talent, and that should not be overlooked in these exchanges.