Balthasar and the Rediscovery of the Marian Profile of the Church
Balthasar and the Rediscovery of the Marian Profile of the Church

Balthasar and the Rediscovery of the Marian Profile of the Church

Ross Campbell FAITH MAGAZINE May-June 2013

In the second part of his article Fr Ross Campbell, assistant priest in Kirkintilloch, offers an insight into the challenging Mariology of one of the major figures of 20th-century theology.

A great son of the Church who deserves a special place of honour in contemporary ecclesiastical life. (Blessed John Paul II on Hans Urs von Balthasar)

Balthasar is above all a Marian person… By being made a Cardinal on the eve of his death the Church acknowledges that he is right in what he teaches of the faith. (Funeral Homily of Hans Urs von Balthasar preached by Cardinal Ratzinger)

In the first half of this article (published in the March/April edition of Faith magazine) we offered a thumbnail sketch of some of the 20th-century debates in Mariology and the consequences of those debates. We noted the confusion that arose from them in the life of the Church regarding the role of Mary. There is no doubt that in recent years we have witnessed a resurgence of the role of Mary in the devotional lives of many Catholics. In itself this is a good thing. However, this growth in Marian devotion cannot be reduced to piety based upon nostalgia or sentimentality. We saw, especially during the pontificate of Blessed John Paul II, how Mary has been reintegrated into the life of the Church. The theological underpinnings of Mary’s relationship with the Church have been recovered andbrought to the fore. This article looks at the contribution of the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in this rediscovery of the Marian profile of the Church.

Scholars argue whether or not Balthasar was a systematic thinker. He certainly never dedicated a systematic treatise to Mary and the Church. Nonetheless a number of foundational ideas recur throughout his theology and give it shape and form.

Balthasar’s Theological Foundations

Balthasar’s fundamental theological presupposition is that human history comes from and is directed towards Christ. For this reason one can expect human history (and indeed the cosmos) to show forth something of the glory of God. Nowhere is this glory more evident than in the concrete living person of Mary, who has been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. The form of God’s glory, and therefore the form of revelation, is Jesus Christ. Balthasar doesn’t necessarily mean form in a strictly scholastic sense here; rather he means that reality which we, with our human minds, are able to grasp. Christ is the intelligible embodiment of God’s glory. The goal of all theological speculation, and of the believer, is to have experience of this form. This is Balthasar’s “theological aesthetic”. TheChristian is called to rediscover the beauty of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.

Consequently the foundation stone of the edifice of Balthasar’s ecclesiology is Christological: the Incarnation of God.[1] According to Antonio Sicari, Balthasar sees Christ as:

"this “someone”, “in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9), [and who] demands, above all, a personal and immediate relation with all human beings, beyond the limits of relations due to those who are only “someone”[2]

By referring to this divine “someone” Balthasar emphasises the particularity of the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is not some sort of nebulous platonic ideal; he is a person, a particular “someone”. But Christ is also the second person of the Trinity. He is God. And in the Incarnation he has entered time and space, met other human beings and established relations with them. This “someone” who claims to be the very being of God has placed himself within the grasp of the whole of humanity by entering our history. He is, therefore, potentially in relation to all human beings.

For Balthasar, the fact that God, in Christ, sought to establish relations with other human beings means that the Church, that is those people who are drawn into a relationship with Christ, is a constitutive element of the Incarnation. For Balthasar, the Church is not an afterthought tacked on to the event of God’s enfleshment. The Church is an integral part of the Incarnation. The Church was in the mind and plan of God from the beginning.

From this realisation flows the insight that if we desire to enter into relationship with God we need to look at what this particular “someone”, Christ, actually did. In what way did he choose to relate to human beings? Balthasar maintained that the first human relations that Christ established must have had a twofold character: they must have been both paradigmatic and efficacious.3 By paradigmatic Balthasar meant that this real and particular relationship between Christ and an individual was the first instance of this relationship, but it also sets up a pattern of this type of relationship that will be repeated throughout history and diffused across the whole of humanity.

These relationships, which take place during Christ’s 33 years of visible presence among humanity, are the initial realisations of all future relations. By efficacious, Balthasar means that because Christ is not just anyone but the divine “someone” his relationships transcend the normal conditions of purely human relationships. Christ’s relationships transcend the limitations of space and time. And so for Balthasar the Church flows from the seriousness of the Incarnation and Christ’s life as a human being.4 The Church, therefore, is a constitutive part of the divine initiative and not a consequence of it.

Mary and the Church

In Balthasar’s approach to theology Mary gives the Church her centre and apex. He observes that throughout the history of the Triune God’s dealings with humanity a female principle is present. The history of our salvation is marked by a feminine presence that responds actively and fruitfully to God’s initiatives: first Israel, which is presented throughout the Scriptures in feminine terms (as the daughter of Sion or, in those times when the prophets urge her to repentance, as a faithless wife); then Mary; and now the Church (the bride of Christ). And it is in this context, then, that the experience of the early Church and in particular the experience of Mary becomes pivotal for all believers.

Who is the Church? Not, what is the Church?

According to Balthasar (perhaps in direct response to the ecclesiology of Rahner) this is the question we should be asking.

The Church should not be thought of purely as an organisation or as an institution. The Church is not a “something”, neither is the Church an “it”. The Church is a person. She is a somebody. A person knows and wills in a way that an inanimate object does not. For instance, a car does not know or will anything. The Church, however, unlike an inanimate object, is a subject: she knows and she wills. However, the Church is a particular type of subject. She is a collective subject but at the same time she has one single centre of consciousness. These terms are slightly technical and require a word of explanation. A collective subject is a body capable of knowing and willing that is made up of individuals who are individually capable of knowing a willing. An example of this might be a family.We might commonly say “the family has decided…”. And by this we mean the family made up of individuals as a collective unit has come to a joint decision. In the same way the Church is made up of different individuals (Mary, the saints, us).

But within these collective subjects, normally the individual members remain isolated in their individuality; that is, they do not possess a single centre of consciousness. The Church is different because her centre of consciousness is Christ. Christ pours himself out through his grace into his members – that is, the members of the Church – so that the content of what the Church knows and wills is Christ. For a Catholic, to think “with the mind of the Church” is not simply to parrot the teachings of Christ: it is to be touched by Christ’s grace in such a way that one’s mind participates in the mind of Christ and thinks Christ’s thoughts. Moreover, the will is that which leads us to act. And when the Church performs her acts as Church it is Christ who acts. When the Church baptises it isChrist who acts; when the church absolves from sin, it is Christ who acts. And, of course, the source and summit of the Church’s life, the Eucharist, is Christ’s body, blood, soul and divinity.

The Church is the living ecclesial chain that guarantees humanity’s and creation’s contact with the Incarnate God and she will therefore remain throughout history. Principally, this remaining endures and is made tangible in the glorified humanity of Mary, Peter and the other apostles. The Church is characterised by a concrete and enduring collectivity of subjects that surrounded Christ and with whom Christ established relations (that were paradigmatic and efficacious), so that humanity might continue to have access to Christ. Therefore, the purpose of the Church is to enable the believer, through grace, to experience and participate in her normative subject, her consciousness – Christ.

For us to participate in this life of God we must be in Christ, which is to be in the sphere of the Church.5 To the degree that this sphere is Christ’s own, he is the consciousness of the Church. It is in this sense that we speak of the Church as being Christ’s body, and Christ as the Head. However, to the extent that we as the collective subject respond as Church, we respond as members of the Bride of Christ. This receptive response of ours finds its normative subjectivity in the fiat of Mary. Thus the Church receives her fundamental and constitutive feminine dimension. The feminine Church is not something abstract, but a real subject with concrete individuals, beginning with Mary, who through Christ have been given a share in the divine Trinitarian life.

That is why Mary, when we reflect upon her presentation in the Gospels, is always seen as being embedded in the truths concerning Christ and the Trinity.6 Her whole life has a Trinitarian shape to it: she is obedient to the will of the Father, she bears the divine Son in her womb, and at the annunciation she is docile to the work of the Holy Spirit. Here we see Balthasar’s fidelity to the structure of Lumen Gentium: he first considers Mary in relation to Christ and the Trinity and then the Church.

We see then that this extension of Christ in history, through the Church, takes place pre-eminently through the concrete Christological constellation of the theological persons that Christ forms. At the apex of this constellation is the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Balthasar’s Christological Constellation

Balthasar, in line with Lumen Gentium, adopts neither a Christocentric nor an Ecclesiocentric Mariology. For him, the more personal and unique Mary’s relationship with Christ is seen to be, the more she will represent the real content of the Church. It is only as the mother of Christ that she can become mother of the Body and spouse of the Word. Because of her unique role in history (the Immaculate Conception) she is able to become the meeting point of Christianity. For Balthasar Mary is uniquely linked to Christ for the Church – so that she can bear fruit for her. It is through Mary (and Peter and John) that the form of Christ is imprinted upon the Church and carried through history.

Balthasar Sought to Deepen the Teaching of the Council

As we have said, Balthasar saw the Church as a constitutive part of the Incarnation. From the very beginning the Church forms part of the divine plan; and the fundamental nature given to the Church is Marian. For Balthasar, Mary’s relation to the Church is not merely analogical or archetypal but ontological; in Mary the Church is embodied even before being organised in Peter:

The Church is primarily feminine because her primary, all-encompassing truth is her ontological gratitude, which both receives the gift and passes it on.”[7]

There is a Marian character which moulds the Church both in terms of her being as such, and also in terms of the life of her members. It is through the Marian fiat in the Chamber of Nazareth that the Church is founded and given its catholicity. Mary’s yes is perfect and unconditional and thus universal. Therefore Balthasar warned that we must be careful to avoid reducing the meaning of archetype to a platonic (as a mere copy) or a psychological understanding (a sharing of a similar experience).[8]

The Mariologist Antonio Sicari believes that, for Balthasar, Mary is not only a prototype or model of the Church but rather, as woman, virgin, bride and mother, she constitutes the Church’s real form.9 Because the Church begins essentially in the chamber of Nazareth,[10] Mary is the original and generative image of the Church: she is the place of the Word’s indwelling, both bodily and ontologically.[11] For Balthasar the Marian principle constitutes the soul of the Church. Without it, ecclesial life risks being reduced to mere bureaucracy and functionalism – something he was clearly concerned about.

While Balthasar asserts that the Church’s primary identity and personality is found in Mary, this is not the sole aspect of the Church’s nature. He goes on to say that Christ establishes other relations which are also efficacious and paradigmatic. Through these further human relations Christ leaves other principles which will endure in the Church: Petrine (Office and Sacraments), Pauline (missionary character and charisms), Johannine (unity, contemplative love and the evangelical counsels) and Jacobine (continuity of old and new covenant – Tradition, Canon Law).

The Holy Spirit is the bond of unity that unites these various principles in the Church in a bond of mutual love.12 It is when these principles are united that the face of the Church becomes a Marian transparency to Christ. For Balthasar, the risen Lord, who wills to be present in His Church until the end of time, cannot be isolated from this constellation of historical life.13 He gives a lasting character to these figures so that believers may continue to have access to the divine life.

Mary and Peter

If Mary constitutes the subjective feminine holiness of the Church then Peter (Office and Sacraments) constitutes the objective/masculine holiness of the Church as it is entrusted to men (although those men who hold office still exist within the comprehensive femininity of the Church).

According to Balthasar there are four principal elements of this objective Petrine holiness. First, the Church as the Bride of Christ receives her being and life from the Incarnate God in the form of vivifying substance (the Eucharist) and the words of pardon (sacramental absolution). Second, the Tradition of the Church enables the Word of God to remain always accessible to the believer (and the world) and to remain linked to its origin. Third, the justification of the believer is set down in an ecclesial order of law and thus the believer can share in this gift of justice only within the Church. This demonstrates how the Jacobine principle must seek the approval of the Petrine. Fourth, the indelible character of baptism (grace), confirmation (mission) and orders (office) means that allChristians remain enabled and available for every new encounter with the Lord: in other words, they are deputed towards Christ.

But it is Mary’s faith that is the determining form, interiorly offered to all being and activity within the Church.[14] The Petrine-Apostolic ministry of word and sacrament is never an end in itself; rather it is always subordinate to, and in the service of, the Marian principle. The Petrine principle is given to us by Christ to enable the Church to become what she already is in Mary, the spotless bride. All that is given to Peter is given to him to make the Church (and us) more like Mary.

According to Balthasar everything in the Church is a movement between these two principles (Marian and Petrine): the Church as the bride of Christ is the extension and product of the living reality of Christ, which requires an essential structure (sacraments and ministry, which are founded by Christ Himself). Second, it is the institution which makes possible the conditional nuptial realisation. Christ the Head continues to be present to His Body-Bride, making her fruitful and enabling our continued participation. Third, it is the institution that provides believers with an objective rule that they can live under. This rule fashions us into the Church’s perfect Marian core. Fourth, the institution is also a teaching instrument that forms the anima ecclesiastica within us; this itself is asharing in Mary’s wisdom according to Balthasar.15 Finally, it is the Petrine dimension that guards the authenticity of the prophetic and charismatic elements of the Church, which if genuine must have a Marian mould.

Although Balthasar speaks of a mutual indwelling of love between the Petrine and Marian principles (perichoresis), he continuously views the Marian principle as more fundamental because all the various principles, charisms and missions find their embracing point in her. The particular role of the Petrine principle (through its objectified holiness and rule), in relation to this mutual love, is to prevent us from proposing our own human spirit as the Holy Spirit.

In fact, Balthasar gives a threefold priority to the Marian principle. It is temporally prior to the apostolic experience. It is spiritually prior: Mary’s faith moves from interior to exterior, whereas the apostles’ faith is exterior and then interior. Balthasar asserted that Mary’s faith is both qualitative and formative.16 Finally, Mary is theologically prior. The Church without spot or wrinkle exists first and foremost within Mary’s perfect faith. It is because she is immaculate that the Church is infallible in her.

For Balthasar everything that exists in the Church does so in order that the Church herself (and we as believers) may become more like Mary, who perfectly experiences and participates in the life of Christ the divine “someone”.


[1]A. Sicari, “Mary, Peter and John: Figures of the Church,” in Communio 19 (Summer 1992), trans. Michael Waldstein, 191.
[3]Ibid 192 also see The Christian State of Life, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1983), 290.
[4]Ibid, 193.
[5]Blair, 166.
[6]Ratzinger & Balthasar, 100.
[8]Blair, 142-143, (cf: The Glory of the Lord Vol. I, 340).
[9]Sicari, 197.
[10]The Christian State of Life, 210.
[11]Sicari, 198 (cf: Prayer, 27).
[12]Spouse, 191,
[13]The Office of Peter, 162.
[14]The Office of Peter, 171.
[15]Theo-Drama IV, 357-358.
[16]The Office of Peter, 206.

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