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Hans Urs von Balthasar (12 August 1905 – 26 June 1988) was a Swissmarker theologian and priest who was nominated to be a cardinal of the Catholic Church. He is considered one of the most important theologians of the 20th century.

Life and significance

Born in Lucernemarker, Switzerlandmarker on 12 August 1905, he attended Stella Matutina in Feldkirch, Austriamarker. He studied in Viennamarker, Berlinmarker and Zurich, gaining a doctorate in German literature. He joined the Jesuits in 1928, and was ordained in 1936. He worked in Baselmarker as a student chaplain. In 1950 he left the Jesuit order, feeling that God had called him to found a Secular Institute, a lay form of consecrated life that sought to work for the sanctification of the world especially from within. He joined the diocese of Churmarker. From the low point of being banned from teaching, his reputation eventually rose to the extent that John Paul II asked him to be a cardinal in 1988. However he died in his home in Basel on the 26 June 1988, 2 days before the ceremony. Hans Urs von Balthasar was interred in the Hofkirche cemetery in Lucern.

Along with Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, Balthasar sought to offer an intellectual, faithful response to Western modernism. While Rahner offered a progressive, accommodating position on modernity, and Lonergan worked out a philosophy of history that sought to critically appropriate modernity, Balthasar resisted the reductionism and human focus of modernity, wanting Christianity to challenge modern sensibilities.

Balthasar is very eclectic in his approach, sources, and interests and remains difficult to categorize. An example of his eclecticism was his long study and conversation with the influential Reformed Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, of whose work he wrote the first Catholic analysis and response. Although Balthasar's major points of analysis on Karl Barth's work have been disputed, his The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation (1951) remains a classic work for its sensitivity and insight; Karl Barth himself agreed with its analysis of his own theological enterprise, calling it the best book on his own theology.

Balthasar's Theological Dramatic Theory has influenced the work of Raymund Schwager.

Writings and contributions

At Balthasar's funeral, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said, speaking of Balthasar's work in general, "What the pope intended to express by this mark of distinction [elevation to the Cardinalate], and of honor, remains valid, no longer only private individuals but the Church itself, in its official responsibility, tells us that he is right in what he teaches of the faith." In Balthasar's book Mysterium Paschale he explores the meaning of Holy Saturday, where Jesus Christ dies and descends to the dead, to be resurrected by God the Father and His own power. Balthasar extrapolates that God can endure and conquer godlessness, abandonment, and death.

Balthasar is well known for his 16 volume systematics (Trilogy) which is divided into three parts: The Glory of the Lord, the first 7-volume work on 'theological aesthetics' (a theology based upon contemplation of the good, the beautiful, and the true). One of the often quoted passages from the entire Trilogy comes from the First Volume (Seeing the Form) of The Glory of the Lord:
Before the beautiful—no, not really before but within the beautiful—the whole person quivers. He not only 'finds' the beautiful moving; rather, he experiences himself as being moved and possessed by it.
In Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory—the following 5-volume work on 'theodramatics'—the action of God and the human response, especially in the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday are examined. Balthasar's soteriology, christology, and eschatology, are here developed. The final group of volumes are titled: Theo-Logic. These three volumes describing the relation of the nature of Jesus Christ (christology) to reality itself (ontology, or the study of being). He completes the third part of his trilogy with a brief Epilogue.

A distinctive thought in Balthasar's work is that our first experience after birth is the face of love of our mothers, where the I encounters for the first time the Thou, and the Thou smiles in a relationship of love and sustenance.

Balthasar also wrote of the lives of saints and church fathers. Saints appear as an example of the lived Christian life throughout his writings. Instead of merely systematic analysis of theology, Balthasar described his theology as a "kneeling theology," deeply connected to contemplative prayer, and as a "sitting theology," intensely connected to faith seeking understanding guided by the heart and mind of the Catholic Church.

As a Latin Rite Catholic priest and member of a religious order, Balthasar was very concerned that he address spiritual and practical issues. He insisted that his theology never be divorced from the mystical experiences of his long-time friend and convert, the physician Adrienne von Speyr.

Balthasar has varied published works, spanning many decades, fields of study (e.g., literature and literary analysis, lives of the saints, and the Church Fathers), and languages. His most controversial theological assertions were that Christ deposited His Divine knowledge with the Father before the incarnation (kenotic doctrine), the possibility that all men will be saved, that Christ literally was "made sin", and was for a time separated from the Father in suffering in Sheol pain worse than hell.

He has used the expression Casta Meretrix to argue that the term whore of Babylon was acceptable in a certain tradition of the Church, in the writings of Rabanus Maurus for instance.


Balthasar has an enduring legacy as one of the most important Catholic theologians of the 20th century. Most, but not all, of his major writings have been translated into English, and the journal he co-founded with Henri de Lubac, Walter Kasper, and Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), Communio, currently appears in twelve languages, including Arabic.


  1. Leaving the Society meant that Balthasar was without a position, a pastorate, a place to live, or an income. Because he had left the Jesuit order, the Catholic Congregation for Seminaries and Universities had banned him from teaching. But he eventually found an ecclesiastical home under a sympathetic bishop and was able to live by a gruelling schedule of lecture tours. "Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)" Radical Faith The Society of the Sacred Mission, accessed 1 February 2009
  2. The influence is reflected in some of Schwager's titles, i.e.: Jesus in the Drama of Salvation. Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption (German: Jesus im Heilsdrama. Entwurf einer biblischen Erlösungslehre), New York: Crossroad 1999, and: Banished from Eden: Original Sin and Evolutionary Theory in the Drama of Salvation (Duits: Erbsünde und Heilsdrama: Im Kontext von Evolution, Gentechnik und Apokalyptik), Londen: Gracewing 2006.
  3. Casta Meretrix: The Church as Harlot

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