Against Integralism

Anne Carpenter and Charles Hughes Huff introduce the first English language translation of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s 1963 essay “Integralismus.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “Integralismus” (1963) was written during the bright heat and rapid outpouring of the first part of the Trilogy that is his major work, the part with which he is most associated: his “theological aesthetics,” expressed in the seven volumes of The Glory of the Lord (originally published in 1961–68; the completion of the Trilogy would take very nearly the rest of his life, concluding in 1987). Balthasar himself had just emerged from a life-threatening illness, bearing a new vigor on its other side. Manfred Lochbrunner considers this a watershed moment in Balthasar’s career.[1] Two years before the publication of the first volume in the aesthetics, Seeing the Form, Balthasar writes in a letter to Henri de Lubac, “I’m going to work a little on a very thorny subject (art and theology).”[2] Thorny indeed.

That Glory of the Lord and an essay describing and condemning a modern form of Catholic authoritarianism are related is not obvious. But for Balthasar, a theological theory of aesthetics and a theological theory of how Christians ought to act in the world are inextricably bound to one another. “[T]here can be no theological account of perception (‘aesthetics’),” he says, “without an account of the combative confrontation with divine and human freedom (‘dramatics’).”[3] Indeed, truth, Balthasar argues, “is both theoretical and practical.”[4] So, if Glory of the Lord is a thorny task, it is thorny because how one understands the encounter between God and human beings contains in itself already an understanding of how divine and human freedom cross paths. Balthasar insists in Seeing the Form that the concrete life of Jesus Christ must itself be the splendid form of all revelation, as its place of genuine appearance and as its genuine measure. In every detail of Jesus is a “wholeness” of form lost irrevocably, immediately, upon its being reduced to any, even to all, of the parts that compose it.[5] At the center of the encounter between God and creature is Christ, the divine “beauty” enfleshed in a specific and a personal human life, addressing human beings, likewise, specifically and personally.[6] Without this center at the center, Balthasar warns, the Church itself becomes tragic and monstrous. He writes, “It would be plausible neither as a religious institution […] nor as an historical power for order and culture in the sense of the Action Française and of the German Catholic Nazis.”[7] Jesus Christ, God himself in the flesh, is the cause of and norm for Christian life. Any displacement of the Christic center of revelation commits a double violence: to the form of revelation and to the form of Christian life as this primary form’s gracious impress.

            Balthasar’s co-consideration of forms of Catholic authoritarianism with one another, his grasp of them together, which “Integralismus” displays, is common across his work. These authoritarianisms (“titanisms”) commit sins of a certain, almost genetic similarity: the integral design of a Christianity whose regula is no longer the attitude of God revealed concretely in Christ, a sin that is repeated with all the expressive variance possible to human history.[8] In the language of the aesthetics, which Balthasar borrows in this essay, the Christic absolute unity of form and content is torn asunder. It is a way of saying that Jesus’ entire life hypostatically (personally) reveals a specific and a divine intent, which is also a specific and a divine nature: the saving will of God, who in the Incarnate Son shows himself to be kenotic Trinity. It is the “power” of a “powerless” that loves “to the end” (Jn 13:1), beyond all ends, beyond the being-silent of death into a new life.[9] This love reveals itself in its absoluteness and in its vulnerability. It is the radical solidarity of the triune God with the world that God has made, suffering this world’s fate in order to make for it a new fate. “The unique ray of the divine majesty of love,” Balthasar explains in the very last volume of the aesthetics, “is to become visible from the unique momentum of this event [crucifixion, death, resurrection], establishing the norm for everything that can lay claim to the predicate ‘glorious.’”[10] Or, in a phrasing perhaps more summative, Balthasar says, “Certainly Christianity is also a religion of the redemption of the world. But strangely enough, it does not proceed by fleeing from suffering upward, or downward, or ahead, but by affirming the world as it now is, from God, because Christ took on himself the suffering of the world without at the same time alienating himself from God.”[11]

To say that Christ suffers for the world is to promise that the Christian, too, will suffer, will “fill up” the suffering of the Lord in their own suffering for the world (Col 1:24). But Balthasar is careful to say whose suffering this really is. In Mysterium Pascale (1969), Balthasar explains: “this [suffering] is not the Christian’s property, but only a loan” from Christ, a loan for which the consenting Christian “is responsible to the true owner.”[12] Thus consent to suffering is not only essential, but so is its owner: neither suffering nor consent are other than Christ’s to mete out to others. In the aesthetics, the glory of the self-revealing God in the crucified God-man maintains a similar de-centering, regulative function: “it is not [the Christian] who lifts his brother titanically out of the darkness.”[13]

Balthasar did experience trouble in the wake of the essay “Integralismus,” in particular over his attack on Opus Dei as another form of Catholic integralism. “He never got rid of the stigma of this statement for the rest of his life,” says Lochbrunner, “and it brought him the opposition of ‘Opus Dei.’”[14] Of this, Balthasar himself comments in a letter to Erich Przywara, “It is going to be tough to put Opus Dei in its place, it is a Goliath, a strange alien in the church of John XXIII and Paul VI.”[15]

With the assistance of Maurice Blondel in particular, but also with others (we would highlight Charles Péguy and Reinhold Schneider), the Balthasar of “Integralismus” takes up the recent shape of that which would bear the name and face “Catholicism” and “Church” while betraying its Christic heart. This betrayal Balthasar perceives in various forms of Catholic “integralism.” Though Balthasar himself gives a history and a definition, it is worth noting some of the history that he assumes from his readers without explaining. Most of all that history has to do with French and European Catholicism after the French Revolution of 1789, the rise of the social Catholics with the spread of industrialization during the 19th century, and Blondel’s opposition to French integralists in the early 20th century.

The (first) French Revolution and subsequent revolutions in France and across Europe (as in 1848) rattled not only European monarchies but also, and in particular, the Catholic Church and Catholics. In France, for example, the official Catholic Church and its religious orders were expelled multiple times, beloved local relics were destroyed, Catholic rebellions were crushed. For Europeans of this time, Catholicism tended to represent tradition in the precise sense of long-running European socio-historical networks and beliefs: the past, present in all its authoritative concreteness. Renewing the current social order meant, in the revolutionary era, doing away with this past. In this there was not a little blood spilled. Over the 19th century, France itself lurched between secular republicanism on the one hand, and (at least outwardly more Catholically tolerant) semi-religious empire and monarchy on the other. So a watchword for most French Catholics of this era was not only an evocation of a specific politics, monarchy, but also an evocation of a beleaguered, idealized memory: the ancien régime, which is better understood as the “old” or “former” regime, and which always referred to the historical age before 1789. It is important to understand, then, that Blondel—and Balthasar after him—has to deal with a spurned Catholicism continually looking backward, looking into the past that represents the order about which one must decide, encapsulated by the word tradition. This word (“tradition”) represents this decision about social order to the revolutionary and to the Catholic both.

Enter the social Catholics. These were a loosely connected series of groups and individuals, dotted across Europe during the 19th century, increasingly concerned about modern economic problems, with their apotheosis in the Industrial Revolution. (This revolution was by no means uniformly established and developed in Europe or within European nations. It is better understood as pockets of transformation over pockets of history implicating pockets of Catholics within their spaces.) The social Catholics saw these economic problems as different than the problems of poverty in the Middle Ages, different because they were inaugurated by new conditions. This is why they called themselves “social.” But they also saw themselves as “traditional,” framed in that particular way that the French Revolution of 1789 and subsequent revolutions imbricated: choosing Catholicism, desiring that it exist and flourish. As Paul Misner explains, “practically all Christian social movements, at least at the outset, must be called ‘conservative,’ since Christianity was the embodiment of the traditional. […] In terms of value judgments, of course, it has little bearing on our contemporary American usage.”[16] Readers will see Balthasar align himself with Blondel and the social Catholics and take up similar political positioning in “Integralismus,” appearing there as a reticence toward liberal progressivism and toward Catholic authoritarianism as victims of the same errors—with neither of these two stances in fact being “traditional.”

Blondel’s social Catholics, gathered at the very end of the century in the wake of Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum (1891), come from this much larger, though still relatively minor, group of Catholics. These social Catholics came under fire from French Catholic traditionalists of various kinds, most of all from Action Française, the Catholic royalist movement headed by the agnostic positivist Charles Maurras, who saw in Catholicism a useful instrument of social control. At issue in this clash, then, for Balthasar as much as for Blondel, is how to deal with the modern world order. But much more at issue for both men, subterranean until it cracks to the surface, is the problem of Catholic tradition, of what it means to choose Catholic “tradition.” Does it, must it, mean choosing the ancien? And, since this régime is now past, must Catholic tradition mean imposing the ancien on the présent?

Thus do divine grace and the divine preparation of the world for grace, keyed to the life of Jesus Christ, take up the center of Blondel’s, and Balthasar’s, attention. For in this gift and its preparation we have a “once for all” (Heb 10:10), that is a “mystery kept secret for long ages” (Rom 16:25) and “with you always” (Mt 28:20). So, several years before his essays against “monophorism,” Blondel calls Catholic tradition a “living unity.”[17] It is this living unity that Balthasar himself is so very keen not to lose sight of in his critique of a Catholicism whose methods might be effective in the acquisition of worldly power and prestige, but which are no longer “the means of the mere gospel, which are less, and at the same time infinitely more.”[18] The logic and the means, that is, of Jesus Christ, who is our Lord and God.

In the US today, integralism is back with explicit adherents. Post-liberal Catholics in positions of distinct cultural power advance many of the same sorts of claims that Balthasar analyzes and rejects in this article. One example will suffice: Adrian Vermuele, of Harvard Law School, describes the necessity of political power: “One cannot argue a man out of an illusion with mere words; one has to make him see that it is wrong, to change his angle of vision. In some cases, the most obstinate cases, the liberal cannot be persuaded, but only defeated and reconciled.”[19] This type of rhetoric well fits Blondel’s analysis of integralism as a political system that takes up worldly power to enforce “right concepts,” using such coercion to “move the world rightly.”

Some of today’s integralists are aware of Balthasar’s essay and straightforwardly reject its claims.[20] For us, Balthasar’s 60-year-old dissent still rings true with the sound of the gospel, which cannot be silenced even with all the storm and stress of today’s noise. We hope that providing this essay in English for the first time will help any trying to make sense of integralism in the current moment.

[1] Manfred Lochbrunner, Hans Urs von Balthasar 1905–1988: Die Biographie eines Jahrhundertheologen (Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 2020), 356.

[2] Quoted in Lochbrunner, Balthasar: Die Biographie, 355.

[3] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “On the Christian’s Capacity to See,” Explorations in Theology, vol. 5: Man is Created (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 70. [Text originally published in 1986.]

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Action and Contemplation,” Explorations in Theology, vol. 1: The Word Made Flesh (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 233. [Text originally published in 1960.]

[5] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 1: Seeing the Form [= GL I], 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 499–500; cf. 468–478, 520–525, 593–594.

[6] Balthasar, GL I, 32–36; cf. 134–137, 235–241.

[7] Balthasar, GL I, 451.

[8] A representative and summative example is Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Tragedy and Christian Faith,” Explorations in Theology, vol. 3: Creator Spirit (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), Kindle locations 5556–5716; see Kindle locations 5692-5696: “This anxious flight of the Church and of Christians from the Cross was always, and is once again today, the flight into ideologies of world domination: the Constantinian, Carolingian, Ottoman, Hapsburg, Bourbon, and Napoleonic domination of the world in the past, and today, since the external forms of power are no longer within reach, the flight into intellectual forms of familiarity, of the desire to be there, too, when the world is worldly, when the world is rising upward, when the world is taking possession of itself, as if it were possible to bestow Christian sweetness on the whole affair by tossing a saccharin tablet into this raging ocean.” [Text originally published in 1967].

[9] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 7: Theology: The New Covenant [= GL 7] (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 202–235; cf. 389–431. [Text originally published in 1969.]

[10] Balthasar, GL 7, 243.

[11] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Claim to Catholicity,” Explorations in Theology, vol. 4: Spirit and Institution (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 103. [Text originally published in 1974.]

[12] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Pascale: The Mystery of Easter (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 135.

[13] Balthasar, GL 7, 649. Lest we imagine Balthasar changed his mind later in life, there is Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic: Theological Logical Theory, vol. 3: The Spirit of Truth (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2005), 403-405; cf. 411, 433. [Text originally published in 1987.]

[14] Lochbrunner, Balthasar: Die Biographie, 377.

[15] Quoted in Lochbrunner, Balthasar: Die Biographie, 377.

[16] Paul Misner, Social Catholicism in Europe: From the Onset of Industrialization to the First World War (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 32. See also Pascale Boyer-Bastier, “1904: Naissance des Semaines Sociales de France,” Les Semaines sociales de France 1904–2004: Cent ans d’engagement social des Catholiques Française, ed. Jean-Dominique Durand (Plans-sur-Bex: Éditions Parole et Silence, 2006), 41–58.

[17] Maurice Blondel, “History and Dogma,” The Letter on Apologetics and History and Dogma (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964), 286; cf. 267–268, 272–273. [Text originally published in 1903.]

[18] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Convergences: To the Source of Christian Mystery (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983), 41. [Text originally published in 1969.]

[19] Ardian Vermeule, “Who Decides,” in The Postliberal Order (blog), Jan 11, 2022. (accessed 4/27/22).

[20] Pater Edmund, “Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Critique of Integralism,” The Josias (blog), Feb 27, 2018, (accessed 4/27/22).

Anne Carpenter

Anne Carpenter is Associate Professor of Theology at Saint Mary’s University of California.

Charles Hughes Huff

Charles Hughes Huff is Assistant Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry.