Lyra PITSTICK. Christ’s Descent into Hell: John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Theology of Holy Saturday.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016.  pp. xiv+135.  $20.90 pb.  ISBN 9780802869050.  Reviewed by Christopher DENNY, St. John’s University, Queens, NY  11439.


Pitstick follows up on her 2007 book Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ's Descent into Hell, which insisted Balthasar was unfaithful to traditional understandings of Christ’s descent.  Pitstick now prosecutes her case with a narrower comparison between Balthasar’s exposition of Christ’s descent and papal statements on that topic.  Pope Francis’s writings are omitted.

Pitstick’s opening chapter explains Balthasar’s claim that Christ suffered a second death in hell so that all three divine persons experienced his descent.  Balthasar held Christ assumed the burden of sin on Holy Saturday.  The next two chapters contrast what Pitstick understands as Ratzinger’s claim that the Father’s abandonment of Christ on the cross is only apparent, with Balthasar’s position that Christ is really forsaken.  She asserts Ratzinger’s Christology preserves Jesus’ communion with the Father, whereas Balthasar posits Jesus as isolated in his passion and its aftermath.  Pitstick criticizes what she sees as Ratzinger’s tendency to conflate events of the Triduum so as to obscure distinctions between Christ’s descent and resurrection.  Pitstick asserts that, as pope, Benedict’s teaching diverged from Balthasar’s, especially in Benedict’s 2007 Easter Vigil homily.  There Benedict used Psalm 24 to explain Christ opened death’s gates rather than silently suffering God’s absence.  A 2011 general audience of Benedict, interpreting Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22, is submitted as evidence for Pitstick’s argument, insofar as Christ’s quotation of the psalm’s first line would have been understood in its ancient context as alluding to the whole psalm with its concluding assertion of confidence in God.

In her next two chapters Pitstick turns to John Paul II and Christoph Schönborn, the general editor of the 1992 Catechism.  John Paul II’s 1989 general audience on Christ’s descent governs Pitstick’s assertion that the pope understood Christ’s glorification in death as preserving his beatific vision, while Balthasar connects this same glorification to Christ’s assumption of sin and divine abandonnment.  Pitstick is convinced that Balthasar’s claim that Christ is in solidarity with all the dead effaces distinctions between the just and unjust, unacceptably allowing the possibility of conversion of the unjust after death.  For John Paul II, Christ’s death completes his redemptive task rather than serving as prologue to an infernal redemptive mission.  Pitstick downplays Schönborn’s statements that Balthasar’s teaching might foreshadow doctrinal development, writing that whatever appreciation Schönborn had for Balthasar’s theology was not an exercise of his episcopal teaching office.  

The last two chapters and the conclusion condemn Balthasar’s Christology as heterodox.  Using a maximalist interpretation of magisterial authority, Pitstick holds that the ordinary and universal exercise of the Church’s teaching office is infallible.  Commendation of Balthasar’s theology from both popes is instead given a minimalist interpretation.  Appendices include texts from Benedict XII, and from the catechisms of Trent and John Paul II. 

Christ’s Descent into Hell offers a valuable compilation of extracts.  Pitstick’s theologically positivist methodology for extracting dogmatic inferences from biblical passages and magisterial statements, however, is inadequate.  The parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16 is transformed into a generalized assertion that conversion after death is impossible (53).  Pitstick criticizes Benedict’s encyclical Spe Salvi for fostering “confusion” about whether Christ’s descent to hell is only to be understood metaphorically, based in part upon Benedict’s reference to a letter Vietnamese martyr Paul Le-Bao-Tinh wrote from a concentration camp, which Benedict describes as “hell” (30).  On the other hand, Pitstick builds upon Avery Dulles’s interpretation of Benedict XII’s 1336 constitution on the beatific vision enjoyed by the saints before the general judgment, Benedictus Deus, to claim, “if Benedictus Deus’s definition was not infallibly declared, probably nothing has been” (87).  This is an idiosyncratic formulation of the hierarchy of truths.  Regarding the relationship of the Roman Catechism commissioned by Trent to the 1992 Catechism, Pitstick ventures, “Due to the RC’s historical context, it feels the need to be very explicit, so it helps clarify the truths the CCC expresses in the more oblique language of our own time” (93).  Did John Paul II intend to use oblique language in the CCC?  If not, the author should be direct and admit she thinks his catechism suffers by comparison with its sixteenth-century predecessor.

Pitstick correctly argues against ambitions of some who would grant Balthasar posthumous authority akin to Augustine or Aquinas.  She is correct that praise given to Balthasar by popes does not mean acceptance of all of his theological positions.  She polemically overreaches, however, in trying to indict Balthasar; her particular delineation of levels of magisterial authority, in which teachings in some papal documents are superimposed upon that of others, disguises seeming magisterial judgments of her own.  Balthasar’s theology of the descent still awaits adequate systematic evaluation—to assess whether his claim that Christ was simultaneously abandoned by the Father yet remained God Incarnate is a paradox or a contradiction.