It has been predicted in theological circles that the Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) will emerge as the most important theologian of the twentieth century (1). A striking characteristic of Balthasar’s massive output is its contemplative orientation which he himself has described as “theology on one’s knees” (2). Indeed, his own theological vocation was perceived and understood in prayer, in a precise moment of grace during a retreat in the Black Forest near Basle; a grace which he would later recount with precision (3).
The receptive prayerful attitude that one perceives in von Balthasar’s work can be best understood by means of the Marian fiat indicating that theology begins in the response of the creature to God’s self-manifestation. According to von Balthasar, Mary made to God, through the gift of grace, the perfect nuptial response of faith, and thus the Marian fiat has become the archetype, principle and exemplar of the faith response of the entire Church (4). This article, therefore, will attempt to present a limited summary of von Balthasar’s Marian theology developed around the leitmotiv of the nuptial fiat, which explicitly or implicitly, penetrates his entire theological corpus.
Since von Balthasar, in the tradition of the early Fathers, sees Mary as the archetypal image of the Church, it follows that his conception of the Church is Marian, feminine, and bridal. He sees the Church as person, as body, as structure, and ultimately, as bride. First and foremost, of course, the Church is Christ; but when considered as Head and body, the Church is also a response to Christ, that is, a bridal self-surrender to Christ in faith. It is by means of the Church’s response in faith, her personal fiat to the Divine Word, that the Church bears in her own flesh and spirit the fruit of Christ.
Although she is made up of many subjects, the Church is not a mere collectivity of persons: a sociological reality. Her many members participate through infused grace in a single normative subject and its consciousness. Her inchoateness is fulfilled in the mystery of the Holy Spirit within her inmost ground, who alone can constitute her as subject and bride (5). By means of her sacramental structure, Christ’s most intimate divine life is communicated to the real persons who form the Church in a bond of love like unto marriage. For von Balthasar this reality of Church that revelation calls the bride of Christ is a mystery of faith (6).
In the third volume of his Theo-Drama: Persons in Christ, von Balthasar outlines the archetypal figure of the Virgin Mary whom he considers “the Realsymbol” of the Church (7). Drawing on the Fathers and Tradition, von Balthasar presents the Virgin of Nazareth as the individual woman who personifies and is the very epitome of the Church in her essential bridal self-surrender to God. The whole life of Mary is embodied, he says, in her fiat,the perfect consent that “allows all,” and by thus allowing God’s Word to take complete possession of her body and spirit, she “becomes womb and bride and mother of the incarnating God” (8).
According to von Balthasar, Mary’s consent is, in the first place, a virginal consent which only subsequently becomes a maternal and finally a bridal consent. Her virginal consent finds its source in the grace of the Immaculate Conception, source of her spotless virginity (9). Mary was graced with perfect finite freedom: the capability for full self-realization (10) as a being totally and exclusively turned toward the Word of God in the answering obedience of faith.
Her virginal consent becomes a maternal consent as she freely allows the divine initiative to make a new beginning in the Virgin Birth of her Son and she becomes Mother of Christ. Ultimately, the Mother of Christ becomes the Bride of Christ on Calvary wherein her free, faith-filled and now bridal consent to God’s salvific will is brought to its highest achievement. Standing beside the Cross of Jesus, Mary receives in perfect faith and love the infinite fruitfulness flowing from the open wound in Christ’s Heart. The new Eve receives the outpoured life and overflowing grace of the new Adam, intimately cooperating through her unrestricted fiat in his mission of redemptive love (11).
As Virgin, Mother, and Bride of Christ, Mary becomes Mother of the Church from the seed of spiritual fruitfulness which the immaculate Bride received from her crucified Son: his Body given and His Blood poured out. As Virgin, Bride, and Mother, she gives birth to the Church again and again throughout the ages (12).
Von Balthasar therefore, in his Marian theology, presents the Church with an archetype of her own life and love. Both Mary and the Church are fruitful precisely because of their virginal love. In the sacramental sign of the virginal birth, the Church is put in touch with the new birth of divine life of which she, like Mary, is Mother.
Mary and the Church are each transformed into the Bride of Christ through an interior participation in the Passion, receiving the spiritual fruitfulness flowing from the pierced Heart of the Crucified. Finally, in this active receptivity Mary, and then the Church, become the productive womb of all Christian grace. Through the nuptial fiat, literally immaculate only in the Church’s Marian archetype, Mary shares with the communion of saints her own archetypal experience as Virgin, Mother, and Bride of Christ (13).
According to von Balthasar, Mary’s bridal “yes” of bodily faith, which continues on in the Church as fruitful virginity, not only has implications for the Church, indeed, it is the Marian fiat that defines the Church. The fiat and redemption are so interwoven, so inseparably one, that the creature cannot say “yes” to God without being redeemed, but neither can the creature be redeemed without having somehow spoken his or her “yes.” Mary’s single “yes,” her personal fiat in its unlimited availability to God’s plan, sufficed for the incarnate Lord to say “yes” to all his creatures, and has become “by grace, the bridal womb, matrix, and mater” in and through which each creature can say “yes” to God, and by which “he also forms the truly universal Church” (14). Mary’s fiat,therefore, like the fiat voluntas tua of the Lord, is vicarious; it is catholic: embracing the all of God’s love for all of God’s people; and it is archetypal (15).
Grounded in Mary’s archetypal fiat the bridal Church, like Mary, conceives, bears and gives birth to Christ.
An integral part of von Balthasar’s Marian theology is the apostolic archetypes Peter, John, and Paul, who form in the Church, together with Mary, a necessary and indissoluble group of persons surrounding the human life of Christ (16). Von Balthasar considers the Marian fiat as the foundational form, undergirding and sustaining the apostolic archetypes, for Mary’s experience came first and thus wholly conditions the apostolic experience (17).
The Church, therefore, coming forth from Christ “finds her personal center in Mary as well as the full realization of her idea as Church.” Her Marian faith response, to the Divine-human Bridegroom, is elevated in the Church to the status of principle and is coextensive with the masculine principle of Office and Sacrament in bearing the fruit of Christ for the world (18). Knowing that all people are envisaged in God’s plan, the Church can humbly know herself as the chosen representative of mankind before God “in faith, prayer, and sacrifice, in hope for all, and still more in love for all.” As bride, in imitation of her Marian archetype, she turns to her Bridegroom so that she may serve as handmaid and give him back new offspring shaped in the form of Christ, as well as receive from her Head, “in the depths of their intimacy,” the entire Trinitarian life (19). Her whole disposition can only be a feminine dependence on God embodied in Mary’s fiat.
Von Balthasar’s Marian theology has a contemplative orientation. This is clear in his insistence that the first duty of the Bride-Church to her Bridegroom is the glorification of divine love. This divine love was poured into Mary’s pure womb as the first-fruit of redemptive grace, and she fully responded with her fiat of faith and adoration (20). It is this Marian receptivity and response to the Word of God which is the sole purpose of the contemplative life of the Church wherever it is found:
The highest priority belongs, without exception, to our readiness to serve the divine love, a readiness that has no other end than itself, and that appears senseless to a world caught up in so many urgent and reasonable occupations (21).
Like her Marian archetype, the contemplative desires to give a similar answer of obedience and adoration, a service of pure glorifying thanksgiving to absolute love. Like Mary, the contemplative identifies herself with the “innermost center of the Church where she is simply the bride in the presence of the Bridegroom.” It is the life which Jesus praised in the Gospel, the life of Mary at his feet:
Mary of Bethany can never be dispensed with. Personam Ecclesiae gerit: she represents in her special role, the Church herself. She actualizes in the world of human consciousness the inmost mystery of the nuptials between Christ and the Church, God and the world, grace and nature, a relation that is the mystery both of Mary’s fecundity as mother and of that of the Church (22).
St. Thomas Aquinas, in discussing the Marian fiat, seems to confirm von Balthasar’s basic viewpoint. According to St. Thomas, Mary’s fiat was necessary in order to show that a spiritual marriage was being enacted between the Son of God and human nature. Mary’s “yes” stood for the “yes” of all God’s people thereby making it possible for every person to pronounce his own personal fiat and attain intimate union with the divine nature (23). In commenting on the mystical meaning of the wedding at Cana, the Angelic Doctor teaches that Mary is present in the mystical marriage of the soul with God and that it is she who arranges the marriage, because through her intercession the soul is joined to Christ through grace. St. Thomas calls Mary consolatrix andmediatrix (24). In his commentary on the Incarnation St. Thomas declares that Mary is so full of grace, that it overflows to us, and in this overflowing plenitude of grace Mary excels all the saints (25).
From an evaluatory viewpoint von Balthasar’s Marian theology is itself a critical evaluation of the Church’s Mariology from the Patristic period right up to Vatican Council II (26). He rethinks the unreflective faith of pre-critical times from the standpoint of the present historical situation which has passed through the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Rigorously reasoning through its lines of thought he shows the fundamental catholicity of the Marian fiat and the correctness of the development of the archetypal image of Mary as Virgin, Mother, and Bride. He notes the exaggerations which emerged through the centuries and which were pruned in Chapter VIII of Lumen Gentium. He calls attention, however, to “the limits of the Council’s Mariology” and calls it a minimalist presentation (27). He then gives Mariology a new start by presenting his own triptychal view of Mary as a “dramatic character” (28).
Mary is a dramatic character, according to von Balthasar, because her Immaculate Conception locates her personal existence “between a paradisal (supralapsarian) existence and human life in its fallen state” (29). This must necessarily be so because the privilege of her Immaculate Conception freed her from any influence of sin yet she lived her human existence in the fallen world of sin. It is so, secondly, because her personal life is situated at the passageway between the Old Covenant of law and sin and the New Covenant of grace and Spirit:
As a fleshly Mother she stands in direct continuity with the generations who descend from Adam via Abraham, whereas, as a virgin Mother, who became pregnant on the basis of her consent to the overshadowing Spirit, she signifies a hiatus and a new beginning (30).
Finally, it is so because her existence lies in the eschatological tension between time and eternity. Although she herself has regained Paradise in her Assumption, as Mother of all the living she “gives birth to the Messiah-scion and his brothers in the birth-pangs of the Cross” (31). In von Balthasar’s view,
Mary’s dramatic role emerges both from her center—as Christ’s virginal Mother—and from the whole range of her being, which starts with supralapsarian humanity, embraces fallen and redeemed humanity and comprehends the eschatological status of mankind. Her role is universal and in a certain sense (which we must analyze in more detail) coextensive with Christ’s (32).
Proposal for Future Development
Perhaps von Balthasar’s Mariology with its in-depth penetration of the Marian fiat could be given even firmer ground by rooting it metaphysically in the participation metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas especially as it is being developed by contemporary Thomists.
According to St. Thomas’s theory of the participation of being, God is ipsum subsistens esse and every finite creature participates in existence, proceeding in an ascending order. Whereas bodies participate only in being, souls participate according to their nature in being and life, and intellect participates in being, life and intelligence (33).
Cornelio Fabro, probably the greatest expositor of Thomistic metaphysics, in commentating on the above statement says:
In this metaphysical extension of the notion of participation all the constitutive relations of being are actualized, both with regard to structure and causality, up to their highest degree. This consists in the attainment of their ultimate goal, which is imitation and similarity in being, and most of all in the joint action of an inferior substance or faculty and a superior principle (34).
With respect to the person of Mary could not this be restated in the light of the Immaculate Virgin Mother as the unique, most exalted of human persons in the plan of salvation? Her immaculately conceived being participated, above all others, in the life and the being of God. Her fiat opened the door for fallen humanity to participate in her fiat, and to ascend to God by means of countless graces of imitation and similarity in being. Such a study might well deepen and fructify the Church’s awareness of Mary as Mediatrix of All Graces and make a significant contribution to the discussion of the proposed dogma. As W. Norris Clarke mentions in the concluding remarks of his lecture on the metaphysical ascent to God through Thomistic participation, slightly adapted to fit “our metaphysical wings,”
It may be that the efficacy of the arguments is so inextricably involved in a profound existential commitment of the living dynamism of the spirit to a truly personal quest for the full intelligibility of the (Marian fiat) that it can remain opaque if one stands back in a purely detached, abstract, logical perspective. It may well be, as in Plotinus himself, that the strands of the metaphysical and the mystical quests are so tightly interwoven that they are fully separable only by violence. The quest for the hidden Center of the (universal Church) whose presence—or better, the exigency for whose presence—most of mankind seems to feel obscurely, dimly, and inarticulately in the ineffable recesses of their minds and hearts, may well have to be a quest of the whole person, of the whole being of a man or a woman (35).
Two thousand years of Christian tradition bear witness to the abiding presence of the Mother of God at the heart and center of the Church. Perhaps the quest for the “full intelligibility” of the mystery of her fiat, as the hidden center of the universal Church, may need to be an interweaving of both the metaphysical and mystical strands, a quest “of the whole person, of the whole being of a man or a woman.”
In an interview with the Honorable Howard Q. Dee, former Philippines Ambassador to the Holy See, speaking of the proposed dogma of Our Lady as Coredemptrix, Mediatrix of all Graces, and Advocate, Ambassador Dee submitted the following statement by His Eminence Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, O.P., the Archbishop of Vienna, Austria, from a paper which the Cardinal offered to the Fatima Symposium on the Alliance of the Two Hearts:
Why is it that theology finds the center of its heart in the heart of a woman who is Jesus’ mother? Mary is the guarantor of Christian realism; in her it becomes manifest that God’s word was not only spoken but also heard; that God has not only called, but that man has also answered; that salvation was not only presented, but also received. Christ is God’s word, Mary is the answer; in Christ God has come down from heaven; in Mary the earth has become fruitful. Mary is the seal of perfect creatureliness; in her is illustrated in advance what God intended for creation.
These words inspired the following insight in Ambassador Dee:
In my simple understanding of what Cardinal Schönborn is saying, the gift of redemption, freely and perfectly given must be freely and perfectly received. … In this light (Mary) is indispensable in God’s plan for the redemption of man. She is indispensable not because God is incapable of redeeming us by Himself, but because He wants man, whom He has created with a free will, to cooperate freely in his own redemption. … The Redeemer needs man to cooperate in his own redemption.
This role of coredemption was offered to Mary who was conceived without original sin. Only she could begin a new blood lineage liberated from the slavery of sin, qualifying her alone to be Coredemptrix, who like the paschal lamb must be unblemished. This offer was made by the Lord through the Angel Gabriel, and with her fiat she accepted on behalf of all mankind and became Coredemptrix (36).
The present writer is suggesting that the participation metaphysics of St. Thomas, underpinning von Balthasar’s penetrating theological understanding of the Mary’s limitless fiat flowing from her unique creation as the Immaculate Conception, might provide a fresh foundational resource for the proposed dogma of Our Lady as Coredemptrix, Mediatrix of all Graces, and Advocate.
Sr. Thomas Mary McBride is a Dominican nun in the United States. She is a member of the Mariological Society of America and her theological research specializes in the theology of Hans Urs Von Balthasar. The above article was first published in Mary Co-redemptrix: Doctrinal Issues Today, Queenship, 2002.
(1) Augustine DiNoia, O.P., Professor of theology, Dominican House of Studies, Washington D.C., Editor The Thomist, formerly Doctrinal advisor to U.S. Bishop’s Conference, member of the International Theological Commission of John Paul II, currently Director Intracultural Forum of the John Paul II Cultural Center, Washington, D.C.; Conference given at Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of Grace, No. Guilford, Ct., 1994.
(2) Hans Urs von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology I: The Word Made Flesh (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 206.
(3) Angelo Scola, Hans urs Von Balthasar: a Theological Style (Grand Rapids: Eerdsman, 1995), 9: “Even today, thirty years later, I could retrace my steps back to that remote path in the Black Forest, not too far from Basle, and rediscover the tree under which I was struck, as if by lightening … and what suddenly entered my mind then was neither theology, nor the priesthood. It was simply this: you do not have to choose anything, you have been called! You will not serve, you will be taken into service. You do not have to make plans of any sort, you are only a pebble in a mosaic prepared long before. All that I had to do was simply to leave everything behind and follow, without making any plans, without desires or particular intuitions. I had only to remain there to see how I could be useful.”
(4) Von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology II: Spouse of the Word, essay: “Who is the Church?,” trans. A.V. Littledale (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 161.
(5) Ibid., 191.
(6) Ibid., 186.
(7) Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo Drama, vol. 3: Dramatis Personae: Persons in Christ, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 333.
(8) Hans Urs von Balthasar, Das Katholische an der Kirche ( = Kolner Beitrage 10; Cologne: Wienand, 1972), 10-11 quoted in The von Balthasar Reader, trans. Robert J. Daly and Fred Lawrence, ed. Medard Kehl and Werner Loser with an Introduction by Medard Kehl (Edinburgh T. & T. Clark, 1985), 214.
(9) For von Balthasar’s discussion of the development of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception see Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, vol. 3: Dramatis Personae: Persons in Christ, 296-297; 319-323.
(10) Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Threefold Garland, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 32.
(11) Von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, vol. 3: Dramatis Personae: Persons in Christ: “Her cooperation, the work of her who serves both as a woman and as a creature, is not forgotten: it is integrated into his. Both redemption and preredemption spring from the same Cross but in such a way that she who is preredeemed is used in the Church’s coming to be,” 351.
(12) Von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology II: Spouse of the Word: “Mary, in giving birth spiritually and physically to the Son, becomes the universal Mother of all believers, for the Church as body is born of Christ and is herself Christ,” 165. See also Hans Urs von Balthasar, Commentary on Mary: God’s Yes to Man: Encyclical letter, Mother of the Redeemer, John Paul II, trans. Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987): “Mary’s abundantly effective faith, especially under the Cross, is, by her dying Son, made part of his actions in bringing forth the Church. This justifies the title ‘Mother of the Church,’ bestowed on Mary by Pope Paul VI,” 172.
(13) Von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology II: Spouse of the Word, 159-161. That the Church can bring forth Christ presupposes a subjective personal holiness of faith, hope and love realized in act. Mary, through her immaculate conception was able to make this act of holiness: this perfect archetypal response. Her womanly and receptive faith was enabled to fully correspond to the masculine seed of Christ in her fiat of surrender to God’s Word and the Spirit of God who overshadowed her, 160.
(14) Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Office of the Peter and the Structure of the Church, trans. Andree Emery (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 206-207.
(15) Von Balthasar, Das Katholische an der Kirche quoted in The Von Balthasar Reader: “In this fundamental act in the room at Nazareth, in this alone the Church of Christ is founded as Catholic. Its catholicity is the unconditional character of the Ecce Ancilla (‘behold the handmaid’) whose offer of infinite accommodation is the creaturely counterpart to the infinitely self-bestowing love of God,” 214.
(16) Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1: Seeing the Form, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikskis; ed. Joseph Fessio and John Riches (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983), 343.
(17) Ibid., 362.
(18) Von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology II: Spouse of the Word, 161. For a discussion of the “Marian Principle” see Hans Urs von Balthasar, Elucidations, trans. the Publishers (London: S.P.C.K., 1975), 64-72.
(19) Von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology II: Spouse of the Word, 183.
(20) Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone, trans. and ed. Alexander Dru (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), 63-64.
(21) Ibid., 88.
(22) Von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology II: Spouse of the Word, 36.
(23) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 3a, 30, 1. In discussing the question “whether it was necessary to announce to the Blessed Virgin Mary that which was to be done in her,” St. Thomas answers that “it was reasonable that it should be announced to the Blessed Virgin that she was to conceive Christ … in order to show that there is a certain spiritual wedlock between the Son of God and human nature. Wherefore in the Annunciation the Virgin’s consent was besought in lieu of that of the entire human nature.”
(24) St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, ed. James A. Weisheipl, O.P. (Albany, N.Y.: Magi Books, Inc., 1980), n. 343, n. 344.
(25) Ibid., n. 201; see also St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, (Blackfriars Summa) vol. 51, Our Lady, trans. and ed. Thomas R. Heath, O.P., (N.Y.: McGraw Hill, 1969), appendix 1, 93-95.
(26) Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, vol. 3: Dramatis Personae: Persons in Christ, 295-318.
(27) Ibid., 317-318.
(28) Ibid., 318-339.
(29) Ibid., 319.
(30) Ibid., 328.
(31) Ibid., 334.
(32) Ibid., 338.
(33) Thomas Aquinas, In l. De Causis, 1, 19; ed. Saffrey 106, 11-13, quoted in Cornelio Fabro, “The Intensive Hermeneutics of Thomistic Philosophy: The Notion of Participation,” trans. by B.M. Bonansea, Review of Metaphysics 27 (1974), 479.
(35) W. Norris Clarke, The Philosophical Approach to God (Winston- Salem, No. Carolina: Wake Forest University, 1979), 38. In the adapted quotation the brackets replace “universe” in both instances.
(36) Interview with the Honorable Howard Q. Dee, former Philippines Ambassador to the Holy See, “Our Lady’s Ambassador,” Inside the Vatican, November 1998, 30-33.