Friday, October 18, 2013

Book Review: "A Short Primer For Unsettled Laymen"

Hans Urs von Balthasar's generally respected reputation as a theologian and spiritual writer nowadays is unavoidable - to say one doesn't enjoy his writing is like telling a music lover that the Beatles were only just okay.  Though I have avoided reading his writings for quite some time now, I have finally given in on one book in particular.  If you haven't read him before, and even if you feel as cautious as I do about some of his thought, I think that his work A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen is a worthwhile read.

What is precisely so interesting here is that this short work (only 134 pages long) criticizing much of what has happened post-Vatican II is written by one of the leading lights of the New Theology movement so associated with the Council (Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, et. al.).  Though von Balthasar was not directly involved like other theologians such as Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac were, he is still considered to be a driving force behind much of the ideas and theology at the time.

So to read von Balthasar's words of warning and admonishment at misinterpreting the Council is absolutely fascinating.  He attacks misinterpretations of the now-nebulous term "social justice", demythologization of the Scriptures and ultimately of Christ, and rings the alarm on the mass exodus of many Catholics after the Council.  He warns that many have forgotten the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, speaks on true ecumenism versus false ecumenism, and a whole host of other topics.

Whether one agrees with any of the conclusions he draws or admonishments that he delivers, the book is an exciting read, as evinced by the following:

"Many Christians today see the Creed's individual "articles of faith" as isolated truths, some of which appeal to them so that they gladly believe them, while others strike them as strange or even hostile."1

"...in no way can the whole theology of the New Testament - its theology of the Cross and Resurrection - be reduced to political theology."2

"One trembles when one sees whole parishes streaming up to receive the Host without confession and probably without repentance.  Do they discern the Body of the Lord, as Paul demands, and do they not eat their own judgment?"3

"All true Catholic Christians suffer today from  the confusion within their Church...(for example, the sacrament of confession was almost completely lost) and especially in the sphere of faith, where a small or large question mark was placed behind almost every article of the Creed."4

These are only a few highlights, but one gets the gist of the book.  The tone is not necessarily that of alarmism, but it is serious in its delivery.  The only issue I have with the book is that its content does not seem written necessarily for the regular person in the pews on Sunday, as its title would suggest, but more for those already well-educated in matters and the language of Catholic theology; thus, the book's intended audience seems cut off from a good portion of the content.

That said, I have found the book to be quite helpful.  I don't agree with every conclusion von Balthasar makes (such as some of the remarks he makes on "traditionalism"), but he has most certainly helped to shed some light on some troubling issues that seem to have arisen since the time of the Second Vatican Council.  A worthwhile read - even if one is not a fan of von Balthasar, this short book offers some good food for thought for any Catholic troubled by some of the issues facing the Church today.

1 - A Short Primer For Unsettled Laymen, pg. 75
2 - ibid., pg. 124
3 - ibid., pg. 132
4 - ibid., pg. 11, 13

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