Ignatius Among Us: Great 20th-century theologians share a common spiritual heritage.

Where would contemporary theology be except for the works of the Jesuits Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) and Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) of France, Karl Rahner (1904-84) of Germany, Bernard Lonergan (1904-84) of Canada and John Courtney Murray (1904-67) of the United States?

The Swiss-born Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) may be appropriately added to this group because for several decades he too was a Jesuit.…

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These great giants of the mind unquestionably belong to the advance guard of the Second Vatican Council and, except for Teilhard, who had died in 1955, were among the leading interpreters of the council’s work. And if one asks what these men had in common, the obvious reply is that all of them were deeply formed by the Spiritual Exercises and the teaching of St. Ignatius of Loyola, whom they took as their spiritual guide. Teilhard de Chardin, Rahner, de Lubac and Balthasar, upon whose achievements I shall focus my remarks, give clear manifestations of this intellectual genealogy....

Ignatius, though he was a great spiritual leader, scarcely comes up for mention in histories of Catholic theology. He aspired to no theological originality. For the training of Jesuit students he recommended the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas. Instead of calling for innovation, he directed that Jesuit professors should adhere to the safest and most approved opinions, avoiding books and authors that were suspect.

What inspires the creativity of modern systematic theologians is not primarily the theological views of Ignatius but rather his mysticism. Modern authors speak frequently of this as a Christ-centered mysticism, a sacramental mysticism and an ecclesial mysticism. They mention Ignatius’ mysticism of service, of reverential love, of the Cross and of discernment. Whereas other mystics may find communion with God by withdrawing from activity in the world, the contrary is true of Ignatius. He seeks union with God primarily by dwelling within the mysteries through which God makes himself present in our world—especially the mysteries of the incarnate life of the eternal Son. It is a mysticism of action, whereby we unite ourselves with the mission of Christ in the church.

I should like to comment on four themes from the Spiritual Exercises that have particularly inspired 20th-century theologians.... I shall illustrate each of these themes—the cosmic, the theistic, the ecclesial and the Christological—from the writings of one of the theologians already mentioned.

Finding God in All Things

[… In] the Exercises, Ignatius reflects on how God dwells in all creatures and especially in human beings, who are created “in the likeness and image of the Divine Majesty” (No. 235). Indeed, says Ignatius, God works and labors not only in human persons, but also in the elements, the plants and the animals (No. 236; cf. No. 39).…

St. Ignatius’ close disciple, the Majorcan [Jesuit] Jerome Nadal (1507-80), contended that Ignatius was endowed with a special grace “to see and contemplate in all things, actions, and conversations the presence of God and the love of spiritual things, to remain a contemplative even in the midst of action.” Nadal believed that to be a contemplative in action and to find God in all things were graces or charisms especially proper to the Society of Jesus.

Among modern Jesuit authors, none has extolled the sense of the divine omnipresence more eloquently than Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his classic work, The Divine Milieu, first published in English translation in 1960. This work was written, according to the author, with the intention of instructing the reader “how to see God everywhere, to see Him in all that is most hidden, most solid and most ultimate in the world.” The divine milieu, Teilhard declares, “discloses itself to us as a modification of the deep being of things”—a modification that does not alter the perceptible phenomena, but renders them translucent and diaphanous, so that they become epiphanies of the divine.

In successive chapters Teilhard explains how to find God in the positive experiences of successful activity and in the negative experiences of failure and diminishment. The Cross, he maintains, enables sickness and death to be paths to victory. His is a mystical spirituality that involves detachment from all creatures for the sake of union with the divine. As he wrote in a private letter of Oct. 22, 1925: “After all, only one thing matters, surely, ‘to see’ God wherever one looks.”…

For Teilhard the realization of God’s universal presence was not simply an ascetical principle for his own interior life. It was the inspiration of his lifelong quest to build a bridge between Christian faith and contemporary science. Having meditated deeply on the Kingdom of Christ, as set forth in the Spiritual Exercises, Teilhard was filled with ardent longing to set all things on fire with the love of Christ (see Henri de Lubac, The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin). Aflame with this missionary zeal, he saw the worlds of science beckoning to him as the new territory to be evangelized. In 1926, referring to a recent lecture by a Harvard professor on the dawn of thought in the evolution of species, he wrote in a letter: “However farfetched the notion might appear at first, I realized in the end that, hic et nunc, Christ was not irrelevant to the problems that interest Professor Parker: it only needed a few intermediate steps to allow a transition from his positivist psychology to a certain spiritual outlook. This realization cheered me up. Ah, there lie the Indies that draw me more strongly than those of St. Francis Xavier.”

Just as the early Jesuit missionaries sought to adopt all that was sound in the cultures of India and China, so Teilhard sought to utilize the new findings of science as points of access to faith in Christian revelation. In his enthusiasm he identified Christ as the Omega Point toward which all the energies of religion and science were converging. This hypothesis certainly went far beyond anything that St. Ignatius would have imagined, but it may be in part an outgrowth of the Ignatian vision of Christ in glory as the “eternal Lord of all things” (Sp. Ex. No. 98); it recalls the universalistic horizons of the meditations on the Kingdom of Christ, the Incarnation and the Two Standards.…

Immediacy to God

A second theme from the Spiritual Exercises is that of the immediacy of the soul to God. In the “Annotations for the Director” in the introduction to the Exercises, St. Ignatius admonishes the director to refrain from urging the retreatant to choose the more perfect way of life. “It is more suitable and much better,” he says, “that the Creator and Lord in person communicate himself to the devout soul in quest of the divine will, and that He inflame it with love of Himself.” The director should therefore “permit the Creator to deal directly with the creature, and the creature directly with its Creator and Lord” (No. 15).…

Among modern theologians who have built on this Ignatian theme, none is more explicit than Karl Rahner.…

On the ground that every individual is in immediate contact with God through grace, Rahner develops an original theory of the relationship between the charismatic and the institutional elements in the church. The charisms, or gifts of the Holy Spirit, he holds, are in principle prior to the institution. The charismatic element, in fact, is “the true pith and essence of the church,” the point where the lordship of Christ is most directly and potently exercised. The external structures of the church, in his system, are seen as subordinate to the self-actualization of the transcendental subject, achieved by grace. Office holders in the church are obliged not to stifle the Holy Spirit but to recognize and foster the free movements of the Spirit in the church.

Holding that the articulation of dogma always falls short of the reality to which it refers, Rahner pleads for a high level of tolerance for doctrinal diversity in the church. He favors a pluriform church with structures that are adaptable to local and transitory needs. The institutional forms, for him, are radically subordinate to the nonthematic experience of grace. The student of the Spiritual Exercises is reminded in this connection of the way in which Ignatius instructs the director to adapt the meditations to the age, education and talents of those making the Exercises. Retreatants are encouraged to adopt whatever posture best enables them to pray. For Ignatius, external forms and practices were always secondary to spiritual fruits.…

In an early essay on “Ignatian Mysticism of Joy in the World,” Rahner celebrates the distinctively Jesuit affirmation of the world and its values, the disposition to accept the achievements of culture, to esteem humanism and to adapt to the demands of varying situations. Once we have found the God of the life beyond, he concludes, we are able to immerse ourselves in the work required of us in our world today. Since God is active at all times and places, he argues, there is no need to flee to the desert or return to the past to find him. Like Teilhard, therefore, Rahner interprets Ignatius as having laid the foundations of a lay theology that discovers God’s presence in worldly realities.

Rahner, again like Teilhard, accepts the Ignatian theology of the Cross. He insists that God is to be found not only in the positive but also in the negative experiences of life, including failure, renunciation, sickness, poverty and death. Just as the passion and death were central to Christ’s redeeming work, so privation and self-denial can be paths to the ultimate renunciation that each of us will have to undergo in death. God is greater than either our successes or our failures. He, the Deus semper maior, is our only lasting hope.

Ecclesial Obedience

St. Ignatius of Loyola, while recognizing the immediacy of the individual soul to God, strongly emphasizes the mediation of the church. He repeatedly speaks of the church as the Mother of Believers and the Bride of Christ (Sp. Ex. 353). “In Christ our Lord, the Bridegroom, and in his Spouse the Church,” he asserts, “only one Spirit holds sway” (No. 365). Ignatius in the Exercises speaks of serving Christ in the church militant and on two occasions refers to it as the “hierarchical church” (Nos. 170, 353), a term apparently original with Ignatius. On one occasion he adds that the hierarchical church is “Roman” (No. 353, some manuscripts). He takes it for granted that no one could be called by the Holy Spirit to do anything forbidden by the hierarchical church (No. 170). This ecclesial mysticism is recaptured in the theology of the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac, as well as in that of his friend and disciple Hans Urs von Balthasar.

De Lubac, like Rahner, was strongly influenced by [the Belgian Jesuit Joseph] Maréchal’s view that the human spirit is constituted by a dynamic drive to transcend all finite objects in quest of that which is greater than everything conceivable (see The Discovery of God). The dynamism of the human spirit toward the vision of God, he believed, surpasses all the affirmations and denials of both positive and negative theology. A ceaseless inquietude of the soul towards God drives the whole process forward. Primordial knowledge comes to itself in reflexive concepts, but these concepts are never final; they are always subject to criticism and correction (see Balthasar, The Theology of Henri de Lubac).

Conscious though he is of this inner drive, de Lubac does not fall into religious individualism. Picking up the Ignatian designations of the church as Bride of Christ and as Mother of all Christ’s faithful, he affirms that a “mystical identity” exists between Christ and the church. He repudiates every tendency to introduce an opposition between the mystical and the visible, between spirit and authority or between charism and hierarchy. Although the church has an invisible dimension, it is essentially visible and hierarchical. “Without the hierarchy which is her point of organization, her organizer and her guide,” he declares, there could be no talk of the church at all (The Splendor of the Church).

In a celebrated passage of The Splendor of the Church, de Lubac paints a glowing portrait of the loyal Christian, one who seeks to be what Origen termed a “true ecclesiastic.” Like St. Ignatius, such a person will always be concerned to think with and in the church, cultivating the sense of Catholic solidarity and accepting the teaching of the magisterium as a binding norm. The ecclesiastical person, according to de Lubac, will not only be obedient but will love obedience as a way of dying to self in order to be filled with the truth that God pours into our minds.…

The Call of the King

A final theme in the Spiritual Exercises that has inspired modern disciples of St. Ignatius is the call of Christ in the meditation on the Kingdom. All persons with good judgment, Ignatius maintains, will offer themselves entirely to labor with Christ in order to share in his victory (No. 96). But those who wish to distinguish themselves in service will wish to imitate Christ in bearing all wrongs, and suffering abuse and poverty, in order to give greater proof of their love (No. 97-98). The drama of the following of Christ through his sufferings to ultimate victory is central to the entire theological project of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Balthasar’s theology of revelation is centered about the self-manifestation of the divine majesty, a theme he himself connects with the Ignatian motto, ad maiorem Dei gloriam. The glory of God, he holds, overwhelms and captivates all who perceive it. The culminating manifestation of God’s glory is Jesus, the crucified and risen one. Jesus glorifies God by the faithful execution of his mission, which is the prolongation in time of his own origin from the Father.

The perfection of human beings cannot be measured by abstract ethical rules but only by their response to the call that Christ addresses to them. That call is always to share in the lot and mission of the Lord. The church incorporates its members into Christ, first of all through baptism into his death. Christians achieve the freedom of children of God by renouncing their self-will, putting on the mind of Christ. In Balthasar’s ecclesiology, therefore, obedience is central and constitutive. To be church is to be, like Mary, the “handmaid of the Lord.” The church’s task, like hers, is to hear the word and do it.…

Balthasar’s large volume The Christian State of Life is an extended commentary on the call of Christ described in the Ignatian meditation on the Kingdom. The vocation to the consecrated life, in the view of Balthasar, is a fundamental feature of the church. Since Jesus called the Twelve to poverty, chastity and obedience during his public ministry, the state of the evangelical counsels existed even before the priestly state. By renouncing every desire of their own, Christians are best able to share in the absolute freedom that is in God. The prayer of St. Ignatius, “Take, Lord, and Receive,” magnificently expresses the sacrifice of personal freedom for the sake of living by the divine will alone.

The following of the crucified Lord takes on concrete form in the hierarchical church, which retains its Christological form thanks to the authority of office holders over other members of the church. If this opposition between hierarchy and faithful were dissolved, he writes, “all that would remain would only be a formless mush of ethical instructions.” Like de Lubac, therefore, Balthasar holds that office and charism belong together. From one point of view, office may be seen as a special charism for coordinating other charisms and bringing them into the unity of the church as a whole.…

• • •

...In a longer presentation many other themes and authors could be studied. One might wish to survey the missionary theology of Pierre Charles and Jean Daniélou, the ecumenism of Augustin Bea, the theology of conversion of Bernard Lonergan and the views of John Courtney Murray on religious freedom. In all these authors it would be possible to trace Ignatian motifs based on the Spiritual Exercises.…

Ignatian principles, as I have tried to indicate, can lead to a variety of theological systems. In the Spiritual Exercises themselves there seems to be an inbuilt tension between immediacy and mediation, between personal freedom and obedience, between universalism and ecclesiocentrism, between horizontal openness to the world and reverence for the sacred and the divine. Some theologians, such as Teilhard de Chardin and Rahner, put greater emphasis on immediacy to God, personal freedom and universalism; others, like de Lubac and Balthasar, especially in their later work, insist more on ecclesial mediation, sacramentality and obedience. The “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits” seem to point in one direction, the “Rules for Thinking with the Church” in the other. But because both emphases are valid and are held together in the Exercises, they must be harmoniously reconciled in theology.

The Ignatian charism, as I understand it, consists in the ability to combine the two tendencies without detriment to either. A purely mechanical obedience without regard for the movements of the Spirit and a purely individualistic reliance on the Spirit without regard for ecclesiastical authority would be equally foreign to the heritage we have been exploring. For Ignatius it was axiomatic that Christians are called to achieve authentic freedom by surrendering their limited freedom into the hands of God. The theologian who is most prayerfully open to the impulses of the Spirit is best able to enter into the mind of the church and by this means to interpret the Christian faith in fullest conformity with the intentions of the Lord himself.

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Craig McKee
5 years 5 months ago
"Holding that the articulation of dogma always falls short of the reality to which it refers, Rahner pleads for a high level of tolerance for doctrinal diversity in the church. He favors a pluriform church with structures that are adaptable to local and transitory needs. The institutional forms, for him, are radically subordinate to the nonthematic experience of grace." Given the fact that there is relatively little that is IGNATIAN or RAHNERIAN about the so-called "Reform of the Reform" movement begun and continued by the previous and current non-Mediterranean pontificates, is it safe to assume that the so-called NEW Evangelization following in its wake will also be found wanting if not downright defective - especially in its anthropological point de depart associating globalization with secularism? http://www.vatican.va/news_services/press/sinodo/documents/bollettino_25_xiii-ordinaria-2012/02_inglese/b33_02.html

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