Previous Letter to Editor that never got sent

Fr. Oakes doth protest too much. Ms. Pitstick’s thesis that the form and content of the Creed, as regards Holy Saturday, has been clearly taught by the ordinary Magisterium of the Church is practically granted by Fr. Oakes, when he quotes Cardinal Schönborn as saying that the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s brief paragraph on this doctrine “keeps to what is the common property of the Church’s exegetical tradition.” To be clear, the brief paragraph in question says, among other things:

But [Christ] descended [to the realm of the dead] as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there. Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”. “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.
“The gospel was preached even to the dead.” The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption. (CCC 632-634; emphasis added)

So, the fact that Christ went down to the “righteous”, “just”, “saved” “dead,” whose “lot” is different from the “evil”, as “Savior” to “proclaim the Good News” and “deliver” them is declared by the chairman of the drafting committee of the Catechism to be the “common property of the Church’s…tradition.” Surely such a renowned theologian as Balthasar was aware of this tradition, living prior to the publishing of the Catechism though he may have.

Perhaps this quite obvious deviancy of Balthasar from the “common…tradition” of the Church is the reason that Fr. Oakes shifts the conversation away from Balthasar’s view of Holy Saturday to other grounds, such as Balthasar’s view of the damned and Ms. Pitstick’s view of a pre-Christian purgatory. But in so doing, he treats Ms. Pitstick’s views as “tendentiously” as he accuses her of doing to the tradition. So, because she sees tradition as putting forth a certain Magisterially-approved content to the statement that Christ “descended into hell”, she is therefore linked with an Augustinian despair of the salvation of all souls. What is not explained by Fr. Oakes is why he or Balthasar apparently think that the hope for the salvation of all souls, as per the Catechism (CCC 1058), should necessitate a reformulation of the content of the Creed. After all, the Church has always understood Christ’s redemptive sacrifice to be “superabundant” (cf. CCC 411) in its merits. More merit need not be mined in the hell of the damned.

In choosing to rely on Catholic tradition (per Cdl. Schönborn) instead of theologians like Luther, Calvin and Barth, Ms. Pitstick, according to Fr. Oakes, has “refus[ed] to come to terms with Paul’s theology.” Apparently, Catholic tradition is as bereft of Pauline justification (!) as our Protestant brethren sometimes contend! This is where the false dichotomies in Fr. Oakes’ piece start to emerge. That the “Church…serves [the word of God]” somehow comes to mean that tradition cannot be brought to bear on an authentic interpretation of that word. Similarly, if Paul’s point that “no one is just in the sight of God after the first sin of Adam” is an argument against a “pre-Christian purgatory,” it is difficult to see how it is not also deadly to a Christian one. After all, that statement is as true today as it was when Paul wrote it, as it was in the time of Moses. It is God who justifies by faith, before Christ and after Christ, as St. Paul himself attests (e.g., Abraham).

In the end, the piece only becomes more confusing. Is it the cross of Christ through which sins “are known as sins”, or is it through “the law”? Clearly, it is through the law, as the quote of St. Paul in the piece suggests (cf. Rom. 3:20). Obviously, we the readers are not privy to the work that Fr. Oakes is here critiquing. But his claim that limiting Christ’s descent into hell to the Limbo of the Fathers (or to a pre-Christian place analogous to purgatory) somehow empties his atonement for sin of its power is incomprehensible. The point is obviously that his descent is not atonement at all, that having been “superabundantly” accomplished through his Passion and death. His descent is rather a glorious liberation of those he had previously made just through faith. Rather than emptying the atonement of its power, its power is especially revealed in its fullness.

The final coup de grace is the labeling of the traditional understanding of Holy Saturday as an “alternative vision of the gospel.” Hopefully, the delicious irony of this statement will at least partially mitigate the purgatorial suffering Ms. Pitstick must have endured in reading this review of her work.

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~ by Rob on December 23, 2006.

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