July 10, 2002
Kevin Mongrain’s study of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s modern Christian thought
a strong case for the theological primacy of early Christianity’s belief
that God reveals the unity
of beauty, goodness and truth.
In his first book, “The Systematic Thought of Von Balthasar: An Irenaean
(Herder & Herder, $29.95), Mongrain, who is an assistant professor of
systematic (dogmatic) theology at St. Mary’s University, examines the
internal logic of Balthasar, one of the most important theologians of the
20th century. He is the favorite Catholic theologian of Pope John Paul II
and is highly regarded among contemporary theologians in academe.
Balthasar was borne in Lucerne, Switzerland in 1905 and was ordained as a
Jesuit priest in 1936, although he left the Jesuit order in 1950. The
underlying theme in Balthasar’s theology is that God reveals himself in
beauty, especially in the sacraments and in liturgical worship. His
theological works include hundreds of books and articles and in the 1970s
and 1980s he gained widespread recognition among religious scholars.
Balthasar was appointed by John Paul II to become a cardinal in 1988,
however, two days before his elevation, Balthasar died while preparing to
celebrate morning Mass.
“There is a second wave of scholarship under way now toward Balthasar,”
said Mongrain, who began the project while attending Yale University, where
he received his doctorate in systematic theology in 1999. The first phase
of scholarship was primarily descriptive, but Mongrain’s study attempts to
discern the underlying sources and agenda in Balthasar’s writings.
“He thought that we should go back to the sources of the ancient church
because the foundational fathers had it right,” said Mongrain. Balthasar’s
theology was a retrieval of many theological elements of the second century
church father, Irenaeus of Lyons, France. Irenaeus’s lessons included
warnings on the danger of gnosticism, a perennial temptation in theology
For his part, Balthasar relied on a tripartite unity as a guiding rule for
Christian theology. To wit: aesthetics (beauty), dramatics (goodness) and
logic (truth). “The divine order is beauty, goodness or morality, then
truth,” Mongrain said. “Christianity is primarily a religion of beauty. So
it’s really a matter of taste if something is more beautiful than something
else. If the church demonstrates holiness, then it’s going to attract
people,” he said. “That is the challenge for us today.” Thus,
Christianity is more than a collection of true dogmas, or a way of life,
but the response to a vision that inspires and deeply influences a
person’s way of life which we seek to discern more clearly and truly.
Mongrain’s book on Balthasar, the second to be published by the Catholic
press Herder & Herder, is available online at Amazon.com and through
Borders bookstores. A native of International Falls, Minn., Mongrain earned
a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in systematic
theology from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and holds a
Ph.D. from Yale. In 1999, he joined St. Mary’s Department of Theology.