Freedom for Form

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s little book, In the Fullness of Faith first appeared in the mid-1970s and proclaimed a striking mission. Vatican II had encouraged a spirit of ecumenism within the Catholic Church, but the most common application of that spirit followed the example of American Protestantism: it recognized the legitimacy of different “denominations”; fruitful dialogue consisted of trying to find what least-common-denominator, what set of broad principles, was actually shared by all parties. Differences were to be minimized as “inessential.”

This was impossible, thought von Balthasar. Catholicism is a whole, a totality. The only way for the Church to speak substantially to other Christians was for the Church to present the “Catholica,” the integral spirit that was an organic unity. From that interior unity, doctrines and practices emerge to which Protestants object. But the only way to understand those points of contention is to understand how they in fact emerge from the animating spirit of the Church.

Von Balthasar does not get very far into his discussion of “The Present Situation,” before the whole problem at stake becomes unsettling. The Church has a form. Further, the Church would imprint that form on the Christian, such that to be a Christian is to allow one’s entire life to receive a particular shape, a structure.

Years earlier, in his Glory of the Lord, von Balthasar had expressed the idea thus:

to be a Christian is precisely a form. How could it be otherwise, since being a Christian is a grace, a possibility of existence opened up to us by God’s act of justification, by the God-Man’s redemption? This is not the formless, general possibility of an alleged freedom, but the exact possibility, appointed by God for every individual in his existence as a member of Christ’s body, in his task within the body, in his mission, his charism, his Christian service to the Church and to the world.

This language will appear obscure to most of us. What does it mean?

Von Balthasar’s use of the word “form” derives from ancient philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle above all. For both those philosophers, changeable things move, over the course of their existence, from the potential to actuality.

The basic material components of the human embryo are almost purely potential, but, to have “potential” entails already being set on a course to some end, already directed toward some fulfillment. As we approach fulfillment, we become ever more actualized. We become “more real.” The principle that sets our potential on its course is our “form,” that is to say, the intellectual principle or essence that defines what we are. To become actual – to be fulfilled – is specifically to fulfill our form.

Von Balthasar understood that to be free means to have the capacity to develop from the almost pure potential of our beginning, where the form is an essential but as yet unrealized idea, and to develop toward the ever-closer achievement of that essence in our existence. Freedom entails having the capacity to become, to exist, as we were meant to be, by our essence. The form is our essence in potential, but it is also the integral whole, the unity, we realize in our existence.


In our time, von Balthasar worried, people simply do not believe in form. To fulfill an essence sounds to us is not like an achievement of freedom but its limitation. In the wake of the Council, he saw people on the “left” seeking to “dissolve allegedly rigid forms until nothing is left but formlessness.” On the “right,” he saw Catholics holding “fast” to forms but in a way that was not existential and fulfilling but rather “ossif[ied].”

The whole age seemed to suffer from an “inability to create genuine forms.” Christians, in particular, seemed to suffer from the debility: “How ephemeral is practically all Christian art; how ephemeral practically all Christian music and lyrics nowadays!”

The Christian life, as von Balthasar describes it, consists of our willingness to surrender the form of the natural man and to be re-formed entirely by Christ. It is as if the fertile soil, the pure potential, of our being gave up one seed and allowed itself to be sown with the seed of Christ. But, again, “Our times are iconoclastic.” We want to dismiss every such seed as an imposition rather than a fulfillment, as a mere historical carapace and not an essential unity, a whole with an essence or total form proper to itself.

And is this not exactly true? As long ago as 1651, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes proclaimed that every definition of “freedom” other than the absence of obstacle to our desires was a mere incoherence and superstition. Famously, both Hobbes and René Descartes sought to replace the classical account of change as the process of development from potency to actuality, with the laws of all change as locomotion (force acting on matter) and inertia (things do not move toward some fulfillment or end; they just move until resistance from other motions slows them down).

Such a vision of freedom as the absence of a resistant force is bare, indeed empty, in comparison with the vision of things being called into being to become, to exist, to take their place, as the realization of a particular form.

Without that richer, ancient account of freedom as directedness to form, many things become puzzling to us. We see supposed wholes as merely the sum of their parts, as so many molecular parts that can be added or subtracted at will. The idea of Catholicism as an integral whole no longer makes sense.

Worse, we become unintelligible to ourselves. We begin to think of every “form” as something that might be useful for a time, but also as something to be kept at arm’s length. To be free means to guard oneself in a state of pure potential, batting away every form as a threat to our freedom. Among the things we bat away is the possibility of fulfillment. We would rather remain “free” than be “seeded” by Christ.


*Image: Christ Rescuing Peter from Drowning by Lorenzo Veneziano, c. 1370 [Staatliche Museen, Berlin]


James Matthew Wilson has published ten books, including, most recently, The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico) and The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (CUA). Professor of Humanities and Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas (Houston), he also serves as poet-in-residence for the Benedict XVI Institute, poetry editor for Modern Age magazine, and as series editor for Colosseum Books, from the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press. His Amazon page is here.