Winter 2020

A Commentary on John Paul II’s Dominum et vivificantem

Hans Urs von Balthasar

1. Completion of a Trinitarian Theology

Dominum et vivificantem, the encyclical presented by Pope John Paul II on the Solemnity of Pentecost in this liturgical year 1986, is manifestly the completion of a project that bears a trinitarian structure. His first encyclical, Redemptor hominis (March 1979), concerned Jesus Christ the Son of God as the center point both of our faith and of our ecclesial task in and for the world. It is first of all through Jesus that we find access to “his and our Father” (Dives in misericordia), as we are granted to know the Father’s mind through the Son’s Incarnation, life, and death on the Cross. Out of this death the Holy Spirit, who is also the Spirit of the Father, will be breathed into the disciples on Easter, and on Pentecost will empower the whole Church for her missionary task to all peoples of the world and to every single person. The Spirit is the theme of this third encyclical.1

This finale comprises ideas that were carefully prepared in both the earlier writings, ideas that circle continually around the unity between God’s work in creating and redeeming or around the natural dignity of man as perfected by grace. Such ideas flow out of the heart of the Gospel, but no less out of the heart of the recent council, which is frequently cited in the document, and finally out of the heart of the Holy Father himself. These three sources, from which both this and the preceding encyclicals stream forth in all their plentiful richness, are not in the least to be separated from one another in these texts. In this way, we find concretely confirmed here what the Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei verbum) had asserted in a central place—namely, that “sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls” (10).


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1. The English translation published by the Vatican of passages from John Paul II’s encyclicals have been modified only in cases where these differ significantly from the German translation quoted by Balthasar. Following Balthasar’s own practice in this piece, quotations from the encyclicals will be cited by listing in parentheses the number of the section in which it appears. The following abbreviations will accompany the first instance in every series of citations from a given work: RH for Redemptor hominis, DM for Dives in misericordia, DV for Dominum et vivificantem.—Trans.