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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter August 19, 2016

Aaron Pidel, S.J.: Erich Przywara, S.J., and “Catholic Fascism:” A Response to Paul Silas Peterson

S.J Aaron Pidel


Paul Silas Petersons Versuch, in zwei jüngeren Artikeln den Jesuiten und zwischenkriegszeitlichen Kulturphilosoph Erich Przywara als „katholischen Faschisten“ und Antisemiten zu charakterisieren, versagt aus mehreren Gründen. Peterson errichtet eine Kategorie antiliberalen Denkens, die er als „katholischer Faschismus“ bezeichnet, versäumt es jedoch, wichtige, dringend erforderliche interne Differenzierungen innerhalb dieser Kategorie vorzunehmen. Auf diese Weise verweigert er Przywara jegliche geistige Unabhängigkeit von dessen kulturellem Milieu. Dieser Artikel stellt die Unzulänglichkeit dieser Hermeneutik auf zwei Weisen heraus. Er argumentiert auf negative Weise, um die Ambivalenz der vorgeblich faschistischen Tropen aufzuzeigen, die Peterson als Beispiele anführt. Auf positive Weise argumentiert er, dass Przywaras 1933 geschriebenen Aufsätze, „Reich und Kreuz“ und „Nation, Staat, Kirche“, die vor dem Hintergrund von Przywaras Religionsphilosophie ausgelegt werden, sich als Aufrufe verstehen, die NS-Ideologie von „Blut und Boden“ aufzugeben. Darauf folgt ein ähnliches Argument, welches Przywara vom Vorwurf des Antisemitismus freizusprechen sucht. Es demonstriert die Doppeldeutigkeit der vermeintlich antisemitischen Motive in Przywaras Aufsatz „Judentum und Christentum“ und weist darauf hin, dass seine Behandlung des Judentums in dessen geschichtlichem Zusammenhang vielmehr als Aufforderung zu lesen ist, den rassisch motivierten und rechtlich diskriminierenden Antisemitismus abzuschaffen.

In seemingly endless production of literature addressing the question of German Catholic complicity in National Socialism, the name of Erich Przywara (1889–1972), Jesuit priest and Kulturphilosoph prominent in the interwar period, has emerged on the side of both the angels[1] and the devils.[2] Paul Silas Peterson, taking the part of the diaboli advocatus, has argued recently and rather forcefully for Przywara’s complicity in the destructive ideologies of his day.[3] Assembling many of the objectionable attitudes under the portmanteau term “Catholic fascism,” Peterson offers an impressionist portrait of Przywara’s worldview in the interwar years:

“Catholic fascism was captivated with the theme of the Reich and the religious Abendland, it was skeptical of neopaganism, anti-Semitic, anti-liberal, anti-American, anti-Enlightenment, anti-French Revolution, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-Zionist, anti-rationalistic, völkisch, authoritarian, integralistic, Nietzschean and nationalistic. Something similar is also found in Germanophone Protestantism in the 1920s and 1930s. This is the broader intellectual context of [Przywara’s] essay ‘Judaism and Christianity’ and it is also the broader intellectual context of his rejection of ‘Jewish messianism’ in his Analogia Entis (1932).”[4]

To be clear, Peterson does not simply argue that Przywara unwittingly advanced political fascism, promoting antiliberal ecclesiology to a public that could not grasp the necessary distinctions between Church and State, or criticizing Jewish theology for a readership that could not distinguish scholarly argument from pogrom. For Peterson, Przywara actively sought the Church’s admission to “the councils of power” through an integralist alliance with the totalitarian state.[5] His writings exhibit a kind of “racist essentialism, blended together with religious ideas,”[6] which in turn betrays an “unusual kind of human hostility directed against Jews.”[7] These charges are indeed significant, if true.

They are, however, more false than true. Przywara’s political theology neither reveals an enthusiasm for NS-ideology nor constitutes a sycophantic bid to ingratiate the Catholic Church to Hitler’s government. Admittedly, Przywara does sometimes employ anti-Judaic tropes. However, if it belongs to antisemitism to consider Jews racially inferior, suspect them of nefarious plots, or deny them full cultural access, then Peterson is wrong in ascribing that prejudice to Przywara. The reasons for Peterson’s wrongheaded conclusions, I believe, are principally two: first, he depends on rather selective associative evidence; second, he reads Przywara’s against an internally undifferentiated construct called “Catholic fascism” rather than against the backdrop of either Przywara’s own metaphysical writings or those of Przywara’s Jewish contemporaries. I would like to reply by supplying for these deficiencies in three ways: first, by addressing the “affinity thesis” of Catholic complicity in NS and the associative evidence with which Peterson insinuates Przywara’s NS-affinities; second, by supplying the religious and philosophical background necessary to understand Przywara’s Reichstheologie as an attempt to chasten the Third Reich; thirdly, by showing how Przywara’s identification of the so-called Judenfrage as a religious problem tends, in its historical context, to quell rather than enflame antisemitic passion. Przywara’s thought, in short, deserves to be understood on its own terms rather than as typical representative of “Catholic fascism.”

1 Catholic Fascism: The Affinity Thesis

A great deal of Peterson’s case against Przywara could be thought of as a rehearsal of the “affinity thesis” of Catholic complicity in National Socialism influential since the early 1960s.[8] The Catholic legal scholar Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde introduced this theory when he, speculating on the reasons for the perceived collapse of Catholic resistance in 1933, suggested that certain anti-liberal features of the Catholic social imaginary may have led Catholics – once the institutional freedoms of the Church had been secured – to embrace NS.[9] Klaus Breuning attempted something like an historical substantiation of Böckenförde’s conjecture, arguing in his still influential study, Die Vision des Reiches (1969), that the nostalgiac, programmatic, theopolitical “ Reichsideologie” of the Weimar Republic helped legitimate the Third Reich in the eyes of Catholics.[10] Peterson’s contribution is to have sharpened Breuning’s “ Reichsideologie” into “Catholic fascism,” and to have attempted to cast Przywara – who plays a marginal and ambivalent role in Breuning’s book [11] – in the role of its classic exponent. Given the absence of any explicit pro-Nazi declarations from Przywara, Peterson must proceed to establish Przywara’s fascist sympathies by insinuation. That is, he must show how Przywara’s admirers, intellectual enthusiasms, and diction betray his loyalty to an ideologically tainted movement. A closer look, however, suggests that this sort of evidence is at best inconclusive.

1.1 Admirers

One element of Peterson’s case for Przywara’s receptivity to NS is the praise Przywara received from from NS circles. Not only did NS functionaries permit Przywara to represent Germany at the Eighth International Philosophy Congress in Prague, but the Nazi Otto Dietrich lauded Przywara for drawing there the “same line of division” as his own, i.e., that “religion only aims to God, philosophy, however, to the world.”[12] But evidence of this sort is ambivalent on multiple counts. To begin with, Peterson makes no attempt to assess whether such NS approval rests on an accurate understanding of Przywara’s views. He should have reasons for skepticism, since Dietrich’s praise runs entirely counter to Peterson’s own broader case against Przywara. How can Przywara be both a “verticalist” denying religion any bearing on the world and a Catholic “integralist” trying to position the Church to manipulate the emergent NS state? Perhaps even more problematically, Peterson collects his evidence selectively. One can also find Alfred Rosenberg, likewise identified by Peterson as a “chief Nazi ideologue,”[13] rejecting Przywara’s religious philosophy as a “Jewish-Roman distortion” on the grounds that its emphasis on transcendence requires from the world a slavish obedience incompatible with the Nordic spirit.[14] Both for their internal contradictions and their slight acquaintance with Przywara’s thought, Nazi philosophers hardly count as a credible source.

Documentary evidence attests, moreover, not only to the claims of NS-enthusiasts to find an ally in Przywara, but also to the strong rejection of these claims by Przywara’s (presumably) Catholic contemporaries. We find such a rejection in the report of so-called “Reich und Kreuz” debate printed in Germania, the Berlin-based newspaper associated closely with the Zentrumspartei. The debate, which took place on January 10, 1933, just a few weeks before the Machtergreifung, pitted both the Protestant minister Günther Dehn (1882–1970) and Przywara against the NS-Reichsideologe Friedrich Hielscher. According to the column’s anonymous author, Hielscher showed his intellectual inferiority to Przywara, “a Catholic scholar of the first rank,” by entirely missing the latter’s point:

“What is one supposed to say to a man who uses his closing remarks to declare that Fr. Przywara’s paper had in essence admitted the truth of his thesis, according to which Reich and Cross have nothing to do with one another? This willful construction borders on tact-lessness and manifests sufficiently the character of this charlatan thinker (Ruchtheoretiker), whose activity consists only in twisting (umzudeuten) everything toward himself and his own purposes.”[15]

A contemporary of Przywara familiar enough with his thought to deem him a “Catholic scholar of the first rank” felt that only a prejudiced mind could construe his Reichstheologie as NS-friendly. This should give us pause.

1.2 Tainted Themes and Thinkers

A second kind of circumstantial evidence to which Peterson points is the fact that Przywara shared thematic enthusiasms with NS-friendly thinkers. In his book Heroisch (1936), for example, Przywara shows a more than passing interest in Donoso Cortés, a critic of the Enlightenment whose ethos of heroism attracted the attention of several figures – e. g., Carl Schmitt and Alois Dempf – objectionable to Peterson.[16] Peterson’s presentation implies that Schmitt, Dempf and Przywara all form a sort of NS-friendly Cortés “school” characterized simultaneously by NS sympathy and disaffection from ultramontane Catholicism.[17]

There are several problems, of course, with this kind of argument. One difficulty is the simple fact that Przywara’s engagement with Cortés in Heroisch takes the form of a summary. Though Przywara does admittedly call Cortés a “great statesman,”[18] this does not mean that he gives blanket approval. Peterson himself presupposes the distinction between praising a thinker and endorsing his conclusions when he discounts Przywara’s praise of the Jew Leo Baeck, whom Przywara calls “brilliant” and “impressive,” as evidence of the latter’s philosemitism. Przywara, Peterson objects, still finds Baeck’s religious philosophy wanting in important respects.[19] The same may well be true of Przywara’s praise of Cortés. Przywara’s later writings on Cortés, in fact, suggest that he appreciates the latter’s construal of a series of domains – Church-State, Nature-Grace, God-World – as distinct yet united through a common dependence on the Sovereignty of the Divine Will.[20] This is not in itself damning.

Why in 1936 would Przywara present Cortés largely in the form of a summary? Historical circumstances may serve as a partial explanation. At the time that Heroisch appeared, Przywara belonged to the Redaktion of the Jesuit Journal Stimmen der Zeit. As Klaus Schatz points out, not only did NS censors suppress Stimmen for its anti-NS positions for three months (December 1935 – March 1936), but less than a year later they threatened to close the journal again – this time permanently – for having published an article perceived as critical of the “heroic worldview of National Socialism.”[21] So sensitive was this issue around this time that the Hitler Youth actually rioted while Przywara delivered his lectures on “ das Christlich-Heroische” in 1935.[22] From the mid-thirties on the writers of Stimmen were forced to write so as to be intelligible to their intended readers yet obscure to NS censors.[23] Przywara may have thus considered it wiser to register his evaluations tacitly, deferring the treatment of Catholic saints to the book’s end so as to imply that they are the book’s true telos and the only “heroism” endorsed carte blanche.[24] These circumstances likewise advise against interpreting Przywara’s chapters on Dietrich Eckart and Nietzsche as signs of unqualified approval.[25]

Przywara’s relationship to Schmitt turns out to be likewise ambiguous. One may readily admit that Schmitt eventually came to champion what Peterson calls the “homogeneous total state;”[26] his invocation of political “decisionism” in defense of the “night of the long knives” certainly suggests as much.[27] But Przywara, while showing appreciation for Schmitt’s thought at different points in his career, never approves it uncritically. When he reviews Schmitt’s Politische Romantik (1925), for instance, he contends that Romantic irrationalism cannot be remedied by Classical rationalism (pace Schmitt), but only by the Augustinian-Thomist principle of secondary causes.[28] This insistence on a relatively independent creaturely agency, as will become clear, signifies Przywara’s desire for a state neither “homogeneous” nor “total.” When Przywara reviews Schmitt’s political writings eight years later in “Deutsche Front” (1933), he shows a similar ambivalence. He introduces Schmitt’s theory of authoritative representation, along with Othmar Spann’s political Romanticism, as examples of the “unconditioned primacy of the community over the I.”[29] In his conclusion he observes that this monopolar “Will-to-Community” has generated its own “recoil” (Zurückschnellen), decomposing into the “relationship of an aristocratic, dominant individual over a mechanical mass.”[30] Przywara’s interest in Schmitt may indicate the Weimar Republic was not his own political ideal,[31] but it does not prove that that Schmitt’s was.

Przywara expresses less critical reserve toward Dempf than toward Schmitt. In 1933 he identifies Sacrum Imperium, for instance, as a book that “discloses to Reich-thinking the old sources.”[32] This warmth toward Dempf is, if anything, a credit to Przywara. For Dempf had become already in 1926 the translator of an anti-fascist tract by Luigi Sturzo.[33] He would later become an opponent of the Reichskonkordat of Franz von Papen,[34] author of a pseudonymous treatise against National Socialism,[35] and the target of a Lehrverbot (when Germany annexed Austria).[36] Dempf’s anti-NS intellectual engagement, in other words, serves only to illustrate that a penchant for imperial imagery and an interest in Cortés are poor indices of concrete NS loyalty.[37]

1.3 Tainted Words

Moving on to the question of ideologically coded words and images, we do well to note that their use can serve to signal not only ideological acquiescence but also ideological contestation. In the aftermath of Mussolini’s seizure of power in Rome (Oct. 1922), for example, Pius XI published Ubi Arcano (Dec. 1922), an encyclical calling for the more effective establishment of the “Kingdom of Christ.”[38] Pius XI describes this Kingdom as conformity of both individuals and nations to the “eternal law of God,”[39] which conformity alone keeps national rivalries in check and conduces to international peace.[40] In 1925 he enshrined the same vision in the Catholic liturgy, promulgating Solemnity of Christ the King with the express purpose of reminding Catholics that the confession of Christ’s Kingship is the foundation of a non-despotic social order.[41] Pius appealed to Christ’s universal kingship again during the Third Reich, presenting it in Mit brennender Sorge (1937) as a principle incompatible with racial supremacy.[42] Given the anti-fascist and anti-racist deployment of kingdom imagery at the highest ecclesial levels, it hardly surprises that not a few Catholics – including Dietrich von Hildebrand[43] and Friederich Muckermann, SJ,[44] – likewise appealed to Reich imagery to stimulate resistance to NS. In 1933 Przywara expressly endorses this broader Catholic strategy. Addressing the NS-friendly Reich visions of Friedrich Hielscher and Ernst Jünger, he comments, “What wins hearts is not just a so-called ‘objective sobriety,’ but never anything but ‘great love.’ German Catholicism must therefore realize that it must respond to this pagan ‘Reich’ with a religious ideal of Reich.”[45] Przywara, as we shall see below, undertakes this task himself.

In fine, many of Peterson’s applications of the “affinity thesis” to Przywara remain unpersuasive because they present too selectively NS attitudes toward Przywara, ignore the internal differentiation among antiliberal Catholic responses to NS, and fail to reckon with the religious Reichsidee as a strategy of contestation. Przywara deserves to be understood not as a featureless representative of “Catholic fascism” but as a thinker with a certain independence of judgment. We do well now to turn to these distinctive features of Przywara’s theological and political engagement with NS.

2 Catholic Fascism in Light of Przywara’s own Texts

Przywara’s political commentary can create the impression of NS Sympathy because it is embedded within the rather elaborate metaphysical and apologetic framework of the analogia entis. Readers less familiar with this framework may easily imagine that Przywara warmly approves what he admits as only one pole within a “suspended tension,” or that he frames competitively what he actually frames cooperatively. Consequently, showing the anti-NS implications of Przywara’s political theology requires, first, briefly sketching Przywara’s apologetic presentation of the Church as a “middle” between theopanism and pantheism, and then showing how these categories illuminate the two works central to Peterson’s case: the address “Reich und Kreuz” (1933) and the essay “Nation, Staat, Kirche” (1933).

2.1 Between Pantheism and Theopanism

Przywara thinks that the Catholic Church embodies the fullness of salvation because it occupies an analogous “middle” between the extremes of pantheism and theopanism.[46] Pantheism and theopanism, as Przywara uses the terms, are active and passive ways, respectively, of diminishing God’s transcendence. Przywara’s apologetic strategy thus involves showing that Catholicism best corresponds to God’s sovereign transcendence, every other religion being tendentially pantheist or theopanist.

Przywara’s apologetic argument proceeds along the following lines. Building on what he takes to be the Thomist interpretation of Romans 1:21ff, he assumes a universal human orientation toward an absolute term, or the divine in its formal aspect. Original sin has not removed this orientation so much as distorted it by a derangement of the human faculties. The upshot is that postlapsarian humanity necessarily continues to organize its life around the Absolute but, unless grace intervenes, assigns absoluteness materially to creation or some aspect thereof.[47] As the terms pan theism and theo pan ism indicate, the usual objects of such misdirected absolutizing are immanent totalities, whether microcosmic “All” (pan) of spiritual self-sufficiency or the macrocosmic “All” of the absolute community.[48]

Now, as Pzywara sees it, every absolutism of the creature obscures not only the transcendent God but some other creaturely value as well. It is a characteristic of creaturely being, which is always incomplete in itself, to subsist in a rhythm of irresolvable polarity. Metaphysically, this is a function of the rhythm between consciousness and being, essence and existence;[49] anthropologically, the rhythm between spirit and matter, person and community.[50] But because created polarities occupy the same creaturely plane, the absolutization of one pole has as its invariable result the marginalization or even demonization of its counterpart.[51] A sort of Heraclitean strife or a Pauline “war between the members” thus characterizes the fallen world. From this cosmic strife there arises an either-or: either one absolutizes some immanent value, thus unjustly slighting another dimension of creation; or one recognizes as the only true absolute the God in-and-beyond them, thus relativizing and reconciling both intracreaturely poles.[52] This is the way that Przywara works out the standard Catholic formula that that grace does not destroy nature but heals and elevates it.

The formula “God in-and-beyond creation” alludes to a final element of Przywara’s metaphysics necessary for understanding his stipulative sense of pantheism and theopanism, namely, secondary causality. It is proper to God, in other words, not only to relativize and reconcile creatures, but also to liberate them for the exercise of a subordinate (or secondary) yet independent agency. Inasmuch as the creature exercises true agency, it is similar to God; God is “in” it. Inasmuch as it exercises a proper agency, it is dissimilar to God; God is “beyond” it. Only when one acknowledges this in-beyond (in-über) structure of nested agencies as a fundamental law of the cosmos does one acknowledge a truly transcendent God, the God who is “omnicausal” (allwirksam), but not “monocausal” (alleinwirksam).[53] For Przywara the religious application of secondary causality culminates in Marian devotion. Catholic doctrine and practice regard Mary as both redeemed (secondary) and yet a coredemptrix (cause), accruing merit for herself and for others.[54]

Not surprisingly, given Przywara’s religious convictions, only the Catholic Church fully corresponds to this nested agency and maintains a viable middle between the monisms of pantheism and theopanism.[55] Activist pantheism, typified by the Spinoza’s equation of God with the world’s substance (e. g., Deus sive natura), obscures God’s sovereign transcendence “over” creation by reducing the divine to the highest or most comprehensive dimension “in” it. Passive theopanism, by contrast, locates God so exclusively “over” creation that it reduces the creature to a kind of divine emanation or epiphenomenon. Theopanism thus collapses the interval between Creator and creature no less surely than pantheism. For once one says that God alone does everything, it becomes just as true to say that everything that happens is God. A key point for Przywara is that theologies of unmitigated transcendence are inherently unstable, often generating philosophies and politics of immanentism.[56]

Przywara applies his apologetic trilemma – theopanism, pantheism, or Catholicism – to nearly every non-Catholic religious doctrine, but especially to Protestantism.[57] He argues that the Reformation’s emphasis on God’s exclusive agency in salvation – sola fide, sola gratia, etc. – ultimately gives rise to the philosophical pantheisms of Hegel and Kant.[58] Likewise the Lutheran theopanism of inner Christian freedom gives rise to the national pantheism of the totalitarian state.[59] Accordingly, a “creaturely” (read: analogical or Catholic) political theology has the best chance of avoiding statist absolutism.

When Przywara in the mid-1920s Przywara begins to develop a political theology under the image of Kingship and Reich, he does so to present the Church not as the State’s eager lackey (pace Peterson) but as its healer. Referring to Quas Primas, the encyclical promulgating the Solemnity of Christ the King, Przywara develops a theology of Church and culture according to which the Church’s spiritual authority liberates culture from self-destructive exaggerations and for autonomous activity. The “‘Kingship (Königtum) of Christ’ that is the Catholic Church,” he writes, makes humanity “capable of that rightful freedom, recognized by the Church, which develops the culture of human art and science according to its proper discipline, proper principles, proper method.”[60] Two years later, still in the time of the Weimar Republic, Przywara appeals to the same non-competitive relationship between ecclesial authority and secular autonomy, now to justify his conclusion that the Catholic Church can require no single political form for all time. Przywara identifies such a frozen traditionalism with the “integralist” Thomism of Action française[61] and, in the very article from which Peterson draws the phrase “Sieg-Katholizismus,” rejects it.[62] Again in 1929 Przywara observes approvingly how Pius XI’s programmatic “ Königtum Christi” neither condemns democracies nor allies itself with the traditionalism of Action française.[63] All this is to say that, for Przywara, the ecclesial Kingdom exercises an influence on culture and politics parallel to that which grace exercises on nature: it heals, elevates, and frees for “autonomous” agency.[64] The Reich theology that Przywara expresses in his two 1933 essays, “Reich und Kreuz” and “Nation, Staat, Kirche,” hews closely to this earlier “Kingdom” theology. It is to these that we now turn.

2.2 “Reich und Kreuz”

The import of the “Reich und Kreuz” address, already mentioned several times, remains a subject of dispute. John Betz interprets it as Przywara’s criticism of Friedrich Hielscher for “confusing Christianity with the Pantheism of ‘blood and soil.”’[65] Peterson responds with a two-pronged rebuttal weak in internal consistency. On the one hand, Peterson casts doubt on historical value of the version of the lecture published in Logos (1964),[66] suggesting that Przywara may have omitted more incriminating, perhaps unscripted, remarks in order to conceal his former NS enthusiasm.[67] On the other hand, Peterson maintains that Przywara’s NS-enthusiasm remains patent throughout the essay – making Przywara a rather bungling bowdlerizer. We will address these points in order.

In weighing the historical value of the published version of the “ Reich und Kreuz” lecture, one should note that the published version differs only in nugatory detail from the manuscript version contained in Przywara’s archives.[68] Moreover, the contemporary summary of Przywara’s address printed in Germania matches the contents of the published version. As for unscripted opening and closing remarks, the Germania column does report the following preamble: “[Przywara] clarified that he wanted to attempt to grasp the concept Reich in its inner contents (Gehalt). He limited himself in his lecture exclusively to the question of ultimate positions, prescinding from the sort of momentary political speculations more typical for Hielscher.”[69] The second sentence does not seem to imply that Przywara was neutral toward NS, but that Przywara was offering timeless criteria by which his listeners might form a judgment about any regime – including NS.

This is brings us to the second issue. Do Przywara’s “ultimate positions,” when contextualized within his broader thought, support Peterson’s reading of Przywara as Catholic fascist or Betz’s reading of Przywara as critic of nationalist pantheism? Read impartially, they favor Betz’s position. For they argue for every political Reich’s need to be healed, relativized, and freed for service by the Church. Przywara, not by chance, begins by describing “Reich” in rather pantheist terms: “[Reich] is the political form of what Aristotle’s ‘kyklophoria’ expresses ontologically: the All of the circle in circulation within itself: inner-worldly infinity.” Cross, by contrast, represents the interruption of his immanent infinity by descending infinity; it is the “intersection of antitheses, crossbeam by vertical beam,” and thus the “maximal self-opening: into the one freely flowing and unobstructed infinity, incomprehensible in every respect.”[70] The Reich in the Christian sense, however, first emerges as a union of these two principles:

“It was first the semitic, then the ancient Greco-Roman concept, that in the state (Staat) the people (Volk) should become so much a rounding (Rundung) of the Reich into itself, that the State becomes like God […]. But because the one incarnate God entered into his world and made this world (as a whole) into his body, the pseudo-divinity of all the peoples (Völkern) is thereby unmasked. It is a borrowed fire.”[71]

Given both the words and their context, one struggles to read Przywara’s concerns about the pseudo-divinity of the “ Völker” as anything other than a criticism of NS for its “pantheism of blood and soil.”

Drawing the implications of this “unmasking” for nations of the Christian era, Przywara describes their mission as departure from self-enclosure:

“To Rome and Germany, as to the other ‘nations’ in the sacrum Imperium, there has thereby been given the same task that was once given to Abraham, the patriarch of Israel: ‘to go out from your land and your kind’ (Gen 12:1). The Imperium Sacrum depends on both the Roman and German being baptized into (umgetauft) and abiding in the one ‘Christ all in all.”’[72]

It is worth noting that for Przywara the Imperium Sacrum represents nonexpansionist internationalism, according to which Rome and German must “go out” from national interests in order to enter into fruitful cooperation with the “other nations.” The Sacrum Imperium represents a sort of ideal political order wherein the nations consecrate their energies to the task of transnational service. Such statements do not prevent Peterson from claiming that, for Przywara, the “ Reich-theme was one of the places to address how Catholicism was a cooperative partner in the Reich as long as its rightful place was recognized.”[73] A less partial reading reveals that the slope of influence does not move unilaterally, whether from State to Church or vice-versa. Each stands in-beyond the other, preventing a monism of either Church or State. Przywara renders this sort reciprocal delimitation in a poetic image that Peterson thinks betrays Przywara’s integralism: “Pope and Kaiser are the unity of the visible head, of the spiritual and temporal head. But they are historically-really one in a sword that pierces them, with which they themselves pierce one another in the heart.”[74] Given the close connection in “Reich and Kreuz” between “piercing” and liberating for the exercise of proper agency, the inadequacy of Peterson’s “integralist” reading should be clear.

2.3 “Nation, Staat, Kirche” (1933)

The Reichstheologie of the “Reich und Kreuz” lecture receives fuller exposition but little substantial alteration in the essay Przywara published later that year, “Nation, Staat, Kirche.” Once again, it belongs to the ecclesial Reich to unmask nationalist idolatry, reconcile the nations without leveling their distinctive qualities, and to set these same nations free for service.

Regarding the Church’s commission to unmask idolatry, Przywara recalls that the human drive toward the Absolute, deranged by original sin, fixes preferentially on immanent totalities such as the community to which one belongs.[75] “This,” Przywara notes, “is the background to redemption in Christ in the Church.”[76] For salvation history begins with a blow to nationalist idolatry, that is, with God electing Abraham, calling “a people (Volk) out of the peoples of the East,” and then requiring Abraham to sacrifice “soil and blood” in the form of Isaac on Mt. Moriah.[77] Salvation history continues through the New Covenant in the Church’s chastening of imperial Rome. For its relevance to the question of fascism, the essay’s imagery is worth citing in extenso:

“And therefore salvation unfolds likewise in the Church under the ‘Roman Peter,’ by the Roman Imperium being ‘felled’ (‘abgeholzt’) (as in the vision of Lebanon in Isaiah) and even still by the Christian ‘Roman Empire (Reich) of the German Nation’ shattering like the “clay base” of the vision of Daniel, so that every dream of a human God-Civitas may be sobered into the sole reality of the Civitas Dei, whose Caesar is Christ the King at right hand of the Father.”’[78]

This Reichstheologie of the “sobered” empire hardly seems to be the kind that Reichskanzler Franz von Papen had in mind when, speaking in Munich in October 1933, he compared NS ascendancy to the rebirth of the “Sacrum Imperium” of the German People.[79]

This brings us to the next feature of Przywara’s Reichstheologie – the transformation of national animosities into a reconciled pluralism. We do well to rehearse this point since Peterson often takes passages where Przywara valorizes political and ethnic diversity to be a sign of his völkisch ideology. As a typical example, one can take the following passage, (partly) cited by Peterson:[80]

“Therefore the various national ideals have preferentially the form of the human as such: not to be ‘Englishman’ but ‘gentleman,’ not ‘French,’ but ‘chevaleresque,’ not ‘German’ but ‘einfach und ehrlich und innig.’ The rivalry between the sexes as between the nations does not aim at the qualitative differences as such, but at the human person, as it is seen through these qualitative differences.”[81]

The broader context of these remarks is Przywara’s attempt to give an anthropological account of both the value and the explosiveness of national difference. He points to the value, on the one hand, by affirming the “qualitative differences” between nations. This implies that the world of a single nation, even if it contained the same quantitative population, would be impoverished relative to multinational world – much as a world without sexual difference would be poorer, even if it contained the same numerical population. The explosiveness, on the other hand, owes to the fact that each country is marked both by elements of natural kinship and particularity, which Przywara calls the principle of “Nation” (Nation), and by elements of universal aspiration, which he calls the principle of “State” (Staat). The result is that each nation inclines dangerously towards universalizing (read: absolutizing) perspectives and interests that are only relative, and thus towards demonizing its rivals. The Church checks the state’s self-inflationary tendency, softening national animosities into fruitful polarities and providing the basis for a supranational unity: “If the mutually exclusive absolutism of the nations descends in the death of the cross, there rises the mutually complementary fullness of the nations in the one Christ of the one Church. From beyond, from God, who is in Christ in the Church, comes the unity as the unity of the ‘Head.”’[82] Such passages make clear that Przywara does not “argue against ‘internationalism”’ simpliciter (pace Peterson[83]), but opposes only a “colorless” (farblos)[84] or “undifferentiated” (unterschiedslos)[85] internationalism that aspires to remake the globe in the image of a single ethnicity or political configuration. As Przywara sees it, the Church is the best hope for discouraging idolatrous nationalism while preserving the value of ethnic and national diversity.

Following a pattern now familiar to us, Przywara goes on to portray the mission of relatively autonomous service for which the Church prepares the relativized nation. Despite the many passages where Przywara presents the sobering or even shattering of Empire as the work of salvation history, Peterson asserts without qualification that Przywara “positively mentions the Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation.”[86] He does so, however, only after approving its “shattering.” Even the passage that Peterson counts as a “positive mention” of the Holy Roman Empire is drawn from Przywara’s affirmation of but one pole of a dialectical tension between God’s omnicausality and the creature’s proper causality. Przywara concedes that the interlacing of Church and State in the Holy Roman Empire expresses the validity of divine omnicausality. The Church, like God, permeates all things. Peterson fails to mention, however, that Przywara, immediately after this allegedly “positive mention,” proceeds to affirm the pole of creaturely autonomy. The Church is to respect the nation’s “freedom of development,”[87] just as God preserves the creature’s freedom. Because Przywara introduces temporal autonomy as the Church’s more recent doctrinal emphasis, moreover, his assertion of the Church’s “freedom” toward all political configurations seems calculated to chill rather than warm nostalgia for the medieval Reich.[88]

Through its relationship with the Church, the autonomous State finds energy not only for self-maintenance but for international service. Speaking of the “Catholic politician” as synecdoche for the Catholic nation, Przywara observes,

“On the one hand, the distance of death and resurrection will make the Catholic politician able to serve the relationships between the nations and states and to see their common ties (das gemeinsam Überbrückende). On the other hand, however, the unreserved sacrifice of the […] grain of wheat can yield a Catholic politics that perseveringly serves the greatness of its own nation and state.”[89]

What follows from a “balanced permeation between nation, state, and Church,”[90] in other words, is neither integralism nor expansionist nationalism but what Przywara calls a “differentiated universalism.”[91] This is his Reichstheologie in a nutshell.

3 Anti-Semitism

Having established how little affinity Przywara’s Reich theology shows for concrete NS fascism, we are now in a position to address a few words to a question hitherto bracketed: Przywara’s alleged anti-Semitism. Since anything like an adequate treatment of the question would require another response of equal length, it is hoped that the foregoing comments on Peterson’s misreading of Przywara’s political intentions will serve at least to cast doubt on the fairness of his presentation of Przywara on the Judenfrage. In both cases, one detects a failure to make necessary distinctions: just as a certain kind of antiliberalism is elided into fascism, so are theologically anti-Judaic tropes elided into antiSemitism. And while after the Holocaust we cannot help but wince at some of Przywara’s generalizations about Judaism, we must in justice note that even where Przywara criticizes Judaism theologically and philosophically, he does so in an effort to discredit more virulent antisemitic strains. Making this intention clearer will require us to examine briefly the charges of Przywara’s allegedly despective use of Jewish stereotypes and images in “Judentum und Christentum” (1925) and then proceed to a more positive portrayal of his position on the Judenfrage.[92]

3.1 Anti-Semitic Tropes

Przywara’s method in “Judentum und Christentum” is the same that he later outlined in his Introduction to In und Gegen (1955). That is, he tries to understand Jewish aspirations on their own terms (“ in”), and then, in a second moment, contrasts them with the Christian view (“ gegen”), where he thinks they find fulfillment.[93] Przywara dedicates the lion’s share of “Judentum und Christentum” to the first moment, portraying the religious drama between an assimilationist West-Judaism and a non-assimilationist East-Judaism through extensive citation from leading thinkers such as Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Leo Baeck. It is this Jewish context that Peterson omits to mention or investigate. If an image deployed by Przywara shows up in an encyclopedia of antisemitism as a term of abuse, Peterson seems to reason, then Przywara must intend it abusively.[94] But non-assimilationist Judaism of that era often appropriated and sometimes even celebrated images used to designate Jews as culturally “other” – presumably without contempt. In many cases the appearance of these terms in Przywara’s writings has the quality of reported speech, an attempt to portray this intra-Jewish controversy on its own terms.

There are several examples of this. Though the image “Ahasver” (“wandering Jew”) doubtlessly appears in antisemitic rhetoric, for instance, it also appears in the writings of Martin Buber as a symbol of unbowed Jewishness.[95] Since Jews too admitted and even celebrated their refusal to “settle down” among the “host peoples” (“ Wirtsvölker”) – another term that shows up without antisemitic overtones in Buber’s writings[96] – the mere use of such terms does not suffice to show despective intent. Something similar goes for Przywara’s description of the Jew as a “revolutionary” (Revolutionär) and “disturber” (Störer) of the peoples since, again, Jewish authors often celebrated this role.[97] For his generalizations about Jewish “socialism”[98] and “capitalism,”[99] Przywara again cites equivalent generalizations from Jewish authors. While not all Przywara’s critical remarks on Jewish thought are indexed in this way, many of the more ostensibly damning are.

3.2 Theological Antijudaism

One of Przywara’s motifs that has relatively little equivalent in Jewish self-perception, however, is his description of Jewish thought as tendentially pantheist.[100] Przywara holds that, just as Reformed theology’s insistence on God’s unmitigated transcendence tends to collapse into the theopanism of Hegel, so does post-Christian “Jewish messianism” tend to generate the immanentism of the excommunicate Spinoza.[101] In Przywara’s own day, he sees the theopanistic transcendence of East-Judaism collapsing into the ethical pantheism of West-Judaism, with its affinity for the immanent absolutes of capitalism and Bolshevism.[102] Przywara’s criticism, in other words, is a sort of religious apologetics. Judaism, in order to avoid this secular “doubling,” must find its fulfilment in the Catholic Church, which alone has the resources to maintain the middle between pantheism and theopanism.

Although construing the Judenfrage as a matter of pantheism may now seem to us in poor taste, this way of proceeding had several advantages in historical context. Przywara, having already taken a similar line with German Protestantism, could more easily clarify the theological rather than racial nature of his criticism. That is, he could better avoid the impression that what motivated his criticisms was either a “racist essentialism” or an “unusual kind of human hostility directed against Jews.” And while it is perhaps hard for the post-Auschwitz era to imagine that such a religious apologetic could have any other effect than to incite pogroms, the logic of Przywara’s apologetic actually discourages coercive antisemitism. It allows Przywara to point to conversion rather than political marginalization as the ultimate resolution to Jewish-Christian tensions. By locating this conversion within the eschatological frame of Romans 11, moreover, he leaves to Christians living in the meantime a largely indirect and cooperative role in this conversion. These intentions are fairly patent in Przywara’s texts.

The intention to present the Judenfrage as a stimulus not to antisemitic vigilantism but to Christian conversion, surfaces even in one of the most ostensibly damning of Przywara’s assessments, (partly) cited by Peterson:

“[E]very usual ‘Antisemitism’ with all its grotesque futilities is really an admission of one’s own lapse from or loss of Christianity. Judaism can be overcome only by the Christianity of consistent, unconditional surrender in faith to the supracreaturely God. All other weapons will and must glance off. Everything else leads – as the old Ghetto policy did – only to the displacement of Judaism’s drive toward self-realization into peripheral fields: Jewish capitalism is, as Buber saw very truly, nothing other than the consequence of the restriction of Judaism to finance. Only the Christianity of the absolute ‘Credo’ from ‘Credo in Iesum Christum, filium Dei’ down to ‘Credo in sanctam ecclesiam catholicam et apostolicam’ has attained to its immense power (Gewalt), because it, in its innermost essence, is itself the God-worked fulfillment of the inner yearning of this power. Judaism is most deeply religion and most deeply religion even in its most desiccated (verdorrtesten) branches. Power of capitalism, power of communism are both ultimately religious power. Only from this perspective can one understand how much ‘Jerusalem’ is welcomed as fulfillment by bolshevist as well as capitalist Jews, the West-Judaism of America and the East-Judaism of Russia.”[103]

Though Przywara does not – as we might wish – challenge the link between Judaism and capitalism or socialism, he does interpret them as symptoms of religious idealism gone awry. It is this misdirected religious drive that unites capitalism, socialism, and Zionism. This is not (pace Peterson) a theory of “Zionist world conspiracy” in the usual sense of Jews clandestinely pulling the levers of world finance or government.[104] It is rather an assertion of the “affinity” of certain religious worldviews for certain politico-economic forms, not unlike Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism[105] – or even Peterson’s own “Catholic fascism.” Perhaps most tellingly, this religious etiology leads Przywara to counsel against “the old Ghetto policy.” Przywara instead exhorts those who feel threatened by Jewish activism to renounce their own nationalist and economic idolatries, thus disposing themselves to the “unconditional surrender in faith” that gives the Church her “immense power” of attraction (even to Jews). By presenting the Jews as candidates for conversion, moreover, Przywara implies their racial fitness for the Christian life – something not to be taken for granted in that context.[106]

Finally, lest one fail to recognize that he has located the solution to the Judenfrage within the sphere of divine providence, Przywara closes his essay with a text mosaic from Romans. The verses that he chooses (11:26, 29, 12) highlight the hopeful elements of Paul’s theology of Judaism: the ultimate redemption of Israel, the irrevocability of God’s gifts to the Jews, and the providential role of post-Christian Judaism.[107] All of this has the effect of removing Jewish conversion from human hands and refocusing Christians on the task of their own conversion. In light of the foregoing clarifications, one can readily agree with Raymond Lill’s assessment that Przywara’s approach, while leaving something to be desired, nevertheless “leaves no room for antisemitic agitation.”[108]

3.3 Antizionism

Even if one grants that the connection Przywara draws between capitalism, communism, and “Jerusalem” is not “Zionist world conspiracy” in its most debased form, one might still hold, as Peterson does, that Przywara opposed the “Zionism of a Jewish State.”[109] This complaint against Przywara lacks both nuance and – yet again – internal consistency.

The charge lacks nuance because Przywara does not oppose the emergence in Palestine of a Jewish State as such. What he opposes is rather an Israeli State interpreted “messianically,” such that it assumes the role of “gate of the nations” and forger of a new humanity.[110] To the extent that Palestinian Israel remains an ethnic nation constructed by human industry, Przywara argues, it cannot bring about the reconciled plurality that the Catholic Church, being instituted “from above,” can alone realize.[111] The Jewish community of Przywara’s day, it should be added, were hardly unanimous in supporting a Jewish State in Palestine.[112]

Peterson’s allegation of anti-Zionism lacks internal consistency, moreover, because its logic does not square with his broader characterization of Przywara as pro-NS. In his “Reich und Kreuz” address, it will be remembered, Przywara suggestively opposes every “rounding of the Reich into itself.” Elsewhere he argues, again using suggestive terms, that the Incarnation has closed the era of “sacral nationalism” or “national messianism.”[113] Przywara’s wariness toward Zionist hopes of ushering in a new global order through the Palestinian State is consistent with his alarm regarding the völkisch absolutism of NS.[114] The parallel criticism of NS and Zionism as “sacral nationalisms” poses an either-or to Peterson: he must give up calling Przywara either anti-Zionist or pro-Nazi. The fact that Peterson paints Przywara as both pro-NS and anti-Zionist, with so little attention to the internal coherence of his charges, betrays again the severe limitations of his “Catholic fascist” hermeneutic.

4 Conclusion

Though this essay could not address all the alleged tokens of Przywara’s NSaffinity or antisemitic prejudice, it has attempted to provide the basic outlines of a response. It has argued that Catholic theologians deployed the motifs of Reich and Volk to such diverse ends that the engagement or even relative valorization of these themes cannot alone serve as a predictor of concrete NS support. The very diverse trajectories of Carl Schmitt and Alois Dempf indicate the inadequacy of such associative evidence. And while some doubtlessly developed a Reichstheologie as a strategy of ingratiation, Przywara developed his as a strategy of contestation. Przywara describes the healing and elevating effect of grace upon the polarities of fallen nature in close parallel to the relativizing and liberating effect of ecclesial Reich upon political Reich, thereby casting National Socialism in the role of an idol that must be “pierced” before it can serve. He prescribes a similar sobering for the “Zionism of the Jewish State.” And while Przywara does admittedly see the solution to Jewish-Christian tensions as Jewish conversion, he entrusts this work to divine providence and projects its completion into the eschaton. Though this is not the theory, more common since Nostra Aetate (1965),[115] of Jewish and Christian covenants running in eternal parallel, it is not racial antisemitism either. Przywara’s express disdain for the “grotesque futilities” of racially motivated, coercive antisemitism indicate as much.

Though more could be said regarding both Przywara’s political theology and, above all, his theology of Judaism, these thoughts must suffice. Peterson’s argument, though ultimately inadequate, has at least served to stimulate interest in Przywara not just as a systematic thinker of the analogia entis but as a cultural critic. Peterson goes wrong, I believe, not in having historically contextualized Przywara, but in having reduced the antiliberal Catholic context of the Weimar Republic – and Przywara along with it – to a monolith called “Catholic fascism.” Such a tendentious portrayal does an injustice to a thinker like Przywara, who commented on every cultural movement of the interwar years, yet rarely did so with unqualified affirmation or unqualified negation. Przywara deserves a less biased presentation.

Published Online: 2016-08-19
Published in Print: 2016-08-01

© 2016 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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