A Note on the Depoliticization of Catholicism
In The Concept of the Politica, Carl Schmitt (in)famously identified “the political” with the “friend/enemy distinction.” The enemy, according to Schmitt, is the one who calls into question a person’s (or, really, a society’s) existential state. It presupposes the possibility of “actual killing” and though the political can vary in intensity, it remains total. That is to say, it is not its own “sphere” in the way the moral, economic, and aesthetic can be distinguished as “spheres” of life. Everything is political, or at least potentially so.
Few things nauseated Schmitt more than the modern obscuring of the political. (Remember, according to Schmitt the political is total; the “best” anybody can do is obscure it; they can never hope to eliminate it.) In his “Notes on the Concept of the Political,” a young Leo Strauss claimed that Schmit’s polemic on behalf of the political was moral. Schmitt, according to Strauss, detested the reduction of life to “entertainment.” Obscuring the political was part and parcel of the quintessentially liberal promotion of the entertaining, rather than the serious, life. Many decades later, Heinrich Meier would run with Strauss’ observation, arguing that not only was the friend/enemy distinction at the core of Schmitt’s thought, but that this distinction — and “the political” itself — was ultimately theological. Schmitt was, in Meier’s eyes, a political theologian who wanted to keep alive the most fundamental of all oppositions, namely between good and evil, God and Satan. Schmitt saw the Satanic in the radical socio-political movements of his day and some have argued that his (temporary) loyalty to National Socialism was motivated in large part by what he saw as the need to “check” the apocalyptic expansion of Soviet Communism across the globe. (Another plausible argument is that Schmitt’s Nazisim was the pathetic byproduct of base opportunism, but I’ll let that one go for the time being.) As most know by now, Schmitt spent his four decades on earth after World War II attempting to put back together his shattered reputation while perhaps fabricating an elaborate series of justifications for his decision. Despite his status as an estranged Catholic, he had no sympathy for the Second Vatican Council. Considering the trajectory of Schmitt’s thought during the 1920s and 30s, it’s not hard to see why.
While Schmitt’s anti-Vatican II sentiments were limited to what he confided in friends, a “Schmittian” reading of the Council reveals a core problem: the obscuring of the political. One way to read Vatican II is the (failed?) attempt of the Church to obscure the friend/enemy distinction by opening its doors to the world, including those sects, movements, and false religions which the Catholic Church had, up until the 1960s, condemned with varying degrees of intensity. Even the fundamental distinction between the Church — the Body of Christ — and the world was obscured as Vatican II opened the doors to an unholy union between Catholicism and secularization. (The concrete and dismal outcomes of this modernist marriage of convenience are laid out in Kenneth Woodward’s recent piece from the February 2013 issue of First Things, “Revolution in Rome” (h/t Professor William Tighe).) But not even the Catholic Church can obscure reality forever. Instead of providing new lifeblood to the Church, secularism has revealed itself as an existential threat: Seminaries remain empty; cloisters are now closed; religious orders continue to collapse; and institutions of Catholic learning — primary, secondary, and higher — are in crisis. The Church now preaches a doctrine of “universal humanity” — the liberal-secularist creed. In choosing to neutralize herself, the Church is now the ready-made victim of predatory ideologies. Its denial of the political has become its surrender to the devil. Or, to paraphrase Pope Paul VI, the smoke of Satan has indeed entered the Church; now it is choking the life right out of her.