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All Valid Law Is Analogical

When Pope Francis’ encyclical letter on the environment and economy, “Our Common Home,” was released in May, the response was a veritable media frenzy. That papal text warrants lots of sustained attention, to be sure.

By contrast, no fanfare accompanied Eerdmans’ 2014 publication of the first English translation of Analogia Entis. It is, however, a seminal event in Catholic ideas—an astonishing work of philosophy and theology. Published in 1932, and 1962 in expanded form, this massive 600-page book was written by a German-Polish Jesuit, Erich Przywara (1889-1972).

It has been quietly shaping Catholic thought for years. The great intellectual popes, Saint John Paul and Benedict XVI, both grew up in German intellectual circles and were influenced by Przywara. But because he wrote in a forbidding version of German, few Anglophone intellectuals had access to his thought before John R. Betz and David Bentley Hart gave us Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm. Both pontiffs mention the book but only now can most of us appreciate just how deep was the influence.

Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Address of nearly a decade ago was another statement that captured the world’s attention. Delivered in Germany in 2006, it was widely perceived as supporting President Bush and the Iraq War. It contained an incendiary passage, Benedict’s quotation of a Byzantine emperor that the Quran brought nothing new save that “there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” What is now obvious is that the scholarly Benedict wrote Regensburg as a commentary on Analogia Entis.

In no way does this fresh insight on Regensburg preclude it from also having been a political document. This it shares with Analogia Entis, which ranges across the classic domains of philosophy—epistemology, metaphysics, logic, language, and value theory—and those of Christian theology—creation, salvation history, scripture, the church, and liturgy. However, throughout Przywara’s text, a fascinating legal and political theory unfolds.

Regensburg set out to clarify the logic of religious, as well as secular, terrorism. Benedict deploys Przywara’s central argument: that a proper accounting of the relationship between humans and God must defer to the analogia entis, the analogy of being. Islam errs in arguing that God’s law is sovereign, having no continuity with the human understanding of natural, customary, or civil law. These latter kinds of law are not analogical with God’s law but equivocal, or, in other words, not really law at all. In Islam, all law is revelation. Inverting this entirely is the modern, Enlightenment tradition of law that reason is adequate to the discernment of the common good, and no supplement to civil law is necessary, whether from nature, custom, or God. On this view, human law is not analogical to God’s law but univocal, straightforwardly replacing the divine.

Where the logic of law is either equivocal or univocal, terror ensues. No rational clarification of divine law is possible on the first view, for all human judgement of the divine is presumption. Terror answers those who dare to search out God’s utterly transcendent ways. The rationalist is equally intolerant. Law is rational: any failure to comply must be due to perversity and a malign interest in subversion of the patently obvious. History is replete with shocking examples of rationalists terrorizing kind and thoughtful people who did not think simple rationality adequate to human experience.

What is needed is an analogical understanding. Varieties of law—whether stemming from divine or human will, natural order, or settled community practice—that are analogical are all valid law. This entails that there be careful adjudication of their respective scopes, and careful examination of where best to place emphasis so that the common good might prevail.

Since 1215 and the Fourth Lateran Council, the legal theory of the church has been rooted in the analogy of being. As Przywara puts it,

The language proper to the mind of the church is one of an aristocratic and sober distance from the “enthusiasms” of Charismatics, Pneumatics . . . the same distance expressed by the Council of Trent’s rejection of the Reformation, by the church’s edicts against Jansenism, by the Vatican Council’s rejection of Romanticism, and by the church’s edicts against modernism.

Benedict’s Regensburg recommends this “ecclesial discretion” as the proper course in the face of the destructive contemporary enthusiasms plaguing East and West. It would be interesting to know from the Pope Emeritus whether he is having a quiet word with Pope Francis, encouraging him to read his fellow Companion of Jesus, Przywara.

About reading Przywara, a word of warning: While having this text in English is sure to accelerate its quiet but profound shaping of Catholic thought, readers will seldom come across more difficult philosophical writing. Georg Friedrich Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) is a famously arduous read but Analogia Entis bests this. I have not read a more intricate philosophy book. The translation is a truly heroic collaboration between two friends: Betz of the University of Notre Dame, and Hart, a frequent contributor to the Christian intellectual magazine First Things. Theirs is a remarkable accomplishment.

Why bother trying to read such a difficult book? It will frustrate everyone who picks it up and most will promptly put it down. However, for those with patience and a willingness to read its sentences over many times, astonishing things await. Quite beyond the span of the history of philosophy and theology, unique thoughts on law, marriage, art, politics, history, and civilization, await the dedicated reader.

A more positive way to put the fact of the book’s difficulty is to say that no single work by a Catholic in the 20th century rivals Analogia Entis in scope or insight. This reader recommends starting with the individual essays (p. 317 and beyond) rather than the formal treatise that precedes them. The treatise is rich, but rather abstract, to say the least. The essays are replete with examples that give the reader something of a structure that aids in comprehension. Highly recommended is Betz’s long introduction. It lays out a good road map for coming to grips with the text, as well as the historical background to Przywara’s life and interactions with other intellectuals.

Elided in the Betz introduction, though, is Przywara’s encounter with Carl Schmitt, which is worth a word or two. Arguably, Schmitt is one of the more important legal and political thinkers of the 20th century and he and Przywara knew one another. An anti-Semite and, for a time, a Nazi, Schmitt is highly controversial but also widely read today, not least by liberals and Leftists. Central to Schmitt is the decision. His detailed historical and theoretical works show that the liberal philosophical dream that rule of law can exclude any persons in fact ruling other persons is false: politics demands decision, which is to say instances when some persons rule over others and, on occasion, risk their lives.

Przywara consistently speaks of the “decisive analogy.” Famously, Schmitt argues that no politics can avoid the friend-enemy distinction and the fateful moment of decision when someone, or some small group of persons, invokes the friend-enemy distinction. Schmitt describes this moment in existential terms, stripped of any concrete value guidance. Przywara’s “decisive analogy” is not a concept, theory, or principle, but a posture. This is not existential, for posture connotes bodily habit, a certain stylized way of articulating the body. A “posture of distance,” as Przywara puts it, is obedience to “the sovereignty of the divine majesty itself.” Przywara seeks to introduce into Schmitt’s decision a deference to a ritual order beyond political order, the true, good, and beautiful gracing the community.

Politics, like law, is analogical. The friend-enemy distinction is not a sui generis revelation of threat but the moment a civilization appeals to what is richest in it and uses those values to communicate with others, even if the true, good, and beautiful need also to be insisted upon with combat.

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