Cardinal Newman Rescues Germany

Tracey Rowland is a prominent Catholic theologian. An Australian and barrister by training, she is author of a number of books aligned with the theological sensibility of Pope Benedict XVI. Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism documents the intellectual context for the thinking of Benedict, Catholicism’s preeminent living theologian. This foray into the Munich School might be read as Rowland deepening her background knowledge of Benedict. However, the ambition of this accessible, short book is much grander: the Munich School, she contends, is core reading for the biggest problem besetting Catholicism, namely, how to theorize the link between history and ontology. How can the Church speak to a culture bathed in Romanticism, where identity is experienced as shaped by history, when its core dogmas, like original sin, and doctrines, like natural law, are fixed?

Beyond Kant and Nietzsche surveys six thinkers in and around Munich wrestling with the German crisis that fomented the two Great Wars. Their hope was to steer Germany through “the cataclysmic death agonies of late modern culture.” The greatest of the six, the Jesuit Erich Przywara, viewed the period as the morphing of a rather distinguished nineteenth-century atheism into an apocalyptic satanic contra-theism. Sadly, as a Polish-German, Przywara literally lost his mind in the trauma of WW II. The sextet was sure that the German crisis had origins in missteps taken by Kant and Nietzsche, and, intriguingly, were at one in thinking that the English John Henry Newman offered the escape route.

Rowland moves chronologically, from Muth, Haecker, and Steinbüchel, to Söhngen, Guardini, and Przywara. The writing is always elegant. Most of the six are little known, even in Catholic circles. Gottlieb Söhngen was the teacher of Benedict and Przywara, a decisive influence on that darling of academic theologians, the Swiss aristocratic Jesuit, Hans Urs van Balthasar. Romano Guardini is the best known of the bunch and received the rare honor of being name-checked by Pope Francis: it is rare that theorists, rather than intellectual positions, are named by popes in their encyclicals. Rowland helps readers get to know the thinkers better by excellent and copious quotations from their books and essays.

The Munich School believed that WW I showed there can be no secular foundation to humanism. Kant had jettisoned both God and nature as supports of human dignity. This left humanity as the final guarantor of human meaning, but, as Theodor Haecker subtly observed, humans do not really trust themselves to be this warrant, and, in consequence, a gnawing anxiety prevails. An anxiety, he thought, that invited fanaticism as a distraction.

An indicator is Nietzsche’s answer to Kant. His Zarathustra is a manic riposte lacking rationality. Nietzsche’s great Romantic symbol cannot generate the distance from appetite necessary to civilization. German humanism first undernourished the human spirit then spawned its reprimitivism. German culture must look outside itself, the Munich School argues, and find in St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) the balm to “the crisis of post-Enlightenment German humanism.” According to Przywara, Newman’s account of personalist conscience, which “eliminates all self-satisfaction of the ego in the complete self-abandonment of the ego” to God is key.


In the face of David Hume’s historically minded empiricism, Kant affirmed an austere personhood of reason and duty that pushed faith, love, imagination, self-surrender, and tradition to the margins of human significance. Not for Kant was the rather obvious point made by Newman: “The heart is commonly reached, not by reason, but by imagination, by immediate impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. People influence us, voices melt us, glances subjugate us, deeds ignite us.” Inspired by Newman, Carl Muth (1867-1944) set the framework for the Munich School. He gave it its vehicle for reaching an audience and an influential assessment of Nietzsche.

An urbane Catholic man of letters, educated in Berlin, Paris, and Rome, Muth founded the literary journal Hochland. It was designed as an imaginarium, an intellectually colourful corrective to the bleak ghetto mentality that had grown amongst Catholics in response to Bismarck’s Kulturkampfthe effort to bring the Catholic Church under a unified German state. Muth’s time in France showed him Catholics could move in elite literary circles and rather than pound modernity for its shortcomings the journal hoped to offer “an attractive alternative to the anti-humanism of a demythologized and thus disenchanted world.”

Muth criticized Kant’s abstraction and saw in Nietzsche a warmth for life. Kantians, he said, were “strange people who looked as if they had not been outdoors for thirty years.” Nietzsche’s lust for life, however, needed rational management. Nietzsche celebrated a whirlwind of emotion and Muth advocated conservatism as a control. Conservatism both affirms the lived reality of national traditions, he believed, and purifies their vitalism by defending a hierarchy of rational and moral values.

This Newman-inspired balancing became the template for the School. Like Muth, Theodor Haecker (1879-1945) lost a son in the Great Wars. A satirist, Haecker converted to Catholicism after reading Newman. He wrote for Hochland from 1923 till 1941, when the periodical was shuttered by the National Socialists. Haecker thought Kant only offered “a professorial history,” and, adding a new twist, proposed that “in that thin, pale atmosphere, personalities and passions evaporate. And no one could tell from reading it, that Satan was the Prince of this world.” Nietzsche’s Romanticism was no protection against satanism. Necessary was the insight of Newman that human dignity is not in the gift of the Volk but is “given in the spiritual sphere by God himself.” Conservatism adds to the spirit of a people, argues Haecker, in that “the freedom of man has an intellectual substrate, namely recognition of the truth, or, more accurately, of true order. The true order of things, however, is a holy order, a hierarchy.”

The book opens with a potent image: the Munich School as a flowering of a sophisticated Catholic culture refined over centuries. That world evaporated with the Great Wars.


Muth and Haecker read Nietzsche as a “radical aristocrat” and saw in him a continuity with hierarchical Catholicism. Przywara magnificently describes Zarathustra as facing the “lightning and fire of God at the highest level in the pride of naked finiteness.” These thinkers welcomed Nietzsche’s focus on the mania of the Dionysian as a weapon against bourgeois Christianity, where “there is no cosmic battle, no demons and no angels.”

Theodor Steinbüchel (1888-1949) argued that Nietzsche devoted himself to “the rescue of the human self and personhood from the crisis” and that his charge that Christianity is “a crime against life itself” was the most potent ever leveled against the faith. He believed the only adequate reply to Nietzsche was to refocus Christianity on the mystery of charity: to preach that the human is a member of a royal priesthood struggling against “the meta-cosmic depth of sin, the world tragedy of the demonic uprising against the Lord of the world.” The symbol of Zarathustra had to be resolved back into the ideal of chivalry. For Steinbüchel, as “the effective symbol of the highest vocation of the person,” chivalry captures the Christian willingness to serve, a call to heroic self-sacrifice. Only such a Christian myth can address the moral seriousness of Nietzsche.  

Rowland sees the power of Steinbüchel’s recommendation, observing that Tolkien and Lewis have helped mainstream the chivalrous ideal. Rowland also recommends for today’s church Haecker’s symbol of the child. “The last and closest secret of a man, the ultimate foundations of his strength, his most intimate and personal motive, lies far back in the things and memories of childhood. The decisive factor for a man and his work in the extent to which has been able to carry over into his adult years, or through grace to recover, the child that is in him.” This symbol has clear Biblical roots (Is. 66: 12; Matt. 19: 14) and invokes the values of openness, piety, purity, and trust. For Haecker, the symbol stood as a reproach to the vulgarity and thrusting wilfulness of National Socialism.

To this portrait, Rowland adds that Tolkien invoked the spirit of the child in his myth making. However, this is not quite accurate. The Hobbit grew from bedtime stories Tolkien told his children, but he explains The Lord of the Rings was altogether different: a story of military realism in which the hobbits return from war, not child-like, but as knights, battle hardened and quick to draw swords.

And there is a more probing problem: How did the Munich School respond to that other great Germanic spirit, Freud? It is certainly true that psychoanalysis requires us to reengage with childhood, but there is most definitely nothing cherubic going to result. Newman predates Freud. Did he nonetheless give them tools to assess the spiritual implications of psychoanalysis?

Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: Newman

Terrified of Nietzsche, but stuck on a Kantian preference for ontology, Neo-Thomism was thought inadequate. Neo-Thomism was the official intellectual tool of Rome. A deductive system working from axioms, it had rigour but lacked suppleness. In philosophical idiom, it emphasized essence, but lacked application to existence. Nourished by English Romanticism and a convert to Catholicism, Newman had another intellectual orientation.

Gottlieb Söhngen (1892-1971), Benedict’s teacher, found in Newman Nietzsche’s equal. Rejecting Kant’s austerity, Newman argued that conscience is not a repository of moral axioms but an address, a person exhorting another. Conscience, for Newman, was not directly moral, but religious, an expressive relationship between God and people. He thus rejected the Enlightenment’s overly simple identification of the moral with the rational and added the richness of personality to the moral order. Conscience, he argued, is a personal voice within us. One immediate implication of this idea is that persons are constitutively social and not, as liberalism would have it, autonomous individuals. This helps explain, for example, the increased skepticism in the papacy of Francis towards the liberal international order.

Söhngen built up this community of intimacy into a Good Friday theology. To what he dubbed the humanitas contra crucem, he opposed the universal experience of guilt. Conscience at the core of the person means not merely idealism, but the anxiety and pain of being judged. Against the elitism of Greco-Roman classicism and Enlightenment urbanity, he opposed the dark leveling of the Cross: God tried and condemned as a criminal by man is an admonishment of every human conceit to wisdom, insight, and acuity. In this bath of guilt, the disdainful distinction between Greek and barbarian, master and slave, educated and unlettered, is vapourized. The Cross is the bending down of God so that all might be sacred, argued Söhngen. The call to an imitatio Christi is first heard in conscience and our personal experience of guilt.

The last two entries in the volume are the heavy hitters, Romano Guardini (1885-1968) and Erich Przywara (1889-1972). Starting from Newman, Guardini argues persons are not self-enclosed but always “turned-towards” the grace and love of others. Kant is to be rejected because his focus on duty condemns persons to being the “mass man,” all spiritedness and giftedness excised from human life. Gone is the knightly and the call to the charity of sacrifice and instead all that is left is Kantian duty that has devolved into a bourgeois life, calculating, pragmatic, risk averse, and predatory.

Though Nietzsche had made this point, in the shadow of Nazism, Guardini soured on Nietzsche. Gone was the Munich School’s early treatment of Nietzsche as radical aristocrat and in its place an accusation that Nietzsche had done much to biologize German life. A Nietzschean thesis is truth valued only to the degree it gives “assurance, energy, and intensity to life.” The intrinsic validity of truth is rejected and a pragmatics, where truth is situational, tactical, and whatever works, takes charge. Nietzsche set the stage not only for Nazi racialism, contends Guardini, but, in addition: “Bolshevism [then] treats the human being as the chemical substances of laboratories and factories; it shatters, assembles, experiments, builds.” In a language common to the post-liberal, and Francis, Guardini riffs on the technological manipulation of people and globe by powerful commercial interests: “the scientifically studied manipulation of the unconscious of man by the economy.”  

Even the influential jurist Carl Schmitt recognized the untapped resources in Przywara’s thinking, commenting, his “great body of work has yet to be explored fully. It contains one of the most magnificent answers that the German spirit has to offer to the enormous challenge of an epoch characterized by two world wars.” Only now coming to prominence in Catholic theology, Przywara’s work represents the most theoretically dense and far reaching of the Munich School. If it is an answer from within the German spirit, as Schmitt claims, it is one given a significant assist by Newman. Przywara’s thought is an astonishing elaboration of the core ideas in Aquinas but made dynamic through a philosophy of history. Rather beautifully about Aquinas’s work, Przywara says, “all the world as a golden icon of heavenly glory, becoming like a light mist around the Eternal Being.” He admired the majesty of the person in Kant’s vision but lacking the history of personal encounter discerned by Newman, Kant’s ontology is marked by a rigidity that exudes intolerance, fanaticism, and utopianism. Kant sets the platform for two centuries of revolutionary rage against a recalcitrant world that stubbornly refuses to match his ideal utopia of all persons mutually and equally respected. Interestingly, then, Przywara does not read Kant as an advocate of liberal universalism, but militant socialism.

The book opens with a potent image: the Munich School as a flowering of a sophisticated Catholic culture refined over centuries. That world evaporated with the Great Wars. Rowland concludes the book with an image from Voegelin: inquiry into truth is a means of “establishing islands of order in the disorder of the age.” Probing the intersection between history and ontology, guilt and charity, Munich was such an island.


Martin of Tours

A Saint for Veterans Day

Martin of Tours used his military discipline and martial courage to fight for people’s souls and defend justice for the common man.