Last Friday, on May 6, Pope Francis was awarded the Charlemagne Prize, which is conferred annually by the city of Aachen, Germany, upon persons who in one way or another represent European ideals and contribute to European integration. The address Francis gave on the occasion is notable for a number of reasons, certainly for what it says about his vision of Europe and what he called a “new European humanism.” But it also revealed something about the sources of this vision and his theology in general.
In the course of his address he mentioned a minor work of a major European intellectual of the twentieth century, whose name is little known today outside of the academy, but who seems to be an important background influence on the pope’s theology. The figure in question is the German-Polish Jesuit Erich Przywara (1889-1972), and the minor work, which Francis called splendid, is a little, out-of-print, and untranslated book, first published in German in 1955, entitled Idee Europa. So who was Przywara, and what is the connection between him and Pope Francis?
Przywara is perhaps best known among his confreres as the author of a massive three-volume commentary on the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, which was published in 1938 under the title Deus Semper Maior. Outside of the Society of Jesus, though, he is known more by way of association with the scholastic idea of the “analogy of being,” which he popularized in the 1920s as a “formal principle of Catholic theology,” and for his 1932 magnum opus Analogia Entis, which, though very dense and difficult to read, remains a masterwork of Christian metaphysics. (According to oral tradition this work was once given to doctoral students at the University of Chicago as an examen rigorosum.)
But Przywara was much more than a metaphysician who popularized what was hitherto a scholastic technicality. To give some sense of his context and influence, he was a close friend and mentor of Edith Stein (inspiring her study of Thomas Aquinas and, very likely, her path to Carmel), a friendly adversary of Karl Barth (who considered Przywara his only real opponent, indeed, “the giant Goliath incarnate”), a revered teacher to Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner (both of whom speak of him as the greatest of minds), and an editor of the Munich-based Jesuit journal Stimmen der Zeit until the journal was shut down by the Gestapo in 1941. In short, he stood in the vanguard of the Catholic Church’s engagement with the modern world, authoring by the time of his death over forty books and eight-hundred articles and reviews.
But what, more specifically, is the connection between Przywara and Pope Francis, other than the obvious fact that both are Jesuits? And what does his little book, Idee Europa, have to do with Francis’ vision of Europe? As the title of Przywara’s opusculum would suggest, it is about the idea of Europe—almost in the phenomenological sense. Accordingly, in the book’s preface, he says that he intends to set aside political movements and any personal intentions in order to rethink Europe from the roots and to envision it, unencumbered by ideology, in its ideal essence.
For Przywara, the real idea of Europe is one that is open to the East. Europe has always been a crossroads, and its cultural development is unthinkable apart from what it has received—not only from ancient Greece (e.g., from Plato and Aristotle), but more importantly, as far as its Christian roots are concerned, from Asia Minor and Africa. And in this regard Przywara makes special mention of the North African theologies of Tertullian, Augustine, and Origen. An authentically European culture, therefore, will not be closed in on itself, but will actively go forth in dialogue. Indeed, to reiterate the thesis of the eminent French philosopher Rémi Brague, one could say that European culture, to the extent that it has been formed by Christianity, is a fundamentally “eccentric culture.” And so Przywara argues that the West should not be conceived in dialectical opposition to the East, but in fruitful dialogue with it, suggestively alluding to the first chapter of Genesis: “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Gen. 1:5).
In a short chapter on politics, Przywara points out that, unlike modern notions of citizenship, to be a member of a polis originally meant to take part in and contribute to the welfare of the city. Indeed, the Greeks and Romans placed such great emphasis upon service that the word private originally meant precisely a lack—a privatio—of participation in the common good. By the same token, the very notion of a party, which implies division, is inimical to the common good, being the self-conscious positing of a part as the whole: “In the so-called competition of the parties, the competition of parts, each of which posits its own interests as that of the whole, replaces the city, which is the only real whole and common to all.” Such is the case whenever the city is dominated by a single interest group, whereas a genuine city, Przywara avers, is animated by a sense of the whole and by a complementarity of various estates: agricultural, manufacturing, commercial, professorial, religious, and so forth.
For Przywara, then, it follows that the true city or State cannot be based simply upon a utilitarian contract of individual, self-interested parties, each of which is vying for more power. For in that case politics essentially reduces to a power grab, which images the original laying hold of divinity of Genesis 3:6 (cf. Phil. 2:6). On the contrary, the true city is characterized by a giving of the citizen to the city and vice versa, to the point that the city assumes a covenantal form. And the more it assumes a covenantal form, he suggests, the more it points (whether implicitly or explicitly) to the covenantal mystery of Christ and the Church—this being the “primal mystery” at the core of every true polity. For real politics, he says, consists in mutual service, whereby one ministers to the (prime) minister of the people. And so Przywara can claim that politics, insofar as it is real politics, has an essentially Christian, liturgical form, being a reflection of the service rendered to the greatest servant of all: “the mystery of Christ as the ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’ […] ‘who did not come to be served, but to serve (Mt. 20:28),’” is “the constitutive, primal mystery of the historical politics of the West.”
The first part of Przywara’s little book thus begins with the idea of Europe and with the idea of the true city and gradually shows that the true idea of Europe and the true form of the city are—whether anyone would wish to acknowledge this or not—Christian. In the last part of the book—skipping over the interesting things that has to say about the secularization of modern Europe and the rise of the ersatz imperium of modern technological rationalism—Przywara works in the opposite direction, dealing more directly with the role of the Church in the modern world. Here the question is not so much “what is the true form of the city?,” but rather “what is the true form of the Church?” And it is here especially that we see the relevance of Przywara to Francis’ vision, since both of them tend to critique and to emphasize the same things.
Above all, both of them are critical of a Church that is insular, self-centered, and self-absorbed—even a Church that would recoil in self-maintenance in the face of an increasingly secular world. And in this regard Przywara identifies problems with the medieval sacrum imperium, though it may have had valid roots in the Augustinian vision of the city of God, as well as with the churches of the Reformation, neither of which, he thinks, embody the true form of the Church. In the case of the former, he writes: “This ‘kingdom of God on earth’ gradually took on an Old Testament understanding of its own election as the ‘people of God’: in that the Carolingians, the Byzantine emperors, the Ottonian and Hohenstaufen Dynasties, and the Habsburg Empire saw themselves exclusively as the glorious presence of the Divine Majesty on earth…to the point that they could see in those ‘without Christ and without God’ nothing but an ‘enemy’ to be vanquished by ‘crusades’ or compelled to baptism.”
Nor, on the other hand, is the true form of the Church the Reformation’s antithetical reaction to the medieval Church, with its polemic against visible representation and sacramental mediation, and its corresponding emphasis upon “the hiddenness of God in a ‘sinful Church’ and a ‘sinful humanity.’” For this led only to another form of exclusivity, namely, that of the elect, predestined individual—an election that gradually expanded into the exclusivity of Calvin’s Geneva and, finally, into the manifest destiny and “moral-crusades” of an elect, “world-conquering” Anglo-American empire. Rather, over against the manifest glory of the medieval Church and the hidden elections of the Reformation (each of which, Przywara thinks, tends in its own way toward insularity and exclusivity), the true form of the Church is that of a missionary servant: it is to participate in the mission of Christ, and in “the diakonia of the redemptive exchange of God in Christ, in order to invite those ‘without Christ and without God’ to the wedding feast of the Son of the King (Mt. 22:1ff.; 25:34ff.).” Indeed, for Przywara, “following the example of Christ,” the task of the Church is to go “outside the gate” (Heb. 13:12ff.) of one’s own preserve and “wash the ‘dirty feet’ of a ‘dirty world’ on one’s knees (Jn 13:1-14).” The similarity to Pope Francis is obvious.
Needless to say, the times have changed: the East is increasingly a real threat to the West, and the West is increasingly inhospitable to the Church. In such circumstances the natural tendency of the West and the Church alike is to be reactionary, and thereby to exacerbate the dialectic that today, in one form or another, is tearing the world apart. But, if Przywara is right, neither the essence of Europe nor the essence of the Church has changed. In which case, notwithstanding the great challenges facing Europe (and the West generally) today, he might say: Europe needs to remain open to the East, not in capitulation, but in conversation with it, even and precisely when dialogue seems impossible. And the Church, too, rather than retreating into itself, needs to go forth in dialogue, even and precisely when the secular culture seems most deaf to its message. For Przywara, and for Francis too, it seems, this is the only way for the Church truly to be the Church, and to be the glorious representation of God in Christ on earth it is called to be: because, according to this logic, the Ever Greater God is only visible—and truly glorious—in ever greater service. Bearing this out in the book’s conclusion, Przywara writes: “A true and new Christian Europe can consist, therefore, only in this: that with Christ, the ‘friend and table companion of sinners (Mt. 11:19) we Christians genuinely befriend sinners and ‘sit at their table’—this being the only way for us to be like Christ, who did not ‘snuff out’ his ‘enemies’ (Is. 42:3; Mt. 12:20), but ‘takes and takes upon himself and bears and bears away the sins of the world’ (Jn 1:29).”
In 1967, in his laudatio for Przywara, Karl Rahner spoke of Przywara’s “lifelong dialogue with the past and the present, with the entirety of western intellectual history from Heraclitus to Nietzsche,” and of his “openness to all in order to give to all.” He also suggested that “the whole Przywara, especially the late Przywara, is yet to come. He stands at a place in the road that many in the Church have yet to get past.” Clearly, Pope Francis, for one, seems to have heeded Rahner’s advice, as did Stein, Balthasar, Josef Pieper, and a few others. Perhaps it’s time for the rest of the Church to catch up with them and, in the words of Rahner, “catch something of his fire.”
John Betz is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Notre Dame.