A recent article appears in Telos, “Carl Schmitt and the Nineteenth-Century Catholic Reaction on Original Sin,” by Brian J. Fox seeks to upend the narrative that Schmitt, despite his decades-long estrangement from the Church, was hewn to an orthodox Catholic worldview during his Weimar-era writings. Fox, who combs through Schmitt’s private journals and other writings, believes that Schmitt, contrary to the Catholic reactionaries he leans upon (Maistre, Bonald, and Cortes), had little regard for Catholic orthodoxy as it pertains to human nature and original sin. Rather, Schmitt drank from the well of Gnosticism, leading the controversial jurist to adopt a radically dualistic worldview which, according to Fox, is at the heart of Schmitt’s secular authoritarianism. While Schmitt superficially shares the pessimistic view of human nature espoused by someone like Donoso Cortes, when it comes to the state, Schmitt fails to appreciate its imperfect constitution, contrary to Catholic teaching.
What this means for the ongoing use (and abuse) of Schmitt’s oeuvre by the Left and the Right isn’t clear from Fox’s piece. Even if he is correct in his assessment of Schmitt’s anthropology and its connection to his apparent authoritarianism, it’s unlikely that the Left—who have never had much time for any religious element in Schmitt’s writings—will pay it much mind. As for the Right, many of whom would also prefer not to think of Schmitt in expressly religious terms either, a “de-Catholicized” Schmitt is probably an attractive figure. The impulse toward authoritarianism still remains strong, especially in pluralistic socio-political states which are unlikely to unify around any transcendent conception of the state and man’s final end. That human beings are an unhinged, murderous, and self-destructive lot is apparent from history; there’s no need to bring revelation into the discussion.
Catholics, by and large, have little use for Schmitt at this juncture in history. To some, Schmitt is an embarrassment: a (temporarily) excommunicated opportunist forever sullied by his association with the Nazi Party. To the extent that Schmitt’s works reflect an authentic Catholic outlook, it is an outlook now deemed to be “outmoded” by virtue of the Second Vatican Council’s teachings on religious liberty and the Church’s relationship to the modern (liberal) world. Schmitt’s preferred political thinkers, despite being faithful Catholics, are connected to the same shopworn anti-liberal sentiments that produced Pius XI’s Syllabus Errorum. Even more conservative Catholic writers are unlikely to repair to Schmitt due to his perceived aversion toward natural law, not to mention his secularized decisionism. Now that Fox has arrived to posthumously excommunicate Schmitt from the Catholic intellectual fold, the chances of Schmitt ever being assumed back into the Catholic socio-political tradition are growing slimmer.
Perhaps that’s not a bad thing. After all, given the confusing mess of secular-born ideologies that have been passed around as true expressions of the Catholic social tradition in recent decades, there’s no need to muddy the waters further—even if the dirt is coming from the Right. That doesn’t mean, however, that Schmitt can’t still be useful in a general sense. His instinctive anti-liberalism (which also manifested itself as anti-socialism) and penetrating critiques of liberal legal theory can still be useful tools for those of a certain bent to put to bed the lie that human beings are naturally good, and so too is any political system predicated upon that erroneous belief. And regardless of the origins of his pessimistic anthropology, Schmitt knew better than many today the dangers of liberalism, of the eternal “discussion,” and the promotion of life-as-entertainment, devoid of risk, commitment, and an ever-ready belief that there is more to existence in this world than what Leo Strauss called the joyless pursuit of joy.