Katechon

In his posthumously published journals, entitled Glossarium, Carl Schmitt provocatively stated the following: “I believe in the katechon; for me he is the sole possibility for a Christian to understand history and find it meaningful.” The term katechon, which is found II Thessalonians 2:6-7, has been interpreted by theologians as the restrainer that holds back lawlessness or the coming of the antichrist before the Second Coming. Who or what the katechon is has been the subject of fierce debate for centuries, and it is possible this restraining force has never been static throughout history.

Why did Schmitt put so much stock into this (originally Biblical) concept? Henrich Meier, in his controversial work The Lesson of Carl Schmitt: Four Chapters on the Distinction Between Political Theology and Political Philosophy pg. 162, offers the following answer with brief quotes from Schmitt’s writings:

The notion of the katechon achieves three things. First, it “explains” the delay of the Parousia, it offers an answer to the question of why there is still “history.” For that purpose, Paul’s expression was originally introduced. Second, it protects historical action from despondency and despair in the view of a seemingly overpowering historical process that is progressing towards its end. Third, and conversely, it protects historical action from the disdain for politics and history in the certainty of promised victory. Thus for Schmitt, the katechon is simultaneously the complement and correction of the “genuine, ever-present, and necessary eschatology.” For the “living expectation of the immediately impending end seems to rob all history of meaning and gives rise to an eschatological paralysis, of which there are many examples in history.” The figure of thought of the “restrainer” forges a link between eschatological faith and the consciousness of “historicity.”

It could be said that the concept of the katechon has receded from Christian memory, particularly in these time where “enlightened Christians,” most of them young and suffering from a nasty case of Weltschmerz, claim to either no longer believe in politics or, laughably, exist “above” politics. This phenomenon can often be detected in Protestant circles, though Catholics are hardly immune. Why demonstrate any political allegiance at all when the only thing that matters—the only thing worth living for—is the End of Time? St. Augustine viewed history as the great boredom before the eschaton, and he was partially correct. Compared to the Day of the Lord, what are the days of history? But that observation does not necessarily rob history of meaning and purpose, not if there is evil to be held back in the time that remains.

There is an obvious tension in belief in the katechon and it is this: Is not the “benefit” of restraining the antichrist come at the “cost” of delaying the return of the Son of God? And yet it might be argued that due to the perennial difficulty in identifying the antichrist will always compel serious men to seek that which they perceive contains any genuine outbreak of lawlessness rather than suffer desolation for nothing. That is anything but a comforting thought for Christians will thus be tempted to throw their allegiance behind all sorts of authorities (political, moral, theological, etc.) who seem to hold the promise of being a katechonical force in whatever epoch they happen to inhabit. Only the Pope can save us from Protestantism; only capitalism can save us from economic ruin; only Vladimir Putin can save us from cultural decadence; only Donald Trump can save us from the Islamic State; and so on and so forth.

8 comments

    1. I am not sure how that’s been interpreted over the centuries, though that does raise some interesting questions. However, at the theological level at least, I think the answer may be that while the antichrist may pose as the katechon in order to deceive me, that is simply a precursor to his vanquishment.

  1. Does the Katechon have to be one person, or can it be understood as simply being the righteous ones in every generation who intercede on behalf of the world and on whose account the world is spared from the wrath of God (similarly to how God would be willing to spare Sodom if enough righteous souls could be found in it)?

    1. There has been that interpretation. It seems like the earliest view was that the katechon was the Roman Empire, but the perception of who or what the katechon is has shifted for the last 2,000 years, which raises some of the problems I noted at the end, as in, “Who is the katechon?” Some interpreters have Schmitt have suggested that he wrote those lines as an ex post facto apologia for his alignment with the Nazis. Namely, that Schmitt thought they would hold back the impending lawlessness coming from Russia (communism) and that while he made a “bet bet” (to say the least), it’s not as if any generation knows for sure who to throw their weight behind.

    2. I don’t know much about Protestant pretribulationism, but I wonder if that would be their interpretation (that the katechon would be the righteous ones), or something similar to that.

  2. Fr. Alexander’s emphasis on the importance of the liturgical “now” seems to obviate, or at least diminish, the importance of the katechon, does it not?

  3. May I suggest another source for the katechon? You will recall that the Apostle Paul, as a Pharisee, was also a learned rabbi. Now, there is a very old rabbinic tradition that says that since the days of Noah, God has sent out an angel of death daily to destroy the world, but the angel will turn back daily if, in going out into the world, that angel hears the sound of children learning and chanting Torah.

    Now, that venerable Apostle is one who has taught that we, the Gentiles, have been grafted into God’s church, like wild olive branches grafted onto a olive tree. It is not possible that by extension, the katechon is in fact the children of God, who are daily being taught and singing Scripture? And that, as we grow fewer and fewer, there will come a day when the angel will hear no voices praising God, or singing Scripture, and that angel will proceed with its deadly work?

    Just a thought.

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