The Apocalypse According to Carl Schmitt: the Principle of Katechontism

Crisis is undoubtedly a, if not the central concern in Carl Schmitt’s political theory. This does not mean, as some would seem to believe, that Schmitt’s thinking can be understood as celebrating extreme conditions of war and violence, or that it exhibits an ‘occasionalist’ (Karl Löwith) desire for mere nihilistic decisiveness. Rather, what has become known as Schmitt’s ‘decisionism’ is the expression of a concern with political stability and the restraining of the ultimate catastrophe. Schmitt tries to think the politico-juridical order in terms of the concrete, and this means that order must be understood in its relation to disruption and uncertainty. What could be more concrete than the actual crisis of a serious case, der Ernstfall?

This concern with extreme crisis and ultimate concrete foundations also gave rise to a peculiar engagement with apocalyptic imagination and imagery. An interpreter of Schmitt’s work, the philosopher Jacob Taubes, claimed that what lay at the heart of the reactionary jurist’s thought was something like ‘a katechontic principle’. In what follows, I will try to shed light on the character of this principle and how it can be understood as a feature of Schmitt’s thought. This will also provide an insight into what we are to make of Schmitt’s conception of political theology and the importance of theology for his thought.

According to Schmitt, modern juridical sciences had lost the ability to understand political authority and the act of deciding. Ultimately, when authority is thoroughly challenged in times of serious crisis, there comes a point where law breaks down and order is under threat. In Schmitt’s view, this leads to the necessity for understanding legal order as order, and that order must have precedence over law and legality. Schmitt’s legal positivist colleagues argued that such an understanding of legality could not be treated within the confines of legal theory, where the concern was with the norm and not the exception. A statement like ‘sovereign is he who decides on the exception’ (the opening line of one of Schmitt’s Politische Theologie) was not permissible in their view. This, Schmitt argued, was an expression of the impossibility for modern legal thought of understanding the true concrete experiences of public life, the actual domain of public law. Thus there emerges a concern with two crises in Schmitt’s work: first, the political crisis that threatens the public order; second, the crisis of modern rationality with its declining efficacy in political matters. The connection between these two crises marks the area in which Schmitt’s juridical theories are developed. It is also the basis for his influential thinking on the nebulous subject of political theology.

Later thinkers who have tried to approach the Schmittian problematic in his vein have, like Jacques Derrida talked about a ‘mystical foundation of authority’. While Schmitt would agree that the foundation of authority must be understood as consonant with metaphysics, he would not agree to invoke the language of mysticism. In fact, Schmitt’s concern with these issues is not to grant a greater space for ‘unreason’, but to find another way of approaching the question of how to conceptualize reason in relation to political and social issues. A careful look at Schmitt’s theoretical engagement with theology may help to show why invocations of mysticism and the realm of faith is misguided in the attempt to understand Schmitt.

Born in a poor Catholic family in the west of Wilhelmine Germany in 1888, Schmitt graduated from university in Strasbourg, then Straßburg, with a doctorate in law in 1910. He spent the war years in Munich, working in the censor’s office and trying to finish a Habilitation. The so-called German Revolution of 1918-19 was probably a formative event for Schmitt, even if his interest in the juridical understanding of state authority had already begun to take shape during the war itself. However, Schmitt was in Munich while Max Weber lectured on Politik als Beruf and he saw the Freikorps crush the short-lived revolutionary republic of the Bavarian socialists (which would lay the foundation for the city as ‘the Capital of the Movement’ of the Nazis). Taking no part in the conflict, Schmitt clearly took note of the violent founding of the Weimar Republic. Out of these experiences emerged some of the works that have laid the basis for Schmitt’s fame, not least Politische Theologie, a short but dense study of the concept of sovereignty in modern constitutional thought.

It is generally acknowledged that Schmitt was a Catholic intellectual, and very serious about his faith, if not always obviously devout (divorced, remarried, and excommunicated as he was). This has impacted the way that Schmitt’s secularization thesis is understood whereby all the central concepts of modern state theory are secularized theological concepts.  However, the particular way that Schmitt’s religiosity influenced his work is often unrecognized. It is rarely noticed that Schmitt uses the word faith, Glaube, very seldom. What is at stake in his work on political theology is therefore not properly understood if it is read in the light of personal conviction, faith, or belief. Rather, what theology provides Schmitt is the idea of a rational systematic discourse dedicated to the treatment of that which lies beyond all human understanding and hence, reason. God and his miracles are always greater than the human ability to fully grasp them; this for Schmitt can be translated into the way that an unforeseen and serious crisis exceeds the written constitution and requires an authority to act outside all legal bonds. This is why the state of exception has the same structure as the miracle, and why the sovereign lawmaker is akin to the omnipotent God.

Much has been written about this analogy in the reception of Schmitt, suggesting that this similarity would be the crux of Schmitt’s argumentation regarding the impact of theology on state theory. This has also led to a broad understanding of Schmitt as a decisionist theorist of the exception. It cannot be denied that the exception and the decision are central problems of Schmitt’s theory, but they must be understood as problems for concrete politico-juridical orders, which were the real issue haunting his work all the way from Gesetz und Urteil (1912) to ‘Die legale Weltrevolution’ (1978).

This line of thinking is more developed in a work written about the same time as Politische Theologie, a short book entitled Römischer Katholizismus und politische Form (published in 1923). As a volume dedicated to the concept of the political, it serves as a complementary reflection to those found in the more widely read Politische Theologie and Der Begriff des Politischen. While the latter two put forth an antagonistic conception of the political, centred on conflict, contestation, and ultimately enmity, Römischer Katholizismus und politische Form attempts to describe how Roman Catholicism presents an alternative form of rationality to the economic-technical rationality of Protestantism.

The influence of Max Weber’s Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus is obvious, and also suggests the way in which Schmitt’s secularization thesis can be understood. Römischer Katholizismus und politische Form is not a declaration of faith. It should rather be read as a meditation on the form of Roman Catholicism itself and its implications for political thought. What is at stake are not articles of faith, but intellectual principles, transposed or translated into new spheres, separating themselves as distinct through the process of modernization. The political form peculiar to Roman Catholic thinking is, according to Schmitt, representational and symbolic. It relates to a sublimating structure which, in Schmitt’s opinion, does not attempt to expose human irrationality and correct it through direct illumination, but rather to give it ‘rational direction’ through representational mediation. Such symbolic structures may not be understandable in the economic terms of modern rationality (where they appear as traditional or charismatic, but not in the legal-rational terms of modern bureaucracy, to use concepts of Weber’s familiar to Schmitt), but that does not make them ‘irrational’ in themselves, but only from that specific perspective.

Schmitt’s political theology is thus not rooted in personal faith, but in historical institutions (though in their turn sometimes ultimately rooted in collectives of faith). What Schmitt did say he believed in, though, was the Paulinian figure of the Katechon. He says so in his post-war diaries, published after his death at his request, under the title Glossarium. Here, Schmitt describes his belief in the Katechon as actual Glaube. The figure, or concept, of Katechon, is introduced by Saint Paul in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians. According to Paul, the Katechon, which is described as both person and principle, is he or that which restrains ‘the lawless one’ and ‘lawlessness’ and thereby staves off the end of time. In Christian tradition, ‘the lawless one’ came to be understood as the Antichrist. Tertullian identified the Katechon with the Roman Empire, and this identification was later transposed onto the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. It is this interpretation that is received by Schmitt and which becomes and object of wonder and contemplation for the jurist and self-proclaimed ‘lay theologian’. In what strikes one as almost an uncommonly naïve tone, Schmitt reflects that the Katechon must have been present, incarnated or as a principle, throughout history—otherwise the end would have come upon us. But as Jacob Taubes reflects, there is something of a Katechontic principle at work in Schmitt’s thought, along the lines of his understanding of theology’s importance for political theory. The upholding of law and legal science in its traditional principles, the staving off of serious crises, the integration of exceptionality into the sovereign state order, all this points toward Katechontism.

(detail of a mosaic in Basilica di Santi Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice)

That Schmitt possessed an active apocalyptic imagination comes as no surprise to his readers, but it is put forth with sincerity in the essay ‘Drei Möglichkeiten eines christlichen Geschichtsbildes’, published in 1950. Nowhere else in his oeuvre was Schmitt ever as candid about the intersection of his beliefs and his political theory. Here, he clearly formulates a Katechontism in opposition to progressive philosophies of history, particularly Marxist ones. The short essay is a reflection on Karl Löwith’s Meaning in History and Schmitt lauds that book’s understanding of modern historical consciousness as emerging out of Judeo-Christian eschatology. But Schmitt wants to argue for Christianity’s continued relevance for understanding history, and to him the Katechon is a central element of such an understanding. Through identification with this figure, the Christian is freed to act in the world, in the attempt to restrain evil and the threatening chaotic rule of the Antichrist. A principle of Katechontism helps the Christian to overcome what Schmitt calls ‘eschatological paralysis’, that is the resigned acceptance of the World’s evil in face of the impending Day of Judgement. But it is also important to understand that the Katechon is opposed to lawless transgressions—amongst which Schmitt would count the competing eschatologies of Marxist revolutionaries. Therefore, the ‘possibility of a Christian conception of history’ is connected to Schmitt’s early praise of the intellectuals of the counterrevolution. The point is not simply to act in the world, but also to act against disorder and its agents.

In Schmitt’s view, what is most threatening is the apocalyptic energy of the modern revolutions, with their overturning of old orders. At the heart of his Christianity is a principle of order and politico-legal restraint. This is an apocalyptic imaginary that may seem all-too-familiar today, with the growing unrest that seems to be unsettling the principles of the global orders of the post-Cold War era. Suddenly, the Schmittian principles of Katechontism are not as obscure and mystical as they may have appeared in another historical constellation. Pleas for order as a good in itself are heard from unexpected quarters as the socio-political consensus of Europe unravels. But as the ghost of the 1930s haunts us, it should be remembered that it was his obsession with the catastrophic, his apocalyptic imaginary, and his firm belief in the principle of order that led Schmitt to the fateful decision to cast his lot with Hitler in 1933. Schmitt’s rationale for this decision was not decisionism, but order thinking, not nihilism, but Katechontism.


Hjalmar Falk holds a Ph.d. in the History of Ideas from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. His dissertation dealt with the politico-theological contexts of Carl Schmitt's work. Currently, he is working on different conceptions of a secularization of Judeo-Christian eschatology in modern German philosophy of history and theology.

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