Dr Tracey Rowland's latest book, Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism, provides robust monographs of six German theologians of the twentieth century who made a stand against Nazi ideology and whose thought shaped that of Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. Tracey is a leading scholar on the theology of Pope Benedict XVI, for which she won the Ratzinger Prize for Theology in 2020. She recently spoke with Melbourne Catholic about her new book and why, despite the darkness of their time, the theologians surveyed offer much hope for modern-day readers.

This book covers six thinkers (Carl Muth, Theodor Haecker, Theodor Steinbüchel, Gottlieb Söhngen, Romano Guardini, and Erich Przywara) in the early half of the twentieth century, each of whom is deeply preoccupied with the same question: ‘What does it mean to be a human person?’ Why was this such a central question for them?

It was a central question because from the eighteenth century onwards philosophers have been putting forward different post-Christian accounts of what it means to be a human being.

For Christians to be human means to be made in the image of God. This in turn means things like having an intellect with a capacity to pursue truth and a will with a capacity to pursue goodness.

Some post-Christian philosophers, however, deny that there is any such thing as objective truth or moral goodness. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought human behaviour could be described by various “drives” including the will to power (rather than goodness), Sigmund Freud offered an account that was focused on sexual drives, the Marxists put forward ideas based on the position people occupy in the economic order and Hitler famously thought that genetics was the key to human identity. The scholars I examined all went to war against these various descriptions of the human person narrowly defined by sex and economic drives and genetic background. They all affirmed the idea that human beings have a rational intellect and a free will.

The idea of chivalry emerges a few times in this book, and it's a strong theme in one of your previous books, Portraits of Spiritual Nobility. In that book, you say that ‘the ethos of chivalry is an important element of Catholic culture.’ What is chivalry, as you understand it, and why is it important to revive it?

Chivalry is not necessarily about riding horses and thrusting swords, although etymologically this is its origin. This is the form chivalry took in the medieval era but chivalry is relevant in every era and takes different forms depending on the nature of the prevalent evils.

It is about having the courage to fight evil and using one’s power to protect those who are less powerful. It is linked to the virtues of magnanimity and courage and humility.

In a Christian culture magnanimity (greatness of soul) is different from that of classical Greek conceptions precisely because it is always coupled with the virtue of humility. Christian magnanimity is linked to grace.

In the popular imagination chivalry is something associated with men and it is the case that men exhibit chivalrous behaviour when they protect women from all manner of abuse. For example, Blessed Vilmos Apor, the bishop Of Györ, a provincial city in Hungary, was chivalrous when he protected a group of women from being raped by soldiers of the Red Army towards the end of the Second World War. The Red Army soldiers mortally wounded the bishop and then ran away. The women escaped unmolested. The bishop is now honoured as a martyr. His behaviour was chivalrous.

However, women can also operate to defend the weak from the evil actions of the strong and the pro-life movement provides numerous examples of such women.

For most, if not all, of these thinkers, there is a clear connection between the idea of Europe and the idea of Christianity. To lose Christ, to paraphrase Romano Guardini, was to lose Europe itself. This isn’t a connection many people would draw today. Why were these two things so tightly linked?

Yes, all the authors surveyed would agree with Guardini that if Europeans deny Christ then Europe will no longer exist as a cultural entity. Christianity is the “glue” that holds the national “tribes” of Europe together. Those who founded the European Union of modern times were mostly Catholic men of the immediate World War II generation. They were not hostile to Christianity. However, the authors I surveyed made the point that if European unity is sought on some other foundation, such as mutual economic interests, it will ultimately fail. Economics is not enough to hold it together. Many of the contemporary debates around the European Union are precisely over its cultural foundations.

Beyond Kant and Nietzsche Tracey Rowland
Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism Bloomsbury Publishing

One of the people in the book you analyse is Theodore Haecker. He said that ‘Christians must fight on sacramental ground’ when it comes to the struggle between worldviews. What did he mean by this?

Yes, this is a very important issue. When Christians differ from other people, especially over matters of morality, there is the tendency of some Christian leaders to defend the Christian position by using non-Christian arguments. Christ is not mentioned, grace is not mentioned, the Gospels are not mentioned.

The strategy of many Christians is to defend Christian morality by reference to values that might appeal to non-Christians. Haecker thought this counter-productive. He thought that Christians needed to explain how Christ, sacraments and grace make a difference to human life.

He thought that unless we make this difference clear and visible we would be completely defenceless against the forward march of secularism and indeed every time we ventured forth to fight a secular vision of reality on secular ground we would be defeated.

Behind each of these figures stands the person and thought of St John Henry Newman. What about Newman did they love?

Lots of things! Firstly, in his Essay on the Development of Doctrine, Newman began the work of addressing the issue of the role of history in theological development. Secondly, in his Grammar of Assent, he offered valuable insights on the relationship between faith and reason and affectivity.

Thirdly, the Germans of the inter-war generation, who had to contend with Nietzsche’s attacks on Christianity, thought that Newman understood what we now call ‘the new atheists’ – people for whom atheism is not merely a stance against Christian revelation, but an entirely alternative humanism. The German Catholics I surveyed thought that Newman was onto this issue. Fourthly, Newman understood the problem of what he called “the religion of the age”:

This is the tendency for Christians to promote only those dimensions of Christianity that are socially fashionable and to press the “mute button” on the socially unfashionable dimensions. This is because Christians become more concerned about their upward social mobility than their relationship to God.

Today, for example, it is fashionable to be concerned about the environment, so some Christians are more than happy to talk about the Church’s ideas about environmental ethics but they will go very quiet about other Christian teachings. Newman had quite a lot to say about this problem and he called it the tendency of Christians to promote the religion of the world or the religion of the age rather than the undiluted Christianity of the gospels. The German authors speak of a “bourgeois Christianity”. They do not mean literally a Christianity of middle class people, but a Christianity that is narrowed down to something that won’t challenge the upward social mobility of members of the middle class – a Christianity that won’t cause social embarrassment.

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Dr Tracey Rowland

It’s not often one comes across an academic work that also aspires to be a work offering hope. Each of these authors, you say at the end, grieved for the loss of a genuinely Christian culture in the West, but did not despair. What words of hope do you think these authors would offer someone today seeking to plant and grow a genuinely Christian culture in the aridity of secular Australia?

The book is part of a series called “Illuminating Modernity”. There was an earlier book in the series called “Illuminating Faith” so I thought I would try and write something that would illuminate hope.

I personally found these authors very hopeful precisely because they endured a cultural war against Christianity and did not despair. They kept their faith amidst so much darkness. Muth is an example of someone who kept steady when people were rushing to occupy the extremes, Haecker was great at sending up the alternative visions of humanity on the intellectual market. He is a case study in the use of humour as a weapon. Steinbüchel had a lot to say about chivalry. I think this will appeal to young men who need to read some affirmations of masculinity. Söhngen was strong on sacramentality and thus I think that reading his works will affirm people’s faith in the sacraments as something a whole lot more important than mere social milestone markers.

Sacramentality is precisely that dimension of Christianity that is so often neglected by those hooked on the religion of the world. Eucharistic adoration is probably the single most important source of hope for those marooned in the aridity of secular Australia.

Guardini explains how not to have one’s human dignity systematically destroyed by the state and Przywara, who never despaired, but who did suffer from something like PTS (post-traumatic stress), offers some really deep theological reflections on how we have ended up in a secular desert. In that sense, he offers an account of ideas to be avoided.

Feature image: A glimpse of the Cathedral Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche), Munich, Germany

To order a copy of Dr Tracey Rowland's latest book visit Bloomsbury Publishing.