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Gift of God, or Invention of the Antichrist?

Church of the Ever Greater God: The Ecclesiology of Erich Pryzwara
By Aaron Pidel
Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020, pp. 324, $60.

Fr. Aaron Pidel’s monograph on the German Jesuit Erich Pryzwara (1889-1972) is an impressive and far-reaching exploration of the thought of one of the most interesting and, at least in the English-speaking world, neglected Catholic thinkers of the 20th century. Not a big book, Pidel’s work is tightly packed with rich discussions of a variety of distinct yet interconnected philosophical, theological, and historical themes. This volume will probably at least initially attract those interested in 20th-century Catholic philosophy, and specifically Pryzwara’s sustained work regarding the analogia entis (analogy of being).

However, Pidel offers much more than a further comment on technical issues in philosophical theology. As the subtitle suggests, Pidel’s task is a constructive work of ecclesiology. The Jesuit, Ignatian ecclesiology that Pidel discerns running through the work of Pryzwara defies too-easy tags like progressive and conservative. The complex, nuanced, and challenging ecclesiology that emerges is at one time deeply hierarchical and yet evangelical, decisively oriented beyond itself. The “vertical axis” of the analogia entis gives away to a horizontal apostolic orientation in which flourishes “personalized governance according to the model of the discretio caritatis [discernment of charity]” (p. 6). For Pryzwara, then, the hierarchical and the missional are not only not in tension but dependent on one another.

While Pidel’s work is a detailed study of one prolific thinker, he deftly navigates the broad sweep of Pryzwara’s work by contextualizing it in the ecclesial and secular events in which it was formulated and in dialogue with the numerous interesting interlocutors who either impacted Pryzwara or were impacted by him. Pidel’s command of Pryzwara’s massive scholarly output sheds light on the reception of so many pivotal thinkers, events, and movements from antiquity to the present: Augustine, Dionysius, modernism and antimodernism, Newman, the Liturgical Movement, life under the Third Reich, and Vatican II. As such, this book is of use not just to students of philosophical theology or those coming in with a desire to learn about Pryzwara, but to anyone interested in contemporary Christian thought and 20th-century church history.

A review of this length cannot give sufficient attention to the numerous topics explored. Instead, I will comment briefly on the structure of the book and on the stature of Pryzwara as a 20th-century Catholic thinker. An introduction makes the case for Pryzwara’s significance by associating him with some of the greatest Catholic and Protestant thinkers of the age. Balthasar called Pryzwara the “greatest spirit” he ever met (p. 1), and Barth saw his formidable intellect as the “giant Goliath incarnate” (p. 2). More well-known is Barth’s (in)famous denunciation of the analogia entis as the “invention of anti-Christ” (p. 2) and the insurmountable reason why Protestants should not become Catholics (to this Pryzwara would retort, in Pidel’s summation: “either idolatrous pantheism or the analogia entis” [p. 9]).

After situating Pryzwara as a major Catholic intellectual in an era of ecclesial and secular dynamism and upheaval, Pidel proceeds with six densely packed chapters. The central thesis of the book is that Pryzwara’s overarching theological project, rooted in the analogia entis, forged an ecclesiology that was “both analogical and Ignatian” (p. 4). In several places, Pidel shows that this fundamentally “Ignatian” (i.e. Jesuit) ecclesiology, while respecting a Catholic pluralism which gives space to other approaches (including the other classic “schools”: Franciscan, Dominican, etc.), is interesting not just as a study of yet another innovative European ecclesiologist from the first half of the 1900s, but as a model for discernment and balance in our polarized current age. Sprinkled-in references to the first Jesuit pope make such a stance particularly intriguing.

The strength of the book is that Pidel’s systematic account of Pryzwara’s thought is firmly grounded in the lived history of the man and the ecclesial and wider world he was concretely reacting to, in dialogue with, and seeking to shape. As such, Pidel begins each chapter with a “theological movement or event that furnishes the relevant interpretive background” (p. 4) to a thinker that was, like his interlocutors Newman and Augustine, an “occasional” author.

The strengths of this approach are twofold. First, each chapter therefore becomes useful for those studying 20th-century Catholic responses to or receptions of formative events or figures (including Vatican I, modernism, Newman, Vatican II). With the proper scaffolding, educators could selectively make use of portions of the book in a variety of theology and philosophy courses. Second, rather than a contribution to a specific contemporary philosophical or theological debate as such, Pidel’s monograph becomes a kind of synthetic project yielding an Ignatian ecclesiology that has something to say to pretty much everybody, and especially to the opposite poles of the numerous postconciliar binaries that can be identified (if often unhappily or unfairly): papalist and conciliar/collegial models, People of God and Communion ecclesiologies, global and Western-centric models, and so on.

After introducing Pryzwara’s famous works on the analogia entis in chapter one, Pidel shows the ways in which the German Jesuit was forging a philosophical theology, in the wake of Vatican I’s dogmatic decrees, that preserved a “middle” in between the poles of pantheism and theopanism. Ostensibly opposites, Pryzwara saw pantheism and theopanism as ultimately the same error — a subsuming of God into creation that destroyed both the divine otherness of God and the secondary causality of the creature (and thus obscured or eclipsed the possibility of human cooperation with God). The second chapter features similar issues, but sets them against the context of the aggressively “antimodernist” magisterium the dominated Pryzwara’s youth. In this context, Pryzwara’s philosophical theology steers clear of the “vital immanence” and “intuitionism” condemned by Pope Pius X, but also provides orthodox quarter to dynamic, non-neo-scholastic philosophical theologians like John Henry Newman and Max Scheler, wrongly tarred by some with the elastic smear word “modernist.”

Chapter three, with the 1930s as a backdrop, further showcases Pryzwara’s ability to reconcile “sharp dichotomies of theology in the era of antimodernist magisterium” (p. 73), but now in service of the construction of an ecclesiology that reconciles the “irreducible pluralism” of Catholic “types” with the distinctiveness of Pryzwara’s “Ignatian type.” Pidel argues this Ignatian “type” stresses hierarchy and the majesty and dissimilarity of God, and yet paradoxically opens up creaturely freedom and flourishing.

The fourth chapter on ecclesial discretion is among the most thought-provoking of the book. Set amidst the cataclysms of the 1940s, Pidel furthers explores how Pryzwara’s analogia entis flows into an understanding of hierarchy that actually creates space for dynamism, individuality, and mission — not unfamiliar concepts to admirers of the Society of Jesus. A particularly welcome contribution of this book is its casting of Pryzwara as a preconciliar defender of Catholic pluralism against a kind of totalizing neo-Thomism (what Pidel calls an “exclusive Thomism” p. 130) that saw itself as the apotheosis of Catholic theology.

The final two chapters raise a multitude of important questions and issues. Chapter five profiles what Pidel calls Pryzwara’s nuptial theology and “apocalyptic ressourcement” (apocalyptic in the sense of being suited “to the dark yet revealing ‘hour’ of World War II” [p. 151]). Pryzwara’s thought again beckons to us today, for he sought to make sense of the eclipse of the Tridentine church and the birth of a global, even “cosmic” church. In the final chapter Pidel uses Pryzwara to answer a question that would seem to be the territory of historians: “What happened at Vatican II?” And yet, Pidel convinces us, there is a way in which such a question can be fruitfully answered by a systematic theological thinker like Pryzwara: Vatican II, in Pryzwara’s categories, was a transition to a new ecclesial “type.” This chapter, rewardingly, brings Pryzwara into conversation with major figures like Ratzinger and movements like la nouvelle théologie.

More biographical background on Pryzwara would have been welcome, though in this tightly-packed monograph Pidel is of course offering a sketch not of Pryzwara’s life but of his thought and the place of that thought in the rich ferment of the 20th century. Nevertheless the details that are shared — such as brief discussions of Pryzwara’s bouts with anxiety, depression, and mental illness — give a complex picture of a man whose eclectic and prolific career seems to have embodied the dynamism and tragedy of 20th-century ecclesial and intellectual life. The range of the subjects under consideration is thus not a distraction but an asset of this work.

Dr. Shaun Blanchard is assistant professor of theology at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University, Baton Rouge, La. As of summer 2021, he will be Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Newman Studies in Pittsburgh. His first book, The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II: Jansenism and the Struggle for Catholic Reform was published in 2019 by Oxford University Press. Shaun is currently writing a short history of Vatican II with Stephen Bullivant, and a monograph on Catholic ecclesiology in the English-speaking world, ca. 1770–1870.


  1. I know the scholastic debate a bit, but it might be helpful to know what practical difference this makes in terms of how we think about God, scripture, worship, creation. As a teacher I often find myself asked this kind of question, even by intelligent students. Having myself just finished a book on Vatican 2, it is clear he played a role in those debates.


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