Carl Schmitt contra William Barr

In a high-profile speech at Notre Dame, Attorney General William Barr made a forceful case for religion in public life. He argued that Judeo-Christian religious and moral values have been essential components in the life of the Republic since its founding. He noted that these values have been under siege in the public square for some time, with dire consequences for the moral and political life of the nation. Indeed, Barr observes that the Judeo-Christian values have been replaced with secular values that present serious threats to ordered liberty. Barr recently made a similar case in a speech in Nashville, Tennessee. It is clear that Barr sees these moral values as necessary for a healthy, functioning state.

Barr has recently been the subject of some attention in the press, with Tamsin Shaw calling him “the Carl Schmitt of our time” at the New York Review of Books. David Rohde, writing at the New Yorker, presents Barr as an ideologue, using Donald Trump’s expansive notions of presidential power to achieve religious and political goals of his own. It is the allusion to Carl Schmitt that is most evocative. Shaw has in mind the early-2000s Schmitt revival, especially in the context of George W. Bush’s War on Terror policies. This is not unreasonable. Important thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben turned to Schmitt for a framework to assess the political-juridical environment following the September 11 attacks. However, for Shaw, Barr appears to be a Schmittian figure largely because he believes in an expansive interpretation of presidential power under the Article II Vesting Clause of the United States Constitution.

It is unclear to me, however, that Barr is actually much of a Schmittian. His rhetoric in the Notre Dame and Nashville speeches is, candidly, basically the same religious conservative rhetoric that I’ve heard from various places for the past fifteen or twenty years. (It’s even older than that, I think.) Barr is a little gloomier about the state of the Republic, but we live in an era after Donald Trump’s “American Carnage” speech. Indeed, following Obergefell and other significant setbacks for religious conservatives during the Obama years, there is room for pessimism about the state of the United States. Likewise, the despair that finds concrete expression in widespread drug use and the appalling suicide statistics of recent years does not necessarily inspire great optimism. In this sense, Barr is simply identifying what anyone with eyes to see should understand.

More than this, it is Carl Schmitt himself that offers the most serious rebuttal to Barr’s rhetoric. Barr speaks entirely of values: if the correct values were enshrined, he says, in our laws and public institutions, the pernicious phenomena of recent years would be addressed. However, Schmitt makes a compelling case that conceiving of important metaphysical commitments in terms of values inherently leads to enmity and strife, which ultimately will imperil the ordered liberty Barr evidently seeks to preserve. Worse than this—at least for Barr—to conceive of these commitments in values paradoxically leads to the secularization that Barr wants to avoid.

In his 1959 speech (privately printed in 1960 and reissued in 1967), The Tyranny of Values, the jurist Carl Schmitt makes the claim that “[v]alue is not, rather it holds.” For this reason, Schmitt argues that “[v]alue precisely lusts after actualization. It is not real, but directed toward realization and longs for enforcement and implementation.” This is a startling claim: value is not real—but it is held and it is enforced. It also comes as no surprise that other values are diminished in the process of enforcement and implementation. Schmitt observes that “No one can value without devaluing, raising in value, and valuizing. Whoever sets values has thereby set himself against non-values.” In other words, to hold—to enforce—a value means necessarily to reject and exclude other values. To declare them, in effect, non-values.

At the outset, one sees that, in Schmitt’s account, the enforcement of values is inherent in the concept of value generally. The constant judicial strife in United States courts over this or that social issue becomes immediately comprehensible: it is necessary that values be enforced and judges are as good as anyone to enforce values. (More on that in a moment.) Indeed, more broadly, cultural strife becomes immediately comprehensible. Values have to be held and enforced, other values have to be rejected and excluded, and this can take place in any number of forums.

In a passage reminiscent of his 1922 book, Political Theology, Schmitt cites Martin Heidegger’s Holzwege for genealogy of the philosophy of values. For Heidegger, value philosophy emerges in the 19th century as a response to the advance of value-free science. It is, in Heidegger’s pungent phrase, “the positivistic ersatz for the metaphysical.” Schmitt expands the argument: science threatened the freedom of the individual, especially in the “religious-ethical-juristic” dimension. Value philosophy answers this dilemma by preserving the individual as a “free, responsible essence,” if not as a being, then as a holder of values. In other words, for Schmitt, value philosophy is an attempt to preserve individuality in the face of science, which imposes purely causal definitions for beings.

A brief aside: seen in this light, value philosophy is a reaction to the advance of value-free science. But it is not an escape from the effects of value-free science. In Schmitt’s lengthy introduction to The Tyranny of Values, written for a 1967 edition, he observes that theologians, philosophers, and jurists “promise themselves from a philosophy of value … salvation from an irresistibly advancing natural scientificity.” But the transformation of the foundations of theology, philosophy, and law—that is, the metaphysical presuppositions of those fields—into values “can only accelerate the process of the general neutralization.” The “general neutralization,” Schmitt argues, even goes so far as to dissolve all oppositions, including, for example, the opposition between science and utopia. More than that, no less than science, values themselves become levers for utopia. Indeed, “[a]ll social and biological utopias consequently place values of all kinds at their disposal.”

In other words, Schmitt decisively rejects the notion that any particular values—even values heretofore denominated as conservative—are a bulwark against precisely the scientific, neutralizing tendency that required the adoption of values. On the contrary, the adoption of values accelerates “the process of general neutralization.” Making things worse, there is a positive feedback loop: the general neutralization dissolves all oppositions, opening the field for a scientific-utopian conception, which in turn uses values in its own way. So far from resisting the creeping advance of science, value philosophy for Schmitt ensures the ultimate triumph of science and pure causality.

All of this presents serious problems for Barr’s vision. For one thing, to speak of Judeo-Christian religious values is not to escape value logic, but instead to reduce profound metaphysical commitments to values and to subject them to the process of valuation and de-valuation inherent in the logic of values. Worse than this, this process hastens the “process of general neutralization.” In other words, re-enforcing and re-implementing “Judeo-Christian values” will not stop the processes that alarm Barr, but are simply new phases in those processes. As they continue, the re-enforcement and re-implementation will end up serving the neutralization that he objects to.

It is not merely for Barr that this account of “values” presents significant problems. If one accepts Heidegger and Schmitt’s account—which goes back to Friedrich Nietzsche according to Heidegger—to speak in terms of “values” is to accept a certain approach to metaphysical contentions resulting in a “positivistic ersatz for the metaphysical.” Likewise, one must question, from the Christian perspective, whether or not it is advisable, even inadvertently, to reduce human freedom and responsibility to the dimension of holding this or that value. (Surely it is not.) The language of values becomes less and less appealing as a line of flight from the inexorable march of scientific nihilism.

It is in this same vein that Schmitt makes another important point. He follows Max Weber’s argument that individuals set values. For Weber, according to Schmitt, the subjective freedom of the individual in setting values is opposed to the “absolute value freedom of scientific positivism.” Schmitt sees a particular outcome, however. The world of individuals, all subjectively setting values that long for enforcement will produce a bellum omnium contra omnes. Indeed, for Schmitt, values set in subjective freedom are simply the “old gods” making war—and with new technological means. This is inherent in the logic of values. Value must be made valid. As a result, “[t]he boundless tolerance and neutrality of the arbitrarily exchangeable standpoints and viewpoints immediately turns over into its opposite, into enmity, as soon as it becomes a concretely serious matter of enactment and making valid.” But we already know that value “longs for enforcement and implementation.” Value inevitably leads to enmity.

As a result of all of this, Schmitt follows Nicolai Hartmann in speaking of a “tyranny of values.” “The higher value has the right and duty to subject the lower value to itself, and the value as such annihilates with right the non-value as such.” As a result of this, the value assumes a dominance over the individual who holds it. Schmitt is indifferent to whether this is psychologically unavoidable or unavoidable in itself. The bottom line is that “[i]n terms of value logic, it must always be valid: that for the highest value the highest price is not too high and must be paid.” As a result, the war of values becomes total war, without, as Schmitt goes on to observe, any of the traditional categories of just war (e.g., proportionality). There is only, Schmitt says, the annihilator and the annihilated. It is therefore the role of the supreme legislator to mediate this process and “to hinder the terror” of the enforcement of value.

Recently, there has been an ongoing debate in conservative circles (broadly defined) about state power and the extent to which the state should intervene decisively in social questions. This is for the most part the essence of the debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French. We see in Carl Schmitt’s account the incoherence of French’s position and the strength in Ahmari’s. In yielding to value philosophy, there is inevitably conflict. This conflict has to be managed and mediated by the legislator, lest the total war of values turn to technological weapons capable of achieving the distinction between annihilator and annihilated.

It is also worth noting here that Schmitt gestures toward the total state and the hero-leader when he observes that the lawgivers who have successfully mediated the enforcement of values (and hindered the terror associated with that enforcement of values) become “mythic figures,” such as Lycurgus, Solon, and Napoleon Bonaparte. In other words, the bellum omnium contra omnes unleashed by values requires a figure of mythic proportions to take things in hand. The notion that Judeo-Christian values lead to limited government is, in Schmitt’s account, simply false. Values require unlimited government to mediate the struggle between individuals holding strongly opposed values.

This too shows the dangers for Barr in thinking in terms of values. In the Notre Dame speech, he identifies at length the serious actions taken against Christians and other people of faith in the name of the new secular values that have displaced Judeo-Christian values. But this is necessary according to the logic of values. Inevitably, reducing these commitments to values leads to the enmity Barr laments. Value must be made valid, and this process results in total war. To re-enforce and re-implement Judeo-Christian values would not be an end to this war, according to Schmitt, but instead a new round.

Some thoughts about Francis’s “Querida Amazonia”

Francis has released Querida Amazonia, his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation following the 2019 Synod of Bishops meeting on Amazonia. Despite the extensive speculation during the Synod and afterward, Francis did not provide an obvious opening to married priests or deaconesses. The disappointment of his liberal interpreters, by and large self appointed, has been palpable. However, Francis did return to the themes of Laudato si’, his social encyclical, which dealt at great length with technology and ecology. Indeed, Querida Amazonia builds upon Laudato si’ in interesting ways, evoking not only Fr. Romano Guardini, long known as one of Francis’s most important intellectual influences, but also the hugely influential German philosopher, Martin Heidegger. The focus, therefore, on the questions of married priests and deaconesses is, therefore, missing a valuable opportunity to reflect on Francis’s serious philosophical and theological challenge to modernity, especially technology and globalization’s pernicious effects on tradition and traditional ways of life.


For the most part, the ecclesiastical-political dimension has driven the reaction to Querida Amazonia. It cannot be denied that Querida Amazonia is a disappointment: progressives in the Church have been agitating for some time for openings for married priests (sometimes referred to by means of the phrase viri probati) and deaconesses. The problem concerning deaconesses has been a long-running one for Francis. I think his commission studying the historical sources went through one round, issued a report, and then has been reopened in some dimension. The question of married priests—and the concomitant effect on priestly celibacy—predates Francis’s pontificate. However, because Francis is widely believed to be a progressive, there is renewed vigor in the demands.

Based on the Synod’s final report, there were very definite notions that he would open up the question of deaconesses in a broader way. Obviously the memories of Amoris laetitia are still fresh. (Of course, precisely why residents of Amazonia clamored for the two things that have lately been controversial in liberal Catholic spheres is a little unclear.) And reports in the press stoked this expectation. Indeed, shortly before Querida Amazonia was released, there was a definite report that Francis would endorse the ordination of married men. The report went so far as to allege that a draft exhortation had been sent to various prelates in advance of its release. But shortly before the document was released, there were other rumors that Francis would not even address the proposal. These latter rumors turned out to be true: Francis did not open the door to the ordination of married men. He did not even discuss the proposal in any detail.

Querida Amazonia is a second major bust for progressives. The first, Christus vivit, was Francis’s response to the 2018 Youth Synod. It was widely anticipated that this would provide an opening for reconsideration of the Church’s teaching about homosexuality in particular. Much was made, in pre-Synod surveys and in the working document for the Synod, of the fact that young people have difficulty understanding (or even outright disagreements with) the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. When Christus vivit was issued, however, no such opening appeared. Indeed, it was another entry in a long line of papal statements aimed at young people that are wholly uncontroversial.

It has been suggested that Robert Cardinal Sarah and, possibly, Benedict XVI’s intervention—a book in favor of priestly celibacy—had some effect on the Pope’s ultimate decision. Certainly, the book became a significant controversy, with the exact nature of Benedict XVI’s contribution challenged. The book seems to have had consequences for Francis’s government of the Church, with Archbishop Georg Gänswein, heretofore prefect of the Papal Household and Benedict’s personal secretary, being reassigned pretty much permanently to the latter duty. This appears to be Francis’s sanction for Gänswein’s murky role in the whole controversy over Benedict’s involvement. However, in recent weeks another possibility has emerged.

On February 19, Sandro Magister published a lengthy piece arguing that Francis’s decision was motivated by the ongoing issues with the German Church. Magister notes that the German Church’s ongoing “Synodal Way” is aimed—at least in the minds of some of its most prominent voices—at loosening the celibacy requirement for priests, finding some mechanism by which holy orders could be conferred on women, and blessing same-sex relationships. Magister details the series of interventions taken by Francis and his deputies in the Curia to rein in the “Synodal Way,” all of which have been politely received and subsequently ignored by the German authorities. Magister suggests that the silence of Querida Amazonia on the issues of viri probati and deaconesses is part of Francis’s attempt to deflate the German process.

An interesting sidenote: if Magister is correct, Walter Cardinal Kasper has been an important advocate against the German “Synodal Way” as it has developed. Kasper was more or less the villain of the 2014-2015 Synod that produced Amoris laetitia, though his profile has not been so high since the document was released. Magister suggests that Kasper raised the alarm in a way that other German prelates, such as Cardinal Müller or Cardinal Brandmüller could not, and subsequently helped Francis get a handle on the situation in the Church in Germany. It was with the assistance of Kasper’s consultation that Francis wrote his letter to the German Catholics, calling for caution and deliberation.

Whatever the reason for the decision, the self-appointed interpreters of Francis’s pontificate swung into action almost immediately. Francis’s apparent decision not even to refer to the final report of the Synod means that all of the issues in that document remain open. Francis, we are told, meant to present that document and guide its reception by the Church. Of course Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, let the cat out of the bag at the press conference presenting Querida Amazonia: in Episcopalis communio, Francis’s 2018 document reforming the Synod, there’s a mechanism for endorsing the final report and incorporating it into the pope’s ordinary magisterium (art. 18). Francis has not done so, which means that it has the weight of a Synod final document, whatever that may be.


Yet it is a disservice to the Pope’s vision to talk about Querida Amazonia in the narrow, concrete terms of what Francis approved or did not approve. As Matthew Walther has explained, Querida Amazonia is an extraordinary document. Francis returns to the themes of his great encyclical, Laudato si’, but this time by means of poetry and reflection. One is hard pressed to think of another papal document that contains phrases such as “this dream made of water” and “a dance of dolphins,” much less the copious references to poetry. Throughout the document, one detects the influence of Fr. Romano Guardini, who has long been an influence for Francis. One also detects other influences, such as Martin Heidegger.

I have often wanted someone who has a profound knowledge of Francis and Heidegger to write about the connections between the two. Both Laudato si’ and Querida Amazonia seem deeply influenced by Heidegger’s Essay Concerning Technology and his 1966 Spiegel interview, more commonly known as “Only a God Can Save Us.” Francis’s meditations on the traditional Amazonian way of life, affected by technology and exploitation, seem to have roots in Heidegger no less than Guardini. Even the turn to poetry in Querida Amazonia seems as though it is influenced by Heidegger, especially Heidegger’s emphasis on the poetry of Hölderlin. It is true that Francis does not explicitly cite Heidegger, either in Laudato si’ or in Querida Amazonia. In contrast, Francis has explicitly cited Guardini, especially The End of the Modern World. However, it seems strange—to me at any rate—that Francis would be familiar with Guardini’s writings on technology and man without also having some familiarity with Heidegger’s influential writings on the same topics.

A few examples may suffice. Consider the passage from the Spiegel interview: “Everything is functioning. That is precisely what is awesome, that everything functions, that the functioning propels everything more and more toward further functioning, and that technicity increasingly dislodges man and uproots him from the earth.” Compare this with Francis’s assessment of the historical situation in Querida Amazonia: “It is well known that, ever since the final decades of the last century, the Amazon region has been presented as an enormous empty space to be filled, a source of raw resources to be developed, a wild expanse to be domesticated. None of this recognizes the rights of the original peoples; it simply ignores them as if they did not exist, or acts as if the lands on which they live do not belong to them.” Francis appears to be describing in particularly evocative terms the same phenomenon Heidegger is describing. Indeed, in the Spiegel interview, Heidegger used similar terms to describe the process that took place in Provence.

Heidegger went on to say “I know that, according to our human experience and history, everything essential and of great magnitude has arisen only out of the fact that man had a home and was rooted in a tradition.” This statement could well be a summary of chapter two of Querida Amazonia, which includes Francis’s dire warning: “The globalized economy shamelessly damages human, social and cultural richness. The disintegration of families that comes about as a result of forced migrations affects the transmission of values, for ‘the family is and has always been the social institution that has most contributed to keeping our cultures alive.’” In this dimension, we see Francis’s profound conservatism. The globalized economy, for Francis, attacks directly the home and tradition in which man is rooted. Indeed, it attacks the most central element of the home and the tradition as Francis sees it: the family. By reducing individuals to mere economic variables and forcing them to migrate for various reasons, globalization (i.e., late-liberal capitalism) destroys those things that produce “everything essential and of great magnitude” as Heidegger would say.

One could go on in this vein, especially by means of the Essay Concerning Technology. It would be an interesting exercise to consider the similarities between Francis’s treatment of the Amazon and Heidegger’s treatment of the Rhine, especially by means of the poet Hölderlin. Of course, there have been attempts in the past to draw connections, especially via Guardini, between Heidegger and Francis. But I am not sure that I have seen a good, concise presentation, especially drawing upon Francis’s thought about technology. Given that the discussion about Querida Amazonia has been mostly about the concrete questions about what Francis did or did not do, I am pessimistic about whether anyone will take the opportunity to use the springboard presented by Querida Amazonia to write such a presentation.

The unedifying nature of the debate over Querida Amazonia becomes obvious though. Francis has offered the whole Church—indeed, the whole world—an opportunity to discuss issues that are at the very heart of the theological and philosophical tradition, both inside and outside the Church, since the Second World War. His contribution here, especially as a ground for further thought, is no less rich than the philosophical and theological contributions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. To take this opportunity and reduce it to a polemical, ideological confrontation about who did or did not “win” the Synod or who will or will not receive the prize of ordination is, therefore, a superficial response. Worse than that, it is a sign that it no longer really matters what Francis says.