Must Catholics Hate Hegel?

Among the vanishingly few things that command agreement among Catholics is that Hegel is a bad idea. Divergent, even mutually antagonistic, Anglophone Catholic circles such as Concilium, Communio, and paleo-Thomism hate Hegel because they see him as dodgy, corrosive, or just plain heretical. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a figure at once more disdained and less read by Catholics than him.[1]

A recent piece by C.C. Pecknold offers a near perfect object lesson.[2] Its title, “The philosopher who poisoned German theology,” blazons its intentions. The German Church’s problems—empty pews, a vocation shortage, administrative tumescence, liberal bishops—are, Pecknold argues, in large part the consequence of a theological decision. German theology summoned the wrong doctor to its bed to dress trauma-wounds inflicted by the Enlightenment: none other than G.W.F. Hegel. But Hegel’s salves only deepened the damage. And German theology’s wounds fester still. To be sure, Pecknold’s not altogether interested in Hegel. He is rather interested in genealogy, in locating the poison tree who bore German Catholicism’s bitter fruit—particularly certain elements of its prelates’ proposal on the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried.[3] But along the way, he often gets Hegel (and others) plain wrong.

First, Pecknold likens Hegel’s thought to a “heresy . . . the spiritualism of the 12th-century theologian Joachim de Fiore.”[4] Old hat and true enough. Sometimes—around dusk, when shadows grow long and faces dim—Hegel’s apocalyptic thinking resembles Joachim’s (IPH, LPWH, PS §§778–9).[5] But Pecknold appears uninterested in, or unaware of, these moments. He seems unaware, too, that they have little to do with the position that actually earned Joachim censure at Lateran IV.[6] Pecknold’s point, it seems, aims to find Hegel guilty by heretical association. But he fails exactly to the extent that Hegel’s family resemblance to Joachim bears no blood relation to Joachim’s actual heresy.

Next, Pecknold shades into a second charge, one neither Joachim, nor his epigones, endorsed. “For the Hegelian,” Pecknold writes, “God suffers with, and changes, precisely through the sin and suffering of his creatures”—a suspect claim.[7] To defend it, Pecknold quotes a passage from Hegel’s 1827 Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: “As [Hegel] puts it, suffering ‘is a moment in the nature of God himself; it has taken place in God himself’.” Suppose we grant that the passage advances a first-order theological claim (it does not). Even then, Pecknold obscures Hegel; his Hegel often smacks more of Moltmann, process theology, or Feuerbach—a concoction of all, maybe. His set-up already misleads: Dies [ist] ein Moment does not refer to suffering as such. Instead, it recalls the sacrificial “sublat[ion] of the natural” that Christ’s cross reveals. If Hegel somewhere endorses patripassianism, it is not here. Quite the opposite, really: he is arguing that the cross shows Christians that its victim must somehow bear an infinite personal difference from the Father in “the eternal movement that God is.” Whatever else the cross teaches us, it demands at least that Word not simply be Father. Maximus Confessor says much the same, but more anon.

Perhaps it is inevitable that Pecknold’s stride should trample Hegel underfoot. After all, editorials are hardly hospitable to patient readings of difficult texts, let alone Hegel’s. But then why mention Hegel at all? In his hurry, Pecknold has shown Hegel neither a heretic nor the Puppenspieler behind the German prelates’ proposal at the Synod on the Family. Instead, he has mounted a doxographic argument by adjective:

  1. Hegel is somehow but obviously heretical;

  2. liberal German bishops and their proposals are somehow Hegelian;

  3. therefore these proposals are suspect.

This formula is hardly unique to Professor Pecknold. Many others brandish it. But why? Scrubbed of specious genealogy, Pecknold’s questions are good and difficult on their own. Gifted theologians (like him) should (like he does) thrum with anxious anticipation at them. But for Catholics, that anticipation is best tinctured with prudence. Or so Humani Generis §43: “With regard to new questions which modern culture and progress have brought to the foreground,” Pius XII counsels, “let [teachers in ecclesiastical institutions] engage in most careful research, but with the necessary prudence and caution.” Perhaps Hegel belongs to the rogues’ gallery at long last. But showing that, or showing it the way Pius XII thinks Catholics should, requires “careful research” conducted with the “prudence and caution” that Pecknold’s editorial on Hegel is missing.


Still, other Catholics read Hegel according to Humani Generis’s rubric for research—slowly, deeply, without the glitter of spectacle.

William Desmond and Cyril O’Regan, for example, have expended great effort critiquing Hegel. The result is a body of work that raises properly theological or philosophical concerns about Hegel’s texts (and not just the history of his reception). So when Desmond or O’Regan brood over Hegel’s understanding of the Trinity, say, or creation, or evil, or the eschaton, they do what Catholic theologians or philosophers ought to do. Their method too is Catholic: their judgments over Hegel are hard-won, slow-cooked, and text-based—just as Humani Generis prescribes.

But even these luminaries seem curiously gloomed by Hegel’s shade. There is a palpable, almost anxious, urgency about their negative verdict against Hegel’s use for Catholic theology. He is not just wrong about this or that. He is corrupt to the core. In nearly every conceivable way Hegel’s speculative philosophy erects a “counterfeit” god, a “Doppelgänger” of the original. He is “heterodox” to such a degree that it is an “impossibility” to read not just his principal writings, but his entire oeuvre in a Christian manner.[8]

At times the rhetoric even slips into the realm of ill intent. Hegel’s speculative retelling of the biblical narrative “masquerades as authentically Christian and masks its anti-Christian bias and ethos.”[9] He “articulates nothing less than a kind of post-Christian Christianity that exists as a kind of Trojan horse within the representational discourse of Christianity.”[10] O’Regan sympathizes with von Balthasar that “in the end Hegel is a seducer,” whose very manner of speaking constitutes “a mode of theological discourse that has to be resisted at all costs.”[11] Hegel lures us into “a bewitchment,” Desmond warns, “complete with the god that we have created for ourselves to adore, and the becalmed bewitchment feels it no longer needs to go beyond itself.[12]

What exactly is the trouble with Hegel? O’Regan, for instance, musters specific complaints. Hegel’s account of creation nearly identifies finitude with evil, or peddles an illicit creatio ex Deo in place of the more traditional ex nihilo. There is plenty to worry over with regard to the first, rather less over the second (after all, it is fairly evident that Christians like Victorinus, Gregory of Nyssa, Dionysius, Maximus Confessor, Eriugena, and others held highly speculative but licit versions of ex Deo). Or, perhaps Hegel treats Christian narratives and symbols a bit too much like portals to higher, less serially fixed truths (though we should also admit this problem is as endemic to Christian tradition as any—more a recurrent disputatio for Christian theology than some sure sign of heterodoxy).

Still, Desmond and O’Regan agree that Hegel’s gravest vice is intellectual presumption. His unfettered desire to know, his assurance that the speculative concept (Begriff) will and must finally obliterate the absolute barrier between God and world, the infinite and the finite, transcendence and immanence, and indeed all difference whatever—this presumption kindles Hegel’s “unholy zeal”[13] to master God and Being by cognition, to effect the “deletion of mystery.”[14] O’Regan and Desmond lend their voices to a great chorus of critique that perceives in Hegel only the “self-certainty of speculative thought,” indeed the very “height of hubris.”[15]


Hegel himself worries at another form of presumption, one he calls “certainty against the spirit.” Strange as it seems, Hegel forged his speculative logic precisely to oppose philosophical presumption—mostly Kant’s. For Hegel, the trouble with Kant lies not with his critical philosophy. No, the trouble is that Kant is not critical enough. Kant uncritically assumes, Hegel thinks, that thought remains fixed within a logic of absolute opposition. Immediate versus mediate, infinite versus finite, subject versus object, faith versus reason—the understanding cannot think one without its other (CPR A485/B514–A490/B518). We know the Ding an sich [thing in itself] only as unknowable, as that which eludes our grasp. Hegel wants to know exactly how Kant knows all this. How, for instance, does Kant know for certain that what is a priori and so subjective cannot also prove objective? Here Kant’s very attempt to scrupulously police the boundaries of thought betrays a deep presumption. Kant has somehow mapped an unnavigable trench before he’s crossed it (EL §§41–2). Better and more philosophically critical, Hegel thinks, simply to confess that we do not know precisely where reason’s limits fall.

Yet Hegel’s reasons for opposing Kantian presumption are not philosophical only. He often laments that moderns after Kant have lost theological nerve. Here again, their hand-wringing over presumption itself dares to contradict “the teaching of Holy Scripture that our highest duty is not only to love God but also to know God [Jn 8:32; 1 Cor 8:3]” (LPWH 85).

Therefore, presuming courts certainty “against the spirit” (or Spirit), and for at least two reasons.

The first is subjective. For Hegel, “faith” is just the revelation to the human spirit that its self-reflexive character derives from God’s own. As he puts it: “this knowledge on the part of the subject is a relationship that issues from God; and, as issuing from God, it is the absolute judgment that God is as spirit for spirit.” Like a seed, the gift of faith must grow and develop. But, and this point is crucial, the refusal to develop faith into knowledge of the truth mangles faith into a “certainty against the spirit.” It presumes that spirit must choose one determination (the immediate intuition of the Romantics, say) over another (mediation through knowing). Here again we are interred inside the logic of opposition: the gift of grace seems incapable of giving life to both determinations, of being the Spirit. A confident and preemptive limitation on knowledge is a presumptuous denial of the work of the Spirit within (EL, Pref. to the 3rd Edition).

Christian faith also presumes a definite object of knowing and believing: the incarnation of God. This is the second, objective theological counter to Kantian presumption. For Hegel, the event of the incarnation shows up the limits of Kantian antinomy. The logic of opposition knows only human spirit’s seclusion from God (and God’s from it); it knows God as abstract infinity and “mere beyond” of all things. But in the incarnation God proves both himself and humanity more intensely concrete than their abstract opposition first allowed. God showed himself utterly indifferent to or unconstrained by finitude. He not only made himself into an individual human spirit; he embraced the “frailty” and “weakness” of human mortality (LPR, pt. 3, n. 199 [W2]). The incarnation, that is, provided the condition and disclosed the final form of human reason itself, the speculative concept. The Word became the “monstrous unification of absolute extremes,” the “God-man.” And this first gave to human consciousness the promise of an infinite thinking that might exceed the abstract oppositions of understanding in a still greater and more concrete truth. Hegel plainly identifies this as “the mystical” of Christian tradition (EL §82, add.).[16]

Hegel even teaches that thought could not anticipate the incarnation. Only its event reveals its logic:

The necessity [that the divine-human unity shall appear] is not first apprehended by means of thinking; rather it is a certainty for humanity. In other words, this content—the unity of divine and human nature—achieves certainty, obtaining the form of immediate sensible intuition and external existence for humankind, so that it appears as something that has been seen in the world, something that has been experienced (LPR III, 454–5).

Christ is for Hegel so much “the soil of certainty” that every narrative detail—his birth, life, teaching, death, and especially his resurrection—explicates “the divine nature itself” (LPR III, 456–65). In the incarnation God shows himself neither mere infinite nor mere finite spirit, but the concrete identity of both at once. And he becomes their identity, notice, without obliterating their essential difference. So testifies his resurrection, anyway. This proves to human spirit that God in himself, in eternity, must also exist in such a way that absolute identity and difference are sublated. In Christ, they are concretely one.

Hegel’s issues with Kantian presumption, then, might be read as inexorably theological. For Hegel, only God finally shows us what our reason is. Thus, Hegel can simply reverse the charge of intellectual presumption: the claim to know and so police the outer limits of human reason as it is transfigured by divine revelation is itself a species of intellectual presumption. After absorbing this insight is it not odd to see how certain Hegel’s Catholic readers are that Hegel's intellectual sin is always being certain?


What if some of us Catholics were to find Hegel’s response to their charge convincing, what then? Does this commit us to heterodoxy—Joachite, Gnostic, or otherwise?

Not obviously. At least some Christians, exotic yet orthodox, say things quite like Hegel. Alexandrian Christians like Hegel conceive faith as the necessary seed that sprouts true “philosophical” knowledge of God. Like him Clement of Alexandria denies that faith derives from autonomous “nature” and insist that it is a gift, the very presence of God within us—and let us not misremember that he says this precisely to distinguish himself from Gnostics like Valentinus (Strom. II.3, V.1). Faith takes as its concrete object the historical, incarnate Word: “I give you the Logos,” Clement has Christ declare, “the gnosis of God; I give myself wholly to you. For I am he, and this is what God wills” (Protr. 120.3).

Or, take Hegel’s second point that God the Logos’s incarnation revealed the final form and content of reason, divine and human. Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus Confessor, among others, teach that the incarnation demonstrated divinity’s power to surpass the putative boundaries of finite and infinite “nature”—that there is more to God, as it were, than God’s sheer nature (Amb 2.6). Christ is neither “mere man” nor “naked God” (Amb 5.3), writes Maximus, but indeed the concrete identity “to a supreme degree of the natural distinction” between divinity and humanity, infinity and finitude, eternity and mortality (Opusc 16). Indeed Maximus sounds very like Hegel when at Amb. 37.8 he says that:

Inasmuch as He transcends the present and the future, He transcends both type and truth, for He contains nothing that might be considered contrary to Him. But truth has a contrary: falsehood. Therefore the Word in whom the universe is gathered transcends the truth, and also, insofar as He is man and God, He truly transcends all humanity and all divinity.

Anyhow, the point here is neither to rebrand Hegel as Alexandrian Christian nor to acquit him of the suit his Catholic detractors bring against him. Nor again is it to perform the “careful research” of Hegel Humani Generis requires. The point is rather to tender a plea, or several: Is it possible for Catholics to perceive in Hegel more than a wholesale misremembering of the long and wide Christian tradition? Dare we reread Hegel as remembering, or at least helping us to remember, basic and perennial tensions in our own dogmatic theology—perhaps some we would rather forget altogether? Must all Catholic theology hew to the Irenaean, anti-speculative form? Must it reject all others as Gnostic pretenders? Must deference to theo-drama meet Hegel’s questions with only the genteel “shhhhh!” of theater etiquette? Doesn’t shushing presume total mastery over how or where a Catholic must and must not appreciate truth? Are we so sure we have plotted the boundaries of Christian mystery?

Almost 30 years ago, one of Hegel’s Catholic readers prophesied that:

It is not unreasonable to hope that the first image of Hegel that Catholics received [Staudenmaier’s] will in time be replaced by a more realistic one—drawn not from the preconceptions of what a Catholic philosophy should be, but from a desire to know what Hegelianism can contribute to Catholic self-knowledge.[17]

It is by no means clear that this prophecy has yet come to pass, not least because so few Catholics think it possible for Hegel to enrich Catholic thought.[18] Yet those among us callow enough to harbor hope that he may must wonder: May Catholics learn from Hegel? Must his lessons prove wholly cautionary? Or, might they help us resurrect Catholicism’s own speculative genius?

[1] Nicholas Adams diagnoses the problem with dispatch and wit in his “Why Theologians Hate Hegel.”

[2] Consider also Pecknold’s longform of the same.

[3] Both the short and long versions distill insights from Thomas Heinrich Stark’s piece for Catholic World Report. Stark argues more ably—if not finally persuasively—that Kasper’s proposal on Eucharist for the divorced and remarried betrays undue influence of German Idealism. The connection is at least debatable: a perfunctory read of Kasper’s Habilitationschrift on F.W.J. Schelling reveals an anti-Hegel bias.

[4] Its loudest (though hardly its first) advocate was de Lubac, whose redoubtable final work—his best, Balthasar thinks—keys Hegel’s epochal parsing of history to Joachim’s. See La postérité spirituelle de Joachim de Flore, 2 vols. (Paris/Lethielleux: Namur, 1979–1981). De Lubac there details what Karl Löwith and Balthasar already intimated long before.

[5] De Lubac details these in the first volume of La postérité, 363–371.

[6]Joachim charged Peter Lombard with a quaternity because he denies that God begets God (Sent., that essence begets essence (Sent., and that substance begets substance (Sent. Lateran IV sided with Peter Lombard against Joachim, but also against Richard of St. Victor (trin. 6.22). The second canon of Lateran IV that names and condemns Joachim for this error is in fact remarkably tame, even deferential.

[7] It is not clear how Pecknold’s account (“God simply is the unfolding of history”) explains Hegel’s claim in his Lectures on the Existence of God that “it is only our knowledge of the absolutely necessary being that is conditioned by the starting point. The absolutely necessary does not exist by raising itself out of the world of contingency and requiring the world as its starting point in order that, by starting from it, it first attain to its being.”

[8] O’Regan, The Heterodox Hegel; idem, “The Impossibility,” 76, and 84: “Harris leaves the interpreter in the following position: It is possible to be a Christian and a Hegelian, but not a Christian precisely as a Hegelian. Conversely, it is possible to be a Hegelian and a Christian, but not a Hegelian precisely as a Christian . . . By a very different route from Kierkegaard’s, Harris gives credence to Kierkegaard’s either-or: Christianity or Hegelian speculative philosophy.”

[9] O’Regan, Anatomy, vol. 1, 154.

[10] O’Regan, “The Impossibility,” 70.

[11] O’Regan, Anatomy, vol. 1, 131–3.

[12] Desmond, Hegel’s God, 206.

[13] D.C. Schindler, “‘Wie kommt der Mensch in die Theologie?’ Heidegger, Hegel, and the Stakes of Onto-Theology,” Revista Espanol de Teologia 65 (2005): 451–9.

[14] O’Regan, The Heterodox Hegel, 31–43.

[15] O’Regan, Anatomy, vol. 1, 521. The chorus, a rather motley crew: not only theologians like Karl Barth and Balthasar, but “postmodernists” (Heidegger, Derrida, Levinas) and their theological counterparts (Marion, in a sense), leftists (Marx, Feuerbach), and philosophers like Eric Voegelin and Erich Przywara.

[16] Astounding, then, that a keen mind like Hans Urs von Balthasar can accuse Hegel of presumption even where recommending Hegel’s own Christological ground for our final and complete gnosis of the God: “In Jesus’ finitude, and in everything that is given with and which pertains to his form, we hold the infinite. As we pass through Jesus’ finitude and enter into its depths we encounter and find the Infinite, or rather, we are transported and found by the Infinite. Indeed, through the mysterious dialectic whereby Jesus’ external, spatially and temporally conditioned finitude is transcended (which is the condition for the coming of the Holy Spirit), but transcended in such a way that it is replaced by the ‘eternal finitude’ of Jesus’ resurrected flesh, all that is interior, invisible, spiritual and divine becomes accessible to us”; from von Balthasar, GL 1, 150, our emphasis.

[17] Lawrence S. Stepelevich, “From Tübingen to Rome: The First Catholic Response to Hegel,” The Heythrop Journal 32 (1991): 490.

[18] Recent exceptions apply and include at least Charles Taylor, Daniel Jamros, SJ, and Quentin Lauer, SJ. 19th century exceptions are more numerous.

Featured Image: Hans Kugler, Hegel vor seinen Studenten am Katheder, 1828; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.


Jordan Daniel Wood and Justin Shaun Coyle

Jordan Daniel Wood is a PhD candidate in historical theology at Boston College.  Justin Shaun Coyle is a PhD candidate in historical theology at Boston College. They are currently working with University of Notre Dame theologian John Betz on a translation of F.W.J. Schelling's (Hegel's rival) Philosophy of Revelation. 

Read more by Jordan Daniel Wood and Justin Shaun Coyle