This is a recycled and revised post. I wrote the original version a couple years ago for a blog I used to run. I thought it might prove informative for readers of this blog, so I’m re-posting here.
Heidegger’s influence on 20th and 21st century Catholic thought is well known and well documented. Without a doubt the most famous Catholic Heideggerian is Karl Rahner, whose theology, it is widely agreed, has – so far – had the deepest impact (for better or worse) on the post-conciliar Church. Besides Rahner there are also, among others, Johannes Baptist Lotz, Gustav Siewerth, Max Müller, and Bernhard Welte. More recently, there is Jean-Luc Marion, who, despite his criticisms of Heidegger, is very much under Heidegger’s sway, especially with regard to this conception of and critique of “metaphysics.”
But Heidegger himself had been raised Catholic. His father was the sexton at their parish, St. Martin’s, in the town of Meßkirch in southwestern Germany, some fifty miles south of Tübingen.
Heidegger entered the seminary at Konstanz as a teenager and at twenty entered the Jesuit novitiate at Feldkirch in Austria, lasting all of two weeks – the official reason for his departure was poor health – and eventually transferring to the seminary in Freiburg and studying at the university there. During this time, 1909-1911, Heidegger also penned articles and reviews for a conservative Catholic journal called Der Akademiker.
The Heidegger of this period was a fierce opponent of theological modernism. In a laudatory 1910 review of F.W. Förster’s Autorität und Freiheit published in Der Akademiker he wrote:
In order to keep faith with her eternal store of truth the Church is right to strive against the destructive forces of modernism, which remains blind to the utter contradiction between its modern view of life and the ancient wisdom of the Christian tradition.
In 1911, again for health reasons, Heidegger left the seminary and his theological studies but remaining at the university in Freiburg, turned his attention to mathematics, natural science, and philosophy. He completed his doctoral dissertation in philosophy in 1913 and his Habilitationsschrift in philosophy in 1915. The doctoral dissertation was on the theory of judgment in psychologism and the Habilitationsschrift was on Duns Scotus’s theory of the categories and meaning. (Actually, part of Heidegger’s Habilitationsschrift was unwittingly on Thomas of Erfurt, whose Grammatica speculativa was at the time attributed to Scotus.)
Heidegger comments on the dissertation and the Habilitationsschrift in a 1915 curriculum vitae:
My increasing interest in history facilitated for me an intense engagement with the philosophy of the Middle Ages, which I recognized as necessary for a fundamental development of Scholasticism. For me this engagement consisted not primarily in a presentation of the historical relations between individual thinkers but rather in an interpretive understanding of the theoretical content of their philosophy with the aid of modern philosophy. Thus my investigation into Duns Scotus’s Theory of Categories and Meaning came about.
My basic philosophical convictions remained those of Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy. With time I recognized that the intellectual wealth stored up in it must allow and demands a far more fruitful evaluation and application. So in my dissertation on “The Theory of Judgment in Psychologism,” which concerned a central problem of logic and epistemology and took its bearings simultaneously from modern logic and from the basic judgments of Aristotelian-Scholasticism, I tried to find a basis for further investigations.
Heidegger obviously shows signs here of having grown more comfortable with modernity. He is interested in a kind of synthesis of scholasticism and modern thought. John van Buren calls this Heidegger’s “Neo-Neo-Scholasticism” (The Young Heidegger, pp. 52-58).
But from around 1917 Heidegger began to move away from Catholicism in the direction of Protestantism and especially Lutheranism. This according to a 1919 letter of Edmund Husserl, who in 1917 had only recently become acquainted with Heidegger at Freiburg. However, Husserl regarded Heidegger’s drift toward Protestantism as being guided more by intellectual interest than a religious commitment.
Why had Heidegger become disenchanted with Catholicism? He explains this in a 1919 letter to a Catholic priest and friend Engelbert Krebs:
Epistemological insights extending to a theory of historical knowledge have made the system of Catholicism problematic and unacceptable to me, but not Christianity and metaphysics — these though in a new sense.
Abandoning Catholicism, what did Heidegger hope to find in Lutheranism? This is hard to say. It is probably the case that Heidegger was more interested in Luther himself than his movement. Whatever motivated Heidegger’s initial attraction to Luther, it seems that by the early 1920s he saw in the reformer’s writings, to simplify to the extreme, important clues about the practical nature of intentionality, which is always driven by “care” (Sorge), or so one might gather from the lectures and letters of the period.
There is certainly much more to be said about Heidegger and Catholicism, but I do not have time for it at the moment. As I said at the beginning of this post, Heidegger’s influence on Catholic thought is well known and well documented but the influence of Catholicism on Heidegger’s own thought is often overlooked. I think that this is a very fruitful field of inquiry. For those who are interested in this influence there are several books that contain some very good studies of it: Hugo Ott’s Martin Heidegger: A Political Life, Theodore Kisiel’s The Genesis of Heidegger’s Being and Time, John van Buren’s The Young Heidegger: Rumor of a Hidden King, John Caputo’s Heidegger and Aquinas: An Essay on Overcoming Metaphysics, and S.J. McGrath’s The Early Heidegger and Medieval Philosophy: Phenomenology for the Godforsaken. Robert Vigliotti’s unpublished Fordham Ph.D. dissertation, Martin Heidegger’s Earliest Writings, also has helpful material.
I close with some intriguing retrospective remarks of Heidegger written in 1938 (or 1939?) – i.e., a decade after the appearance of Being and Time – in a book entitled Besinnung that was not intended for publication (but which has since been published as vol. 66 of the Gesamtausgabe):
And who would not want to recognize that a confrontation with Christianity reticently accompanied my path hitherto, a confrontation that was not and is not a “problem” that one “takes up” to address, but a preservation of and at the same time, a painful separation from, one’s ownmost provenance: the parental home, homeland, and youth. Only one who was so rooted in an actually lived Catholic world may be able to have an inkling of the necessities that like subterranean quakes have been at work in the pathway of my inquiry hitherto. Moreover, the Marburg period offered a profound experience of a Protestant Christianity — all of which as what had to be overcome from the ground up but not destroyed.
It is not proper to speak of these most inward confrontations since they do not revolve around issues that concern the dogma of Christianity and articles of faith, but rather only around the sole question: whether God is fleeing from us or not, and whether we, as creating ones, still experience this flight genuinely.