By Patrick Ryan Cooper
Reclaiming the Church’s political homelessness is a matter of urgency today.
However, this affirmation of homelessness in no way annuls the immense breadth of her public commitment and witness. Rather than continuously seeking extrinsic accommodation and unmitigated compromise, the intrinsic search for her innate, public character requires broad, theological vision and an unrelenting commitment to praxis that is ultimately and unwaveringly grafted upon the folly of the Cross if we are to convincingly affirm the fundamental priority that as members of the mystical Body of Christ, we are first and foremost Christians and Catholics over and above, and at times even against, every other polity and national regime.
Crisis of Institutions and Shifting Ideological Landscapes
Having recently returned with my family to the US after living in Belgium for the past seven years, I, for one, acutely feel the dizzying effects of such homelessness on various levels. The truly bizarre political spectacle of American presidential politics has certainly been a rude awakening, dominated largely by the bumbling populist nationalism of Donald Trump. Above every insult and outrage, Trump's brash demagoguery has yet to demonstrate even the slightest impulse of governing in favor of the common good that would in any way interfere with his own private, commercial interests that he so regularly flaunts and ostentatiously puts on display. Adding to the voices of anxiety over a Trump nomination, Catholic neo-con voices have recently joined in the chorus, though the opposition that Weigel et.al. are making so baldly exposes their continuing attempts to reify the Church in service to a neo-liberal democratic polis, and so thoroughly aligned with the Republican party, that the very idea of reclaiming the Church's political homelessness itself is nothing but utterly abhorrent. Their theopolitical vision is both entrenched and waning─perhaps not all that dissimilar from the earlier “alliance” between the Church and the Democratic party decades earlier─and hence, they are vainly seeking to forestall the shifting ideological terrain that a Trump candidacy is currently ushering forth.
Homo adorans, homo politicus
Beyond however the immediate headlines of “walls” and “bridges” surrounding the recent exchange between Trump and the Holy Father, with the former accusing the pontiff as being a very “political man”, the greater substance of Francis’ response was brilliant in stating:
Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as a ‘homo politicus', a political animal. So at least I am a human person….
And so, in accord with the Holy Father’s statements, we must further qualify the assertion of man as intrinsically political with the necessary Augustinian rejoinder, “Which polis?” The city of man or the city of God?
For the 20th Century German theologian and Catholic convert, Erik Peterson (1890-1960) ─ and his profound Theological Tractates and his superb liturgical angelology, “The Book on the Angels” ─ the political homelessness of the Church reflects an utterly excessive, cosmic (and not merely “salvific”) historical view of the suffering Church as necessarily beyond political confinement and ideological capture. As a pilgrimatic community in-between “the earthly Jerusalem, which is at once polis and temple” and its “ever drawing closer to the eschatological, heavenly temple and its own…polis”, Peterson positions the ekklesia under a clear eschatological proviso. That is, a line of demarcation that at once bears witness to the ontic difference that frames ─ by way of exploding ─ the Church’s distinctly public act, the liturgy, as the site of a transversal commericum: an angelic participation within the earthly cult as well as her “participation in the worship that the angels offer to God.”
In this regard, Peterson's liturgical angelology has little immediate concern with reconstructing either Gregorian or Dionysian hierarchies and perhaps unique in this theological genre, he evinces strong apophatic tendencies ─ what von Balthasar described as Peterson's "ontology of performance" ─ within the liturgy's doxology as necessarily escaping both affirmative predication and political smuggling. (Keep in mind, this is mid-1930's Germany after all.) Rather, Peterson's interest in angelology is both multi-layered and at once counters its stark absence within both scholarly and popular approaches to the liturgy and by extension, recalls us to the liturgy's intrinsically public nature that doxologically explodes any and all idolatrous doubling in the secular political realm. In this, Peterson's angelic turn largely parallels another famous convert, John Henry Newman, who quipped in a famous sermon, "The Powers of Nature", that if the sin of the medieval mind errored too much in its exaggerated focus on the angels, "the sin of what is called our educated age…is just the reverse…to ascribe all we see around us, not to their [angelic] agency, but to certain assumed laws of nature. This, I say, is likely to be our sin….of resting in things seen, and forgetting unseen things, and our ignorance about them."
Furthermore, the very porosity that resists ideological capture simultaneously entails an absence of neutrality. And Peterson certainly does not have in mind a tit-for-tat between liberals and conservatives. Rather, he invites us to patiently recover the cosmic vision of the metaphysical struggle between the angelic and the demonic that transects the historical wherein the militia Christi is embedded in its own apocalyptic struggle that is neither apolitical or blithely escapist, but instead "inevitably stands either under the power of the Antichrist or the power of Christ." In other words, with Peterson, there is no logic here that could support accomodationist views of a "lesser of two evils". Constructively, a more radical Catholic option consequently emerges from Peterson's writings (though one in which he was not immediately aligned with) wherein the supernatural provides a critical contrast as both beyond, yet inseparable that expands and distinguishes the uniqueness of our political vision and commitments. The paradox, as seen in Peterson’s difference with the political theology of Carl Schmitt, demonstrates the necessary resistance of reductively capturing the Church within existing political discourse, though never apart from it either.
Peterson's angelology is heavily rooted in both liturgical sources as well as in the Fathers, as he himself was a notable Patristics scholar. The significance of angels, both cosmically and liturgically, attests to none other than the intrinsic nature of the Church's public nature at its very origins - irreducible and not to be confused with its later legal status - as not extrinsically conditioned by the State. "The relationship of the ekklesia to the polis in heaven is thus…also a political relationship, and on this basis the angels must always be present in the cultic actions of the Church." Peterson illustrates this point by drawing from the commentary of St. John Chrysostom, recalling that for the Eastern Father:
[T]he holy angels accompany Christ in his presence in the Eucharistic celebration that way that soldiers accompany a king, then we realize why they [ angels] appear in the holy Mass. They serve the purpose of making the Eucharist’s public character clear. As the emperor demonstrates the public character of his political authority when he appears in the company of his bodyguard, so Christ demonstrates the public character of his religio-political authority when he is accompanied by the bodyguard of the angels at holy Mass….[which is] public, official ecclesial and not a private processes.
However, we would minimize the significance of Peterson’s work by simply aligning him with some communitarian collectivist alternative to the State. Rather, his aims are clearly centered upon a greater recovery of the integral character of angelology and to “grasp clearly the role that the angels actually play in these ways of thinking” within the Tradition. For one, we see this in the intensely pregnant confluence of Peterson's theopolitical mysticism whereby his angelology mediates between the mystical and the liturgical, as the “mystical act of praise, as theologia” is “able to unfold only in inner linkage with the cult of the Church….which praises God with the angels and the whole of creation”. A proper angelology thereby facilitates this inner linkage, which is both profoundly cosmic, and yet entirely antithetical to attempts at naturalizing Christian faith. Instead, such angelic linkages aim to convey the dense realism and requisite worlding of claims within Fundamental Catholic approaches to the nature of Christian revelation. Again, not an immanent worlding that would contain such revelation, yet as the eschatological tearing open of “God’s eternal world” that acclaims O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf. Hence, a proper understanding of the angels not only act as the guarantor of the public nature of the Church's liturgical cultic actions that are beyond ideological capture, yet they do so precisely in attesting to the cosmic character of liturgical worship, without which humanity’s self-transcending praise would be solely self-reflexive:
The Church's worship is not that of a human religious society whose liturgy is tied to a temple. Rather, it is a worship that permeates the entire cosmos, in which sun, moon, and all the stars take part….It is always the entire cosmos that participates in the praise of God, though this is something that could not be conceived of had Christ's ascension not torn open heaven. The heaven of the angels is…the most central, the most spiritual part of the cosmos… the singing of the angels would never be permitted to disappear from the Church's worship, for that is what first gives the Church's praise the depth and transcendence that are called for by the character of Christian revelation.
In short, the excessive, non-reductive character of our liturgical praise and its mystical, transcendent depths both exceeds political capture, while simultaneously providing the very same grounds for our necessary, continuing public involvement. A proper angelology that facilitates these linkages by way of excess and porosity, thereby both resists the modern State’s continuing attempt to publically regulate and confine the Church as a private entity as well as helps her reenvision the Church’s innate public character in a distinctly ecclesial manner. Angelology is thus not a "poetic ornament left over from the storehouse of popular fables" for it stands for a porous ontological continuity, a transversal commercium between the metaphysical and the historical that likewise, by way of excess, ensures the ontological difference at the heart of the Church's pilgrimatic homelessness.
 See John Henry Newman, "The Powers of Nature", Sermons, vol. II, 358-9.
 Erik Peterson, "The Book on the Angels", Theological Tractates, (ed.) and (trans.) Michael J. Hollerich (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011) 135.
 Peterson, "The Book on the Angels",121-2.