Remembering David L. Schindler's Radical Vision

Professor David L. Schindler (born September 16, 1942), long-time Dean and Provost at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, died on November 16, 2022 after a battle with Alzheimer’s. While the more recent death of Pope Benedict XVI spawned something of a pop-up industry of obituaries, op-ed debates about his legacy, and buzzfeed-esque lists noting so-and-so’s “Top 10 Ratzinger Reads,” Schindler’s passing was noted seemingly by only a relative few who had the pleasure to read his work or to have studied under him directly (sadly, this author only had the pleasure of reading).

Schindler’s most enduring legacy will likely be both his work at the John Paul II Institute and his tenure as the editor-in-chief of the English language edition of the journal Communio, a position which he occupied from 1982 until his death.

Over the course of a long and quietly influential career Schindler, who held the Gagnon Chair of Fundamental Theology at the North American Session of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, investigated a vast array of some of the most urgent and controversial cultural problems of our day at their deepest metaphysical roots. It is at that level where he has sought to judge these problems “in the light of faith in the Trinitarian God of Jesus Christ and the concrete, sacramental, and ecclesial form that faith must necessarily take.”[1]

As a professor of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family (a position he held prior to the institute’s Franciscan reconstitution), Schindler’s academic focus was ultimately pastoral—meaning that he was concerned with helping articulate the meaning of and possibilities for the universal call to holiness, that perennial Christian teaching which was proclaimed again with new vigor and clarity at the Second Vatican Council, and which was championed by Pope St. John Paul II. Schindler was a fierce opponent of any effort to establish a dualism between pastoral and dogmatic theology wherein faithfulness to Christ’s teaching as articulated by his Church and pastoral care are pitted against each other in a zero-sum competition, which he saw as the height of bourgeois mediocracy. His work is thus exemplary of the unity of theology and sanctity called for by his theological master and friend, the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Schindler was concerned ultimately with what he saw as the culture’s loss of the memory of God.[2] His academic work centered on the specific problems that face people of faith today, which in his context meant specifically within the realm of North American liberalism. Thus, he composed essays that examine seemingly all areas of modern life, from politics and economics, to science and technology, education, bioethics, quantum physics, ecology, and much more, all with a view of getting to the deepest possible root of things, and uncovering the often implicit or hidden metaphysical presuppositions upon which certain aspects of culture operate.

One aspect of Schindler’s critique of liberal modernity, what he considered to be its dominant form, focused on the Catholic response to and adoption of liberal structures in the areas of culture, politics, and economics. In addition to a long-standing engagement with and refutation of the work of Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray on the topic of religious freedom, in the 1990s Schindler’s cultural critique was sharpened in a thoroughgoing and long-standing debate against Catholic neoconservatives Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel.[3]

These authors, and others associated with their flagship publication First Things, proposed a compliant model of engagement with North American liberal culture which presumed that the cultural, political, and economic forms operative within American society were neutral vis-à-vis the Gospel. Different to its explicitly bloody European cousin, American liberalism, so it goes, is more peaceable and thus, empty of metaphysical values, it is a fine vehicle to transport the Gospel. The neoconservative stance presumed that the cultural structures under consideration operated within in a purely natural realm, containing no real theological or metaphysical values, and thus they argued for a position that would see Catholics working to infuse discreetly Catholic values on top of already functioning metaphysically neutral cultural systems and forms.

For Schindler however, this neoconservative mode of engaging with culture betrayed a fundamentally extrinsicist view of the relationship between nature and the supernatural, which was not only erroneous as a matter of theological fact but would lead to the voluntarizing of the faith, relegating faith to the realm of mere subjective value. Despite claims of metaphysical neutrality, Schindler demonstrated that American liberal culture contained within it, always already, a thick though hidden and therefore unexamined metaphysics characterized by a radical individualism, atomism, or nominalism.[4]

For Schindler then, the notion of simply seeking to adopt secular cultural forms as though they were metaphysically and morally neutral and then adding some Catholic sprinkles on top not only misunderstands the universal claims made by the Gospel but enacts the very kind of practical atheism that John Paul II warned against. “Liberalism,” argues Schindler,

including its most benign forms [here he is specifically referring to the Anglo-American derivative], fails to take account of the receptivity implied in being-from-the-divine-Other, and thus slides ipso facto into a wrongly self-centred view of the person . . . . This self-centredness is by definition a-theistic: not so much because of an explicit exclusion of God as of a (largely unintended) failure to integrate the constitutive relation to God into the first meaning of all creaturely being and action.[5]

While Schindler engaged the work of Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel on matters of politics and economics, he developed a critique of the liberal model of the academy.[6] Again, for Schindler, the liberal model of the university is not some neutral fact to which a gloss of Catholic values can be added. He wrote:

Catholic universities may have theology departments that are faithful to the teaching of the Church, dormitory life that is a model of morality, campus chapels that are full of prayerful worshipers, and community organizations that energetically serve the most vulnerable and most afflicted in our society. All of these things are indispensable for a college or university that would be vibrantly Catholic. But the point is that none of them yet informs us what specifies a Catholic institution as a university. To have a Catholic university, in other words, it is necessary (also) to develop a Catholic mind.[7]

As Schindler saw it, if the claims of the Catholic faith are indeed true, then there is a particularly Catholic manner by which we must engage in all of reality, including our investigations of it. Thus, he would likely have argued for a Catholic physics, or a Catholic mathematics, or engineering, or literary critique, not in any extrinsicist manner, i.e., he would not have us learning math by simply counting out the cubits of Noah’s Ark. Rather, his point would have been that there ought to be a certain inner disposition towards reality that should animate the Catholic’s engagement with the world. All things should be viewed in light of the dynamic of gift and receptivity that exists at the heart of the communion of Uncreated Triune Being, and which exists analogously in all of created being. This has proven difficult for many to comprehend, particularly in light of the fact that the very ambiance of the culture within which we live is so deeply imbued with the very pragmatism and nominalism that Schindler seeks to uncover.

Schindler argues that liberal modernity effects a certain secularization of the intellect, which he describes as being animated by a Cartesian “principle of simple identity.” By simple identity, Schindler refers to a “principle according to which x, whatever be the content of x, has its identity in itself, apart from or outside of relation to non-x . . . the relation of x to non-x is first external; x and non-x are first turned in on themselves, closed to each other.”[8] As he demonstrates in a great many essays, it is the precisely mechanistic logic that undergirds modernity in its dominant liberal form and which effects the practical atheism mentioned above. The features of this simple identity come to expression in several different ways, as Schindler describes, “the assumption (however tacit) of the principle of simple identity leads to patterns of thought marked by extroversion (turning outward, staying on the surface), power, domination, and fragmentation.”[9]

He then goes on to demonstrate how this logic of simple identity, when taken as a first-order principle by which to understand reality usurps the totalizing claims of the Gospel. And so, in place of this mechanistic logic of simple identity, Schindler proposes a relational onto-logic, a sanctified logic of intelligence, which by contrast “has as its hallmark relation (identities always already in relation). This,” he says, “implies giving primacy to the features of openness and interiority (relation implies openness from within of x to non-x).”[10] This saves the achievements of mechanistic thinking, without reducing all of reality to merely the sum of its parts. According to Schindler, “a logic of relation, of identities-in-relation, unfolds into a pattern of thought characterized first and essentially by love: by interiority, by receptivity and response, and by integration.”[11]

Schindler’s thought stands as a high point in the development of a metaphysics of gift, beginning with St. Thomas, and developing through the twentieth century, through Erich Przywara, Ferdinand Ulrich, Hans Urs von Balthasar, as well as other interlocutors such as Kenneth Schmitz, W. Norris Clarke, and George Parkin Grant.[12] Sadly, however, there is no one monograph penned by Schindler where all this is unfolded systematically—his published books are usually occasional papers brought together and lightly edited for continuity. Instead, his metaphysical thinking, which is both incredibly robust and coherent, is worked out often in response to the pressing pastoral and cultural issues that require his attention.

Schindler’s work is not beyond criticism, and anyone familiar with any of the engagement that his work has found will likely be familiar with two primary concerns that are almost immediately raised, the first being that his proposal is something dangerously sectarian, triumphalistic, or perhaps in more recent times, integralist; the second, that Schindler’s work operates exclusively in the realm of ideals, i.e., that what he is proposing is merely idealistic, and as such doomed to failure in the real world.[13]

To take the first of these, it would seem that Schindler’s recourse to and reliance on the Catholic doctrines of creation, redemption, and of the sacramental nature of corporeal being, not to mention the central role of Mary, opens him up to the first criticism mentioned above—that what he offers is a throwback to times when there existed considerable barriers between Catholics and Christians of other denominations, not to mention people of other faiths, or none.

Those offering such a critique would seem to be asserting that there is some kind of neutral ground free of metaphysical and theological claims that could bring people of all faiths and none together. To this Schindler would respond that such a critique in fact betrays a certain acceptance of liberal principles to begin with.[14] The very nature of Schindler’s argument is that such a neutral space does not, and cannot exist. As he argues,

In the end no free act is neutral toward God. Having always–already been invited by God to a spousal union, the creature is no longer, in its being or its actions, without relation to God: the creature can act for God or against God, but it can never, even for a moment, act as though it were without a destiny for spousal union with God. Of course, the creature need not be fully conscious of rejecting God for its actions to imply a rejection of God. This is an extremely important point relative to Anglo-American liberalism, with its claim of “empty” freedom.[15]

Schindler, in fact, does not advocate sectarian divisiveness but instead calls for honesty in assessing one’s own first principles.

The second criticism is perhaps a far more common and simple critique, and thus seemingly more powerful: that Schindler’s vision is merely idealistic. Such criticism is often posed simply as an exasperated question: “What then is to be done?” Schindler’s work, perhaps due to its theoretical rather than pragmatic nature, is branded as idealistic and an impossible ask.

This was the general critique of the neoconservatives, and seemingly remains the critique offered by commentators such as George Weigel, who dismisses the work of Schindler and others of the North American Communio set as simply impracticable. But again, this seems to miss the point that Schindler is trying to make—worse, it seems to negate the real possibility of holiness. The Gospel, as Schindler would say, is not an instruction guidebook to earthly success. Rather, it calls for a wholesale recalibration of our notions of success—taking the cross of Christ as our standard. Holiness—the truth of our being—is, by the grace of Christ’s redeeming power, very much a concrete possibility for the human person (Veritatis Splendor §103).  

Schindler’s is an “all or nothing” doctrine. “If we as Christians accept the ontological force of the Incarnation,” he argues, “then we must consider [that] . . . things have their being only in relation to Jesus Christ and to all else in Jesus Christ, then of course they can have health and wholeness of being only in relation. They can be properly understood, from the beginning and finally, only in relation.”[16]

This, then, is Schindler’s radical vision—how he understands the meaning and implications of both St. Paul’s admonition to “hold every thought captive to Christ,” and his teaching that “Christ is all and in all” (See 2 Cor 10:5; Col 3:11).

[1] Nicholas. J. Healy and D. C. Schindler, “Introduction,” in Being Holy in the World: Theology and Culture in the Thought of David L. Schindler, ed. Nicholas. J. Healy and D. C. Schindler (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), xi.

[2] See David L. Schindler, Ordering Love: Liberal Societies and the Memory of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011).

[3] See the essays collected in the volume David L. Schindler, Heart of the World, Centre of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism and Liberation (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1996). See also, David L. Schinder, “Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity: An Interpretation of DH on the Right to Religious Liberty,” Communio: International Catholic Review 40, no. 2 (2013).

[4] David L. Schindler, "Faith and the Logic of Intelligence: Secularization and the Academy," in Catholicism and Secularization in America, ed. David L. Schindler (Huntington, Indiana: Communio Books, 1990), 182. See note 7.

[5] David L. Schindler, “Communio Ecclesiology and Liberalism,” The Review of Politics 60, no. 4 (1998): 775-86 at 76.

[8] Schindler, “Faith and the Logic of Intelligence,” 172–73.

[9] Schindler, “Faith and the Logic of Intelligence,” 173.

[10] Schindler, “Faith and the Logic of Intelligence,” 173.

[11] Schindler, “Faith and the Logic of Intelligence,” 174. Emphasis mine.

[12] For a masterful summary of the contours of the development of a metaphysics of gift which details the contribution of each of these authors, see chapter four of Michael Taylor, The Foundations of Nature: Metaphysics of Gift for an Integral Ecological Ethic (Euegene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020), 118­–202.

[13] Beyond these critiques, a more robust and challenging critique of Schindler’s account of the categories of being, gift, and self-gift was offered by Prof. Michael Waldstein of Ave Maria University. See Michael Waldstein, “Constitutive Relations: A Response to David L. Schindler,” Communio: International Catholic Review 37, no. 3 (Fall) (2010). See also Schindler’s thoroughgoing responses David L. Schindler, “Being, Gift, Self-Gift: A Reply to Waldstein on Relationality and John Paul II's Theology of the Body (Part One),” Communio: International Catholic Review 42, no. 2 (2015); David L. Schindler, “Being, Gift, Self-Gift: A Reply to Waldstein on Relationality and John Paul II's Theology of the Body (Part Two),” Communio: International Catholic Review 43, no. 3 (2016).

[14] See David L. Schindler, “‘The Religious Sense’ and American Culture,” Communio: International Catholic Review 25, no. 4 (1998): 688–89.

[16] Schindler, “Faith and the Logic of Intelligence,” 176.

Featured Image: David L. Schindler giving the CUA McGivney Lecture in 2020, screencap from YouTube video of the event, Fair Use.


Thomas V. Gourlay

Thomas V. (Tom) Gourlay is the National Director of Chaplaincy and Faith Formation, and Lecturer in School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He is the president and co-founder of the Christopher Dawson Society for Philosophy and Culture (Inc.) and an Associated Scholar for the Hildebrand Project.

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