The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 19, 2018

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Schindler, David
Jeremy Beer - 11/23/10
Lifespan: (1943– )

Academic dean and Edouard Cardinal Gagnon Professsor of Fundamental Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, editor in chief of the Anglo-American edition of Communio: International Catholic Review, and one of his generation’s most sophisticated and penetrating critics of liberalism, David L. Schindler and his work have served as an alternative locus of orthodox Catholic engagement with American culture—alternative, that is, to the favored approach and themes of the dominant Catholic neoconservatives.

Schindler took his B.A. and M.A. in philosophy at Gonzaga University before obtaining his doctorate from Claremont Graduate School in religion in 1972. He taught at Mount St. Mary’s College and Seminary before taking a post in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 1979, where he taught until 1992, when he left for the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C. Schindler became editor in chief of the quarterly theological journal Communio— a product of the Papal Theological Commission of the early 1970s that was led by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, Karl Lehmann, and Henri de Lubac—in 1982. Communio was first published in 1972 in German. The first American edition was published in 1974, with James Hitchcock as editor and Schindler as assistant editor, and was followed by other international editions over the years. Today, Communio is published in seventeen different languages. The Anglo-American edition counts among its editorial board members and contributing editors religious thinkers such as Stratford Caldecott, Louis Dupré, and Aidan Nichols.

In a number of articles and especially in his important book, Heart of the World, Center of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism, and Liberation (1996), Schindler has attempted to articulate, in ontological and theological terms, how and in what ways the project of Catholic neoconservatives like Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel—sometimes referred to by him and others as the “John Courtney Murray project”—is insufficient and ultimately untenable. The proponents of this project maintain that, if understood correctly, there is no fundamental incompatibility between liberalism and Catholicism, which view consequently allows them to adopt an optimistic or (in the terminology of theologian Tracey Rowland) “Whig” view of liberal economic and political institutions, particularly as those institutions have developed in the American context.

Schindler is not, as his opponents sometimes fail to comprehend, a restorationist, integralist, or theocrat. Rather, as he is at pains to point out, his critique of the neoconservatives (or, more accurately, neoliberals) rests on certain fundamental philosophical-theological differences. For instance, drawing on de Lubac and Balthasar, Schindler believes that the neoconservatives subscribe (perhaps unwittingly) to a misunderstanding of natural law that implies an extrinsic model of the relationship between nature and grace, as if grace is something “extra” that God adds on to a preexisting and self-sufficient nature. For this reason they tend to see economic relations, for instance, as something “natural” that ought to be restrained, where necessary, by Catholic social teaching, but not transformed and reshaped by it. Likewise, Schindler believes that the Catholic neoconservatives too readily accept the claim that liberal institutions and technology are “neutral,” rather than having an interior logic of utilitarianism and indeed atheism. And he has criticized Catholic neoconservatives for interpreting Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals, especially Centesimus Annus, as endorsing the assumptions undergirding American-style consumer capitalism.

Though Schindler could rightly be characterized as a conservative in that he is a non-utopian, prudent antiliberal, his focus is not on politics but on the transformation of culture through interior transformation. Besides Balthasar, de Lubac, and Wojtyla, an emerging influence on Schindler’s cultural criticism in the last decade has been the work of the farmer-writer Wendell Berry, who argues persuasively that the “key to understanding contemporary American culture lies in its homelessness: homelessness, that is, understood first not as an affliction of a discrete group of people living in the streets, but precisely as the modern condition of being.”

Further Reading
  • Bandow, Doug, and David L. Schindler, eds. Wealth, Poverty, and Human Destiny. Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2003.
  • Rowland, Tracey. Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Schindler, David L., ed. Catholicism and Secularization in America: Essays on Nature, Grace, and Culture. Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1990.
  • ———. “Homelessness and the Modern Condition: The Family, Evangelization, and the Global Economy.” Logos 3, no. 4 (2000): 34–56.
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