On the passing of Dr. David L. Schindler. Some words from Dr. Rodney Howsare and Dr. Larry Chapp

November 17, 2022
In Memoriam
David L. Schindler's theology deserved and deserves a better reception from the academic guild than it has received. May he now Rest In Peace. Well done good and faithful servant.
It is with great sorrow that I heard yesterday from my former student, Dr. Rachel Coleman, that the great David L. Schindler had passed away. For those of my readers who do not know him, he was for many decades the editor in chief of the American edition of the journal "Communio: International Catholic Review". Communio was founded in the early seventies by Joseph Ratzinger, Henri de Lubac, and Hans urs Von Balthasar in order to be an international journal devoted to the promotion of the ressourcement school of theology and in order to combat the liberalizing theology of the journal Concilium. Dr. Schindler was an expert in that theology, and most especially the theology of Balthasar. But he was also more than that. He was a brilliant philosopher and metaphysician as well and brought his vast metaphysical insights to bear on the current situation in the Church and in our world. In particular, Dr. Schindler became a trenchant critic of modern political Liberalism and fought throughout his career to expose the errors of a reading of Vatican II on religious freedom put forward by John Courtney Murray. Murray wanted the Church to bless the American constitutional concept of the separation of Church and State and he distorted the teaching of Vatican II in Dignitatis Humanae in order to accomplish that end. David Schindler exposed this misinterpretation of the Council and fought tirelessly to place the Church's teaching within a proper Catholic metaphysical understanding of the relationship between nature and grace, God and world. Along these same lines, he was also a strong defender of the retrieval of the proper understanding of nature and grace as this was developed by Henri de Lubac. And in so doing he developed his own "theology of gift" that is, in my view, unrivaled as an explication of the trinitarian ontology of von Balthasar.
Dr. Schindler was also the President for many years of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington D.C. And it was during his time there that I first came to know him. He published my first professional article in Communio in the Summer of 1996 issue (which concerned Balthasar's development of a Marian subjectivity in our understanding of the ecclesial "subject") and then published four more of my ramblings in subsequent years. He also agreed to be the keynote speaker at a conference on Balthasar I sponsored at DeSales University in 1996 and then reprised the role in another conference sponsored by myself and Rodney Howsare. From there our friendship blossomed and he became a mentor to myself and Rodney, inviting us to numerous conferences and treating us like royalty. Rodney and I were successful at generating quite a few theology majors at DeSales and very many of our graduates went on to Graduate studies at the Institute, which only solidified our relationship with Dr. Schindler. And many of those students are now owners of a Ph.D. and are doing important work in the Church. And that work is the direct legacy of David L. Schindler.
Linked below these comments of mine is a much more substantive essay by Rodney Howsare which I publish here in lieu of my own musings since he perfectly expresses exactly what I think as well with regard to David Schindler's most important significance as a thinker. But I want to add one personal story to the one Rodney relates at the end of his essay. Some years ago I was attending a theology conference and was in the lecture hall listening to a speaker. David Schindler came late to the talk and scanned the room and saw me sitting in the very back row with some vacant chairs next to me. He pointed at me and walked over and sat down. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and settled in to listen to the lecture. It was a very dry lecture from some Neo-Thomist intent on making sure we all understood how "scientific" his theological method was. In due course Dr. Schindler fell asleep which I thought was amusing since I wanted to do the same. But when he began snoring I decided it was time to discreetly rouse him from his slumbers. So I gently nudged his arm and he woke up and looked at me with a grin on his face. He then leaned over and whispered into my ear: "Man, this is  some really boring shit isn't it? Nothing this boring can be true."
Yes it was.
Rest In Peace my dear and beloved friend. I owe you, along with the late Fr. Edward Oakes, everything.
Larry Chapp
And here is the essay from Dr. Rodney Howsare, Chair of the Department of Theology at DeSales University, and a true character in the best sense.

David L. Schindler, in memoriam

By Dr. Rodney Howsare

David L. Schindler passed away yesterday. His loss is an enormous one to the American Church and to the Church universal. His loss is also an enormous one to our intellectual culture, for his was a giant and capacious intellect. And his loss is an enormous one to those of us who knew him and loved him. He will be greatly missed. In what follows, I would like to honor his memory by explaining, briefly, his impact on my thought. I will only say enough about me in order to say three important things that Dave taught me.

It must have been in the mid-90’s when I read my first essay by Schindler. I was browsing in the periodical room of Marquette’s library and saw a fresh issue of Communio. I was not yet very familiar with the journal, but had recently discovered Hans Urs von Balthasar and decided to give it a look. If memory serves, it was a piece in which Schindler explained his differences from the “neo-cons” of First Things. This requires some backstory.

I came to Marquette in 1992, a Protestant who had just finished a M.A. in philosophy from a state university. Since I had decided to pursue a Ph.D. in theology, I had, basically, to begin my theology coursework from square one. During my M.A. program I had worked on Leo Strauss’s critique of Liberalism and his attempted revival of Platonic political philosophy. I was in way over my head, but managed to write a passable M.A. thesis on Strauss’s work. At the very least, I was now familiar with a thinker who was willing to call Classical Liberalism into radical question.

When I got to Marquette and switched my interests back to theology (I’d done my B.A. in theology), I was astounded over the degree to which Liberalism was simply assumed by just about every professor and student, and by just about everyone we read. Furthermore, our acquiescence went almost entirely unnoticed. While most of my classmates bickered about this or that point in a given work, I was often doubtful about the whole enterprise. And I found this unthinking acceptance of Liberalism even among the minority of the faculty who were “conservative.” None of this is to say that my fellow students and my professors weren’t as smart as me. On the contrary, the fact that many were my superiors in just about every other way made this problem even more perplexing.

Not knowing how to fit in at Marquette, I began reading First Things where I at least found a willingness to call into question many of the (unquestioned) assumptions of the liberal, American university (now with a small “l,” because the folk at First Things were still very much Liberals, and staunch defenders of John Courtney Murray). I guess I became a “neo-con,” if not a very convinced one. At the very least, the theology which First Things tended to favor was one rooted in faith in God’s self-revelation. And I deeply respected their willingness to swim against the current of the mainstream media and academy.

First Things’ deference to the teachings of the Church (except, I was to eventually find out, in matters of economics) never bothered me at all, insofar as what I had seen in thinkers like Schillebeeckx and Roger Haight was not an open-minded willingness to think for themselves, but an almost fundamentalistic commitment to modernity, or, more precisely, to the Frankfurt School. Garrigou-Lagrange’s deference to Neoscholastic Thomism was in no way more rigid than was Schillebeeckx’s deference to all things trendy-left. We all, that is, do theology as faith seeking understanding. The only question concerns what we place that faith in. Having already been exposed to the post-Liberalism of the Yale school and the hermeneutics of Gadamer and Ricoeur, Schillebeeckx’s Christ seemed positively quaint when I first read it: like D. F. Strauss with Marx sprinkles.  

It was in this context that I first read “big Dave,” as some of us have affectionately called him in order to distinguish him from his son. While I was familiar with MacIntyre’s work from my Master’s program, it hadn’t yet begun to have an impact on my thinking. So, it was Schindler who first made me realize the full impact of McIntyre’s quip that “Liberalism is the only meta-narrative that has convinced the world that it’s not a meta-narrative.” Even Strauss, after all, seemed willing to do his work within this (giant) bubble in many ways, for his Plato ends up just underwriting the legitimacy of the Liberal, secular state. At least as far as I can tell it does.

In fact, it was from Schindler that I first learned the point of something upon which now “little Dave” (his son) likes to comment. It’s a joke from Steven Wright which goes something like this, “I came out into my apartment one morning only to discover that all of my things had been stolen and replaced with identical replicas. When my roommate came out, I asked, ‘Did you notice that all of our things have been switched out?’ He responded, ‘Do I know you?’”

Liberalism does two things which are particularly pernicious and dangerous in David L. Schindler’s telling. First, it convinces us all that it is merely a political (juridical, pragmatic) arrangement, which makes no claims about matters of a theological or metaphysical nature, and within which we are all free to embrace whatever metaphysical and theological claims we choose. However, Schindler points out, once these ultimate metaphysical claims become matters first and foremost of private choice, separated from the way in which we order our lives together, separated, that is, from the very way in which we conceive of life together, they become something entirely different from what they, in fact, are. Like Steven Wright’s belongings, they are but false replicas.

Another way of saying this is to say that Liberalism and its institutions are the embodiment of a value (a social imaginary, to borrow from Charles Taylor) which fundamentally alters all of the things which exist within that order. This is why Catholics who live in Liberal orders can’t help but wish for the Church to look more like the State (from which it has allegedly been separated). It’s why “theologians” like Massimo Faggioli never get around to doing theology; like all good Liberals they are only capable of sociology and of sociological judgements. They say things like, “It used to be the bishops’ church; now it’s the church of the people,” and people like Michael Sean Winters get goosebumps. Sadly, the Raymond Arroyo’s of the world seem content merely to play Fox News to their CNN. It’s sociology all the way down.

The second thing Liberalism does is to borrow Christian “values,” only radically to transform them. And here, D. C. Schindler’s work on John Locke is indispensable, because Locke is a master of disguise and duplicity. Locke doesn’t want you to find out that he’s switched out your furniture, and so works hard to use classical language, all the while giving it an entirely new meaning. And this second move also helps Liberalism simply to disappear (to be a meta-narrative without looking like one). In this case it does so by seemingly handing on Christian values such as equality, freedom, rights, welcoming the “other,” caring for the poor, etc. But it does so, David L. Schindler shows us, only by distorting them, disembedding them from their natural soil and the things that go with them. (G. K. Chesterton anticipates much of this in Heretics and Orthodoxy.) Freedom gets separated from the good; rights get separated from natural ends and our natural obligation to God; the person gets separated from nature; mechanical nature gets separated from nature qua nature; equality gets confused with sameness and becomes the opposite of hierarchy; poverty becomes a merely economic category; religious freedom gets cut off from our natural obligation and orientation to the True and the Good; etc.

But Liberalism does yet a third thing that must be added to the two above, and this, too, was brought to my attention by Schindler: it sells us a different history. In the Christian telling, world history occurs within God’s decision from all eternity to create and then unite all things to himself in Christ Jesus. As Maximus the Confessor reminds us, God creates the essences of all things in the light of the lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world. Or, as Thomas Aquinas puts it, "The coming forth of creatures outside of God is grounded in the coming forth of a person within God; for just as a craftsman first conceives an idea in his mind and then produces articles modeled on the idea, so the Son issues from the Father before creatures do, and creatures are called sons because they share in the likeness of Son and Father, predestined to be made conformable to the image of the Son."

Secular Liberalism, on the other hand, places the story of Christianity (and apparently the Christian God) within the broader story of secular (in the modern sense of the word) history. As such, Christianity becomes one of the many paths by which human beings try to find transcendence and meaning. As humanity matures, according to this story, strict attachment to a single approach or truth, such as that found in classical Christianity, gives way to a recognition that all religions and worldviews are just equally tentative attempts to encompass that which always exceeds our grasp (I mean, not the grasp of the Liberal, but of everybody else). This is why Liberals love the story of the three blind guys who, having stumbled upon an elephant, all only manage to describe it in partial (and just so far, false) ways: as a tree, as a snake, as a spear, etc. In order to dialogue with the world, then, the Liberal Christian has to put his Christological claims in brackets in order to join his fellow human beings on a more humanistic foundation, and apparently a pre-linguistic one. As Terrence Tilley once told the Catholic Theology Society of America (and I paraphrase): “Let’s put our Christological differences aside and get busy making the world a better place.” The crowd was all goosebumps.

I was heartbroken last night to hear of Dave’s passing. A former student, who also wouldn’t be who she is today were it not for Dave, called to tell me. In spite of the fact that I never formally studied with him, I have always seen him as my chief mentor. And that in no way makes him responsible for the mediocrity of my work. It is sad that he often had to trek his path alone. It is sadder that he never received the recognition he deserved. He was a truly brave man, a tireless defender of things deeply unpopular and just as deeply true.

Finally, he always made time for nobodies like myself, and made us feel more important than we were. One time, at a high-profile, theological event, filled with a who’s who of theologians and philosophers, Dave spotted my friend Larry Chapp and me in the crowd. He immediately got up from where he was sitting and plopped himself next to us—two professors from a rinky-dink, undergraduate college in the middle of nowhere, two guys unknown to most of the people in the room—and acted as if we were his guests of honor. I hope what I have written above does honor to his memory. He merits our remembrance and our frequent prayers. And his work merits our closest attention, now more than ever. May he rest in peace and his legacy live on.

Related Posts

No items found.

Subscribe to the Blog

Thank you! Your submission has been received!

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form