The Subversive Christocentrism of David L. Schindler: A Personal Reflection and Two Testimonials from Former Students
The Subversive Christocentrism of David L. Schindler:
A Personal Reflection and Two Testimonials from Former Students
Larry Chapp, Julia Buterbaugh and Rachel Coleman
“If there's a word that captures the character of David Schindler ("the Elder"!), it is "stalwart". From our days playing one-on-one basketball (his memory has now been properly refreshed so he knows that even though he was by far the better player, my unstoppable left-handed hook shot dominated), to his founding of the theological journal Communio, to his indispensable role as founding Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, he has been an intrepid defender of the Faith. We've lost a jolly warrior of Chestertonian stamp (both in wit and in girth). May he hear those words: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’.”
Father Joseph Fessio, S.J.
I have already posted one testimony to Dr. David L. Schindler (who passed away recently) by my former colleague Dr. Rodney Howsare. The funeral for Dr. Schindler is this Friday, December 2 at Saint Jerome’s in Hyattsville Maryland. I would ask all of you to pray for the repose of his soul.
I decided that I wanted to send out a blog post with a few more tributes to his legacy and I asked two of my former students (and Dr. Schindler’s) to write a short piece in his honor. The first is by Julia Buterbaugh and the second is by Dr. Rachel Coleman. I am also including a short little paragraph in Dr. Schindler’s honor from Father Joseph Fessio S.J., which is the epigraphical quote above.
I will begin with a few more words of my own. There is a reason why I am now devoting two blog entries to Dr. Schindler’s memory that goes beyond my own personal sadness at his loss. And that reason is the sheer importance I ascribe to his theological legacy as one of the finest examples of a ressourcement theologian in the English speaking world. There is a grave danger that this theology is going to be eclipsed as Pope Francis continues to embolden the worst elements of the progressive wing of the Church and to thereby red-pill the conservative wing, driving many former “John Paul II Catholics” into the waiting arms of the radical traditionalists. The extremists on both ends of the binary are rising and the center does not hold.
To his credit Pope Francis, in a recent interview in America magazine, has bemoaned this increased polarization in the Church. However, there is scant evidence in his papacy that he really means this as he empowers the caterwauling Catholic Left with its shrill denunciations of all forms of pre-2013 Catholicism, even as he disembowels the last remnants of “JP II Catholicism”, labeling anyone who might have a problem with that as “backwardists”. I bring this up not to heap coals of hellfire on the pope’s head, but to underscore just how problematic the current polarization in the Church is and how deeply rooted it is in the humus of the ecclesial garden. It is a polarization that, sadly, begins at the top and which has now worked its way down into almost all areas of the Church. It is also a polarization that is custom made for the puerile superficialities of the internet which now acts as a balkanized echo chamber for the pitchfork and torch mobs of both the Right and the Left.
And for me personally, it is all sadly reminiscent in a very real and nearly literal way, of the theological debates that raged in the Church in the decades immediately following upon the Council. It is a recrudescence of the same old tiresome debates which argues strongly for the fact that these debates are interminable and unresolvable because they never were properly theological debates in the first place, but political, moral, and cultural debates under a different name. And more to the point, they are debates that are insufficiently Christological which renders them otiose in the long run to any serious attempt at plumbing the depths of Revelation.
What this revival of the old post-conciliar binaries shows us, at least in part, is that the stability that Pope John Paul, and then Benedict, brought to the Church was never really all that deep. Volatilities remained, but now a bit submerged and sub rosa, as anyone involved in academia (as I was) or in ministry can tell you. The resistance to those two pontificates was fierce which made it very difficult for them to implement fully their ecclesial vision. The Catholic Academy in particular, although showing signs of a profound renewal in some quarters, was still largely dominated by autocratic Lefties who made it their mission to make life miserable for young scholars who did not think within the categories of the theological atheism of liberal Catholicism. To be sure, there were good young scholars emerging here and there from doctoral programs at places like Notre Dame and Catholic University. And even once in a while there emerged some solid folks from the turgid waters of Jesuit institutions like Fordham (where I got my doctorate) and Marquette (where Dr. Howsare got his). But by and large the Catholic academic world was one of the last redoubts for the refugees from the seventies who were biding their time and keeping their powder dry.
In the midst of this emerged Dr. David L. Schindler who took over editorship of the North American edition of Communio: International Catholic Review in 1982 and quickly established Communio as a ressourcement beacon of light within the degraded discourse of Catholic academia. Of course, Communio was largely ignored by both the progressives and the emerging neo-con wing of the Church neither of which had the time, patience, or intellectual acumen for the kind of deep metaphysical thinking that Schindler knew the moment required. He understood that the crisis of modernity – and thus the crisis of the modern Church – was a crisis of faith the roots of which were profoundly spiritual, theological, and metaphysical. He therefore rejected the “Murrayite” project of the neo-cons as a doubling-down on deeply flawed metaphysical first principles that no amount of Peggy Noonan speeches, Reagan aphorisms, or encomiums for democratic capitalism would fix. He understood therefore that the entirety of modern American culture, politics, economics, and foreign policy were tainted at their roots by a de facto atheism under the guise of a purely “neutral” anthropological understanding of freedom.
For this he was roundly criticized as a “pie-in-the-sky” metaphysician/theologian and portrayed as the very quintessence of an out of touch Ivory Tower intellectual who did not understand the rough and tumble of the really-real world of cul-de-sac consumerism. The neo-cons needed to baptize their corporate sponsors as latently Christian entities owing to the communal (sic) nature of their organizational structure and their manifestly moral (sic) commitment to the pecuniary common good, and Schindler opposed this as superficial and profoundly lacking in a Catholic foundation. Apparently, according to his critics, Schindler had missed the saintly nature of DuPont, GE, Disney, Boeing, and a host of other sanctified corporate enterprises, and was content to live, as one prominent neo-con once told me, in his naïve “metaphysical fog while the rest of us are out fighting real battles.” Which is a telling remark since it unselfreflectively and instinctively identifies the “real battle” as a fight for the confluence of Catholicism and the kerygma of “The American Way of Life”. David Schindler, in their eyes, was insufficiently obsequious to that evangel and stubbornly clung to his theological belief that if Christ is Lord, then Caesar is not, even if the current Caesar has the comelier visage of John Locke on its political and cultural coinage.
It goes without saying that Schindler was also disliked intensely by the Catholic Left, but for different reasons. The “open zipper” ethic of liberal Catholicism also had no time for theology grounded in a sound metaphysics since that would require abandoning the liberative praxis of the libido-Kingdom and its valorization of the collective of concupiscence. And that Kingdom has its own sacraments in abortion, contraception, the bio-tech reproductive revolution, the sex and gender revolution, and the LGBTQ+IA+++EIEIO revolution. And it was this progressive Catholic denial of the formal and material “givens” of human nature – givens that had been beautifully explicated by JP II in his encyclicals and Wednesday audiences where he developed the “theology of the body” – that spurred Schindler on to carve out a special focus at the John Paul II Institute on bioethical issues that were analyzed from within the categories of a strongly ressourcement orientation. Specifically, that meant the development of a christological and pneumatological Trinitarian ontology with a relational “gift-reception” understanding of both Creation and the economy of salvation, which, of course, involves an explication of the deep relation between nature and grace as well. Of course, progressive Catholics have no time for such fine theological parsing and view it all through a purely political lens as just so much “conservative” verbiage.
What needs to be pointed out at this juncture is that Schindler took these positions against both the neo-con Right and the technocratic/libertine Left, not out of any knee-jerk anti-Americanism or an old fashioned Manichean anti-sex animus, but because they were the logical consequence of the ressourcement theology of people like Ratzinger, Balthasar, de Lubac and John Paul. And this is a key point that cannot be overstated. Herein lies the deep and ongoing significance of what David Schindler stood for and carried forward his entire career. In many ways his theology dealt with these false binaries by simply ignoring them and transcending them by returning to the deep sources of Revelation. Communio has been criticized by some for not addressing the binaries directly and for expositing Revelation without reference to the various ecclesial “issues” that were embroiling the Church. But this was not due to any inadvertence to the controversies at hand but was rather a deliberate choice to subvert them by showing that they were controversies generated by an insufficient christological orientation from the get-go. That they were false controversies generated by a degraded theological anthropology.
Therefore, what Schindler’s theology exposes is the non-subversive nature of both binaries which are trapped within the categories of a cultural matrix whose defining characteristics are ultimately rationalistic in an Enlightenment register and which only allow Christ into the conversation so long as the christological focal point fits within Liberalism’s false understanding of freedom. As such, Schindler’s theology is far more subversive to the reigning cultural order than are the political categories of Left and Right. Both the neo-con fantasy of a crypto-Catholic America and the progressive Catholic baptizing of the sexual revolution involve an embracing of Liberalism’s false anthropology. And they may claim that this is unfair and that they do indeed challenge aspects of that Liberal narrative, but even if that is true (and it probably is to an extent) insofar as both approaches are insufficiently christological and both approaches fail to develop a properly Catholic trinitarian ontology and both fail to outline a nuanced understanding of the nature/grace, God/world dynamic, then they both fail as subversive and liberative moments in a truly counter-cultural way. They both swim downstream of the dominant culture and thus lack a proper eschatological focus on the relativizing nature of the Christian evangel.
The great legacy of Schindler therefore is the deeply subversive nature of his gift-reception, relational trinitarianism and his profound understanding that only in the light of the Word made flesh can we fully understand the nature of human existence. In an interview I did the other day with Dr. Roland Millare I was alerted to a quote from Schindler that appropriately summarizes my point:
“Sexual relations hollowed out into their material shell become lustful manipulation; political relations hollowed out into their material shell become brutal power; market relations hollowed out into their material shell become hedonistic consumerism; and music and architecture governed by the laws of such market relations become noise and harsh ugliness.” (“David L. Schindler, Grace and the Form of Nature and Culture,” in Catholicism and Secularization in America: Essays on Nature, Grace and Culture, ed. David L. Schindler (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1990), 30.)
All of this is why I started this blog. All of this is why I champion ressourcement theology as the most authentically radical expression of Catholicism in the modern world. Many have asked me how I can be devoted to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement and still embrace theologians like David Schindler who they mistakenly take to be an “apolitical” thinker. But Dorothy Day was a devoted follower of ressourcement thinkers since she too understood that the best “politics” is the broader politics of the Kingdom of God. She understood therefore that there is nothing more subversive to the toxic ideology of secular modernity than the christological claim that “Jesus is Lord” and all of the theological/cultural entailments that follow in its wake.
Therefore, I can think of no better tribute to my dear friend and mentor, David L. Schindler, than to carry forward the ressourcement theological project he so ably pursued his entire life. Rest in peace my friend. Your work was not in vain and those of us who remain for a time, until we meet again, will ride on your broad theological shoulders like ants on an elephant, trying our best to serve the same Christ to whom you devoted your entire life.
Dorothy Day and David Schindler, pray for us.
And here is the reflection from Julia Buterbaugh:
Reflection on David L. Schindler (1943-2022)
"Freedom is at root a natural, ultimately God-centered, personal act of love, even as love properly understood is a natural, ultimately God-centered, personal order of truth. Freedom and truth are therefore united in what is at once an act and an order of love."
David L. Schindler, Ordering Love: Liberal Societies and the Memory of God
It's hard to put into words what any person means to another. Dr. David L. Schindler meant so much to so many and I was privileged to be included in that number. For me he was not only a professor, but also a mentor and father figure throughout my graduate academic studies.
Dr. Schindler was a brilliant metaphysician. Love for the Truth echoed in his being. During my experience at the John Paul II Institute, a time of personal and academic challenges, he continued to emphasize the importance of living the Truth in its authenticity, no matter the circumstance in which you find yourself. This was Dr. Schindler's sincere desire for all of his students.
I first encountered Dr Schindler through Dr. Larry Chapp. a professor of mine when I was an undergraduate at DeSales University. Dr. Chapp observed my eagerness and desire to study and learn theology, and gave me a number of writings by Dr. Schindler, encouraging me to consider the Institute for graduate school. Before I had even met Dr. Schindler, I was struck by the truth I encountered in his words. To unpack the meaning of the world being created in, through and for love and seeing all of reality and all of being as "gift" was life-changing for me. I couldn't wait to dive more deeply into his thought through graduate study at the Institute.
I was eager to meet Dr. Schindler but also nervous about meeting such an intellectual giant whom I had admired from afar. What I encountered was a man who was not just intelligent but real and human with a generous heart and great sense of humor. Even as a student, he never made me feel that I didn't have something to offer him intellectually. Dr. Schindler had a presence that was palpable and drew so many to want to just listen to his words. At social events the Institute offered, you could always find a group of students sitting around having conversation with him. And it wasn't just the profundity of what he shared, but the fatherly and loving presence that he brought that showed how much he allowed the truth to permeate every aspect of his life.
Two particular moments of my time at the Institute really stand out. One of these moments took place after a class that I was taking in the Master's program. A bioethical issue had come up in conversation with a friend and I was unsure how to respond. I approached Dr Schindler after class to get his perspective on the matter. Instead of just giving me a heady intellectual reply, he looked visibly pained by the nature of the question and the fact that it had to be asked. I could see in him visible suffering at the way humanity's rejection of God had manifested itself. It was clear from his response how deeply this affected him not just on an intellectual level but more so on a personal and spiritual one. This underscored for me that philosophy and theology weren't just intellectual pursuits for him but truly acts of love. As a young student, this had a profound impact on me, and how I viewed my studies.
The second moment with Dr. Schindler that stands out for me occurred when I was making the extremely difficult decision to leave the Doctorate program. I scheduled a meeting with him and was nervous about about how Dr. Schindler might respond to my decision, fearing that he would either try to convince me to stay or that he would be disappointed in me. Instead, what I encountered in that meeting was a father who showed me love and encouragement. Dr. Schindler said that his only desire for his students was that they were living the truth in its authenticity even if it meant they were scrubbing floors for a living. He assured me that I could leave that day and that I would always have a home at the Institute. It was such a beautiful moment for me and gave me the freedom to make the right decision. Dr. Schindler also told me that I was welcome to stay and love the rest of the semester for what it was, without the pressures of academia. I chose to stay for the remainder of the semester. What a beautiful way to end my academic time at the Institute. Every time I came back for a conference or lecture, I always felt completely welcomed back by Dr. Schindler and the other professors.
I'm so grateful for Dr. Schindler's mentorship and how he gave me the freedom to pursue what I believed God was calling me to do. This man was the real deal.
I'm deeply saddened but grieving with hope that he will be welcomed into the arms of our Lord.
Rest in peace, Dr. Schindler, may the Angels lead you into Paradise.
And now last, but not least, is the reflection from Dr. Rachel Coleman:
David L. Schindler: A Testimonial
By Dr. Rachel Coleman
I was twenty years old when I met David L. Schindler for the first time. A junior at DeSales University, I had been attending the Communio study circle there for about a year at this point when Larry Chapp and Rodney Howsare asked if I’d like to go to New York City with them to see a presentation and panel on the book Without Roots, co-authored by Joseph Ratzinger and Marcello Pera. Schindler would be on the panel and Larry and Rodney, I think, wanted to go to see him more than anything else.
When we were introduced, DLS, as many of us refer to him, greeted me warmly, and we were all chatting for a bit when a woman walked up to DLS and told him about a criticism that had been published about him that day on some website—First Things, if my memory serves. It came down to something like his criticism of Liberalism was too-extreme or off-base; DLS engaged with this woman for a bit and then the presentation began.
Marcello Pera was there to give the presentation and I was trying to pay attention, but it was difficult to do so since DLS was practically radiating energy from three seats down: bent over the table, writing furiously—crossing out words and writing new paragraphs on his typed-paper—knee shaking up and down and altogether not entirely ‘with’ Pera, so to speak. I leaned over to Rodney and asked, “what is he doing‽” Rodney responded, with a laugh,
“I think he’s rewriting his presentation in light of the criticism he was just told!”
Rodney was right. And DLS’s were the best, most insightful words I heard all night.
I am one of the students Larry Chapp and Rodney Howsare ‘sent down’ to the John Paul II Institute from DeSales, now an “owner of a Ph.D.”, and as Larry put it in his short memoriam, my “work is the direct legacy of David L. Schindler.” It has become clear to me over the years that almost every substantial relationship in my life can trace its lineage back to DLS. Rodney was absolutely correct: I would not be who I am today without DLS. I think this is true for many of us. He was the reason so many of us were in the John Paul II Institute’s orbit, whether as students, professors, or friends. He was the pillar. As such, it is difficult to imagine life without him.
I had the privilege of not only being DLS’s student, but also working with him for the better part of a decade at the journal Communio. There is much to say about DLS—there is a reason tributes are pouring out. I’m sure more will come. I’m not sure anyone will be able perfectly to capture his impact—both on those who knew him and those who did not. His work and thought have already borne much fruit, and I know with certainty this will continue—indeed, my students, totally unbeknownst to them, are beneficiaries of DLS’s life. There is too much to him—he was larger than life, to use a hackneyed phrase that somehow still rings true when applied to him—to say, probably ever, but certainly so soon. And so I’d like to focus on one aspect of DLS—both his person and his thought—that I think influenced everything else: that is his love.
Anyone who ever encountered DLS could not miss two things about him: he was devastatingly intelligent and incisive, and he was damn funny. I’ve noticed in most of the tributes thus far, the authors can’t help but include a story of a joke he told or a witty remark he made. Indeed, in all the conversations I’ve had about him for the past week, those are the stories being told the most. And I think it’s because the two qualities I just mentioned are not just related, but intrinsic to each other—his intelligence and his humor came from the same place: a clear and penetrating gaze on and understanding of the world as it is, rather than some personal or private version thereof. That is to say, DLS could see reality, in all its depth and beauty, but also in all its brokenness. He always brought clarity and profundity to a discussion, and often after he spoke, one thought to oneself, “oh right, that’s obvious.” Except it hadn’t been obvious—it was only after he stated something clearly and profoundly that one had the benefit of thinking his point was obvious all along. And that penetrating gaze on reality often led to devastating critiques: about the world, Liberalism, the American political scene, or the Church (and, as both his student and employee, occasionally, my own work).
We live in a broken world—DLS was acutely aware of this—and thus it and all of us in it need to hear criticism and judgments about how out of line we are with the true, good, and beautiful. But an incessant diatribe about the state of the world can and does become onanistic and gluttonous, no matter how smart one is. True critique and judgement, rather than self-aggrandization, can only be made in love and in the hope that all things will be made new. It was only because DLS’s critiques were thoroughly saturated with love that they could be fruitful. His love was the source of his criticism, and it was also the source of his humor.
Cyril O’Regan writes about Balthasar (as opposed to the self-serious Hegel) that he sees that humor everywhere witnesses to humility and evinces the Christian confidence that the mystery to which her existence if pledged is abyssal. But the abyssal is not the abysmal; it is marked by generosity and love, because marked by the one who is in solidarity with us. Which is to say that the cross and humor are not contraries; indeed, that in a mysterious way humor becomes humor only in seeing and being obedient to the cross. Humor is not just any kind of laughter. Humor is neither debilitating irony nor sneer; it is compassion.
Unsurprisingly, given how much Balthasar formed him in every way, the same exact thing could be said of DLS. His critiques of America, of the Church, of those of us who were sometimes on the receiving end, were never ultimately from any source other than his deep and abiding love. DLS loved the world and all of us; he was so damn funny because of this love and because he was compassionate in the most literal sense: he suffered with. It is from this compassionate heart that both his insight and humor flowed. It is only because he loved so deeply and capaciously that he could see with such clarity and make judgment, but always with a twinkle in his eye. The world is wounded, and we should say how and why clearly and boldly, but only because we love it, and want it to be the ever-more it is destined to be. And in this love we can and should also crack jokes—because this beautiful broken world is often also rather absurd. And we love it because of that too.
This great love, which allowed DLS to see with such clarity and depth, is that from which, I think, all other fruit of his life flows. And it is this great love that I hope that I, and all who owe so much to DLS, can honor and continue in our own lives and work.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him.