For the orthodox Christian, is doing one’s public duty more or less reducible to voting for the most socially conservative Republican on the ballot—and then shutting up about whatever misgivings one might have? Surely not. Yet for many election cycles, this has been often implied by the self-appointed guardians of practicality and political realism. It is even increasingly heard from the pulpit.
The assumptions that lurk behind this idea are that when it comes to ordering public life, modern liberal democracy in its best sense has things basically right. America rightly understood is the highest exemplar of this kind of liberalism. And the Republican Party is our best reasonable hope for defending this liberalism’s political, economic, and cultural accomplishments from its enemies. To question these assumptions is to be naïve or—a favorite epithet—utopian.
This view essentially obliterates the need for prudential judgment, not to mention critical thinking. Thus, a number of Catholic moralists have identified three (the list sometimes expands to four or five) “intrinsic evils”—abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage—against which one has a moral responsibility to vote, and to which responsibility all else must be subordinated. The idea is that if only the right people were in office legislating against such evils, everything would be pretty much fine in the land of the free and the brave.
Well… if this story strikes you as just a little too pat, may I introduce you to David L. Schindler and the Communio school of theology he represents. Two recent books by and about Schindler—Being Holy in the World and Ordering Love, respectively—show how Christians ought to feel liberated to engage the culture in a deeper and ultimately more faithful way.
Schindler certainly agrees that abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and the like are evils. However, unlike our partisan “realists” he does not regard these as corruptions of a liberal worldview otherwise rightly ordered but as the ironic fruit of liberalism’s unwitting metaphysics. By showing how the achievements of America and liberalism in general are grounded in the same intellectual foundations as their failings, and by showing how virtually all parties in the public square embrace the same metaphysical misconceptions, he turns down the apocalyptic culture-wars heat while putting the ephemera of electoral politics in their proper context.
David L. Schindler has taught at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., since 1992, following appointments at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and the University of Notre Dame. Barrel-chested and bearded, he was raised in the Seattle area by a family that owned and operated a major sporting-goods company. After receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Gonzaga University, he enrolled in the Claremont Graduate School. In 1972, he finished a dissertation that brought the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead into conversation with the Thomist tradition. For a while, like novelist Walker Percy, he might even have been thought of as an existential Thomist. In these early years, Schindler was influenced by, among others, Frederick Wilhelmsen, Michael Polanyi, and Eric Voegelin—all important figures in the development of the postwar conservative intellectual tradition. Schindler thus represents a slender strand of that tradition, one unassociated with the conservative political movement or right-wing political theory. Instead, his thinking moved in a theological direction.
In 1974, two years after completing his dissertation, Schindler became assistant editor of the new American edition of Communio, an international theological journal. Communio was founded by, among others, the Catholic theologians Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Louis Bouyer, and Joseph Ratzinger. The Second Vatican Council had concluded in 1965, and in various ways many of Communio’s founders had played a significant role in the Council. By the early ‘70s, they believed that its work was being misinterpreted and misappropriated, especially by the progressive thinkers grouped around another journal called Concilium, whose leading figures included Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, and Hans Küng. Unlike the Communio circle, the Concilium crowd counseled not just greater engagement with, but also accommodation to, modern culture.
As Tracey Rowland makes clear in her book Ratzinger’s Faith, the Communio writers were certainly not reactionaries. In fact, in the decades prior to the Council, they and their intellectual predecessors had been regarded as dangerous innovators by philosophers and theologians of the establishment neo-Thomist school. De Lubac, Ratzinger, and their allies argued that the neo-Thomists misunderstood St. Thomas Aquinas’s teaching regarding the relationship between nature and grace—in a way that led directly to secularism. They thought the neo-Thomist account of reason owed more to the Enlightenment than to Aquinas. And they recoiled from the bone-dry, lifeless character of the neo-Thomist “manualist” tradition, which they thought reduced the great drama of salvation to textbook propositions and made Christianity seem unappealing and irrelevant.
The neo-Thomists, not amused by these challenges, fought back in academic journals and through the official machinery of the Catholic Church. After the publication of Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis in 1950, which implicitly sided with the neo-Thomists, many observers expected de Lubac’s work to be suppressed. But Vatican II proved to be a turning point. De Lubac and a relatively young Ratzinger—who had been profoundly influenced by both Balthasar and de Lubac and was regarded by many old-school professors with suspicion—served as influential theological consultants to the Council.
In the ensuing years, the Communio school would rise to preeminence within the Catholic Church, while accommodationism would find it increasingly difficult to influence the Church’s institutional life and official teachings. (It has been a different story within academia, of course.) Joseph Ratzinger would become Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. His predecessor, John Paul II, became increasingly close to the Communio school over time, helping to start the Polish edition of the journal and and elevating numerous Communio-aligned figures to the episcopate.
After he assumed editorship of Communio in 1992, David Schindler became the most important voice for the movement’s perspective in America. He is the most notable American Catholic thinker of the last—well, one could arguably just put a period after “thinker.” Among philosophers and theologians he is widely respected, yet he is mostly unknown even among relatively sophisticated American Christian conservatives. What gives?
Beyond academic circles, Schindler’s influence has been limited by at least four factors. First, as we shall see, there is the sheer immensity of his task—rethinking the nature of reality, of being itself, in light of Christian revelation. Second, there is the philosophical sophistication of his writing—he is not an easy read. Third, the intellectual traditions from which he draws are not characteristically Anglo-American, but Continental. And fourth, he comes to conclusions that are uncomfortable and, from a practical political point of view, seemingly useless. No easy fixes, no programs, emerge from Schindler’s work—or, indeed, the Communio perspective as a whole. In fact, the way in which superficial fixes and programs often conceal and even deepen our predicament is in part what Schindler means to reveal.
Schindler is a relentlessly metaphysical philosopher. Over the last four decades he has developed a distinctive view of being, and it is in these metaphysical reflections that his theology of culture is based.
To live well, Schindler argues, is to live in a way that is proper to our being. Conversely, when a misapprehension of being structures our thinking and actions, we experience unhappiness, brokenness, and poverty in its deepest sense—the absence of meaning. He believes that the modern liberal project from Descartes to Rawls is based on a radical misunderstanding of the nature of reality.
Specifically, liberalism fails to apprehend that “love is the basic act and order of things.” Love brings all there is into existence, it is through love that all there is continues in existence, and it is for love that all things exist. Reality is in this sense triadic: all things are in, through, and for love. Being might therefore be said to be an order or “logic” of love.
The Christian story itself implies this metaphysics, but Schindler emphasizes that once disclosed by the events central to Christianity, the nature of being is in principle accessible to reason. There is no fideism at work here, but there is a different understanding of reason than the one that informs modern “rationality,” including the neo-Thomist version. In Schindler’s account of reason—one shared by Popes Benedict and John Paul II—faith does not narrow reason, nor does faith exist alongside reason as something “added” to it from without. Rather, faith enlarges reason from within, helping it to function better precisely as reason.
As you might imagine, understanding reality as an order of love has profound implications. Among these are that being is a gift, and our proper response to being is in the first place one of receptivity and gratitude. If we do not respond to the cosmos in this way, it is because in some sense we have been “coached out of it”—by our culture, perhaps, or by our own choices and habits. Another implication of the idea of being-as-love is that being is intrinsically relational, not individualistic. The individual is real, to be sure, but included within individuality, and lying at its core, is relationality—to God, to whom the individual is constitutively related as a created thing is to its creator, and to others, to whom the individual is related through a common relationship to God.
In short, neither receptivity nor relationality are concepts that we can “add on,” even in abstraction, to a self-subsisting, non-related individual of the sort imagined by liberal thinkers. Ontologically speaking, before he is anything else the person is a gift and exists in relation. Receptivity, rooted in giftedness, and relationality are constitutive of the human being, and indeed of all being.
Perhaps no theme emerges more consistently in Schindler’s metaphysical reflections as a target of criticism than that of “extrinsicism.” The neo-Thomists, in the Communio view, held to an “extrinsic” model of the nature-grace relationship. In such a model, nature is self-subsistent and in principle knowable in its totality without the aid of the supernatural—without, that is, grace. Grace adds to nature but is fundamentally “outside” of it; Christian revelation therefore adds nothing to our knowledge of nature as nature. To Communio thinkers like Schindler, this model is an unnecessary and indeed catastrophic capitulation to Enlightenment ideas about nature that are not just secular, but secularist. Furthermore, they argue, such a view of the nature-grace relationship is neither biblical nor truly Thomist.
As a metaphysical alternative to extrinsicism, Schindler argues analogically from the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Here the idea of “distinction-in-unity” becomes a key concept. The secular and the sacred, faith and reason, nature and grace, are indeed distinguishable, but they simultaneously and at their core relate to one another in the terms of an inseparable unity—“circumincession” is Schindler’s term for this relationship. We see such a relationship, again analogically, in the bond between husband and wife, who are distinct persons yet “one flesh,” or in the relationship between the Father and the Son, distinct persons yet one God. Distinction-in-unity is enabled by and is the form of love—not coincidentally, the traditional descriptor of the third person of the Christian Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
Depending on one’s cast of mind, all of this may be interesting or it may be bewildering. But what has it got to do with culture, and especially with the political and economic dimensions of public life? After all, liberals claim to prescind from metaphysical and theological discussions. Argue about these things as you please, says the liberal, and come to what conclusions you may. You are free to believe as you wish—that is precisely the beauty of liberalism! But for purposes of public order, the state must remain neutral on these questions. Thus, when you enter the public square, you must make publicly reasonable rather than sectarian arguments. That is how we secure peace. The only alternative is theocratic tyranny.
The American Jesuit John Courtney Murray famously argued that this arrangement constitutes America’s signal contribution to the world. The First Amendment of the Constitution, in offering not “articles of faith” but rather “articles of peace,” secured religious freedom for Christians (and for others) while also respecting the rightful integrity of the secular. The American liberal order of limited government and the separation of church and state provides neutral public space while also providing freedom in the form of basic rights that provide “immunity from coercion.” Christianity and liberalism, in this narrative, are not only compatible but utterly harmonious.
Now, the first thing to note is that Schindler believes that limited government, the separation of church and state, human rights, and religious freedom are legitimate achievements that ought to be preserved. But he simply does not believe (1) that liberalism, or any other conception of order, can successfully prescind from metaphysics (he quotes philosopher Etienne Gilson: “metaphysics always buries its undertakers”), or (2) that these achievements can be preserved if they are grounded in the unwitting metaphysics of liberalism rather than in the metaphysics of love.
Schindler’s argument is multifaceted, but as his son David C. Schindler draws it out in Being Holy in the World, on one level it goes like this: by asking Christians to “bracket” their metaphysical commitments for purposes of public order, liberalism essentially asks them to accept a different metaphysics—indeed, a different theology. Christianity does not present itself as just one pre-critical commitment among others, but as the matrix or “paradigm” of rationality itself. One either rejects that claim, and is therefore not a Christian, or one accepts it as a Christian as the basis for reflection and understanding. There can be no middle, “bracketing” way.
For the Christian, the only adequate notion of reality is one that grows out of a Trinitarian understanding of the logos. The Trinitarian life of God means that love, as we have seen, is at the heart of the structure and meaning of being. But we do not really receive that logos as a logos unless we see that it grounds and transforms our understanding of everything. It is the furthest thing possible from a truth claim that might safely be bracketed from public discussion. Thus, “bracketing” one’s Christian commitments from one’s thinking at any time, as liberalism demands, is to be not only false to Christianity, but to be false to reality.
In this way, all of our political, economic, legal, and religious institutions are necessarily grounded in some conception of order—in a metaphysics—even if they reject or ignore the Christian claim. From the Christian view, liberal institutions foster a problematic “mode of being”—a distorting matrix for the formation of our intentions, attitudes, and ideas. Thus, the idea that just putting “good people,” or at least those with the “right ideas,” into political office will make a decisive cultural difference is insufficiently attentive to the shaping power of this matrix in a liberal regime.
According to the Schindler, “the failure to take seriously the implications of Christianity as a logos” is the supreme characteristic of liberal modernity, even for Christians, and leads to a practical atheism. Perhaps the very reason, he speculates, that church attendance remains so high in the United States is that one can claim a Christian commitment without letting it interfere with the real business of life. Because American Christianity has been privatized, it is also highly secularized.
As the younger Schindler puts it: “A man may tell his wife often that he loves her, may believe what he says, and may in fact bring her flowers without fail once a week—and yet at the same time he may exhibit a pattern of choices with regard to his career, for example, that trivialize his wife’s significance in his life.” Or a man may call himself a Christian but enjoy wearing Club Gitmo T-shirts and take great pleasure in hearing about the victims of his nation’s bombing campaigns. Especially when those campaigns are supported by the socially conservative Republican for whom he cast a ballot as his Christian duty.
Schindler argues that the hidden metaphysics of liberalism is instrumentalism. Put another way, its ontology is technology, the necessary result of bracketing the “logic of love proper to created being.” Despite its overt intentions, liberalism therefore fosters relations of power rather than love: mutual manipulation rather than human dignity and freedom. It marginalizes the weak and the vulnerable, as is obvious precisely in the “intrinsic evils” that understandably preoccupy today’s Catholic bishops. Such marginalization is central to its logic.
By this logic, the problem with overemphasizing electoral politics as a response to cultural evils is that we risk tacitly accepting the idea that such evils have technological solutions—we risk accepting, that is, the false picture of reality assumed by liberalism. As one of his former students has pointed out to me, in a recent article Schindler has made just this suggestion with respect to the bishops’ response to the HHS contraception mandate. He points out that with respect to the mandate:
the dominant liberal culture … is acting consistently with the formal-juridical view of rights that is framed by liberalism’s hidden metaphysics … . If this is not understood, efforts to resist policies such as that now imposed by the Obama administration in the matter of ‘reproductive rights’ will, however successful in immediate strategic terms, continue otherwise to aid and abet the dominant liberalism’s hidden logic of repression.
In short, the liberal conception of reality undermines liberalism’s own ability to secure the ends it seeks. If the legitimate achievements—such as religious freedom—of purportedly liberal regimes such as America’s are to be preserved, they must be re-grounded not in liberalism’s strategy of agnosticism but in truth itself. There cannot be a purely juridical or procedural state precisely because to bracket the metaphysical, or to prioritize the political over the metaphysical, is to make a crucially important metaphysical claim. No state, insists Schindler, “in its legal-constitutional order can successfully avoid the question of truth.”
The question therefore becomes which truth best secures the ends of civil society, including the noble achievements that have been realized (at least in certain senses) in liberal modernity—religious freedom, human rights, separation of church and state, and so on. Based on his metaphysics of love, Schindler suggests that the first truth that government ought to appropriate is “the truth of freedom as an essential inner feature of love.”
Properly understood, freedom is rooted in an understanding of reality as love and a concomitant commitment to this truth. Love grounds freedom because it is in its nature to let the other be, not out of indifference but out of respect for his or her integrity and dignity, even as it seeks to turn the other toward truth through patient dialogue and witness, including the witness of sacrifice and suffering. Note the truly conservative implications of this conception of freedom, in that the “other” includes not just persons but institutions, communities, and social systems. The patient witness of love stands in contrast to the impatient “technological” orientation of ideology.
A second truth that the state ought to enshrine, in Schindler’s view, is that it itself is not the source of truth but is rather subject to it. The limited state is, contrary to liberal doctrine, implied by the truth itself, not by official agnosticism. Thus, far from a responsibility to fragment their modes of being into distinct public and private compartments, as suggested by liberalism, Christians “have a responsibility to work at all times and places, private and public, for the true end for which man was created.” Following the Cross, they must work toward such an end through non-coercive means. Schindler points to Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Madeleine Delbrêl, and Mother Teresa as shining examples of people who embodied the unity of truth and love in their social practice.
By now it should be clear that we cannot deduce from the metaphysics of love an alternative socioeconomic system to be juxtaposed to capitalism, socialism, or some other system. The Christian task is not primarily an electoral or technological one, but rather to insert within all institutions and systems a “dynamic for transformation.”
What would such a dynamic look like? That is a large question, but in a particularly arresting chapter of Ordering Love, Schindler suggests that one way in which Christians might take up this task is by rooting their thoughts and actions more deeply in “originary” experience via a “grateful and wonder-filled letting be.” Christians ought to attune themselves to the “whole of Being” by cultivating receptivity, silence, and stillness. Schindler then draws out some implications for our patterns of consumption, use of technology, and relationship to place. For instance, he concludes, we find God “only by truly being in a place, through the interior stillness that alone permits depth of presence.”
In ways such as this, Christianity “proposes principles that affect all human activities from within, including activities in politics and the public realm, and in economics.” Christianity doesn’t just “extrinsically” add substance, direction, or tweaks from the outside of social life. It puts forth a “vision of reality—an understanding of being, man, and God—that unfolds an entire way of life.”
In Ordering Love, Schindler jokes that “there seems to be a widespread assumption today, often unspoken, that if Jesus had only had the benefit of liberal institutions and access to the Internet, he could have secured the power and influence necessary to avoid an ignominious death on the Cross.” Something like this assumption seems to lie at the core of what many Christians in the United States mean by American exceptionalism—and at the core of what Pope Leo XIII condemned in 1899 as the Americanist heresy. A temptation toward such heresy seems to have always kept, and still keeps, most Americans from fully receiving Christian teaching. And it is largely responsible for the superficiality of how American Christians construct their role in public life.
Many commentators were baffled by Pope Benedict XVI’s call, in Caritas in Veritate, for “new lifestyles centered around the quest for truth, beauty, goodness, and communion with others.” Schindler’s Communio theology of public life shows how this call is fully understandable in light of the metaphysics of love. The view that man is made for communion redirects our gaze away from the false promises of electoral politics toward the most realistic thing of all: love.
Jeremy Beer is a founding editor of the online journal Front Porch Republic and coeditor of American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia.