Posted: November 26, 2003
Interview with David Schindler
November 22, 2003
By John L. Allen, Jr.
David Schindler is the academic dean of the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and Family Life at the Catholic University of America. He spoke with NCR's Rome correspondent John L. Allen Jr. during the conference "Walking in the Light: Perspectives for Moral Theology Ten Years after Veritatis Splendor" sponsored Nov. 20-22 by the Lateran University in Rome.
A transcript of the interview follows.
NCR: You spoke about the difference between a liberal model of culture and an organic/creational model. How would a culture built on organic/creational principles be different?
David Schindler: I don't think it's possible to give an answer in terms of providing a kind of a priori blueprint. The world that needs to be built has to develop concretely out of where we are historically, and it has to be developed in a way that is consistent with an interior transformation. The means are given in the very organic/creational understanding of nature, which is to say that the means are not coercive. Furthermore, it has to take account of history. We are historical beings, and we begin from where we are. The idea that we can just sort of abruptly overturn what we have is wrong. It's rather a case of transforming from inside what we already have. That means we have to recuperate the elements of truth within what we have, the dominant culture of liberalism. What are these? Despite the inadequacy of the notion of freedom as freedom of choice, despite the inadequacy of the dominant conception of rights, despite the inadequacy of a juridical concept of institution, all of these are nonetheless attempting to express something important, which is the dignity of the individual. The purpose of juridical institutions, for example, is to secure fairness in respect of the dignity of the individual. These are good things. Therefore, there's no question of just rejecting all of this, but of entering into it and transforming it. The question is, what would that look like? Unfortunately, we don't have the advantage of a history. We don't have many concrete examples of what such a transformation would be like, at least in the modern period. One therefore has to be very prudential. We cannot be seeking to create a community that ignores the technological developments and so on of modernity - that is no longer available to us. The point is to try to give all of these things, in their very form or "logic," the meaning of love.
Could you give a concrete illustration?
The first thing each individual needs to do is to be who he or she is as an organic being, created by God with the destiny of the call to holiness. Wherever one is, professionally or vocationally and so forth, the task is to live that from the inside out as far as possible. Okay, so a concrete application. Take television and computers. These are not neutral instruments. I don't think it's as easy as saying they can be used for good or for evil. I think the form already shapes, favors, a certain kind of understanding of experience and knowledge. I would recommend that young children learn what communication is as independently as possible from a television and a computer. A computer, for example, emphasizes experience as acquisition. It's the acquisition of information. So the whole idea of embodied communication that takes time, that involves surprise, that has to be patient - all such features are missing from a computer, and likewise television. People complain about sound bites; but the point is that the medium itself inclines communication toward sound bites.
You must be familiar with Neil Postman.
I am. He's a very interesting person, and he makes many of these arguments.
In terms of trying to list the constituent elements of an organic/creational model of culture, what about respect for life?
Even that is a complex thing, because it seems to me that it's too simple to say that the problems that we have in our society in biogenetics and so on are "anti-life." In fact, one can presume, it seems to me, a compassionate intention. People want to enhance life. The problem is that there's a logic, an ontology, of utilitarianism. In other words, what's missing is the notion of an interior order already given in nature.
Do you believe that the Catholic church, especially in the Anglo-American zone, is insufficiently attentive to the threats posed by liberal culture?
Yes. I'm inclined to accept what Alasdair MacIntyre says - and I quote it often - that most of the public debates that go on today are among different strains of liberalism: conservative liberalism, liberal liberalism, and radical liberalism. For example, when I talk to my students, I ask them what they think freedom is. Almost without exception, they say freedom of choice, or freedom to choose. It's the first thing they think of. It's the prevalent notion. I think that it is pervasive in our culture, and often Catholics have prematurely followed liberalism in the sense of assuming that its institutions are good and that freedom of choice is good as long as both are used for the right purposes. My problem with that is that if you press deeply enough, you see that there's an ontologically self-centered utilitarianism already built into the original logic of our (liberal) institutions and freedom.
Let me change the subject slightly. You know a great deal about 20th century Catholic theology. Would you say that, to some extent, the debate can be boiled down to a choice between Rahner and von Balthasar?
In a certain sense, I suppose so. That has to be differentiated, of course. But I do think that these two approaches operate in a basic way, though often unconsciously, in most of the discussions. It's not easy to articulate the difference between the two, and of course if I state it, I'm obviously going to state it in a way that favors von Balthasar. It has to do with how we interpret ourselves in relation to God. Given our own self-interpretation, and God's self-interpretation that is inclusive of us in some sense, it has to do with the question of priority in what is necessarily a mutual relationship. Man's interpretation of himself and God's interpretation of God and man are always mutual. The crucial question turns on which interpretation - man's or God's - has priority, and in what sense. For Balthasar, God's priority is absolute, though it is always inclusive of man's interpretation of himself or herself. It is over the sense of this priority that I think the difference between the two theologians becomes most evident. You know that Rahner and von Balthasar at the beginning of their careers were going to do a theological project in common. They planned it out, and then discovered that they were moving in different directions. They remained friendly and respectful, but they became critical of each other.
That difference in the priority given to God's word flows into an ecclesiological difference, doesn't it?
Yes. I think the key is the notion of sacrament in light of this different priority of God's word. That translates into an analogous form of the priority of the sacrament of God's word, which is the church. The church interprets me to myself, as sort of the inner condition or immanent condition of my own self-interpretation, even though there's simultaneity there. That always has to be understood in light of Gaudium et Spes 22 and Chalcedon. In other words, the church is not a false intrusion into nature because, at least as understood by Balthasar, nature is created with a destiny meant to be realized historically through the church. So the unfolding of the integrity of nature isn't thwarted by being inserted into its created destiny, its Eucharistic destiny.
Do Catholics living in the liberal cultural world, especially perhaps Americans, need to recover their full Catholicity?
Yes. What's really crucial here is that we need to understand that it must always be both big "C" and small "c" Catholicity. We lose sight of that. The recuperation of the fullness of revelation, and our understanding of a sacramental/hierarchical church and its tradition and so forth, has to be understood simultaneously with its "catholic" meaning. Catholicity makes a claim also to small-c "catholicity," which means that coincident with the former there has to be a recuperation of the integrity of nature, of what it means to be human. Otherwise you get a moralistic recuperation.
One that is almost positivistic, in the sense of obeying rules for the sake of obedience.
Precisely. Obedience becomes moralistic if we don't operate from within the structure of being as obedience, in the sense that my very being is obedience to a destiny.
Your analysis puts you at odds with thinkers trying to harmonize Catholicity with liberal culture. In practical terms, it means that even though you're usually seen as "conservative," you are often in conflict with other "conservatives." How do you manage that tension?
It's a very difficult question. The problem, in my opinion, is that we don't see the depth to which the various options held out to us today are shaped at the core by a common ontology. So often political differences of right and left, and economic differences and so on, are conservative and progressive forms of the same ontological stance. I think that we need to penetrate more deeply. It's so interesting in the current political situation. To be faithful to a Catholic-Christian understanding of creation and ontology, it seems to me, implies a certain uneasy relationship with political alignments as they're currently structured. That doesn't mean that you have to weigh these alignments equally. For myself, I think the most serious issue that confronts us, and the greatest social problem, is biotechnology, with its threat to embryonic human life, for example. Never before have we been pressed so radically with the need to recover an understanding of nature as creation, and therefore of culture as an extension of nature understood as creation.
So the choice between liberal and conservative versions of liberalism is sort of the philosophical equivalent of the choice between Pepsi and Coke?
Well, you'd have to sort out the issues, but in any case I think we prematurely align with political parties. The problem is, we're historical animals and there are problems that require immediate solutions. We have to be politically involved in that sense. But the nature of the problems we face is such that what it requires most truly is an ontological response, and that doesn't translate well into politics. It has political implications, but you don't exhaust all of your energies in a political option. You realize that it has to do in the first instance with transforming your own being, and the being of those around you, into a community of persons.
It's a personal and cultural task, not a political one.
I wouldn't dichotomize those, but yes. There's the transformation of your person to recover interiority and so on, and then I am or "have" a body that extends into culture, so I extend that interiority into culture. By the way, this is an interesting point in Pope John Paul II. Even though in many ways I disagree with George Weigel in terms of his interpretation of the pope's social encyclicals, on this point I think he makes an interesting argument. Wojtyla's primary reform was cultural. That's very important.
Weigel argues that in the Polish resistance to the Nazis, there were two models, one political and the other cultural, and that Wojtyla opted for the latter.
Yes, and that's very interesting. I think you have to see that his acting and his involvement in the theater is not just the result of a fascination with drama in the theater sense, but a result of seeing that drama is integral to the human being's struggle for the meaning of human existence.
National Catholic Reporter, November 26, 2003