Heart of the World, Center of the Church

For some years now, David Schindler, Gagnon Professor of Fundamental Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C., and editor of the English edition of the theological journal Communio, has been a sharp critic of efforts to argue for a fundamental compatibility between the philosophy that underlies the American political and economic experiment and the Catholic vision of things. The criticisms, which he has aimed principally at three neoconservative writers, Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and George Weigel, are repeated in this book where they are preceded by a critique of the earlier work of John Courtney Murray and followed by an argument that the same mistake underlies some statements of Theodore Hesburgh about the nature and purpose of a Catholic university.

Schindler’s argument is that all these writers stand in a broad liberal tradition which honors procedure more than substance and freedom more than truth. Liberalism claims that its own procedural assumptions, whether in politics, economics, or the university, imply no substantive assumptions or claims but simply permit a neutral arena in which questions about truth and value can be argued out under conditions of freedom. Thus for Murray, according to Schindler, freedom of religion is first of all an assertion of the rights of autonomous conscience over and against a neutral state; for the Catholic neoconservative the free marketplace allows the pursuit of self-interest to work for the common economic good; and for Hesburgh the commonly accepted academic criteria predefine what a university, including a Catholic university, is. In all three cases, Schindler argues, the claims to neutrality with regard to substance are bogus and in fact rest upon substantive claims that are incompatible with the full Catholic theological vision of God, man, and world.

That vision Schindler finds expressed in the teachings of Vatican Council II as carried forward by Pope John Paul II and as interpreted by such theologians as Henri de Lubac, Joseph Ratzinger, and, especially, Hans Urs von Balthasar. The vision centers around an ecclesiology of communio, originating in the inner life of the Trinity, realized in the Incarnation, and defining not only “the center of the church” but also “the heart of the world,” created by God for the sake of the spousal union god wishes to establish with the whole of creation and already realized in Christ, Mary, and the church. Communion is thus not simply the inmost reality of the church but defines also the purpose of creation, whose full truth is not known apart from the inner-Trinitarian mystery and not realized apart from the receptive and obedient fiat of Christ, Mary, and the church. In the passage of Gaudium et spes, no. 22, which is quoted several times, “Christ..., in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” Only a very high Christology yields a true anthropology in which the liberal tendency to place freedom and truth in tension is unmasked and overcome, in which what freedom is for and what authentic liberation is are revealed, and in which the real achievements of liberalism can be saved and given their only valid basis.

The preceding paragraph is a rapid summary of the theological vision that Schindler sets out in the first chapter and whose implications he also unfolds in several concluding chapters on deconstruction, sanctity and the intellectual life, contemplation and action, gender and God, and the Thomist philosophy of relation. It is a value of the book that it is an exercise in very serious theology. The argument is quite dense, however, and the book does not make for light reading and should probably not be brought to the beach.

Let me offer some methodological and substantive comments. Schindler’s method typically searches for a sentence or two thought to represent his opponent’s starting point, from which, he believes, even if by “unintended logic,” must follow certain untenable conclusions. Thus, to take the instance I know most about, what Murray said about religious freedom being first negative-immunity from coercion-and being based upon the autonomy of the person is thought to imply an abstract notion of human nature which neglects that the first truth about the person is human nature’s positive orientation toward supernatural fulfillment in God. But such a view overlooks the moment of receptivity that must precede, condition, and direct all “autonomous” human activity. From the inadequacies of that starting-point follow, logically, all the consequences that have led to the corruption of the American experiment into “the culture of death.” That Murray’s writings contain many indications that belie Schindler’s description of it passes largely unnoticed. The result is a curious abstraction in the argument, logic replacing genuine dialogue and dialectic.

A second methodological problem is that, unlike those whom he criticizes, Schindler is most often content to remain at the level of first principles, where he thinks the real battle should be waged, and to leave the practical political, economic, or academic implications of his own position hazy. Even when one might agree that perhaps the starting-point should be more christological or Trinitarian, still what follows from this? How does one get at least part of the way from this exalted or primordial vision toward a different polity, economics, or university? And what mediates such necessary moves? Schindler’s remarks on Catholic universities do move a bit toward answering such questions, but when it comes to politics and economics, he is frustratingly vague.

On more substantive issues, there is the choice of von Balthasar as the chief interpreter of the tradition, of Vatican II, and of the teachings of the present pope. It is no belittling of the great Swiss theologian to remark that his imposing work represents, as Schindler well knows, only one stream in twentieth-century theology and that more than a few of von Balthasar’s favorite themes and much about his method are quite personal and even idiosyncratic. Here he appears simply as the great master and many of his views are presented oracularly, as if their meaning is perspicacious and their truth guaranteed. The often very basic theological options that lie behind the thought of von Balthasar and other representatives of “ressourcement” theology, as Schindler likes to call it, require further elucidation.

One particular issue needs to be mentioned: the astonishing absence from this ecclesiology of communion, whether Trinitarian or ecclesial, of the Holy Spirit. It is not too much to say that in Schindler’s ecclesiology the Holy Spirit plays no explicit role. Everything concentrates on the Father (or, generally, on the Trinity), on Christ, and on Mary. There is not a single reference to the mission of the Spirit. Even in the very few places at which Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on the Holy Spirit (Dominum et vivificantem) is cited, it is not for the sake of explaining the Spirit’s mission and role. It could even be argued that the Spirit’s role is in fact taken by Mary, and the book might be said to illustrate the “de Maria numquam satis” (roughly translatable as “You can’t exaggerate the role of Mary”) school of Marian theology. In fact, Schindler’s theology could be taken, according to what one hopes is an “unintended logic,” as evidence of the claim sometimes made that pneumatology and mariology are inversely proportional.

Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: 

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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