Monday, September 15, 2003

THREADS Interview with Dr. David Schindler

In this post I'd like to look at interview with Dr. David Schindler, editor of the North American edition of the Catholic journal Communio and representative of the school of theologians and philosophers who are critical of the neoconservative proposition that classical liberalism can be reconciled with Catholicism.

According to Dr. Schindler, democratic capitalist societies are dominated by a pervasive spirit of autonomy; we have "a self-centered, constructivist view of the self. We emphasize doing, making and the creativity of the self." We have a "highly instrumentalist and utiliatarian [culture]; where we value things and even people for the pleasure they can bring and how they can be used for profit."

We have to order our economy within this call to love. The fact that Marxism-Leninism has been eliminated doesn't mean that the only alternative is a capitalism to which the Church must provide a moral correction. The Church proposes something different from both -- namely, communio. That should provide our basic context. In other words, the call to sanctity should form what we do in our economy. So, with a notion like self-interest: Of course we can't suppress that impulse forcibly; if we try, we end up in totalitarianism. But that doesn't mean we should bless it as a virtue of necessity. The call to sanctity requires a transformation of self-interest and its replacement, insofar as possible, with love.

Schindler concedes that Centesimus Annus blesses the free market "as an essential element in any adequate understanding of the human person", but with the qualification that the Pope has done so only in the context of a call for integral, authentic human liberation.

Liberation comes first -- liberation from sin. It involves forgiveness by the Holy Spirit and conversion, and the paradigm is Mary. So yes, there's an approval of a market economy, but precisely in the context of this radical conversion, the call to love.

The problem with utilitarianism, with "doing what works", is that it "tends to create a lowest common denominator mentality." Food, shelter, and the satisfaction of material comforts and appetites take priority over the great questions of morality and spirituality. (At this point Schindler discusses the ways in which modern society's use and fascination with technology can perpetuate an instrumentalist mentality.

Schindler explains that he wrote Heart of the World, Center of the Church to address the issues discussed in the interview, chief among which is a "practical atheism" which characterizes life in America today. Catholics are called to "reinstate a sense of God so that we can regain an adequate sense of our own creatureliness -- in other words, 'I'm not the source of my own being, my own moral norms. I'm not the author of my life and therefore not the one who decides about my death.'" He places blame on Fr. John Courtney Murray for ingraining in U.S. Catholics the assumption "we can't bring God into the heart of this discussion because, there are a lot of non-believers out there . . . Americans are privately very religious, but then in public we all agree to subscribe to the virtues that make us good democrats and good free marketeers, so that faith becomes essentially a fragmented, private reality. In effect, we're private theists and public atheists." It is precisely because religious questions are excluded from the public arena that our culture is where it is today.

According to Schindler, the Western world is implicitly guided by the post-Enlightenment liberal notion of radical individualism ("a logic or 'ontologic' of selfishness"). Despite the religious sincerity and good will of many American citizens, America "lacks the requisite [Christian] worldview" that would help us address abortion and other moral issues which constitute threats to the family. The goal of Dr. Schindler, Alisdair MacIntyre and others is to assist in reveal the underlying philosophical assumptions of liberal democracy and help us to "[understand] the logic of self-centeredness in a post-Enlightenment liberal culture."

Dr. Schindler and Fr. Zieba (who we examined in our previous post) would certainly agree on the destructive nature of Enlightenment liberalism. However, whereas Fr. Zieba would appear to side with Neuhaus, Novak and others in affirming the possibilty of another kind of liberalism, "one that is rooted in the Anglo-Saxon and, more particularly, in the American tradition", Dr. Schindler is skeptical that liberalism of any kind can be reconciled with Catholicism. Schindler quotes Alisdair MacIntyre: "all debates in America are finally among radical liberals, liberal liberals and conservative liberals", and dismisses the neoconservative premise:

["Neoconservatives" are] the conservative wing of liberalism. And in a sense, they wouldn't even deny that, insofar as their project is to show that a benign reading of American liberal tradition is harmonious with Catholicism. That's what I'm challenging. Their approach doesn't go to the roots of our [cultural and spiritual] problem, as identified in this pontificate and in the work of theologians like De Lubac and Balthasar.

[Contemporary U.S. culture is rooted in] self-centeredness. A false sense of autonomy centered in the self; an incomplete conception of rights. So we need to reinstate a right relation to God on all levels -- not only at the level of intention, but at the level of the logic of our culture. Our relation to God has to inform not only our will, but how we think and how we construct our institutions.

In future posts I'm going to look at other published interviews with the leading voices in this debate (Fr. Neuhaus, MIchael Novak, George Weigel). I find that interviews and biographical articles are the best introductions to their thought -- prior to examining the more substantial essays.

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