‘He Was a Great Soul’: Remembering David L. Schindler

The Catholic scholar, who was the first editor of ‘Communio’ in the U.S. and a former dean of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Washington, influenced generations of Catholic thinkers.

David L. Schindler
David L. Schindler (photo: Courtesy of Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family)

WASHINGTON — David L. Schindler, founding editor of the North American edition of Communio, the international theological journal, and the longtime former dean of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington from 2000 to 2010, died Nov. 16 at the age of 79, following a battle with Alzheimer’s.

David Crawford, dean and associate professor of moral theology and family law at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, described Schindler as a “visionary leader.”

“He was a remarkable shaping force on the curriculum and the basic theological and philosophical profile of the institute,” Crawford told the Register. 

“When he became dean in 2000, he dramatically changed the curriculum and the nature of the program.” 

Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, the founder of Ignatius Press who became friends with Schindler when the two were Jesuit scholastics studying philosophy in 1964, said Schindler “was stalwart, from the time we played basketball together. He was a strong rebounder and defensive player.” 

“He was the founding editor of the North American edition of Communio, though he had no experience as an editor, and he was equally stalwart in his leadership at the institute,” said Father Fessio, who will celebrate Schindler’s funeral Mass at St. Jerome Catholic Church in Hyattsville, Maryland, on Dec. 2.

“He had a very good mind; he was a solid thinker, but also intrepid. He knew what needed to be done, and no opposition was going to deter him.”

Schindler’s son David told the Register that he took solace from the fact that his father died “the day after the feast day of St. Albert the Great, a patron saint of Alzheimer’s patients who also had memory issues and had an interest in theology and science.” 

And he described his father as a “philosopher monk.”

“He was a man searching for God, and the loss of the memory of God in the culture, and in some ways in the Church, is something he felt acutely, almost incessantly,” he said. “My father had a ‘passion for the infinite,’ as Luigi Giussani calls it.” 

And he had an outsized impact as a speaker and teacher precisely “because people sensed that he wanted more from the world than your average way of life admitted, and that helped them awaken to this reality of God relevant in every dimension of life, not just at Sunday Mass.” 

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Schindler grew up in the Seattle area. He felt a calling to the priesthood in high school and entered the Jesuit seminary, but did not remain. He married and had three children, but was later divorced, and the marriage was annulled. 

Schindler taught at Mount St. Mary’s University (1976-79), where he received tenure in 1978, and in the Program of Liberal Studies at the University of Notre Dame (1979-92), where he received tenure in 1985. 

David Schindler, who is a professor of philosophy at the John Paul II Institute, said that he and his siblings became closer to their father when they moved in with him during high school, while he was teaching at Notre Dame. 


Upholding Tradition

Amid the intellectual ferment that followed the Second Vatican Council, and the concerted effort by one group of reform-minded theologians to frame its teaching as a rupture with Church tradition, Schindler would join with Joseph Ratzinger, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar and other European theologians to insist that the Council Fathers had maintained the continuity of Tradition and that renewal would be found within the origins of the Church and its Christocentric, Trinitarian and Marian nature, not from the values of the world. 

“They were neither the traditionalists who rejected Vatican II as illegitimate nor the progressives who saw it as having recast the Church,” said Schindler’s son David. 

“Instead, they wanted to take a stand at the heart of the Church and its tradition.” They were focused on “the deeper current running through Vatican II, namely the notion that all human existence finds its proper form in Jesus Christ, who shed a distinct light on all Christian thought.”

“Vatican II brought a new discovery of the inseparability of anthropology and Christology. We are witnessing all sorts of problems because of a false embrace of Vatican II, and the reaction to that is to call the Council into question,” he said. 

But the fallout from all the dissent, reaction and confusion is that “this genuinely profound insight of the inseparability of anthropology and Christology will be lost. Communio represents one of the last witnesses to that.”


Journalistic Legacy

In 1982, he became editor-in-chief of the North American edition of Communio, a federation of journals founded in 1972 by von Balthasar, Ratzinger and de Lubac. He also served as editor of the series Ressourcement: Retrieval and Renewal in Catholic Thought with Eerdmans Publishing Co.

“There was great confusion after the Council, and that confusion entered the area of theology,” said Father Fessio, who recalled the intense divisions that developed during that period and the steps taken to address it. 

Hans Küng was among a group of theological reformers who in 1965 founded Concilium, a journal of Catholic and ecumenical theological reflection that approached the Council as a paradigm shift that disrupted the Church’s established teaching on faith and morals and which today continues to “reinterpret and reapply its vision of openness to new cultural contexts, and to changing social and religious realities,” according to the journal’s vision and mission statement.

In contrast, Ratzinger, de Lubac and von Balthazar wanted to start a journal that focused on the Council’s teaching in the context of the Church’s long history and Tradition, dating back to the early Church.  

Communio “stands for the renewal of theology in continuity with the living Christian tradition, the continuing dialogue of all believers, past and present, ‘as if all were simultaneously in the circle,’” reads Communio’s mission statement


Decades as a Dean

In 2000, Schindler became the second dean of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and Family in the nation’s capital, where a new generation of students studied the Polish pontiff’s groundbreaking theology of the body catechesis and encyclicals on faith and reason, the dignity of women, and the immutability of moral absolutes. The institute is supported by the Knights of Columbus.

“One of the main areas of controversy in the Church deals with marriage, family and gender,” said Father Fessio.

John Paul wanted to have institutes set up around the world focused on this teaching, “and this was a way of cooperating with the Pope in addressing issues at the heart of Church controversies.”

The institute’s work was controversial for its time, given that the widespread dissent on Humanae Vitae had captured many Catholic theology departments in the U.S.

During his years at the institute, Schindler emerged as a spirited critic of American liberalism. 

In an extended debate with First Things founder Father Richard John Neuhaus and Catholic theologian George Weigel in the pages of First Things, he questioned whether the American liberal tradition was morally neutral and argued that it was embedded with values that were deeply hostile to Catholicism.   

“Ontologically, he felt that some trends in modern theology and social thought were too superficial and didn’t go deep enough,” said Father Fessio. “He emphasized the feminine receptive character of the Church,” which first receives Christ, the Bridegroom, before it can offer the gift of faith to others. “All of creation is receptive to God’s word, and Mary is the pinnacle of creative receptivity.” In contrast, he saw that “liberalism was overly masculine, calculating and controlling — not receptive.”

Schindler presented these ideas in his signature classes drilling into the roots and underlying precepts of American culture at the institute, and his ideas and persona shaped the experience of countless students and colleagues. 

Michael Hanby, associate professor of religion and the philosophy of science at the institute, celebrated Schindler’s critique of modernity as well as his personal virtues and gift for friendship.   

“His understanding of modernity and liberalism was more profound than many better-known thinkers because it was rooted in a deep metaphysical and theological vision that continues to define the John Paul II Institute,” Hanby told the Register.

“But he was more than a towering intellect, more even than a mentor or an intellectual father. He was a great soul — a magnanimous man in the Aristotelean sense — generous, good, funny, alive, really larger than life. It is why he was so fiercely beloved by generations of students and why he affected so many lives so deeply, mine and my family’s included.” 

“David helped make it possible for us to enter the Church by showing us that real humanity and profound Catholicism were not opposed, something that was not always apparent from the outside looking in. He showed this not just in theory, but in his life and in the remarkable community of people that were naturally drawn to him,” said Hanby.  

“And he was good to us. I don’t know where, or who, I would be without him. And I know I’m only one of many people who would say that. We all loved him and will miss him tremendously.” 

Schindler’s influence was felt well beyond the institute and the pages of Communio.

Patrick Deneen, now professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Why Liberalism Failed, became friends with Schindler while studying at Georgetown University. Deneen told the Register that he had been deeply impressed by the older man’s “learned, penetrating and ranging theological examinations of liberalism and its fundamental incompatibility and even outright hostility to Catholicism.” 

“What I admired most about David’s intellectual work and legacy was that he was fundamentally and consistently Catholic, even when it meant that his conclusions would run counter to the dominant viewpoints of both mainstream political parties,” said Deneen. 

“He was an equal-opportunity critic of liberalism, both as expressed in right-liberal economic thought as well the ‘sexual revolution’ so ardently embraced by the progressive left. 

“He influenced generations of young and older Catholics alike, and he leaves a towering legacy as one of the most important theological-political thinkers of his generation.”

Asked whether his father would fully embrace the integralist movement within the Church that has offered a strong critique of American liberal democracy, David Schindler offered a nuanced response.  

“Integralists are on a spectrum, and he would never have taken the straightforward integralist position” and accepted “a Catholic monarchy as the sole political form,” he said.

“But he would have agreed with the broader recognition of the failure of modern liberalism, the inherent deficiency of the American founding, and the desire to go back to the deeper Catholic tradition.”


Rich Legacy

Schindler published more than 80 articles (translated into nine languages) in the areas of metaphysics, philosophical issues in bioscience and technology, gender, and the relation between theology/philosophy and American culture. 

He is the author of Heart of the World, Center of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism, and Liberation; Ordering Love: Liberal Societies and the Memory of God; Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity: The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom: A New Translation, Redaction History, and Interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae, with Nicholas J. Healy Jr.; and The Generosity of Creation

Schindler was appointed by Pope John Paul II as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Laity from 2002 to 2007.

“We have had people contact us from all over the world,” the younger Schindler said. “We think of him as our father, but one person described him as the intellectual father of the whole institute. He is my dad. That he was a father to a lot of people, it is beautiful to see.”