A few years ago on n Feb. 21-23, 2013 I joined Matt Kuhner in Washington for the John Paul II Institute’s Dignitatis Humanae conference. I wrote on the experience at the time, and am sharing it now:

Dignitatis Humanae is the Declaration on Religious Freedom issued during the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council in 1965. This was my first experience of the John Paul II Institute and it was as fresh and revitalizing as it was grounding. It was not so much the intellectual depth of the speakers as the earnestness of those I met there that have left me with admiration for the work of Dr. David L. Schindler and the Institute.

Dr. Schindler, recently profiled as the “Philosopher of Love,” has set about articulating what is something like a wholly new vision for modernity—so the stakes of the conference were not low. In short the “metaphysics of liberalism” which undergird our culture, argues Schindler, are inadequate to the task of ensuring the survival of Constitutional promises of things like limited government, the separation of church and state, human rights, and religious freedom. Instead, Dr. Schilder presents a “metaphysics of love.”

Excerpting from The American Conservative profile:

Schindler’s argument is multifaceted, but as his son David C. Schindler draws it out inBeing 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 logosThe 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.

To attempt to imperfectly translate this, Marshall McLuhan’s timeless insight that the “medium is the message” might be applied here. The medium of contemporary life is the medium of liberal democracy—this medium, for better or worse, is the message. It “messages” in shaping our basic assumptions, in nurturing and directing our public and private thought, and in determining the ways in which we will live. In other words, there is no neutral social order.

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.

If proximity to power is the measurement by which we live—that is, if we seek power or closeness to it as a means to the good life—we are destined to raise ourselves and lower others or other things as less central to reality in our seeking of power. This is my certainly imperfect and perhaps even flatly wrong way of understanding this excerpt.

All of this is to share a bit of what underlies, to my understanding, the work of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute. I’ve cheated here in the sense that I haven’t done much to describe the actual debate over Dignitatis Humanae. I’ll do so with just one sentence: By the end of the three-day conference, there seemed to be a consensus that Natural Law has become an insufficient framework for appealing either amongst ourselves or to others as a common basis for reason.

As I am one working in the area of technology and with specific interest as to whether it can be used in a humane way, this conference was a treat and a wonder—one of those all too infrequent experiences that opens up an entirely new universe of thought at once provocative and humbling.