Monday, July 13, 2015

The Benedict Option: Building a Catholic counterculture—UPDATED

Rod Dreher. (Photo: John Zak.)
Saturday, on the suggestion of Brandon Vogt, I read fellow Metroplex resident Rod Dreher’s “Critics of the Benedict Option”, in which Dreher attempts to further articulate what he confesses is “an inchoate phenomenon”. It's inchoate because, while the name is taken from St. Benedict of Nursia, the idea is not a return to the great monastic period.

Indeed, Dreher doesn’t really have anything specific in mind, which is why it drives poor John Zmirak crazy. Zmirak is trying to treat as a defective syllogism what is patently a hazy vision (and therefore can’t be logically proven or disproven).

The springboard for Dreher’s idea is a passage at the end of After Virtue, written by the late Alasdair MacIntyre in 1981. MacIntyre, Dreher writes, “described the state of contemporary moral discourse as irresolvably chaotic — irresolvably, because we have no common source of moral behavior anymore, and have decided, as a culture, that moral truth is something one arrives at by feeling.” Here is the part of the passage from the end of After Virtue which to me is truly relevant in discussing the Benedict Option:

A crucial turning point in [the late Western Roman Empire] occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead — often not recognising fully what they were doing — was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. [Bold font mine.—ASL]

And thus the Benedict Option: Christian enclaves, like Front Royal, Va., or Ave Maria, Fla., existing to mutually reinforce the faith in the new Dark Age.

Although Dreher couldn’t help conjuring up the image of monasteries by calling his idea the “Benedict Option”, the idea in its essence is more like a fort or a castle. A castle doesn’t exist merely to protect your gold or your people; it also serves as a garrison and a training center for the army that must go forth to do battle. The castle is both bank vault and armory. If, as I’m 95% certain, the West will fully and completely collapse within the next two generations, we’ll need communities that can more or less sustain themselves.

The most salient aspect of the Benedict Option, as I now understand it, essentially turns the Culture of Death’s general strategy against itself. The CoD triumphed because the left possessed the “culture factories”: they became artists, songwriters, screenwriters, directors, journalists, and teachers, from which positions they could create and tell stories in which their Weltanschauung could be encoded in a subtle and entertaining way, then proceeded to bombard us with these stories. The social conservatives focused on the levers of power, while the progressives captured minds, hearts, and hormones. Unfortunately, perchance because Dreher is a conservative, he doesn’t acknowledge the marketing and advertising industries’ perhaps-unwitting complicity in creating a society with a distorted sense of need and a sense of entitlement to sensual gratification.

The point of the Benedict Option, however, is not to “self-ghettoize” Christianity, or to disengage from the triumphant “Culture of Death”, but rather to consciously create a counterculture. Quoting Robert Louis Wilken’s 2004 First Things essay “Church as Culture”, Dreher bold-types: “… [It] is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.” This makes the enclave necessary as an instrument of socializing our children into a vibrantly, consciously Christian life.

You can’t create a counterculture that doesn’t produce friction with the surrounding culture; that friction is practically baked into the prefix counter-. The idea is not to embrace a quietism or a “go along to get along” attitude; rather, the Christian counterculture must fight back, if only enough to get our breathing space. In any event, we’ll have to fight if we’re to salvage anything positive from the wreckage of the “American experiment”, as the monasteries salvaged what they thought was good from the Roman Empire.

Moreover, becoming countercultural necessarily entails a subversive attitude. Since the US has functionally become mission territory, as I’ve argued elsewhere, Jesus’ evangelical mandate — “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20) — makes subversion of the Culture of Death a necessary outcome of that mandate.

But because the dominant culture has, in a sense, “heard it all before”, the only method of evangelization that can hope to succeed is conscientiously and authentically living the gospel message, by “glorifying the Lord with our lives”. In his homily Sunday morning, Dcn. Jim Galbraith spoke of an Indian viceroy who said, in effect, “If the British and the Christians had behaved the way that the Christians did in your Bible, all of India would have converted within five years.” Having accepted Dreher’s argument that we’ll have to continue to fight in the public square for breathing room, I nevertheless submit that our primary emphasis should be on changing hearts and minds, not on changing laws. Once hearts and minds change, the laws will eventually follow suit.

This, at least, is how I understand the Benedict Option; and I freely confess it has no more practical detail than Dreher gives us. But it’s hard to give further shape to it in anything less than a book-length project, let alone a 1,200-word essay.

If there are any weaknesses, from my perspective, the most pertinent one is that, economically and socially, the cascade failure of the First World will most likely occur within the next fifty years … possibly in as little as twenty years. So invading the culture factories may prove to be a wasted effort. We don’t have enough time to “take back” America; the best we can do is prepare to rebuild her. Furthermore, Dreher fails to acknowledge the need Christians have to junk all ideologies and reinvent the Enlightenment from scratch, starting from Christian social doctrine as principles to be applied rather than theories to be (dis)proven.

The Benedict Option’s main strength, oddly enough, is in what it’s not. It’s not a call to surrender; it’s not a call to withdraw; it’s not a call to “go down with the flag”. If it’s a retreat at all, it’s a strategic retreat in order to pursue a new line of offense; it’s a call to go underground, not into “catacombs built to code”, but rather into resistance cells. Frankly, I think we would do better to try to flesh out the vision with details, rather than damn it for not being a manifesto or a theory.

UPDATE: July 25, 2015

The most recent criticism of the “Benedict Option” comes from Austin Ruse, in an article in Crisis titled “The Escriva Option: An Alternative to St. Benedict”. Right about now, I’ll bet Rod Dreher wishes he’d never even alluded to St. Benedict, because it’s caused him no end of misunderstandings.

Ruse, as I’ve said before, is one of Catholicism’s most lucid and knowledgable defenders in America today; so it never pays to simply dismiss anything he writes. And “The Escriva Option” does have some interesting things to say about the vocation of the laity. If it weren’t couched in opposition to Dreher, what Ruse says would be worth reading in its own right.

Alas, Ruse did write his statements in the midst of an article in opposition to Dreher. As such, the whole Escriva excursion, if you will, is a rather well-written attack on a straw man.

Why? Because Ruse writes with the idea that monasteries are somehow involved in the execution of the Benedict Option, and fears the second rise of clericalism. Again, monasteries are by no means necessary to the creation of the intentional communities Dreher is talking about; Dreher is not looking to replay the end of the Western Empire note for note. As well, Ruse is also engaging in a false-cause fallacy. There were many factors involved in the rise of clericalism during the Middle Ages; monasteries as such were not one of them.

Here are a couple of Ruse’s paragraphs which are especially relevant to the conversation:

... [St. Josemaria Escriva] built what Dreher and others would call an “intentional community” that even and especially today draws individuals and families together in order to learn and teach and gain strength and then to go forth into the market place, the sports arena, the prisons and universities and draw others closer to the Gospel and toward a spiritual perfection equal to the monks and nuns. Escriva said Christ wanted a few men of his own in every human endeavor. ...
I suspect this is precisely what Dreher now considers the Benedict Option, which is a clever phrase upon which has been built a vital and interesting conversation and perhaps a movement. And whether Dreher initially intended or not a cultural and political withdrawal, that impulse is alive and well in many Catholic imaginations and must be fiercely resisted.

Indeed, the first of these paragraphs pretty much captures the sense of the Benedict Option that I got (see above). But if this is what Ruse suspects, then why all the palaver about monasteries? Apparently, it’s because, whatever else, the straw man must be beaten thoroughly. And why must cultural and political withdrawal be resisted at all, let alone “fiercely resisted”? Ruse simply tosses out this dictum as if the blowback were equally obvious to all; to me, it’s a decision to let the Culture of Death continue to dictate the direction and tempo of the “culture wars”, to deliberately keep ourselves in a state of reaction rather than taking positive action.

If Ruse wishes to invoke St. Josemaria rather than St. Benedict, I can understand, although Dreher (having fled Catholicism for Eastern Orthodoxy) might take issue with it. I suspect that, if such intentional communities succeed in retaining the West for Christ, the issue of the name will be of interest only to obscure academics a thousand years from now. If they fail, the name will be of interest to no one.