You who have been following my work for years know that I keep coming around to this idea of the “Benedict Option.” In short, it means this: At what point do the conditions of moral breakdown and atomization become such that people who want to live out the moral life in community realize that they have to secede from mainstream culture in a serious way? The idea comes from MacIntyre’s final paragraph in After Virtue:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history 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…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. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point…This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless quite different — St. Benedict.
I’m working on a piece right now for the magazine on the feasibility of what I call the Benedict Option for our culture. That is, what “new forms of community” might we realistically construct for the purpose of living out our faith and moral values together, against a hostile culture? What I’m not looking for is any manifestation of radical separatism. Rather, I’m looking for real-life examples that conservatives, religious and otherwise, are doing, and that might be an option for others.
For example, I spoke yesterday to the abbot of the Clear Creek Abbey in rural eastern Oklahoma, and am going to make a visit there soon to talk to people in their community. Since that traditional Benedictine congregation started building its monastery in the late 1990s, a community of Catholic laity who wanted to settle in the monastery’s shadow and participate in its liturgical life have relocated there. I’m interested to learn how they’ve done. The abbot told me that many of them live in material poverty, but spiritual joy. I’d like to see for myself, and the abbot very kindly invited me to come for a visit.
I have other, non-Catholic examples in mind. Please send me your own suggestions.
I also want to consider the down side of these various types of community. A conservative Catholic friend with extensive experience in the Catholic subculture has a well-informed, highly jaundiced view of the whole thing. He says the “us-vs.-them” mentality pervading the colleges where he’s worked can lead to abuses of authority and a tendency to call mediocrity a virtue. I think of another friend, also a conservative Catholic, who once told me how frustrated he was working with young Catholic men who were in, or had just graduated from, a Catholic Great Books-type college, and who were so caught up in analyzing what’s wrong with post-Christian culture and their ideas for resisting it that they had failed to make themselves employable or marriageable. As I recall from that conversation, it wasn’t that these young guy were necessarily wrong in their diagnosis, but rather that they were too abstracted from the real world; their diagnosis served not to help them and the families they wanted to have one day endure, but rather to paralyze them. In some cases (mentioned by my first friend), this mentality led to some Benedict Option types going on welfare and living as free riders off the wider society that they loathed.
Clearly, that’s not healthy, to put it mildly. The piece I’m working on will consider the virtues and the vices in the broad Benedict Option idea, and ways it might be adapted in a valuable, sustainable, and life-giving way — and how individual families and communities can avoid the pitfalls
If you have any insights or ideas to add, please do so in the comments thread, or drop me a private note at rod (at) amconmag.com .