James Kalb On The Benedict Option
People like to talk about the Benedict Option as a Christian response to our post-Christian culture, but nobody really knows what it means. I came up with the concept, and I’m not sure what it means. That is, I have a fairly clear idea of what its goal is — to quote Alasdair MacIntyre, “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.” The Benedictine order thrived in the Dark Ages, a time of mass forgetting, by creating communities and institutions in which the Christian life could be lived and passed on, and along with it what was able to be saved from Roman civilization. The Benedict Option, then, is a vague term meant to identify the choice one makes to give up on converting society, and instead retreat into new forms of community for the sake of preserving the moral life (defined here in Christian terms) through a time and place hostile to it.
Many of us can agree on the broad desire to do this, but what does that mean practically? It is not at all the case that this means eremitic withdrawal from the world in a rural compound. Critics of the Benedict Option take this extreme scenario, something appropriate only for true monastics, and dismiss the entire concept as hysterical and unrealistic. In fact, even the early Benedictines maintained fruitful relations with the local laypeople. Total withdrawal is neither possible nor desirable. The Benedictines knew, however, that they couldn’t maintain their distinct identity, and serve the roles they believed God gave them to serve, if they didn’t live in some sort of binding community, with a distinct separation between themselves and the rest of the world, which did not share their commitments.
I believe that the coming decades will involve experiments in what the Benedict Option can and should be. I wrote about some of them in TAC last year. Christians who do not believe that the Benedict Option in some form, however mild, is not necessary simply aren’t paying attention to the world in which they live.
All of that is a lead up to this: Catholic writer James Kalb offers the broad outlines of what a Catholic approach to the Benedict Option looks like going forward. He says the single most important practical task of the Church is to help Christians thrive as Christians. How does the Church — that is, the people of God — accomplish this in a post-Christian world that grows ever more ignorant of and hostile to the faith? Changing times call for changing strategies. Here’s Kalb:
In recent decades Catholic institutions have tended to assimilate to the society around them. That trend is part of the current disarray. There are some Catholic homeschoolers who would like to send their children to the Catholic school across the street but can’t in good conscience because the education on offer is not actually Catholic. That tendency needs to reverse, and it seems likely to do so in the coming years, at least for the institutions that continue to matter. The reasons are intellectual, cultural, and educational as well as specifically religious.
Before the Second Vatican Council many people complained about the narrowness of the Catholic ghetto. The idea seemed to be that the life of the world was going on much more outside the Church than within her, and the Church should throw open her doors and windows and go where the action is. The attempt to apply that strategy may not have improved Catholic intellectual and cultural life, which to all appearances has gone downhill, but the secular culture has gone downhill even more. That’s no surprise: rejecting natural law, adopting a pragmatic attitude toward truth, and making choice the highest good is not a recipe for true or productive thought about the world. The conversion of Saint Augustine came at a time when the exhaustion of classical culture had made the Church the natural home for intellectual activity. If we are right that the Church has a better grip on reality than secular culture, the same seems likely to happen again.
We also need to make it possible to carry on the activities that claim most people’s energies in a more Catholic setting. For most people the greater part of social engagement takes the form of gainful employment. So we need to find and develop work environments that are not at odds with the Faith, either by reason of the employer’s purposes and activities or the view of man inculcated. That will have its complications. Anti-discrimination laws make it impossible to give an ordinary business of any size a specifically Catholic identity, for example by preferring employees who are committed to Catholic principles, or even preferring natural law understandings of human relations. Catholic business would have to be small and informal, perhaps taking the form of networks of independent contractors.
Catholics engage society in other ways, of course, and those should also be put on as Catholic a footing as possible. Charitable activity is an obvious example. In recent times Catholic charitable efforts have emphasized cooperation with government and other non-Catholic actors. The usefulness of that approach is doubtful when government is committed to an anti-Catholic conception of life that inevitably determines the orientation and operation of health and welfare programs in which it is involved.
And finally, Catholics need to engage in political action to defend the Church and Christendom. Government is now inclined to allow the institutional Church some degree of freedom, but to promote social goals such as unity and inclusion in a way that suppresses Christendom as a system of social life. Fighting that tendency will have to be the main focus of Catholic political efforts in the coming years if the Church and Catholic life are to thrive.
Read the whole thing. Note well that Kalb does not call for political quietism, or total disengagement from the world. It is telling, though, that he foresees the “main focus” of Catholic political activism in the years to come not as fighting against abortion, or for health care, or immigration reform, or anything else that has traditionally been part of the US Catholic Church’s political agenda. Rather, it will be the Church fighting simply for the right to be itself.