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Is The Benedict Option Only For The Privileged?

A reviewer finds The Benedict Option too narrowly focused on the middle class
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From my interview with Crux, the Catholic web magazine:

The Benedict Option offers some strong proposals-such as homeschooling or pursuing classical Christian education, relocating to live in more intentional Christian communities, and rethinking employment so as not to compromise religious commitments. Does this limit the Benedict Option to a very wealthy and privileged group of Christians that can afford to take such measures?

That’s a good question, and it might well could do that. For example, homeschooling is not exclusively the province of the well-off middle class, but it does take having one parent at home to be able to pull this off successfully and one parent with a high enough income that can support the family, so that does limit it.

At the same time, I think that we have to start somewhere, and it can’t be the case that we have to wait to come up with a Benedict Option proposal that can suit everyone in all places before we start doing some small things. I think we have to work outward and make this something that can take in more people, such as the working class and the poor.

I’m thinking now of this classical Christian school in Dallas-the West Dallas Community School-it’s in the poorest part of Dallas and it brings classical Christian education to the poorest of the poor, almost all of whom in that neighborhood are African American or Hispanic. The school exists primarily out of the generosity of white Christians who are well-off in another part of Dallas and are reaching out to the poor and supporting them with their donations, expertise, and all kind of things. So, that’s a start-that’s one Benedict Option community that is a good example for the rest of us.

I think that ultimately, just as the church is not “the middle class in prayer” or “the upper class in prayer,” so too, the Benedict Option must avoid the same thing. But, we have to start somewhere and I don’t want people to get so discouraged that they don’t try to be creative and to be what Pope Benedict called us to be: “creative minorities.”

Caleb Bernacchio takes this question to a deeper level in an Ethika Politika column today. Excerpt:

In the beginning of the book, Dreher offers, what might be termed, a conservative Christian reading of MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Where MacIntyre made passing reference to Saint Benedict, Dreher – through a reading of the Rule and a detailed portrait of life in the Benedictine Monastery in Norcia – offers a powerful vision of communal life centered upon shared goods and cooperative social relations. In doing this he gives flesh to MacIntyre’s brief reference, illustrating the qualities that MacIntyre must have appreciated in the Benedictines, qualities that make for a striking contrast with today’s atomistic social relations.

Dreher goes beyond MacIntyre, arguing that what matters today is the preservation of Christianity in the face of the contemporary secularism. But it seems incredible to suggest that preserving or establishing a Christian culture – even if only within the confines a Benedict Option community – could somehow avoid considering such basic questions about human needs. As Irenaeus said, gloria Dei est vivens homo – typically paraphrased as the Glory of God is man fully alive. What is lacking in The Benedict Option, and what is needed, is a holistic vision of human flourishing that contextualize Dreher’s concerns with secularism. Otherwise Benedict’s Rule will only be relevant to those who are relatively well-off.

Dreher discuses “anti-political” politics and religious liberty at length. This account hesitantly points toward a post-communitarian politics. What I mean by this is that it points toward a type of politics that treats the state as a bureaucratic institution to be configured in whatever manner best promotes the common good of local communities and associations. In doing this, Dreher moves closer to MacIntyre’s own position on the state, which is often mistakenly equated with quietism (see Elizabeth Bruenig for a recent example of this mistake). Instead MacIntyre has favored a range of federal and state-level political programs, things like universal basic income, school vouchers, congressional reform, and legislation to support those with disabilities.

Where MacIntyre acknowledges that local communities depend upon public goods provided by the state, Dreher focuses myopically on one public good, religious liberty. One wonders, how much does religious liberty really matter to someone who is unemployed and lacking healthcare? Dreher ought to expand his vision; Benedict Option communities require a robust state and federal politics aimed at securing all of the conditions needed for local communities to thrive.

While Dreher’s discussion of education raises serious concerns that cannot be ignored by any parent, it is unclear how Dreher’s proposals – the founding of classical schools or homeschooling – can be implemented by the vast majority of people, who are lacking time and financial resources for either suggestion. Again this points to a broader, more radical vision of local community where these needs can be better addressed as well as toward political efforts.

I think these are all fair and challenging points. In my defense, I would say that The Benedict Option is by no means a comprehensive book, nor was it ever intended to be. I’ve been dialoguing with Caleb Bernacchio about this stuff for a couple of years, and I’ve been telling him that the depth of his concerns would be far beyond the scope of the relatively short book I was going to write. And so it has proved to be. I have also been encouraging him for a couple of years to write the book on political economy in the Benedict Option that he wishes I had written. I renew that call today. It’s a seriously important book, one that needs to be written.. I’m just starting Adrian Pabst and John Milbank’s The Politics Of Virtue, which sounds a lot like the book Caleb wants to read.

By the way, every one of my chapters could have been — and could be — a book of its own. My hope for The Benedict Option is that it starts conversations, and inspires other Christians who have the passion and the expertise to go deeper in these areas to take the plunge. It is far more a question-raiser of a book than a question-answerer. As I say repeatedly in The Benedict Option, we small-o orthodox Christians are all going to need to work out our future together, as creative minorities.

To Caleb’s points, though, I fully concede that some of the proposals in the book are not available to the poor and working class. That does not mean we shouldn’t implement them, or at least try. It only means that we need to expand our thinking and our commitment to making these goods available to the entire community, beyond our economic class. I don’t believe it is necessary to have a Total Theory of The Benedict Option™ worked out before observing that the liberal order in which we live is breaking down and becoming ever more antagonistic to Christianity, and that the church had better quit taking its liberties and its character for granted.

I believe that the Benedict Option can exist under a liberal welfare state, and under illiberal regimes. I am especially focused on religious liberty, not because I don’t care about health care, national security, economic progress, and all the other aspects of ordinary political life. I focus on religious liberty because without it, the things we Christians (and all religious people) value most of all will be at risk. I can live as a Christian under Swedish socialism, and I can live as a Christian under Texas free-market libertarianism, and I can live as a Christian under Putin-style illiberalism, and so forth. But if you pare down my religious liberties, especially my ability to participate in Christian institutions governed by Christian beliefs, and my ability to buy, to sell, and to work — well, we’ve got a big problem.

As a general disposition, I favor federalism and localism, but I do not have an ideological hostility to the state per se. What I object to is the state moving into the vacuum left by the ongoing collapse of civil society and mediating institutions. Religious liberty is so important to defend because it preserves our ability to function in society as members of mediating institutions.

About schooling, it is certainly the case that most people will not be able to afford classical Christian schools, or private schooling at all. This is where vouchers and charter schools can help as a matter of policy. Beyond that, I think it’s a tremendously important ministry opportunity for local churches to start or expand classical Christian schools, and subsidize tuition for poor and working class children, as well as involve church members in mentorship activities. The West Dallas Community School is a terrific model. If I had it to do over again, I would have featured it in The Benedict Option as an alternative model, alongside St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland. But don’t think that St. Jerome, a Catholic parish school, is only for the middle-class and the well-to-do. From the book:

The new St. Jerome Academy made a priority of reaching out to parents and involving them in the life of the school and its classical vision. And the team followed a small-c catholic educational vision, rejecting the idea that classical education was only for highly intentional Catholics.

“This doesn’t mean you accept anybody into the school,” says Currie. “There are some kids who may not be able to profit from a classical education and will disrupt others in their classes. But that number is very small. We’re very diverse and have students from every racial and socioeconomic group. Once parents see the difference it makes in the kids, they’re sold. The way we see it, this education is for people from all walks of life.”

The school’s team sees classical education in part as a form of evangelism. It’s not even 100 percent Catholic in its population — but it is 100 percent Catholic in its vision and curriculum. I learned in my reporting that some parents have been so moved by the education their kids received at St. Jerome — not just the content, but the form of learning — that they converted to Catholic Christianity.

Again: I think it’s a mistake to think we have to have it all worked out in advance before we try anything at all. The Tipi Loschi started the Scuola G.K. Chesterton with only a handful of students. They’ve grown from there, and reach out to the entire community. You don’t have to be part of the Tipi Loschi fellowship to attend the school, but you do have to be willing to send your kids into a classical school that is vigorously Catholic. The school raises money to help provide scholarships for poor and working-class kids. Marco Sermarini and his Tipi Loschi colleagues did not have all of this worked out when they started the school. They took a couple of steps, and certain paths opened for them.

Point is, I welcome the efforts of Caleb Bernacchio and everybody else to figure out what the Benedict Option concept can mean in all aspects of our lives as Christians — political, educational, communal, and so forth. It’s not just a nice phrase when I say that we need each other; I really mean it. In my original plan for the book, I had hoped to visit the Mondragon cooperative in Spain, which I learned about through Caleb. It turned out that I did not have the time to do that before the deadline the publisher gave me. Besides, I had a hard limit on the number of words I could write, which strictly limited how long each chapter could be.

(People have this idea that writers have full control over the length of their books, but it’s not always the case. Believe it or not, unless you a well-established popular author, books that are much longer than The Benedict Optionwhich comes in just shy of 250 pages, I think, are less commercially viable. If you read this blog, you know how long I tend to write. I could have easily written The Benedict Option at 500 pages, and not batted an eye. But the audience for a book that long would have been very small. This is where having an editor is a godsend. It really is.)

Look, there honestly are a hundred things that occurred to me after I finished the book, things that I wish I had put in there, or wanted to rewrite to put in there. This can’t be helped. But please, don’t let the shortcomings of my little book dissuade you writers and journalists and academics who find the Benedict Option concept important and interesting from writing books of your own focusing more narrowly and in depth. There’s so much out there to learn. Last week, when I was at the Bruderhof in the Hudson River Valley, I visited the small factory where they make the furniture and other things with which the movement supports itself. It’s a communal endeavor that has been quite successful. There are lessons we can all earn from them.

There are plenty more books to be written about being creative, entrepreneurial minorities. Mine is only a seed. If The Benedict Option has you thinking and talking about it, by all means, write a book yourself! Teach me, and teach all of us. Nothing would make me happier than my book having encouraged a hundred writers to do books expanding on the themes in it.



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