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Not The Benedict Option

Two good thinkers and writers miss the point

It has been clear for a while that it’s not going to be possible to have a really productive debate about the Benedict Option until the book comes out next spring, and we have something concrete on the table to discuss, instead of a collection of blog posts. I don’t often respond to critiques of the Ben Op nowadays for that reason, but a friend sent me a couple of things he read online recently from distinguished critics, and I want to mention them here, briefly.

The Jesuit politics professor Fr. James Schall dismisses the Ben Op like this:

The problem with this “Benedict Option”, as the theologian Jean Daniélou once noted, is that Christianity is not intended for the few. The whole point of Christianity, as contrasted with Greek elitism, was that it was intended also for the Gentiles, for the poor and the normal, not just the Chosen People. The “Benedict Option”, so it is said, leaves the culture at the hands of the ideologues. It is a counsel of despair that admonishes us to flee.

I have written here a thousand times that the Ben Op does not advocate an Amish total withdrawal from public life, but rather what I call a “strategic retreat”: for Christians to take a few steps back for the sake of deepening our own knowledge of and practice of the faith, precisely so we can live in this post-Christian society more resiliently. The Ben Op is about getting far, far more serious about formation, as well as deepening one’s involvement with local community. On that point, here’s Alasdair MacIntyre from the introduction to the third edition of After Virtue:

My own critique of liberalism derives from a judgment that the best type of human life, that in which the tradition of the virtues is most adequately embodied, is lived by those engaged in constructing and sustaining forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved. Liberal political societies are characteristically committed to denying any place for a determinate conception of the human good in their public discourse, let alone allowing that their common life should be grounded in such a conception. On the dominant liberal view government is to be neutral as between rival conceptions of the human good, yet in fact what liberalism promotes is a kind of institutional order that is inimical to the construction and sustaining of the types of communal relationship required for the best kind of human life.

This critique of liberalism should not be interpreted as a sign of any sympathy on my part for contemporary conservatism. That conservatism is in too many ways a mirror image of the liberalism that it professedly opposes. Its commitment to a way of life structured by a free market economy is a commitment to an individualism as corrosive as that of liberalism. …

When recurrently the tradition of the virtues is regenerated, it is always in everyday life, it is always through the engagement by plain persons in a variety of practices, including those of making and sustaining families and households, schools, clinics, and local forms of political community. …


The flourishing of the virtues requires and in turn sustains a certain kind of community, necessarily a small-scale community, within which the goods of various practices are ordered, so that, as far as possible, regard for each finds its due place with the lives of each individual, or each household, and in the life of the community at large. Because, implicitly or explicitly, it is always by reference to some conception of the overall and final human good that other goods are ordered, the life of every individual, household or community by its orderings gives expression, wittingly or unwittingly, to some conception of the human good. And it is when goods are ordered in terms of an adequate conception of human good that the virtues genuinely flourish. “Politics” is the Aristotelian name for the set of activities through which goods are ordered in the life of the community.

Where such communities exist — and they cannot help but exist—it may be possible for some to live lives they understand.

Elsewhere, the Canadian Catholic writer David Warren criticizes the here. It’s a good column, but I take exception to this excerpt:

The “Benedict option,” so far as I have seen it expounded, strikes me as one of the mistakes. It is a proposal for what we, as men, can do to make things better. The word “option” already gives the game away. We have created a society that is spiritually uninhabitable, with all our other options. This one will fail, too; fail even to get started.

I don’t really understand this criticism. I’m not proposing Utopia. I’m saying that if we Christians are going to live in this time and place as we are supposed to live, we are going to have to do some things radically different. What else is there? What most of us are doing right now is failing. I can’t remember precisely when and where the term “Benedict Option” was coined, or even if I did it, but it’s what has stuck — and it’s a good term, provided that you understand where it comes from: this passage from MacIntyre’s 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—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.

To turn aside = making a choice to opt out for the sake of doing something countercultural.



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