In Real Politics and the Culture Wars, Caleb Bernacchio and Philip de Mahy have admirably tried to bring the BenOp and DomOp proposals together in order to take the conversation in a more localist and more political direction. While I appreciate being kindly included in the project they advance, I would like to correct a basic misimpression they seem to have about my way of seeing these questions.
The most basic mistake they make is to paint the DomOp as “apolitical.” This is an understandable misimpression insofar as my very brief account in First Things can easily be read as “BenOp Plus Evangelization of the Public Square.” As a result, Bernacchio and De Mahy write: “Despite this turn towards the public sphere, Pecknold’s proposal remains fundamentally apolitical.”
It’s true that I affirm Dreher’s point about upon communal formation, and it’s also true that my basic corrective is to stress that communal formation should be tied to evangelistic witness and mission.
But these are mere outlines which need to be filled in.
The early Dominicans preached against the Gnosticism of their own time precisely by preaching not only the saving truths of Christian faith, but also those truths about nature which can be known by the light of unaided reason. The image of St. Dominic I painted was intended to point to this kind of “expansive” and comprehensive witness which leads souls to Christ. This was my way of pointing to an ecclesiological lacunae in Dreher’s proposals: they lack an attentiveness to mission, conversion and yes witness in the public square. (See Matthew 28: 19-20.)
But my Vita Mixta model shouldn’t be construed as “apolitical.” It’s true that I was calling for the conversion of the American people, but I very much had in mind the image of St. Dominic arguing and preaching truths natural and supernatural. For St. Dominic, conversion to natural truths (praeambula fidei) was a crucial way of walking toward the supernatural gift of faith. And it is precisely the most fundamental natural truths that we must now argue for if we are to recover a politics of the common good. I also had in mind a kind of Vita Mixta between the local communal formation as a school of virtue which trains us to make a contribution to the public square. This includes politics.
Fittingly in this respect, though despite their “apolitical point,” Bernacchio and de Mahy also pointed to my National Review essay on what the redefinition of marriage means for the expansion of state power. One of the problems liberal and libertarian readers found with that essay came from the stress I placed on preserving the conjugal definition of marriage as an ontological or natural source for the pre-political society. Neither the liberal nor the libertarian hear “nature” as anything other than some “state of nature” in which the individual exists temporally or conceptually—the individual who enters into social contracts. This is a great contrast from the conservative who believes have a social nature which is inscribes on our bodies through sexual difference, a reproductive system, and the conjugal union which brings a family into existence as the basic social and political unit.
The individual cannot exist without a family, and neither can a society. Similarly, when I say that marriage and family are prior to the political community, I cannot mean that they are not at all political. Indeed, since the political community is nothing other than a union of families, there is another sense in which the family is of utmost concern to any politics of the common good.
But these truths are difficult for the liberal or libertarian to hear since they are not yet converted to these truths of nature. Indeed, they have a difficult time thinking that the common good is anything other than what the government says it is. Most all, because the liberal or libertarian doesn’t think well about things other than politics, they fall either on the side of the state or on the side of individual, and because they can never wrap their head around the family, they have a difficult time understanding how the local matters to politics.
You don’t need to follow St. Dominic to preach such truths in the public square. In fact, you could just follow Aristotle. But the point is that the Dominican Option is committed to both Christian communal formation, and converting the public square precisely because Christians are committed to the common good which the political community has a duty to preserve and protect.
In all my writing on Pope Francis, and especially when writing on his recent encyclical, I have stressed that his papacy is concerned with fighting a profound skepticism about the common good. When he writes about “our common home” he is pointing us to something which is prior to all of us, a gift which we have not made for ourselves, and upon which our existence depends. He is seeking converts to this view, and he is using the progressive matchstick of the environment to do so.
Francis is preaching like St. Dominic to the Gnostics of his day. He is bearing witness to natural truths which are as crucial for the reception of the Gospel as they are for a proper politics of the common good.
To conclude this brief riposte to my generous interlocutors, I will just say that I think that the charge that the Dominican Option is “apolitical” is simply a consequence of wanting my 800-word essay to do something more than provide a corrective reply to Rod Dreher concerning mission, witness, and conversion.
Advancing to my National Review essay on the relationship between the pre-political, the social, and the political should complicate Bernacchio and de Mahy’s view that my proposal lacks a “real politics.” That’s not the work I set out to do there, but the Vita Mixta was intended not only to “double down” on communal formation and witness, but also double down on witness to truths natural and supernatural. Our political problems and divisions, at local and national levels, are profoundly linked to anthropological, ontological and theological disagreements. If we think that the political is something separate from our view of nature, or the common good, then our local, concrete political action will be working blind. If you want to call me “apolitical” for thinking this, you can. But I think the charge is mistaken.
What the authors rightly do, however, is point us to the need of attending to Christian communal formation as well as attend to a politics of the common good which works from the family as the most local, and then outwards in concentric circles, or hierarchical ascent, aiming at the summum bonum, which we may call God. Or at least I hope that is the end to which any politics of the common good worthy of the name will tend. That plea sounds very much like what I imagine the Dominican Option to be, or to become.