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The Benedict Option is No Match for Trump, and That’s the Point

The Benedict Option might not have caused Donald Trump. But it hasn’t stopped him, either. That’s partly because it’s not designed to. The best popular, political outcome it promises is to continue fanning the smoldering wick of moral conscience among conservatives. That’s about it.

The irony, of course, is that so many get so worked up over how efficacious the Benedict Option really could be. No wonder it has so few true believers. And no wonder the fruit it bears fails to satisfy for so many others. If you think the Benedict Option — at present — can be anything more than the simple intension of lived Christian community, think again.

I’m a fan of the Benedict Option for a few reasons. The most important being that it’s a theory of Christian life grounded in acute, historical principles. The founding myth, so to speak, is given by MacIntyre in After Virtue, and from there — assuming one is familiar with more than just the final pages of that book — it’s possible to become reassured that a certain secondary principle is or isn’t consistent with the tradition.

For this reason, the Benedict Option is among the simpler, more traditionally minded frameworks of thought concerned with generating holistic cultural and social engagement. Despite that simplicity, however, there’s much to take from it. For instance, read this outstanding analysis by Caleb Bernacchio and Philip de Mahy on the Benedict Option at the crossroads of ethics and economics.

One criticism of Benedict Option thinking is that because it doesn’t directly produce real-world effects — or because those effects aren’t puristic — it’s not salutary. But that’s a category error. How could it produce direct political or social effects? (And for that matter, how could it directly prevent them?) That’d be especially ironic given MacIntyre’s portrayal of the non-communicability of virtue in contemporary society. Rod Dreher makes a similar point: he calls the Benedict Option “an intentional and thoughtful retreat into narrativity, by which I mean a reclaiming of the church’s story, inculcating commitment to it within the lives of its members, in defiance of the narrative collapse around us.”

Dreher says that to ask whether the Benedict Option could have caused Trump’s political ascendancy is “a stupid question to ask. A really stupid question.” I assume he means it’s stupid because it’s just the wrong sort of question. Maybe he thinks it’s even worse than that, since it forces an answer that’s de facto inaccurate — “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”

I think the question illustrates well the very problem MacIntyre assigns to our age. And forming an eloquent response to it, and others like it, is the fruit he envisions a new Benedict will offer. But it’s difficult, then, in the process not to face what seems to be an inherent and necessary “bug” of such a conceptual framework: the overwhelming instinct to withdraw.


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  • NDaniels

    I await an eloquent response from Our Holy Father, Benedict, to the Benedict option, that will not leave us orphans.

  • byrneb

    The fight or flight response to danger was ingrained in our instincts by our earliest ancestors. It is natural, normal, and healthy, based on a rapid yet thorough assessment of our surroundings, our abilities, our duty, and our adversaries. I don’t see the Benedict option as strictly either. I might call it evolved, civilized, practical; what I see is a middle ground of standing firm with resolve, reflection, and clear purpose. It is no flight: the fight the Benedict option prepares for is not the present danger, or even the past, but the deeper, darker threat lurking in the shadows, not far off. History informs us what men can do.

    The Benedict Option resonates with me as a father of five. Mothers and fathers are endowed with an instinct at least the equal to the fight or flight response, which is to protect their children. The process of doing so begins early in life, before our children are even born. We prepare with the sacraments of Baptism, Penance, Holy Communion, Confirmation, and Marriage to build a home, a retreat, a place of repose within which to begin the protecting, nurturing, and fruitful work of parents. We bring our love to our little domestic church at the service of our offspring that they may grow to seek and find God, to know, love and serve Him in their vocation in life.

    Sometimes it can be hard. Through our own fault, through sin, through difficult circumstance, we do not provide the perfect home, we are not perfect exemplars, we do not succeed in providing that necessary society of the family as God intends. But we press on. We endure. We strive to build and rebuild that foundation through which our children’s lives are deeply influenced.

    I think honestly, when we look at exemplary family lives, not in a secular sense, but successful families in a godly sense, what we see at the center is a rock. There is a firm, spiritual foundation upon which any truly functional domestic church rests. Out of this, the love of the family can extend outward, into the community like a beacon of light. But without that solid foundation, and more, without a citadel built upon it, brick by brick, stone by stone, protecting it, preserving it, treating it with due value and respect, embracing it, it can be undone.

    As parents I see it as our duty and purpose to provide that foundation and build that citadel for my children, to create an environment conducive to developing well rounded, grounded, loving and caring, educated, and productive adults. The opportunity to do so as part of a community of well intentioned, like minded adults who share the same sense of purpose and duty I find appealing. Not to leave the world behind, but to share the burden of preparing our children to live in it responsibly, with conviction, well prepared for whatever may come next. Pax et bonum