The Benedict Option as a Missed Opportunity

By Caleb Bernacchio
October 13, 2017

Nearly seven months after The Benedict Option was published it is quite apparent that it represents a missed opportunity to appropriate MacIntyre’s key insights for the contemporary political context.

Our current time is quite clearly a MacIntyrean moment: a time when we are becoming more aware of both the inadequacy of existing social and political institutions and of our participation in a number of rival traditions of moral, political, and theological inquiry. We live in a self-consciously pluralistic age and we can no longer accept without questions the moral authority of major modern institutions like the nation-state, the market, or the corporation.

MacIntyre's Insights

For over ten years ago, beginning with the publication of Crunchy Cons, and culminating in The Benedict Option, Dreher has noted MacIntyre’s foresight concerning these issues. But unfortunately his misreading of MacIntyre has only served to further inoculate the educated public from taking seriously MacIntyre’s claims. On Dreher’s reading, MacIntyre is something like an Old Testament prophet, perhaps Jonah, declaring the impending doom facing secular society if and when its members refused to return to orthodox Christianity.

Except this reading gets MacIntyre entirely wrong. He was not even a Christian when the famous lines about St Benedict were written. Unlike Dreher, MacIntyre has acknowledged the complex relationship between secular society and Christianity, recognizing that the causal arrow runs in both directions: Christian belief may positively inform secular practice and particular forms of secular practice provide the context whereby Christian belief becomes intelligible.

This key insight is at basis of the first missed opportunity, the opportunity to recenter the focus of political concern on mid-level communities. MacIntyre has consistently acknowledged both the necessity of the state and the impossibility of any form of communitarianism that would imbue the state with a moral dignity beyond its instrumental status. In an age of Trump, when outrage is directed toward NFL players who kneel during the national anthem, we ought to realize that nationalism is not patriotism. MacIntyre’s work provides an opportunity for understanding professions, local communities, and even organizations (see the recent book titled Virtue at Work) as the locus of a distinct common good that is often obscured by the myopic focus on national politics. This opportunity has been obscured by Dreher’s theological and sectarian reading of After Virtue. And has MacIntyre has argued, flourishing communities actually provide the context whereby the Gospel can be properly understood.

The second key insight stems from MacIntyre’s later work on the rationality of traditions. Far from a reactionary rejection of pluralism, this work provides instead a full-fledged theory of rationality within a pluralistic context. As a cursory reading of the debates surrounding James Martin’s new book indicate, there is little interest, especially among the most conservative Catholics, in debating rival positions. But this is just what MacIntyre’s theory of traditions requires. He conceptualizes traditions, as traditions of inquiry, as extended debates about the fundamental goods of one’s tradition. As a member of tradition one ought to appreciate the opportunity to be challenged by rivals both within and outside of one’s tradition. Why? Because only debate with rivals enables one to be satisfied with the rationality of one’s own beliefs. But Dreher has show little interest in this aspect of MacIntyre’s work. Instead, he has primarily been concerned with means of avoiding contact with rival traditions.

But for Vatican II

And what is more, for Catholics it is hard to reconcile Dreher’s Benedict Option, with the pastoral vision of Vatican II. MacIntyre, whose work provides a solid basis for appreciating the value of secular practices and the value of dialogue with rival traditions, offers a more compelling basis for appropriating the insights of the Council.

MacIntyre’s offers two key insights that are especially suited to our time: the importance of mid-level communities, communities that are needed for the development of the virtues - and the appreciation of the Gospel - and the self-conscious appropriation of one’s tradition as a tradition of inquiry through dialogue with rival traditions. Dreher’s focus on sectarian issues has lead him to overlook the important secular function of MacIntyre’s notion of community; and the opportunity for debate provided by our pluralist culture. MacIntyre’s new St Benedict is more likely to be a laywomen working in a corporate job who is involved in some form of community organizing than a monk in Norcia.