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The Benedict Option as a Missed Opportunity

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.


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  • I read the Benedict Option this summer in Germany at a Lutheran Franciscan monastery in Darmstadt. I was repelled by many of Dreher’s assertions. My friend the Franciscan said that marriage ties us to the world and children even more so. When Paul talks about the cares of this world what could fit that description more than kids? The Franciscan order began when Brother Francis said, Jesus was poor; I want to be like Jesus. Francis gave away his possessions, his birthright, even his clothes and insisted that all who follow him do the same.
    Dreher puts the family at the center of Christian practice. He is wrong. If Christianity were an Army, the young people who ache for the Kingdom and care for nothing else would be the Paratroopers and Rangers of our faith. the married believers handle supply and logistics for the real soldiers. Paul spent his life of faith trying to die and finally succeeding. I am a father of six. I have sacrificed for my kids. My wife and I have one 16-year-old car. So what? Dreher makes parents who sacrifice for their kids heroes. Are they different from non-believers?
    The radical thing in all the history of the world is to foreswear the vanity of reproducing and care for others until you die. So many people leaders and thinkers from Tacitus to Nietzsche have written off Christianity because it renounces the world at its core. They would not criticize the Benedict Option.

    • NDaniels

      The point of the Benedict Option is that God defines what is Good, whether it be for Life, for Love, or for Marriage. We, who are Christian, are called to witness to this absolute Truth, whether it be in private or in public, and through our witness, “Go, and make disciples of all Nations”, each of us answering God’s Call, and God’s desire for our vocation.

  • Ceh Dee

    I like the general movement of this essay with its focus on “mid-level communities” over against national and sectarian interests, but I am still a bit baffled by this “secular/Christian” dichotomy. I am honestly confused. What is a “secular practice”? One that makes no (explicit?) reference to any one religious tradition? Are secularity and Christianity even on the same spectrum? Are there not secular Christians? I would appreciate some clarification on this.

    • Caleb Bernacchio

      Medicine, farming, banking, accounting, soccer, various forms of music, different types of politics, etc.

      • Caleb Bernacchio

        I’m a bit surprised by your questions. All of the world is not Christian or even religious in any ordinary sense of this term so there is a straightforward dichotomy between those parts of the world that are Christian, those practices, institutions, norms, and beliefs, and those that are not. Does medicine make an implicit or explicit reference to a religious tradition? I’d say the answer is clearly no. I am not sure what you mean by spectrum here. What is a secular Christian?

        • Ceh Dee

          Hi, Caleb. Thanks for your response. Yeah, I certainly agree that there are practices and beliefs that are not explicitly Christian, which establishes one kind of dichotomy, but I don’t think we’d normally equate non-Christian practices with secular practices. Hanukkah is non-Christian, but probably not secular. And yet, we speak of “secular” Judaism and, moreover, “secularized” Christmas. So, things with clear religious reference are also referred to as “secular.” What does this mean? A good definition I came across recently for “secular” is this: “the explicit disavowal of the sacred.” (from Niebuhr’s “The Christian Church in a Secular Age”) Hence, secular Christmas is gift-giving and carols, even with a mention of cradles and farm animals here and there, but without reference to Salvation history. A secular Christian, in turn, is one who might thing that Jesus is a good moral teacher but not the Lamb of God who has supernaturally redeemed our sins (This, I think, is how Niebuhr’s definition plays out, at least.). In brief, I think the secular / Christian dichotomy at best vague and at worst very misleading, since it makes us think that some either-or division exists between non-comparable things like “Christianity”, on the one hand, and “medicine, farming, banking…” Do you see what I mean?

          • Caleb Bernacchio

            Yes I suppose I should have specified this in more detail. Jewish practices are of course not secular so we might say that the dichotomy should be secular / religious but since I am not here talking about other religions I just said secular / Christian dichotomy. You might look at Charles Taylor or especially the documents of Vatican II for some of the background on my usage of ‘secular’.

  • Brent Harris

    Great article, captures Charles Taylors insights, Distributis thought and of course the failed understanding of Drehr on MacIntyre. Another good read on secular liturgies is of course James K. A Smith “You are What You Love”