Beyond the Benedict option: how Christians can engage while being counter-cultural
In recent months Catholic intellectuals in Italy have been engaged in an important conversation about the political responsibilities of Italian Catholics. The conversation took on a certain urgency last summer following a heated debate about whether Catholic organizations, communities and families ought to have participated in a Family Day march that was organized to protest the teaching of gender theory in Italian schools. It continued to boil over this week as upwards of one million participants joined another Family Day march in Rome to protest a pending vote in the Italian parliament to legalize civil unions. Il Foglio, an Italian newspaper, drew a connection between this conversation and the controversy in the United States following the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. In particular, Il Fogliowondered whether it would be appropriate to adopt the so-called Benedict option, as first described by Alasdair MacIntyre and popularized by Rod Dreher. Mr. MacIntyre’s suggestion was inspired by St. Benedict of Nursia, who left the business of Rome to pray in the woods, eventually creating a community that grew into the Benedictine order and the entire tradition of monasticism in the West. In the present Italian context, the Benedict option would seem to imply withdrawal from broader public involvement in order to create, in Mr. MacIntyre’s words, “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained.”
As an American living in Rome, I must admit that the Benedict option has personal resonance for me. I have often been tempted to follow in St. Benedict’s footsteps from Rome to Subiaco to escape the din and chaos of the city, if not the spiritual wasteland it represented for him. But I cannot bring myself to endorse the Benedict option as our best hope for the salvation of church and society right now, neither in Italy nor in the United States. Like the Italian bishops’ conference, echoed by Julián Carrón in letters explaining why Communion and Liberation community’s decided to not officially endorse either of the two Family Day marches, I, too, believe that there are better models to imitate in this historical moment that are more firmly rooted in dialogue than the Benedict option appears to be.
Political Catholicism in Italy
In a set of recent conferences and workshops hosted at John Cabot University in Rome, several colleagues and I have been attempting to map out Catholic politics in Italy today. One of the major themes that emerges from our research is the sense of “Catholic diaspora” felt by many everyday faithful Catholics, who still live in the ruins the Christian Democratic party left behind. They are unhappy with their political choices, particularly those offered to them in the recent past, which saw a close alliance between many Catholics, especially in the ecclesiastical ranks, and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right politics.
The Catholic diaspora points to the dramatically altered religious landscape in contemporary Italy (and, to a great degree, the contemporary United States as well). That landscape is best described as one of “advanced religious complexity,” which still supports a thriving, social-capital-rich Catholic subculture composed of hundreds of different lay communities, movements and associations. This subculture has realized a newfound public relevance and civic leadership, something many thought had been permanently destroyed 20 years ago with the collapse of Christian Democracy. Yet this same subculture has had an enormously hard time trying to translate this realization into anything that resembles a coherent political project.
One major impediment to the construction of such a project is the poverty of language and paradigm with which Catholic civic leaders and politicians look out on the world. That world is characterized, first of all, by political pluralism. Such pluralism exists within a post-Christian context (as center-right Catholics emphasize in the United States) but also, unexpectedly, within a postsecular context as well.
One opportunity afforded by these dual conditions is a greater understanding of the nead for dialogue between the secular and Christian humanistic impulses that inspire progressive attempts to write into law a social contract that protects the full dignity of all human beings. In this context, as the dialogues between then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Jürgen Habermas elegantly suggested in 2004, neither relentlessly fighting against secularization (as the center-right Catholic world has tended to do) nor endlessly making accommodations in language and law to meet secular standards and expectations (as the center-left Catholic world has tended to do) cuts the mustard. The secularization paradigm is no longer sufficient to explain our times. The responsibilities of Christians in politics require major new thinking.
Culture Wars and Catholic Credibility
In this framework, the Benedict option could be understood as a response to the post-Christian conditions of the world but not the postsecular ones. And we can see the results dramatically at work in the limitations of the conservative, post-Christian response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June 2015 on same-sex marriage in the Obergefell v. Hodges case. While many conservatives have drawn parallels to the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, they do not hold as tightly as might be expected. Back then, in 1973, the religious-secular cleavage was more stark. The best a Catholic could do to support abortion, as Mario Cuomo memorably attempted at Notre Dame in 1984, was to say: “I accept the church’s teaching on abortion. Must I insist you do? By law?” There was, then and now, no possibility of a “theology of abortion,” particularly abortion on consumer demand.
This is not the case with the gay rights movement. One of the major reasons why the United States saw such a landslide shift in public opinion over the last five years on this issue is that the gay rights movement, together with Catholic intellectuals and evangelical preachers, articulated in a very postsecular way a convincing public theological case for the rights of gay and lesbian couples.
The American conservative movement made and continues to make immensely important criticisms of the liberal case for gay marriage and the unforeseen consequences it could have on American society, if an aggressive liberal orthodoxy insidiously silences critical voices and organizations. But the same movement proved incapable of publicly responding to the extremely thorny Christian case of gay dignity and the right to full participation in our common life. This failure was made worse by the single worst crisis of credibility in the history of the American Catholic Church, the sexual-abuse scandal. The closeness in public perception of too many members of the Catholic hierarchy leading last-ditch, unsuccessful campaigns against same-sex marriage without having accepted full responsibility for covering up clerical sex offenders was captured, perhaps most ignominiously and ironically, in the resignation of the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis the week before the Obergefell decision was handed down.
Jean Vanier, Charles Taylor and Kenosis
Rod Dreher is aware of all of this and has written very courageously about the failures of the Catholic Church in the sexual-abuse scandal. Indeed, at the heart of his appeal to the Benedict option is an appeal to restore Christian credibility and reinvigorate Christian witness through the construction of communities living authentic, countercultural ways of life. When he writes that we need to teach “the great tradition of Christian humanism” in “a more vigorous, theologically substantive form of the faith,” my heart swells. These are my deepest desires, too. But there are other ways of doing exactly this, of teaching and living and witnessing to an ideal of putting one’s community before oneself, without accepting (or desiring) self-imposed exile, endless battles in the culture wars, an ever-growing distance from the world’s political and social institutions (which Christians helped build in the first place) and a rejection of the moral-therapeutic-deist millennials. While these young people may not readily embrace a confessional theology, they nonetheless feel the attraction of some Christian ideals and still search for dialogue.
Mr. Dreher’s vocabulary of authenticity, witness and counterculture and his intense interest in aesthetics conjure up the thought-world of another communitarian philosopher: not Alasdair MacIntyre but Charles Taylor. And it is no accident of history that Mr. Taylor has begun a project that, really for the first time, explicitly theorizes this same vocabulary for the church, in his cooperation with José Casanova on a project entitled Renewing the Church in a Secular Age. By naming and chronicling the ways in which Christians can live deeply embedded, immanent lives in a world strongly marked by secular humanism, Mr. Taylor’s project aims to show how they can, at the same time, empathetically and credibly offer a witness to Christian love. The key word to the project is kenosis, the self-emptying and powerfully performative witness that Christians provide when they embrace radical, suffering-servant lifestyles in solidarity with all the marginalized peoples of the planet. It is a vision of renewal through mercy that coheres well with Francis’ papacy (especially the vision set out in “Laudato Si’”) and represents an important postsecular alternative to the culture-wars approach.
At the Pontifical Gregorian University last spring, the only real example Mr. Taylor proffered for what these immanent witnessing Catholic lifestyles might look like was the communities of L’Arche, founded by Jean Vanier. Vanier won the Templeton Prize last year for his example of how to incarnate (and communicate) this performative witness by living joyfully, prayerfully and in awe in the same community home for 50 years in the woods of northern France with a dozen men and women with disabilities and with other volunteers who came to participate in their communion. The L’Arche communities are very immanent. They are radically and authentically open to the “other.” They are completely countercultural—not so much because their intention is to put themselves “against” some contrary ideal but because their vocation to friendship with the cast-off and the weak has led them to life choices very different from those of the world. And in their work, they seek out more often than shut out cooperation with the secular world’s professional institutions and philosophical insights.
Not Our Only Option, Not Our Only Hope
The Benedict option cannot be our best and only hope for the salvation of the church right now. We have good reason to believe that there are immensely fruitful patterns of authentic witness that are built on a radical understanding of dialogue and that do not presuppose the culture-wars hypothesis. To loose the chains imposed by the language of the political spectrum, it may be helpful to think of these two vectors (the MacIntyre and Taylor positions) as complementary charisms rather than polarizing political positions. We need both of them for the postsecular and post-Christian conditions of our times. Perhaps even more, we need the church to be able to learn from both of them, and from the encounter between them, so that we can all share some basic language and goals to help us continue to engage and evangelize the world.
In this endeavor, Italy enjoys a great advantage over the United States because of the history and legacy of Christian Democracy, which, for all its problems, provided a home in which these charisms could work together. And it is for this reason that I found the Italian bishops’ decision and Don Carrón’s letter so encouraging. Their language was sensitive to both the postsecular and the post-Christian contexts in which it would be received. They recognized the need to articulate a broader, larger and more nuanced understanding of Catholic action and presence in Italian society, thus transforming, or even simply avoiding, the devastating American culture-wars paradigm.
A Dominican Option
Last year, responding in the journal First Things to an article by Mr. Dreher about the Benedict option, C. C. Pecknold tried to put in a word for a “Dominican option,” which is rather similar to the Benedict option but also involves itinerant, fiery preaching. To extend Mr. Pecknold’s call, perhaps what we should hope and pray for the church is for modern-day Dominicans and Franciscans who together can engage both the post-Christian and the postsecular conditions in our world with fire and joy.
There is a Romanesque basilica dedicated to St. Dominic in Bologna, near where I met my wife (who lights some Dominican fire under the Franciscan joy of our love) and where St. Dominic spent the last three years of his life among students at the University of Bologna. In the center of the preacher’s rostrum, in the middle of the monks’ choir area, there is a historically inaccurate but spiritually beautiful depiction of the embrace of St. Dominic and St. Francis, whose orders together renewed the church during very dark times in the 13th century.
The iconography of the kiss between the two saints echoes the recurring stories of pairs in salvation history who filled out each other’s holiness in necessary and mysterious ways—Adam and Eve, Moses and Aaron, Peter and John, Mary and Martha, Dominic and Francis. Left to themselves, the Franciscans and Dominicans had their colossal failures and risks. The Dominicans produced both St. Thomas Aquinas and the Inquisition. And while the spirit of St. Francis may live on in communities like L’Arche, the messiness of their radical openness at times risks emptying out their spiritual identity; and these communities are in need of a constant renewal of faith.
In the greeting of Pope Emeritus Benedict and the newly elected Pope Francis at Castel Gandolfo in 2013, we have been gifted with one of the great embraces of all time, one that prophetically invites the Dominicans and Franciscans in our midst (and surely the Benedictines as well) to embrace often and let each other’s charisms fill out their holiness for the renewal of the church in these sociologically and morally complex times. May a centuries-long iconography of that embrace begin soon and find room in our churches, homes and universities.