Today at Ethika Politika, I take issue with Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” a term inspired by the last paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue.
The basic idea is that, due to the Enlightenment, we have lost the social conditions — in particular a shared moral and religious narrative — that make virtuous living an intelligible and shared social standard. Thus, MacIntyre claimed, “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” He concludes, “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
Dreher has done much to popularize this “Benedict Option,” which he defines as “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.”
There is at least one major problem with this, however. I respond,
Yet as Owen Chadwick noted, it was not until the early ninth century, and that due to strong papal support, that the Rule of St. Benedict became the standard rule in the Frankish Empire. Until that time, the dominant rules were often Celtic, especially the Rule of St. Columbanus, as well as a strong influence from St. John Cassian, St. Basil the Great, and the fathers of the Egyptian desert.
And the Celts, importantly, were not retreating from the world but rather from Ireland in feats of what they termed “green martyrdom,” missionary exile as ascetic discipline. If Thomas Cahill is even half-right, the Irish played just as much a part in saving civilization as the Benedictines, if not far more so. Far from a retreat, their approach was quite confrontational (as was St. Benedict’s, as Goerke points out).
Thankfully, we need not wait for a “new and very different” Irish people as the Irish are still with us. Indeed, the equal respect accorded to Roman Catholics in the United States today is the result (in large part, at least) of a hard-won, confrontational battle of Irish immigrants to carve out an equal place in American society for their children and their cultural and religious heritage (see, e.g. Dagger John). Perhaps traditional Christians looking to preserve a moral culture today have more to learn from them.
It might have been better had I written “see, especially, Dagger John,” since his story is one of remarkable social action and spiritual reform, defending the cause of religious liberty and equal rights for Irish Roman Catholic immigrants in the 19th century and emphasizing the vital role of personal responsibility. (more…)