Over the past year few years, Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virtue has made a resurgent comeback, especially with a series of articles that Rod Dreher launched in The American Conservative. In those articles Dreher recalled MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and returned to the provocative suggestion MacIntyre makes that the preservation of civilization in the Dark Ages proceeded not by people attempting to uphold the structures of the collapsing imperium, but on account of those who relinquished broad social engagement and, instead, focused on the formation of small communities wherein the seeds of civilization could be preserved intact, to be replanted one day in a future age. Borrowing a name from perhaps the most famous founder of monastic life in the Church, Dreher promoted this idea as “the Benedict Option”.
The name and idea that accompanies it—novel at the time—is now fairly ubiquitous in Catholic media. Given the changes in the culture, law and politics over the past few years, Dreher’s elaboration of “the Benedict Option” has appealed to many who feel that modern society is like a rapidly spiraling decline that people of sanity and reason cannot stop nor countenance.
Dreher says “we live in a culture of moral chaos and fragmentation, in which many questions are simply impossible to settle. MacIntyre says that our contemporary world is a dark wood, and that finding our way back to the straight path will require establishing new forms of community that have as their ends a life of virtue.” And:
The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents. Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who accept MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to the Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.
This implies a withdrawal, with the goal of embedding oneself within communities and institutions that are separate from the prevailing, declining culture. But is the real solution to today’s problems withdrawing from society—or is it precisely the opposite?
Since Dreher’s argument is, admittedly, the elaboration of MacIntyre’s observation into a socio-political program vis-à-vis the world today, one needs to return to MacIntyre to approach the thinking behind “the Benedict Option”. MacIntyre’s core thinking behind the Benedict Option presumes that in the “Dark Ages … men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead … was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness” (After Virtue, 305).
We see here some significant points to engage or even challenge. First, the reference to “Dark Ages” is quite vague and far too loosely applied. If we were to follow Petrarch—who helped coin the term—then much of Europe’s literary output from the fall of Rome to the Italian Renaissance would be “dark”. But this sweeping dismissal would include everyone from John Chrysostom in the 5th century to Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Even if the label were to be applied simply to the era in which the Roman Empire was collapsing, we have to remember that Augustine and Jerome were inhabitants of exactly that era. So were Isidore of Seville, Pope Leo I, and Pope Gregory I, who all came face-to-face with Barbarian warlords, and yet also made a lasting contribution to both sacred and secular thought. If “Dark Ages” is to be used at all, one must use it recalling that even in those eras when the structures of civilization were truly collapsing, there were always individuals who stood up and worked to turn the tide of the decay. Yet, this is precisely the opposite of the socio-cultural withdrawal suggested by the “Benedict Option”.
Second, returning to the man behind the option, Benedict’s turn from civilization should not be viewed as a far-seeing socio-political calculus, as MacIntyre suggests, but rather as a religiously-inspired flight from “the world” to pursue prayer and asceticism, in the same tradition as the great Egyptian monks and other Christian ascetics who fled to the desert. True, civilization happened to be collapsing around Benedict and his followers would help preserve civilization, but Benedict was motivated by union with God, and not on being a Noah in the tide of the “coming ages of barbarism and darkness”, as MacIntyre suggests.
Third, barring a specific calling from God to leave the world for a life of prayer and asceticism, the majority of the Church weathered the collapse of the Roman Empire not by retreating from the world, but precisely by charging into the void and seizing it for Christ. We believe that was Paul’s thinking behind his decision not to appeal his charges in Jerusalem, but to exercise his right as a Roman citizen to have his case heard by Caesar in Rome (Acts 25:13b-21). He realized the opportunity to preach Christ to the most powerful man in the world. One could respond that it was not the Dark Ages, but in reading Paul’s take on the state of “the world” and “the flesh” throughout his writings (e.g., Gal. 5:13-18, Rom. 8:9-13), you would think it was, in fact, a very dark time.
Then, after Constantine’s legalization of Christianity, the Church stepped up and was just starting to become a power in the world when the Roman Empire was collapsing. St. Gregory the Great became Pope and was single-handedly responsible for restoring some order to much of the collapsing Empire, even in secular-civilizational matters, as well as converting many barbarians to the Faith. St. Leo stood down Attila the Hun outside the gates of Rome and preserved the city from being sacked. St. Boniface converted the Germans, St. Augustine of Canterbury the English, and St. Cyril and Methodius the Slavs. Each brought structures of civilization along with them: St. Cyril invented the Cyrillic alphabet, and St. Mesrop Mashtots invented the Armenian alphabet.
The 20th century historian and author Christopher Dawson speaks in Understanding Europe (first published in 1952) of the dynamics of the Middle Ages, and the role of monasticism in those times, capturing perfectly the issues, people, and motivations of the age in summary fashion:
To the secular historian the early Middle Ages must inevitably still appear as the Dark Ages, as ages of barbarism, without secular culture or literature, given up to unintelligible disputes on incomprehensible dogmas or to savage wars that have no economic or political justification. But to the Catholic they are not dark ages so much as ages of dawn, for they witnessed the conversion of the West, the foundation of Christian civilisation, and the creation of Christian art and Catholic liturgy.
Furthermore, Dawson noted: “If that age was an age of faith, it was not merely on account of its external religious profession”, nor because people then were more moral or more humane or just in their social relations than people are today. “It is rather because they had no faith in themselves or in the possibilities of human effort, but put their trust in something more than civilisation and something outside history…(This attitude) differs essentially in that it did not lead to quietism or fatalism in regard to the external world, but rather to an intensification of social activity…the sense of despair and unlimited impotence and abandonment that the disasters of the time provoked was not inconsistent with a spirit of courage and self-devotion” which inspired people of that time to heroic works and activities.
All of this leads to two conclusions:
1. Since the Benedict Option, in our estimation, does not capture the real issues at heart in the Middle Ages, and mistakes the fundamental motivation of the genius of the era to which it lays claim, it might be reasonably renamed the “Noah Option” as it seems to capture Noah’s situation and worldview far better than Benedict’s.
2. Since the Benedict Option appears to be more motivated by cultural preservation than a supernatural outlook on engagement of the world, we suggest that the Church is better pursuing a path that holds to the necessity to spread the Gospel in the world, but with a sobriety about the real state of affairs in society being critical, a recognition that secularism poses a threat, all of which leads to a realism that our best efforts might not bear visible fruit in our times, but the effort is worth it anyhow. This we’ll call the “Gregorian Option”, after Pope St. Gregory the Great.
The main tenets of such a “Gregorian Option” would be:
(a) the primacy of prayer and the spiritual life above and before all;
(b) a deep concern for the state of the world, and an all-in investment of our witness in public life to bring the light of Christ to the world;
(c) confidence in having the answers, with and through Christ, to the world’s problems;
(d) trust that the ability comes not from man, but from God;
(e) clear, firm, and effective administration of temporal affairs (Gregory knew how many grains of corn there were in a husk and made sure Rome was not being ripped off in the economic trades); and
(f) ultimate, abiding trust in God for the grace to accomplish it, with detachment from success or failure of our efforts.
As Rod Dreher noted in a 2013 Benedict Option piece, “Christians have been here before.” True. And he concludes: “…this is another era of profound civilizational transition, and yes, opportunity. For Christians responding creatively to it, it’s a time of trial and error. Yet all the major religious orders and movements in Christian history arose from experiments undertaken by ordinary people engaging the challenges of their place and time.”
Exactly. And those engagements need to happen where cultural, academic, legal, political and civilizational challenges confront us now. They abound, each with opportunities.