First Things talks to Catholic philosophy professor Peter Kwasniewski about his new book, titled A Reader on Catholic Social Teaching. Here’s an excerpt from the interview; the speaker here is Kwasniewski:
This reminds me of a fictional exchange I saw. One person asks: “What are youth looking for today in the Church?” A youth responds: “Orthodoxy, reverence, beauty.” The other replies: “So, then, you want more guitar Masses?” This is how it is with CST [Catholic Social Teaching]. What are we looking for? A compelling vision of a genuinely Christian society we can hold up as a model, aspire to, and work for. The hunger and thirst for such a society—the inescapable need of it for human flourishing—explains the enormous popularity of the “Benedict Option,” which I have argued is too weak a term. We should speak of the “Benedict Imperative.”
Yes, that’s why I give the final chapter of The Benedict Option the title “The Benedict Decision.” The “option” in the title refers to the inspiration for the book: the final paragraph of MacIntyre’s After Virtue, especially these lines:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when 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 often not recognizing fully what they were doing—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.
The “option” I pose to my readers is: Will you, Christian, choose to keep shoring up the American imperium, continuing to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium; or will you focus instead on building new forms of Christian community within which the orthodox Christian faith might survive what is to come?
If I have made my case well, the reader will arrive at the end of The Benedict Option convinced that there really is no option for serious orthodox Christians — that the Benedict Option really is the Benedict Imperative. But let’s check out Kwasniewski’s case for “the Benedict Imperative”. Excerpt:
In like manner and for much the same reasons, man is a liturgical animal; hence not to receive a rich inheritance of the sacred liturgy from one’s forefathers is equally contrary to man’s social nature and supernatural dignity. Surely, a Catholic who does not have this double inheritance of culture and liturgy is living a sub-optimal life, suffering from spiritual orphanhood, amnesia, myopia.
To go further: without external identifiable signs in which its allegiance to truth is unambiguously manifested, a minority cannot long survive in a hostile environment; it will simply be assimilated to the enemy’s signs. All people have ‘sacraments’ or signs of what is sacred to them, venerated as guarantors of righteousness. The difference is between those who have true sacraments and those who have false ones.
So, talking about a Benedict Option is far too weak. We should speak rather of a Benedict Imperative. The Christian Faith, when believed and lived, will necessarily create a Christian culture and a Christian society; it demands them as its native environment and fairest flowering.
Well, yes, but I want to emphasize to the reader that authentic Christian culture (Catholic and otherwise) will not survive on its own. It depends on a choice we all have to accept or reject it. When Kwasniewski writes:
Alasdair MacIntyre was by no means incorrect, then, to say that we, too, are waiting for our Benedict — but I am not so sure he was right that he had to be “doubtless very different.” It is our modern pride that makes us think the modern Benedict must not look and think and act like the Patriarch of Western monasticism and the Co-Patron of Europe.
… I think he misinterprets MacIntyre’s point (though it’s hard to know for sure; MacIntyre wrote those lines before his conversion). The Benedict of the post-Christian era will have to be different from the Benedict of old for a couple of reasons.
First, Benedict of Nursia appeared in a culture that had yet to be fully Christianized. Christianity was a relatively new thing for Mediterranean Rome, and had not seriously penetrated northern and central Europe. Today, we have lived through Christianity, and are shedding it.
Second, Benedict of Nursia appeared in a world that was still “enchanted,” in the sense that its people believed in a spiritual reality behind the visible world, and believed that people, places, and things could in some sense be specially attuned to that spiritual reality. The visible world was charged with the presence of God. We live in a world that has been disenchanted. This is why modern Christians like C.S. Lewis and David Bentley Hart argue that a Christian would likely have more luck making a case for Christianity to an honest pagan than a disenchanted, thoroughly secularized person of this time and place.
Third, and following on the previous point, people today cannot fail to be aware that religious belief is unavoidably a choice. What philosopher Charles Taylor means by “a secular world” is not a world that is without religious belief, but rather a world in which everyone is aware that his religious beliefs are chosen (because he might have chosen otherwise). You might be a thoroughly convinced Roman Catholic, but you can’t not know that you might live otherwise.
In my own case, my father was so unsettled by my conversion to Catholicism not because he had any theological objections (he wasn’t much of a churchgoer, and wouldn’t have known where to begin), but because my leaving the Methodist Church meant that one of the marks of family identity that he had assumed was simply the way things were was suddenly revealed to be fragile. “But the Drehers have always been Methodist!” he protested. I used to think of that line as a protest that was almost charming in its parochial narrowness, but now I see his objection as something profound. My father had no real idea that Methodism arose in 18th century Britain, and that our German immigrant ancestors had almost certainly been Lutheran. That was beside the point. He saw religion as a subset of family identity, which for him was the most important thing.
Anyway, this is the pluralistic, voluntaristic world to which a new St. Benedict would have to preach and build stable Christian community.
Fourth, and finally, St. Benedict did not have to contend with a world that doubted the existence of objective truth. The new Benedict(s) do. In his interview with First Things, Kwasniewski talks about why he republishes Pope John Paul II’s encylical, titled in English “The Splendor of Truth,” in his new book:
This is why, for instance, I have included Veritatis Splendor in full. The problem that towers over us is not the morality of recycling plastic or making better immigration policies, although I do wish we could reduce our dependence on non-biodegradable packaging, and I do hope we continue to search for reasonable solutions to immigration that respect both the dignity of persons and the rights and duties of sovereign nations. The problem is much more radical: the modern West’s rejection of objective morality, grounded in divine wisdom and intrinsic to human nature, the knowing and following of which is the only path to individual happiness and a just social order. The condition for the possibility of any serious Christian evangelization and social commitment is an unequivocal acceptance of the primacy of God the Creator, the radical demands of the law of Christ (“love one another as I have loved you”), and the power of the Holy Spirit to equip us to follow it. Put it this way: Without the bedrock foundation defended in Veritatis Splendor, there is nothing left of individual or social ethics. CST goes right out the window.
He’s right about that. That’s why I place so much emphasis in The Benedict Option on recovering the metaphysics that informed all Christianity in its first millennium.
None of this is going to be simple or easy to do — but honestly, what choice do we have? Assimilation = the death of the faith.