“Trotsky and St. Benedict”—and Pope Francis
A spectre haunts Alasdair Macintyre, the spectre of his most famous claim: “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—Saint Benedict.” This is, of course, the concluding sentence to After Virtue, and the claim has caused more comment and controversy within Catholic circles than any single philosophical conclusion since Nietzsche’s “God is dead.”
MacIntyre is one of those philosophers whose work fits Mark Twain’s definition of a classic, something “everybody wants to have read, and nobody wants to read.” His work profoundly rewards careful reading, but also demands it, and who has the attention span to spend three minutes per page when Snapchat and Twitter beckon? As Christopher West brought the Theology of the Body to parish retreats, so has Rod Dreher introduced MacIntyre first to the blogosphere and now the print world through his new work, The Benedict Option.
There is much to like about the book. Dreher heaps praise upon a deserving Benedictine monastery in Norcia, Italy; focuses on the importance of faithful practice, liturgy, and self-discipline; and offers an inspiring survey of devout Christians living with integrity and joy in various experimental communities. I appreciated the book enough that I sent a copy as encouragement to a friend who is seeking to escape from the District of Columbia to build a new life in “Real America.”
Yet I say that MacIntyre is haunted by that sentence and the movement Dreher launched, not only because people skip his work and just read Dreher like Sparknotes to his work, but especially because in doing so, they fundamentally distort the point MacIntyre was making.
MacIntyre heartily criticized this movement during the Q&A after his lecture on “Common Goods, Frequent Evils” on March 27. The central point, MacIntyre emphasized, was that St. Benedict “inadvertently created a new set” of ways of life, when all he intended to do was found a monastic order. The monastery symbiotically supported the “education and liturgy” of the local villagers who provided them with postulants, over decades and centuries “build[ing] up a local community [largely] independent of the feudal order.”
Hence, despite the youthful St. Benedict’s flee from Rome to become a hermit, his mature work was “not a withdrawal from society into isolation,” but rather a “creation of a new set of social institutions which evolved.” The new St. Benedict whom we await must offer a “new kind of engagement with the social order now, not any kind of withdrawal from it.”
This is especially important in light of the way that the Benedict Option is linked with cultural conservatism; Dreher’s book reads as if the acceptance of gay marriage were the single gravest corruption of American life (and if you’re tempted to suspect that it is, please consider abortion, or our transformation of pleonexia from deadly sin to capital virtue). But as MacIntyre claimed in his lecture, “conservatism and liberalism are mirror images,” and “one should have nothing to do with either one,” as our national politics shows; the “moment you think of yourself as a liberal or a conservative, you are done for.” (Conservatives who support the Market or liberals who support the State both fail to grasp the ways in which the market and state act as a single entity, and that we are no more likely to ‘starve the beast’ than we are to rein in Wall Street.) An entirely new way of living must be sought.
What should we do, then? How are we to live our perennial call as Christians to be in the world but not of it? To begin with, we must recall and apply the great Catholic principle of Both/And.
Follow both Scripture and Tradition. Profess faith and perform works. Learn science and believe in miracles. Have love and responsibility. Contemplate through action. For the Kingdom of God is already at hand, and not yet established on earth. G.K. Chesterton and many others have gloried in the paradoxes which only Faith can uphold, for only it offers Wisdom.
Proponents of the Benedict Option have a point. You can’t give what you don’t have,
and so Catholics who lack a faith which transforms their lives and instead assimilate to the broader culture—voting, consuming, volunteering, and divorcing at rates identical to America as a whole—have nothing distinctive to offer beyond an odd-Sunday routine much less satisfying than brunch. A Church which does not reveal the saving power of Christ’s love or the transformation of our lives through the Spirit deserves to be trampled underfoot by society, as Jesus implies in Matthew 5. To be itself, the Church must be other than the world.
But the way that the Church is set apart is as a city upon a hill, not by hiding under a basket or in a ghetto. We are to be more visible, more active, more engaged. Dreher closes his book by noting the irony of his beloved Norica Benedictines’ monastery having crumbled in an earthquake, and forcing them to camp out in the hills. But Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium insists that this is a model for the Church as a whole: “going forth” to “all the peripheries,” “willing to abase itself if necessary” in order to become shepherds with the “smell of the sheep” living “permanently in a state of mission.” Clearly referencing the Benedict Option, Pope Francis says that his dream is instead for a “missionary option,” a transformation of church structures so that we are not “unhealthy” from “clinging to [our] own security,” but rather “bruised, hurting and dirty because [we have] been out on the streets.” As Pope Francis quotes Pope Saint John Paul II, “all renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion.”
In his best moments, Dreher recognizes something like this: he admits that his program at heart is simply a call to conversion and faithfulness to the Beatitudes. One of the Norcian Benedictines quoted suggests that the best defense is a good offense—if the Church looks like it’s retreating into Helm’s Deep, it is only so as to sally forth at dawn, looking to the East.
But the latter point gets forgotten amidst the debate over the former. And if one refuses to read all of After Virtue, at least one could note that the title of MacIntyre’s final chapter is “After Virtue: Nietzsche or Aristotle, Trotsky and St. Benedict.” He holds up a founder of communism as a parallel figure to St. Benedict because MacIntyre argues we must become revolutionary Aristotelians, seeking to leaven society through engagement on local school boards, community health drives, and the like. If it seems paradoxical to conjoin Trotsky and Benedict, that’s the point, one which even Chesterton (in his radical, distributist economics) would have approved.
What does that mean for the Notre Dame community? We whose job it is to learn must do so thoroughly, pursuing a humane education and not merely employability. And our academic and spiritual contemplation must lead to action—not just in showing up for the March for Life or protesting harmful speakers, but also by combatting lead poisoning in South Bend, becoming involved with the Catholic Worker house, or demanding an end to usury as well as abortion in our local community. To add one more both/and to the list of Catholic shouldn’t-be-paradoxes: to be faithful to both St. Benedict and Pope Francis, we can begin by getting involved with both Campus Ministry and the Center for Social Concerns.
Brian Boyd is a graduate student in moral theology, gratefully en route to becoming a Triple Domer. Contact him about this article, or for advice on how (and why!) to read MacIntyre directly, at firstname.lastname@example.org.