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The Notre Dame Option?



On Thursday of this week, Notre Dame hosted the author, blogger, and journalist Rod Dreher.  A self-identified Christian social-conservative, Dreher has received a great deal of recent attention not only through his blog hosted by the magazine The American Conservative, but columns about his work in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and even a largely sympathetic profile in the left-leaning New Yorker. He visited our campus to speak about his best-selling book, and the reason for this outpouring of interest, The Benedict Option.

In The Benedict Option, Dreher argues that Christians must acknowledge not only that they have decisively lost “the culture wars,” but that they are internally in steep decline due to complacency. Christianity is waning across the developed world, especially among the “millennial” generation that regards Christianity as backwards, hateful, oppressive, and irrational. People across the West are instead attracted to the new dogmatisms and practices of modernity: individualism, consumerism, indifferentism posing as toleration, constant distraction by meaningless entertainment, pervasive pornography, and technological addiction.  Dreher argues that Christians should abandon their one-time hope of “winning back” the nation through electoral victory, and instead attend to forming Christians who can resist the Siren-song of “liquid modernity.”  

The “Benedict option” is thus inspired by the example of the first Benedictine medieval monasteries founded by St. Benedict of Nursia: intentional communities where ongoing Christian formation was the central activity of its members, and from which practices inspired by the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love were sources of support and inspiration to those who were suffering physical and spiritual deprivation in the midst of a decaying (Roman) empire.

Dreher’s book has several significant Notre Dame connections.  Most importantly, the title itself and basic thesis are drawn from the closing lines of emeritus philosophy professor Alasdair MacIntyre’s landmark book, After Virtue.  MacIntyre’s book is a magisterial study of the long history of western philosophy, in which he argues that moral and ethical inquiry has reached an impasse because of the rise of “emotivism,” or the belief that there are no rational means of distinguishing good from bad, better from worse.  In such an environment, ethical decisions boil down to individual preference and, eventually, enforced indifference. MacIntyre concludes his book by suggesting that we live in an age much like the waning days of the Roman empire, and that “people of good will” should consider withdrawing support from the crumbling imperium and begin forming alternative communities in which to weather the coming storm of a decaying order that can no longer be held together.  “We wait for a new, doubtless very different, St. Benedict,” he concludes.

The second Notre Dame connection appears in Dreher’s frequent invocation of the work of sociologist Christian Smith. Smith has authored several important books exploring the Christian formation of “emerging adults” – young people in their twenties and early thirties – and has confirmed not only the widely-documented loss of faith among this cohort, but a decidedly watered-down belief among many of those who retain some form of faith.  Those who remain Christians evince a belief that is highly individualistic, “spiritual but not religious,” feel-good, governed by a benign and non-judgmental God who wants us to be happy.  It is a “religion” that makes few demands of us, but rather confirms our existing predilections, in effect making Christians indistinguishable from non-believers.  Smith has termed this belief “Moral Therapeutic Deism.”

Dreher frequently cites Smith as a main reason to take up MacIntyre’s call: if in the future there will be Christians in the West, they must grasp that they live in culture that is increasingly hostile to Christianity.  In response, Christians blithely believe that all is well, that they live in a world of freedom and plenty, and that they can practice Christianity-lite without any cognitive dissonance in a world governed by a secular theology.  This recipe, Dreher argues, will inevitably result in a loss of the faith for which the martyrs died, in exchange for a mess of pottage.

In effect, Dreher is challenging Christians who would remain faithful to consider the formation of a “counter-culture,” a contrast society to the broader secular anti-culture of “liquid modernity.”  His book has been taken up especially by parishes, networks of families involved in homeschooling or formation of new “classical Christian” schools, and even some neighborhoods and communities that seek to live a distinctly different witness to that of the world.  But to make this appeal at Notre Dame – in many ways, the place that has provided the deeper intellectual source for Dreher’s project – is to call for some renewed reflection about the nature and mission of this institution.

Is Notre Dame preparing its students for a secular world that is not only increasingly hostile to Christians, but in which Christians are likely to embrace a form of “Moral Therapeutic Deism” or leave the faith altogether?  What would it mean for a place like Notre Dame to prepare students not necessarily to join the culture, but to resist it through the formation of a counter-culture?  Notre Dame’s longstanding project has been to reconcile its Catholic students to America, and America to Catholicism, and by many measures it has been a great success. But what will it profit a Catholic university if it gains the esteem of the world but loses the ability to resist its corrosions?

If the conclusions of some of its leading scholars are to inform this institution, Notre Dame must reflect not only succeeding on the terms set by the world, but challenging those very terms.  Such a course would demand a supple kind of teaching, urging students to develop their many gifts for the benefit of a world in need, but not merely conforming those gifts to the demands of the world.  It will also call for a more conscious and resolute faith, one that will not infrequently be unpopular in a world that values non-judgmentalism, individualism, emotivism and consumer choice in all things.  If Notre Dame is to be “a powerful force for good,” it can’t merely seek to succeed in America; increasingly, it must seek to change America, or be passively changed by a modern world in which Christian faith may not survive.  

Notre Dame will never be mistaken for a Benedictine monastery, but might there not be a distinctive alternative that needs fuller articulation: a Notre Dame option?

Patrick Deneen is the David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and a faculty advisor to the Rover.

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