There’s been a long conversation in America about the degree to which Catholic Christianity is compatible with liberalism. From the beginning of the American founding, bishops and theologians claimed that for all the flaws of liberal political philosophy, the American founders “built better than they knew.” And yet Pope Leo XIII could warn Cardinal Gibbons to avoid the errors of an “Americanism,” which would distort the teaching of the Church on the proper relationship between politics and the church.
First Things’s default position derives from this “built better” argument. Yet the incompatibility side has always been there as well, and now is coming to the fore. The cultural and political landscape has changed. If the “built-better” argument made sense for nearly two centuries, it has become clear that evidence in its favor is currently in short supply. Without necessarily saying that the “built-better” argument is always wrong, we need to face up to the growing discord between Catholic Christianity and the new world liberalism that is building in America.
What is to be done about this discord? I have always been drawn to Alasdair MacIntyre’s prediction that we need “a new, doubtless very different Saint Benedict” that enables the great Christian tradition to be passed on, preserving the seeds for a new civilization to emerge after the moral poverty of today’s liberalism leads us into dark, chaotic valleys. Rod Dreher has popularized MacIntyre by formulating this hope as the Benedict Option. It refers to our need for small communities of virtue, a new localist movement, and a return to the land or the place of one’s birth. The Benedict Option means cultivating a new counterculture that can resist the barbarian onslaught.
On one level, the Benedict Option is deeply attractive. Its greatest strength is that it sees that Christians need to attend to their communal formation as a whole. It is not enough to simply go to church on Sundays, for the religion of lifestyle liberalism is working on us the rest of the week. Rather, we need an all-embracing form of life coordinated and ordered to the love of God and neighbor. We can look to the very real Christian witness of cloistered, vowed religious life and say, “see, it can be done.” That should give all of us enormous hope.
On another level, however, “the Benedict Option” has a serious flaw. It can be summed up in one word withdrawal. Neither MacIntyre nor Dreher have intended anything like withdrawal from the common good, or even from a commitment to political institutions. But I must confess that the image of withdrawal is powerfully associated with the Benedictine monastery, and so appeals to the Benedict Option miss something.
Better, therefore, to speak of the Dominican Option. When I see them in the white habits at prayer, or giving lectures, or playing guitars and banjos on the subway, I have a plausible image of a “contrast society” that is very much engaged with the worldan evangelistic witness which is joyful, intellectually serious, expansive, and charitable.
St. Dominic founded the Order of Preachers after a long contemplative season which, in the words of one biographer “burst into flame” when he encountered Albigensians (ancient Manichean dualists) on travels through southern France. Dominic stayed up all night arguing with one Albigensian, and by morning the man turned away from his heresy and turned towards the Catholic faith. Dominic’s missionary zeal flowed directly out of cloistered contemplation, but it convinced him of the need for a new evangelistic order.
Dominic told his men to go into the world without fear. They should study, they should pray, and they should preach. His Order harmonized the life of a contemplative with the activity of an evangelist. This meant intellectual training. One only needs to think of St. Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris to understand the impact this had. Dominicans studied other languages, and other religions, in order to preach more effectively. Aquinas himself wrote the Summa Contra Gentiles precisely to assist the brothers’ preaching to Muslims.
This is what we need today as well: the right pattern of formation and evangelistic witness. Not every Christian will be a Dominican, of course. But we all have something fundamental to learn from the Dominican pattern of life.
C. C. Pecknold is associate professor of systematic theology at Catholic University of America.