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David Mills, inspired by a Facebook post from Robby George, has exhorted mostly unnamed proponents of the “Benedict Option” to reverse their various avenues of retreat and remain in the political fight. Now I can only guess the identity of the defeatists who have “left the front lines to read books in the library and argue causes and effects in the coffee shop.” But the charge puts me in mind of the colloquium discussion in the January issue of First Things which treated the debate between so-called “liberal” and “radical” Catholics, perhaps because my contribution to that discussion has elicited similar accusations of political irresponsibility or moral cowardice from people sympathetic to the liberal line of thought.

Arguments like Mills’s and George’s are no doubt effective in rallying the troops, and I do not begrudge the troops their militancy. I have great admiration for the courage and the indefatigable spirit that George and Ryan Anderson have shown in the fight against abortion and in the protracted battle over “same sex marriage.” I am grateful that there are attorneys at places like the Alliance Defending Freedom who are willing to forego more lucrative legal careers in order to defend brave people like Baronelle Stutzman. I agree with Mills that “we must play the game till the clock expires,” not because we necessarily hope to win, but because it is the right thing to do. And I am gratified to know that the liberals think of the radicals as “allies.” The feeling is mutual if not quite the term, which reflects the liberal tendency to think of these matters fundamentally in political terms.

However useful such arguments may be as a rallying cry, they are nevertheless unhelpful in understanding the point at issue between liberals and radicals or the stakes in their disagreement. Neither do I think that understanding is furthered by speaking of “retreat,” tactical or otherwise. Now the principal proponent of the “Benedict Option” appears to be Rod Dreher, who escapes Mills’s criticisms mostly unscathed, and who does sometimes speak of a “tactical retreat” from the public square. Despite my sympathy for many of the “culture building” elements of Rod’s vision, I have a number of misgivings about the “Benedict Option,” if not as Rod intends it, then at least as it has been commonly interpreted. 

First there is a tendency, owing perhaps to its MacIntyrean inspiration, to conceive of this “option” primarily in practical or political terms, that is, as a kind of “communitarian” stance within an increasingly hostile public square. This is not simply wrong. But left unqualified it would leave us with something of a “congregationalist” ecclesiology, and moreover, it is not sufficient to distinguish the “Benedict Option” as Benedictine. Preventing the former defect would require, among other things, that we think more ecclesiologically and less politically and that we regard the ecclesial order as more comprehensive than the political. Avoiding the latter would require a profound rehabilitation of a contemplative order of thought and life and a certain primacy of contemplation over action, which are all but unintelligible within our pragmatic culture. For a guide I would suggest Benedict XVI, who understood deeply that the quest for the truth of God which takes a living form in monasticism must lie at the foundation of any social order that is finally human and any political order that is truly free (See here and here). 

Second, I dislike talk of a “Benedict Option” because it misleads Christians into thinking it will be up to us to choose our place within the emerging order. Whereas in reality we are almost out of options, that is, unless one considers apostasy an option. Finally, insofar as a “Benedict Option” does suggest retreat, it fails in its imagination of what constitutes advance and retreat, and so it lays the accusation of retreating in the wrong place.

For if we must speak this way, then I would suggest that it is the liberals and not the radicals who are in retreat. How so? Liberal order subordinates questions of truth to contests of right. And insofar as truth remains relevant to the efforts of the liberal state to resolve these contests, it reduces truth itself to what can be known through the empirical or quasi-empirical sciences. (See the excellent work of my colleague, David Crawford, here). This is why there is simply no such thing as a profound question in American public life, an astonishing thing when one stops to think about it but so obviously true that it is easy to miss. There are only problems awaiting technical, managerial, or legal solutions. And it is ultimately why the courts can decide that arguments for traditional marriage fail to meet even the minimum legal threshold of a rational basis. Liberal order thus does not merely exclude faith from the public square. Rather because it excludes faith it also excludes philosophical reason, thereby deciding all ultimate questions in advance on the basis of a liberal philosophy of nature and reason so ubiquitous as to be invisible.

To assent to the rules of engagement prescribed by liberal public reason is to accept a voluntary and arbitrary limit on how deeply one is willing to think, which then becomes an involuntary limit on how far one is able to see. Perhaps this is the source of that perennial frustration among the radicals, the refusal or the incapacity of the liberals even to acknowledge the fundamental points of contention between us: that liberal principles are ontologically indifferent or that they are even the political expression of a sound Christian anthropology. The point of those analyses and “historical genealogies” that have become an object of derision among the liberals—oddly, from those who advocate a return to Madisonian principles—is certainly not to retreat to the comfort of the library or the coffee shop; nor is it to deny the contingencies of history by suggesting that 1968 follows upon 1776 with some kind of mechanical necessity. Rather it is, first, to understand the truth of our predicament more deeply so that we may better discern how to act, and secondly, to dent the liberals’ apparently unshakeable confidence in these foundational assumptions.

Instead liberal Catholic thought moves entirely within the unquestioned conviction that liberal principles are mere articles of peace and that the issue between the Church and liberal society is therefore not about the true nature of things—this question can be set aside—but is merely moral and political. So it ends up settling for a truth that is just “true enough” for present practical purposes and giving us natural law without nature, which is surrendered to the exclusive authority of empirical science. Christians are then left pointing to sociological maladies to vindicate our claims or appealing to the authority of a “pure science” which doesn’t exist; or in the case of “same sex marriage,” we’re reduced to pleading for private exemptions from public “justice.” Meanwhile the state is fundamentally redefining human nature under our noses with nary a word from the Church or from Christian intellectuals, who mostly appear not to notice. This approach may suffice to win some battles—a statute here, a court case there—and these are genuine political goods which are not to be gainsaid. But it is not enough to win the war, if that means keeping alive the memory of God, nature, and the human person in an increasingly inhuman and antihuman age. This, then, is the tragic irony of a century or so of liberal Catholicism. Assenting to the “priority of the political” and putting the pursuit of the political common good before the pursuit of truth, it has failed even as an effective strategy for achieving the political common good. Present circumstances seem to vindicate that observation.

It is not a retreat from social or political action to seek to get to the bottom of things and to understand the truth, which is about all we have left anyway. Rather it is only by getting to the bottom of things, by recovering the priority of contemplation over action—or better, the priority of contemplation within action—that we may finally hope to act in freedom and in accordance with the truth, which are ultimately the same thing. The questions at issue, then, between liberals and radicals are not first political—whether to advance or retreat, engage or withdraw—but philosophical and theological: what the truth of God and the human being is and whether it is finally worth knowing, how this truth should bear on Christian existence today and whether it begets deeper forms of engagement than those afforded by liberal order, and above all, whether we are willing to stake our lives on this truth even if it makes us strangers to the public square. These are demanding questions, and moreover, they are the questions which this moment demands. We cannot resolve them by refusing to think about them. 

Michael Hanby is associate professor of religion and philosophy of science at Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America.

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