Settimo Cielodi Sandro Magister
11 ott 18
A Synod on “The Benedict Option”? The Analysis of a Church Historian
The young hold the key to the future. So it would be natural for the synod on young people underway in Rome to consider the future of Christianity in an era that is more and more post-Christian.
It is the same consideration that is behind “The Benedict Option” by the American Rod Dreher, the most widely discussed book on religious issues in recent years.
The following commentary enters into the thick of this discussion. With original and penetrating reflections.
Its author is Roberto Pertici, 66, professor of contemporary history at the university of Bergamo and a specialist on relations between Church and state. Last April the readers of Settimo Cielo got the chance to appreciate his illuminating analysis on the end of “Roman Catholicism” set in motion by the current pontificate:
In discussing “The Benedict Option” – at point 5 of his analysis – Pertici sets up an evocative parallel with the vision of history of the great and controversial French writer Michel Houellebecq. To raise the doubt that the current dechristianization is definitive and “forever,” because instead it too might meet with a “rupture” like the one that marked the end of previous stages of civilization. And it is for this that one must be ready, “preserving the Christian heritage intact in order to present it again in a changed world.”
Rod Dreher, conservative and Christian
by Roberto Pertici
1. There has been a great deal of discussion in Italy over the now-famous book by Rod Dreher, “The Benedict Option,” also translated into Italian, especially after the tour that its author made in our country for the purpose of presenting and discussing it. But I get the impression that the debate has been focused mainly on the proposal with which the American writer has distinguished himself: the creation of communities that would strive to preserve and develop the Christian tradition and in some way keep it alive in view of a future return, while the surrounding world is not only clearly losing its Christian roots but threatening them with hostile behaviors. The function that was performed precisely by the Benedictine monasteries of the late Middle Ages. It seems to me that less attention has been paid to the political-cultural background of this proposal and to the historical analysis underlying it.
This comes as no surprise: from the very first lines of the book, Dreher calls himself “a believing Christian and a committed conservative.” The galaxy of political, cultural, and religious conservatism is for the most part unknown to Italian public opinion and to its media. One of the great victories of the opposing cultures has been, in fact, of a semantic nature: to surround that word always and in every case with a negative meaning, concealing its true scope.
It has not always been this way: in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was still possible to define oneself as “conservative” without fear of being delegitimized: like those more or less “liberal” Catholics who sought inclusion in Italian politics through some sort of conciliation between Church and state. This process of delegitimization, if it was not begun, was certainly accentuated during fascism (which not by coincidence represented itself as “revolutionary”) and reached fulfillment after the second world war, when “conservative” culture was mostly associated with the defeated fascism. And this was another great success of its adversaries: as if De Gaulle and Churchill, Benedetto Croce and Thomas Mann, the Polish government exiled in London and the conspirators of July 20, 1944 were not “conservatives.”
The same thing happened in the ecclesiastical camp. Perhaps the biggest achievement of some of the journalists who closely covered the sessions of the council Vatican II (among the Italians, Giancarlo Zizola and Raniero La Valle) was to transmit to the media an image of the conciliar clash as a fight between “conservatives” and “progressives,” entangling the former in an aura of negativity. In part because those outside the Church who felt they were on the side of “progress” coopted the latter right away for their side: think of the underhanded intervention in the conciliar debate made by the communist leader Palmiro Togliatti in his famous speech in Bergamo on March 20, 1963.
2. A “conservative” believes that man is a social being, situated in a community that gives him a “status” and almost an identity; that he has duties toward this community, of an importance at least equal to his rights; that true morality consist not so much in self-actualization as in overcoming his own particularism in view of a “common good,” which however does not remain abstract, but is identified in something concrete: family, land, nation. These entities do not remain fixed and rigid; like everything else, they develop and change, but slowly and harmoniously: they do not admit upheavals planned in fantasy land, on the basis of abstract demands of social engineering.
Within this perspective, the conservative is well aware of the importance of authority and order, in that he has an organic view of society, in which each has a function to perform for the good functioning of the whole. He therefore believes in the role of hierarchy, of the necessity, that is, of different levels of prestige and influence. He does not reduce relationships to merely economic or utilitarian values, because he harbors distrust toward the pure law of the market (even if there are “marketist” conservatives). For him society is made up of customs and traditions, which go far beyond that which is immediately rational and useful. An essential role is in fact played by the religious element, the crumbling of which has disastrous consequences for the whole social structure. Contemporary man – at least in the West – is therefore alienated, in that he is cut off from a positive relationship with other men and from the moral aims that the community proposes.
As Dreher points out, the “déraciné,” the uprooted one, abandons objective moral norms; refuses to accept any sort of “narrative framework” that is binding from the religious or cultural point of view but does not stem from his own will; he repudiates the memory of the past as irrelevant; he distances himself from the community as also from any other social obligation that he has not chosen. In this context, even the Christian religion, even the Catholic one, undergoes an analogous metamorphosis: it becomes a therapeutic moralistic deism, in which God is a sort of “imaginary friend” or benevolent psychologist, who guarantees us help when we need it, wants us to be happy, does not crush us under excessive burdens, because the fundamental aim of life is to be happy and have good self-esteem: thus the certainty of a paradise that awaits us after death. Hell must be empty.
3. Rod Dreher is therefore a critic of modernity: he does not reject it “in toto,” but he sketches a critical inventory of it. This aspect is also in contrast with the culture prevalent in our country, in which a positive relationship with the famous “modernity” has become almost an obligation for conferring dignity on cultures and political positions. Modernity does not identify an historical phase, but has become an ethical-political value. The keywords of “The Benedict Option” have instead a deliberate critical value: rule, order, prayer, work, ascesis, stability, community, hospitality, balance. Even a nonbeliever who were to decide to live as if God did not exist would have no difficulty making them his own: how many figures great and small, of the past and of the present, without calling themselves Christians “tout court,” have lived by putting them into practice!
An analogous critical framework is presented by the pedagogical system that Dreher proposes. The American writer demonstrates a marked distrust toward the educational priorities prevalent today in the public schools, but he also entertains no great illusions about how the “Catholic” schools are run, from primary to university. In the face of the overflow of the technological culture and cultural consumption of the “Erasmus generation,” he re-proposes the classical pedagogy elaborated by Dorothy Sayers in 1947 in “The Lost Tools of Learning”: in practice, a Christian-classical school, based on a return to the roots of Western culture, both Greco-Roman and Christian, which had already met in late antiquity and then in Italian Humanism. Yes, “Western,” because our young people – Dreher insists – must be immersed in the history of Western culture, not vaccinated against it: in the conviction that it has elaborated the fundamental concepts of life, ignorance of which will have an enormous cost in the evolution of our societies.
A “hidebound” pedagogy? Dreher does not believe – as we will see – in “historical inevitability,” and he is therefore convinced that it is possible to look to the past in order to plan the future: “multa renascentur quae iam cecidere,” Horace’s motto could be his own. But in view of this it is necessary to maintain a critical position toward the present. It is necessary to elaborate – he says – a “counterculture,” otherwise Christianity and Western civilization will not be saved. Referring to the apocalypticists of a former time, now tamely integrated, so numerous in the newsrooms and in the think tanks, Dreher could repeat – adapting it – an old slogan of the Communist International: “The theory critical of society, which you have thrown into the mud, we will take back and make it ours!”
4. But how did we get to this critical phase? Here Dreher re-proposes an historical vision that is not particularly original, with the exception – as we will see – of its outcome. He essentially adopts the strategy that the proponents of modernity have elaborated for centuries and that their adversaries – including traditional Catholic thinking – have essentially made their own, obviously changing its character: what for the one was a journey of progressive emancipation and illumination, for the other was an advance toward the abyss. But the stages were more or less the same: the crisis of medieval theological thought, fifteenth-century Humanism, the Reformation of the 1500’s, the scientific revolution of the 1600’s, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, the industrialism and consequent modernization of the nineteenth century.
In this last phase the proponents of modernity began to disagree in their predictions: for some, the outcome of this age-old process of emancipation from mythical thinking and from transcendent religion was liberalism. But for others another stage was necessary: because the journey would be continued toward a communist society. In Italy, between the two wars, there was no lack of voices that identified fascism as the summit of “modern thought.” And once again traditional Catholic thought, which also emerged in the pontifical magisterium, did not hesitate to fight every step of the way against liberalism, communism, and fascism, precisely as extreme stages of modernity.
But these are all discussions from the twentieth century! Dreher identifies two different outcomes for today: the sexual revolution, and the technological. The first is the process that began around 1960 and led to the abandonment of the “social” conception of sexuality that until then had been proper to Christian thought, but – I would say – also to common sense, toward a complete sexual individualism. The second, developed after 1980, is that of biotechnology, the internet, smartphones: in short, of information and technology consumerism.
The American writer’s judgment on the “sexual revolution” is radical: it was catastrophic for Christianity – as well as for, we might add, traditional morality – because it struck at the heart of the biblical doctrine on sexuality and the human person, demolishing the Christian conception of society, of the family, and of the nature of human beings. In short, it radically changed the presuppositions of social life as they had been established over millennia.
But also very drastic is his judgment on the technological revolution. He does not repeat the analyses of many, according to which technology is morally neutral and can be used badly but also positively. For Dreher, “Technology as a worldview trains us to privilege what is new and innovative over what is old and familiar and to valorize the future uncritically. It destroys tradition because it refuses any limits on its creativity. Technological Man says, ‘If we can do it, we must be free to do it.’ To the technological mind, questions of why we should, or should not, accept particular technological developments are hard to comprehend.”
Dreher does not propose to his readers an impossible return to the past, but a sort of “technological ascesis.” Both on the pedagogical level (how we present technology to our children, with what digital devices we equip them, what alternatives we present to them) and in our daily life: all of us, including the “secular,” can achieve a lifestyle that exorcises the most pervasive aspects of the “technological revolution.” To this end, of course, there is a need for “spiritual exercises” (in the sense of Pierre Hadot): for example taking on, for one or more days, a digital “fast” could be a useful ascetic practice for rediscovering oneself.
5. In his book Dreher never cites the work of Michel Houellebecq, the great and controversial French writer, but he has repeatedly stated that he considers him an interlocutor in his work. I believe that he is right: in his best novels there is more history and philosophy than in many professorial volumes (one could read in this regard the book by Louis Betty “Without God. Michel Houellebecq and Materialist Horror” released in 2016).
His 1998 novel “The Elementary Particles” revolves around the concept of “metaphysical mutation.” Houellebecq writes: “In the history of humanity, metaphysical mutations – meaning the radical and global transformations of the worldview adopted by the majority – are rather rare. […] As soon as it is produced, the metaphysical mutation develops until it reaches its extreme consequences, without ever encountering resistance. Imperturbable, it overturns economic and political systems, aesthetic judgments, social hierarchies. There are no forces capable of interrupting its course, neither human nor of another kind, apart from the advent of a new metaphysical mutation.”
One first example that the French author gives is that of the advent of Christianity: in those centuries “the Roman empire was at the summit of its power; perfectly organized, it dominated the known universe; its technological and military superiority was unrivaled. And yet it had no hope.”
Analogously at the end of what we call the Middle Ages: “At the advent of modern science, medieval Christianity constituted a complete system of comprehension of man and of the universe; it served as a foundation for governing the people, produced knowledge and works, decided both peace and war, organized the production and division of wealth. All that did not succeed in preventing the collapse.”
Since then there has been the gradual assertion of what the writer calls “the materialist age.” Its conclusive moment is precisely in the “sexual revolution,” the development of which in France and in the world is followed by Houellebecq, almost year by year, with a series of extremely evocative notations: in the novel, it is personified in the figure of Janine Ceccaldi, the mother of the two protagonists. Janine, born in 1928, belongs to the “dispiriting category of forerunners”: those who “have a mere role as historical accelerator – generally an accelerator of a historical decomposition – without ever being able to give a new direction to events.”
Houellebecq had already dealt with the “sexual revolution” in his 1994 debut novel “Extension du domaine de la lutte,” in English “Whatever.” This is not the place to explore its analysis, suffice it to say that for the French writer it is the extension to the sexual sphere of the unbridled competition and economic individualism typical of the pure market society. That is, there exists a parallel between uncontrolled economic liberalism and absolute sexual liberalism: both produce phenomena of absolute impoverishment, widespread forms of exclusion.
The proponents of hypermodernity are convinced that they have the world in their hands. Who knows, however, if they may be like the pagans of the late empire or the scholastic philosophers of the early modern era: that among the possible hypotheses there may be a change of paradigm, a new “metaphysical mutation.”
The readers of “The Elementary Particles” know how this happens, in what direction it develops and who is – so to speak – its promoter: it is certainly not the one desired by Dreher. But beyond the narrative plot (it must always be remembered that we are talking about a novelist and poet, not a professional historian or philosopher), it is important to register his rejection of a continuous and inexorable journey of history, of a unidirectional conception of historical development, which is instead typical of “progressivism,” including the Catholic form. Ruptures are possible, and what seems to triumph today, as has been stated, can decline.
I don’t know to what extent Dreher has been influenced by this vision, but at the foundation of “The Benedict Option” one perceives something analogous. It is not to be taken for granted that the era that began with the “metaphysical mutation” of the first centuries of the modern era and has led to the current Western dechristianization is “forever.” The complete unfolding of its consequences could lead to a new rupture: one must be ready for this moment. This is why it is important to preserve the Christian heritage intact in order to be able to present it again in a mutated world: unlike Houellebecq, the American writer maintains that this is possible. To preserve it by working together with the humanity of our time – Dreher says – not in idleness. At the bottom of his vision there does not seem to be, therefore, a disconsolate pessimism or – as has been said – the perception of a state of siege: but the reasonable hope for a revival.
6. As can be seen, the plate that the American writer offers is for strong stomachs. It is true that certain Italian experiences have inspired some of his proposals, but the observer cannot avoid a concluding question: can these find true interlocutors in the Italian reality? I don’t mean in the hierarchical Church, but – what do I know? – in specific cultural environments and in certain ecclesial groups? Will they want and know how to come down, perhaps critically, to the terrain of that Christian “counterculture” proposed by the American writer?
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)