The Catholic Option: “All of the Above”

Samuel Gregg recently recapped an ongoing debate among conservatives and Catholics in America concerning how best to evangelize the contemporary culture.

Gregg (whose work I admire) contends that the so-called “Benedict Option,” i.e., imitating St. Benedict by withdrawing from a perverted society to preserve civilization, “isn’t open to … American conservatives … who take natural law seriously.” Gregg’s three reasons are: (1) the universally accessible nature of the natural law; (2) the poverty of alternative moral theories today; and (3) the American Founding, which was based on virtue theory and natural law.

Those are three good reasons for Catholics and conservatives to evangelize the culture rather than simply withdraw from it.

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At the same time, C.C. Pecknold has argued for the “Dominican Option,” i.e., going out into the world to evangelize, that is, teach and spread the faith.

Both Gregg and Pecknold, I believe, describe partial solutions, and misapply Alasdair MacIntyre’s claim in After Virtue.

First, concerning partial solutions, it seems that Gregg and Pecknold fall into what the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould describes as “dichotomous opposition,” in other words, this-or-that thinking.

As Gould writes in The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox, “[A]s we consider the totality of similarly broad and fundamental aspects of life, we cannot defend division by two as a natural principle of objective order. Indeed, the “stuff” of the universe often strikes our senses as complex and shaded continua, admittedly with faster and slower moments, and bigger and smaller steps, along the way” (pp. 82-3). (NB: Some of Gould’s claims about nature and morality are false.)

It seems that when we look at the issue of how Catholics might re-evangelize the geographic area formerly known as Christendom, and the world itself, we are dealing with, as Gould puts it, “complex and shaded continua.” It is not a case of St. Benedict or St. Dominic, St. Francis or St. Bertold and St. Simon Stock. It is a case of “all of the above.”

Certainly, Gregg is open to this, writing that: “we need more conservatives publicly witnessing that humans are wired to know and freely choose truth, and that this has implications for the political order.”

In which case, I suggest turning to the works of the recently departed (and, considering the discussion of MacIntyre’s work, providentially named) Fr. Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R.

In The Reform of Renewal, Fr. Groeschel argues that as religion “is dying or dead” (in 1990!), what’s needed is (1) “a hope in the ultimate victory of good, the infinite, the true, the beautiful,” i.e., “the Resurrection and the promise of the Second Coming and Judgment,” and (2) an individual and personal response to choose the good, that is, to live a life of constant repentance (pp. 21-2). Reform of the Church and society, and renewal of each man’s faith, means taking seriously Christ’s words in the Gospel of Mark: “the time has come and the reign of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). Fr. Groeschel does not mince words in his book, and addresses his call for renewal to the laity, clergy, and all of humanity.

Importantly, as well, is the book’s dedication: “To Some Great Women of Reform from the Past: Clare of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Genoa, Teresa of Avila, and of the present: Mother Teresa, Mother Paula, Mother Angelica, Catherine Doherty, Dorothy Day.”

That is a list of women who, each in their own ways, literally moved the world, who changed not only the path of the Catholic Church but of Western civilization and the world.

It is also a list that should remind Catholics about the many, many different saints in heaven, and their different roads to God.

Clare of Assisi followed St. Francis in his way of radical poverty and showed women of her time how to imitate Christ. Catherine of Siena, a Dominican, influenced Pope Gregory XI and Urban VI, and is a Doctor of the Church. Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite, and another Doctor of the Church, was a key figure in the Catholic response to the Protestant schism, founded the Discalced Carmelites with St. John of the Cross, and was a mystic whose teachings on prayer are influential to this day. Perhaps we are more familiar with the contemporary reformers listed by Fr. Groeschel, but, if not, we should take some time to study their lives.

The point is this: The Catholic Faith is not the sole and exclusive province of any one religious order or saint, nor could it be. St. Francis and St. Dominic imitated Christ in different ways. But each way bore fruit, and each way is a way to be holy.

Gregg and Pecknold do not deny this, and, I think, would agree with it.

However, it seems that in the current environment, where Barack Obama has made war on the Church by forcing Catholics to pay for contraceptives and abortifacients, and where numerous other civil rights challenges face Christians (to say nothing of their persecution around the world), the response must be to turn to the lives of the saints—by which I mean all of them—and find in their lives the ways for each of us to respond to the problems of our times.

Fr. Groeschel’s call for personal conversion—for turning away from sin and living a life committed to Christ—invites us to find in the many, many, many saints the way that we can relate to God.

What I take my undergraduate professor MacIntyre (whom I very greatly admire) to be claiming at the end of After Virtue is that our world is at a crossroads, where our fate will be dominated by Nietzschean nihilists who do not serve what is good, true, and beautiful, or by a return to the lost Aristotelian Thomist traditions, that is, a refounding of Christendom.

To support this claim, consider the beginning of the book: MacIntyre opens with a version of Walter Miller’s science fiction novel A Canticle for Liebowitz, namely, a future where science has been destroyed, and mankind is trying to piece together “science” from smashed-up pieces and fragments.

That is the state in which MacIntyre claims we find moral philosophy today.

The “Benedict option,” for MacIntyre, then literally means turning away from supporting contemporary political institutions (pace Pecknold) because “the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time” (p. 263). In other words, we need to in some ways withdraw support from failed institutions and preserve the traditions of the West. MacIntyre makes this clear in his piece “The Only Vote Worth Casting in November” (2004), where he writes that to not vote is the only way to vote against a system that presents us with unacceptable alternatives.

To borrow Gregg’s phrasing, “Amish-like responses to a troubled culture,” which is what MacIntyre is advocating, could not be a bad thing. Even if it might be problematic if all or most Catholics and conservatives withdrew into small communities of self-imposed isolation, I believe Gregg goes too far in saying that such “isn’t a responsible option.” In fact, it might be a new and exciting option to see Catholics live like the Amish.

Yes, we need Catholics and conservatives to act as prophets in this world, calling for reform and renewal, and, if necessary, dying martyrs’ deaths. St. Edmund Campion is a wonderful example. We need contemplative intellectuals, like St. Edith Stein, and we need perpetual adoration, as at the Tyburn Convent.

But mostly, what it seems we need, is for more men and women to take seriously the questions “Who is Christ?” and “Who is His Church?” We need men and women to live lives of ordinary virtue and heroic, saintly virtue in imitation of Christ. Some of them will be engaged in the hustle and bustle of life in the world. But looking at the lives of the saints, not all of them have to be.

And if some of them form insular, holy communities, we might learn something new from them, as well as preserve the Faith. Catholics need not choose Benedict or Dominic. There is a Heaven full of saints to imitate, all of whom found different ways to imitate Christ.


  • David F. Dieteman

    David F. Dieteman is a lecturer in Management at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. He holds a J.D. from Case Western Reserve University School of Law, and an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He has practiced law for 14 years, and is working to complete a PhD in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America on the political philosophy of F.A. Hayek.

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