The Joy of Benign Misanthropy

Now “community” is often treated as virtually essential by Catholics from the most traditionalist to the most modern. But is this hyper-focus on community necessary?

In his autobiography Blessings in Disguise, Alec Guinness wrote about a retreat at a Cistercian monastery. One Cistercian asked the actor what he thought was the most difficult aspect of monastic life. Guinness’ account is classic:

“Other monks” I promptly replied. He gave me a long quizzical look, of the kind Edith Sitwell was so expert at giving, and said, with some solemnity, “Yes!” I felt I had gone to the top of the class.

It’s easy to contrast that realistic attitude with the sentimentality found in now dying religious orders that shifted focus from God to “living in community.” But if one attitude that became pervasive among Catholics during the 1970s has enduring influence even among the more traditional, it is preoccupation with being “communal.”

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For those who like that sort of thing, it can be well and good. Sociable people will be Catholic in sociable ways. A plethora of organizations, events, and activities can indicate the commitment of a parish’s more sociable members and can facilitate introducing people to a more devout life. Traditionally, such “active community life” either met specific needs or accommodated the tastes of particular people. It was considered normal for the less sociable to attend Mass, receive the sacraments, and otherwise remain largely aloof from parish life—or for sociable Catholics to remain equally aloof and prefer socializing at their yacht club. 

For all those who happened to attend Mass at the same church to form a “community” was by no means expected. Now “community” is often treated as virtually essential by Catholics from the most “traditionalist” to the most “modern.” Leading voices on every side insist their position is the “communal” one while the other is guilty of that dreaded, monstrous offense—being “individualistic.”

Enemies of the Tridentine Mass routinely attack its “individualism”—members of the congregation silently praying in their own way, its use “deviating” from the “common norm” for the sake of “individual preference.” Not to be outdone, advocates of the Tridentine Mass have retorted its uniform and undeviating prayers and rituals contrast with the numerous options in the Missal of Paul VI from which priests can “individualistically” choose.

Finding either “communal” or “individualist” arguments for or against almost anything is easy. “Communal” ones aren’t used because of theological technicalities. Whether the Mass of a priest or the Rosary of a layman is said without anyone else present is in some sense linked to the Church (and therefore not purely “individual” or “private”) isn’t discussed because of a theoretical interest in dogma. It’s discussed because the current fashion is to insist on people consciously praying as part of a group because fashion dislikes legitimate ways of praying that common parlance calls “individual” and “private”—priests saying Mass without conscious regard to the congregation’s presence, members of the congregation reading Missals or saying Rosaries without conscious regard to anyone but the priest, and so on. 

Fashion for being “communal” is why “communal” arguments are dominant when “individualist” ones can just as easily be found. Fashion is certainly the word. My writing once led me to skim through a university social-work textbook—which unexpectedly acknowledged that the contemporary West is more consciously interested in “community” than any other society in history.

This focus started influencing Catholics in the early 20th century—that age of “continental philosophy” and the collectivist politics of fascism, socialism, and communism. At first, it had an uphill battle. In those days, a well-meaning parishioner saw an unfamiliar face, didn’t recognize it was Hilaire Belloc, and offered assistance. Belloc’s spontaneous reaction made it obvious he was used to being left alone in church. The parishioner’s response? “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you’re Catholic.” Catholics preferred to pray without others distracting them and had the courtesy to let others do the same. Gravitating to the emptiest or more isolated pews for Mass was normal.

Compare that to a homily preached when I attended Mass at the only reasonably accessible parish while on a fishing trip. The deacon complained about a man at a Mass he had attended as part of the congregation while traveling. The man’s offense? In a near-empty chapel, the deacon asked him to move his coat so they could sit next to each other, and the man refused. Not spontaneously moving his coat reliably indicated he wished to be left alone—unless he was too deep in prayer to notice anything. Either the deacon was unable to understand a basic social cue, or he lacked the courtesy to let the man have his privacy.

That attempt to force oneself on another, and subsequent criticism of the other’s refusal to indulge the attempt, exemplifies Catholics who want to pummel the rest of us into “joining in community life.” Rudeness and cajoling, bossiness and bullying are par for the course. This isn’t the behavior of normal sociable people. Normal sociable people just happen to enjoy being around others and unthinkingly treat socializing as a hobby. Theorizing about “community” wouldn’t occur to them. They take or leave people and social situations as they come—based on their likes and dislikes. Hence, they have no ideal of “community” to cajole or boss or bully people into.

People committed to theories of “community” aren’t just sociable people. They require “communities” to fit their theories—which in turn requires other people conforming to their projects. The problem is that other people have different tastes and inclinations and ideas. How to solve the problem? Cajole, boss, and bully people into conformity—insisting it’s for their own good, that once they develop the “right attitude” (sharing the vision and preferences of the cajoler, boss, and bully) they’ll love it. Other people’s tastes, and even their good, are overlooked, ignored, and sacrificed to the golden calf of “community.”

Traditional religious life was successful because each member of the order was primarily focused on developing his own spiritual life, not on pursuing ideals of “life in community”—in other words, minding his own business. When a “community” exists to “live in community,” the focus will be “perfecting” the “life of the community”—which means everyone spending their time trying to make everyone else conform to their own ideals. If only through each individual’s pursuit of an individual vision of what “community” should be, man’s innate “individualism” ultimately triumphs. Hence, experiments in “communal living” self-destruct through infighting and schisms. Those who spend their lives chasing “communal” chimeras inevitably fail, often enough leaving them depressed at best or bitter and mean-spirited at worst. It’s no coincidence the nastiest clergymen tend to be the most vocally “anti-individualist.”

A pleasanter alternative is a sort of benign misanthropy—fulfilling our obligations of charity to all people while otherwise avoiding most and liking few. Charity for others no more assures liking them than liking them assures charity. We can perform our charitable duties while considering being around most “other monks” a convenient penance. Dives wasn’t condemned for avoiding Lazarus as an uncongenial companion while making sure his servants provided Lazarus with the care he needed. Callously ignoring Lazarus was his sin. 

In the Middle Age chantry, priests multiplied the number of Masses celebrated for the souls in purgatory—exemplifying charitable concern for others. Today, many priests choose to reduce Masses for those souls. They disregard charity for suffering souls because they enjoy “praying in community”—into which they uncharitably try to badger the rest of us.

Not liking most people, the benign misanthrope has little reason or occasion to badger people whom he avoids in the first place. Not having high expectations of people, the benign misanthrope can hardly be disappointed by the reality. Ironic detachment allows the benign misanthrope to amusedly recognize the widespread human tendency to mediocrity rather than frustratingly try dealing with its implications. Not caring to assure that other people like him, the benign misanthrope can happily spend his time doing whatever he actually likes to do.

By all means, sociably-inclined faithful Catholics should channel their inclinations into the organizations and activities through which they can benefit the Church and souls. But it’s time for faithful Catholics to stop trying to beat at their own game those “modern churchmen” whose reaction to “individualism” is as dour, humorless, and priggish as that of an extreme Puritan in the presence of a flirtatious female. For myself, I’ll take the same path as Evelyn Waugh’s Gilbert Pinfold, who “at the very time when the leaders of his Church were exhorting their people to emerge from the catacombs into the forum…and to regard worship as a corporate rather than a private act…burrowed ever deeper into the rock.”

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]


  • James Baresel

    James Baresel is a freelance writer. Publications for which he has written include Tudor Life, Catholic World Report, American History, Fine Art Connoisseur, Military History, Catholic Herald, Claremont Review of Books, Adoremus Bulletin, New Eastern Europe and America’s Civil War.

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