Catholics who concern themselves with political and social issues, and non-Catholics who believe in a social order that takes natural law and human nature seriously, face trends that seem overwhelming and point toward a social order with no concern for most of what makes us human. Hence the talk about the “Benedict option,“ which seems at bottom to involve doing what’s needed to make possible a social environment that reflects more of human nature, and so provides a better setting for Catholic life to go forward.
The trends of which I speak treat life as a technological problem to be dealt with through a system of organization based on world markets, certified expertise, and transnational bureaucracies. That system relies on what it calls human rights, an idealized image of its own implicit goals, as a quasi-religious justification for its authority and its insistence on turning alternate modes of organization, such as family, religion, and cultural community, into insubstantial private fancies. If something that claims authority is not part of the technocratic system, it’s irrational, and if it’s irrational it’s abusive and therefore evil and oppressive, so it has to go.
That approach to human society goes from victory to victory. All significant institutions and authorities favor it. Consider, for example, the sudden universal insistence that everyone treat “gay marriage“ as marriage, or the power of the support for globalization and the free movement of labor across national boundaries. Opponents feel compelled to keep their heads down or throw in the towel. The Church herself finds ways to enter more and more fully into alliance with the forces now dominant, insistently downplaying radical differences. Many of her members and leaders appear to believe that her message should, at least in practical effect, be merged into that of the evolving global system.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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People can still publish dissenting books, articles, and commentary, at least in America, but the superficiality of public discussion, the transitory nature of human connections in an industrialized and networked world, the flood of electronically-transmitted words, images, and distractions, the development of spin and obfuscation into major industries, and the scale, power, and centralized nature of the academic and media institutions that define reality and provide the setting for public discussions that matter, make it unlikely that fundamental dissent will have much effect or even be understood.
Instead, a cacaphony of divergent views becomes a sort of white noise that loses all public significance. Consider combox discussions. Someone skims a piece of writing, picks up a few themes or phrases that remind him of a pet issue, and writes a comment on the topic. Someone else does the same with that comment, and we’re off to the races. Hundreds of comments accumulate on a variety of subjects, everyone has a wonderful time, people even believe they’re arguing with each other or with the original piece, but the issue is never joined, the discussion goes nowhere, and when it’s over the parties disperse and go off to repeat the same things elsewhere. Something very similar is true even with regard to longer pieces, and the result of the universal free-for-all is that the only views with enough continuity and coherence to remain standing in general public discussion are those backed by organized power.
Such a development seems inevitable in the environment created by the Internet and modern social organization generally. It’s a big confusing world that dissolves stable connections. Who can sort through it all and decide what it means? So we simplify matters by ignoring people we don’t like and lines of thought that don’t go along with views we already hold. Very often that’s justified, because there are lots of incoherent views out there, and when they’re not they’re usually presented badly. And then we organize our thoughts by aligning with a faction and adopting a suite of views that comes with arguments and slogans ready prepared. The more closely connected the faction to the centers of power the better the show it can put on, the more legitimacy it will seem to have, and the safer it will feel to accept.
Under such circumstances, any fundamentally critical view, if it manages to maintain itself at all, will remain that of a small sect. Amateurs don’t win against organized and funded professionals when the professionals stand together. That’s why it’s accepted in mainstream public discussion that if you read something in The New York Times it’s real and important, and if Planned Parenthood says it, it’s reliable. If you read it in First Things, though, it’s someone’s quirky private opinion, and if you read it in Crisis there’s probably something wrong with you for looking at the publication.
The result is that Western society and politics have been surprisingly stable for the past 50 years. The 1960s, with their decision to reject tradition and the transcendent as possible sources of authority, are still in charge. The major change is that they have become routine and institutional, and therefore mindless, boring, and indifferent to realities left out of official calculation. Instead of breaking on through to the other side, they have ended by leading us into a state of maximum entropy, a kind of stability through fine-grained disorder, in which nothing can happen because nothing is allowed to be distinct from anything else in ways commercial and bureaucratic institutions can’t handle effectively.
In spite of such evident disadvantages, the struggle for humanity must go on. Our rulers have lost touch with basic realities, the taboo against noticing Bruce Jenner’s sex is proof enough of that, and that can’t go on forever. The real danger is not that the dreams of the Left will be realized, but that the failure of the attempt will be followed by something crude, stupid, and violent. Soviet socialism, based on denial of God and private property, led to murderous fanaticism, then to corruption and paralysis, and finally when it fell to mafia rule, sporadic civil war, and the collapse of life expectancies. Why expect the more advanced denial of reality that defines the postmodern West to lead to something better?
But how can we resist? There is plenty we can do to make a better life around us, and each should do what he can, but the projects and enthusiasms of individuals are not enough. The great social problem today is the dissolution of institutions not defined by money and bureaucracy, leaving behind only the most abstract forms of order based on means/ends reasoning and the simplest motivations—wealth, power, envy, fear, hatred. The result is the degradation of human culture, and so of thought and good sense.
So, more than anything, Catholics and others who support a more humane world need to promote much stronger forms of social coherence, not dependent on markets or bureaucracies, that would allow more adequate ways of living and thinking to develop continuity and coherence, and become a living tradition with a vision worthy of human life.
Such an environment will require new or newly strengthened institutions providing for education, livelihood, and conviviality, and inspired by a religious orientation definite enough to give them endurance and focus. Catholic institutions, which represent an authoritative body independent of the worldly order and possess a comprehensive understanding of human needs and aspirations, would serve this function if they were true to what they are. It is to that state of affairs that Catholics today, for the good of the world and their souls, need to bend their efforts. And that, I believe, is the true Benedict option for our time: the genuine reform of the Church so she no longer subordinates herself to forces people believe outrank God and his creation.