Rod Dreher has decided that none of the critics of The Benedict Option have understood him. Either they are reading things into the book that he did not put there or they are working out obscure personal grievances. This is, of course, a risible assertion, not least since Dreher has written (and written and written and written) about the Benedict Option over the past several years. It is also in keeping with Dreher’s near-constant redefinition of the Option in the face of criticism. The idea is very simple: Christians have lost pretty much every political engagement they’ve fought over the past, oh, fifty years (draw a straight line between Roe and Obergefell, if you like), and they need to withdraw from society. But what happens when they withdraw from society? Dreher is convinced that most Christians possess only a watered-down faith. The problem, we think, is more serious than that.
Giving us a gentle ribbing, the blogger Subsannabit suggests that it is error to think that modern western liberalism is doing politics. Subsannabit, in an interesting post about true radicalism, also observes that most people simply do not do politics. Of course, Subsannabit may err by setting the bar for doing politics too high (cf. ST Ia IIae q.92 a.1 co. & ad 4; Ia IIae q.96 a.4 co. & ad 3), but s/he is not wrong about the fact that modern western liberalism is not really politics in any meaningful sense, at least as the term is rightly understood. Certainly the liberal is not interested in applying practical reason to frame laws to make people simply good. Such a process would force a modern western liberal to concede a bunch of things he would be loath to concede. The modern liberal prefers to write laws to create in essence a neutral playing field on which everyone can pursue his or her personal good without much restraint or even much interference. The common good does not factor into this sort of thought. And, for this reason, this sort of liberalism is, of course, corrosive of the very idea of civil society (Grenier, 3 Thomistic Philosophy no. 1154, pp. 455–56). For proof of the thesis, one has only to open a newspaper or turn on the TV.
Such liberalism is, for most people, an omnipresent, omnipotent force. The law, we know, is a teacher, even if the lesson is a bad one. There is simply no escape from it. Some people can see the problem and even sketch proposals for a solution, but it is hard to imagine the implementation of such proposals without adverting to liberal ideas. After all, liberalism is, for most westerners, as natural as the air we breathe. And this is fundamentally the problem with Dreher’s Benedict Option—and any number of similar proposals—retreating from society will do no good if you bring liberalism with you. Whatever polity or society you create will have the same flaw at its heart as the one you left behind. It is like the scene in any number of horror, science-fiction, and thriller pictures, when Our Hero or Our Heroine reaches a safe spot, only to discover that he or she is Not Alone. Or worse, when Our Hero or Our Heroine has asked the phone company to trace the menacing calls, only to be informed that the calls are coming from inside the house.
And Dreher, whether he understands it or not, wants to bring liberalism with him. Religious liberty, however helpful it may be to Christians at the moment, is the lynchpin of the liberal order. Once one puts truth and error on the same plane, the rest falls into place quickly. And it has the same consequences that liberalism always has. Leo XIII explained this admirably in Libertas praestantissimum (nos. 19–22). And this is, as it was expressed in Dignitatis humanae and Nostra aetate, a major problem for Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, holding to the Church’s traditional teachings, even beyond those difficulties posed by the New Mass. To say then, that Christians, withdrawing from the most part from society, will remain politically engaged to the extent that it is necessary to defend religious liberty—which is what Dreher has said—is to say that Christians will carry with them the seeds of liberalism. This guarantees that they will get to their communities, breathe a deep sigh of relief, and turn around to discover that they are Not Alone. The menacing calls from liberalism are coming from inside the Option.
If you don’t like the analogy to popcorn flicks, consider the emotional climax of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen: Act Two of Die Walküre. Wotan’s long-suffering wife, Fricka, has demanded that Wotan do something about the incestuous adultery of the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, despite the fact that Wotan was Siegmund’s father and teacher (“So ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Göttern?”). In point of fact, Fricka demands that Wotan do nothing when Sieglinde’s husband comes to settle accounts. Wotan hoped to raise a free hero who could recover the titular Ring, which, as one remembers from Das Rheingold, Wotan himself cannot touch, lest he break the contracts that give him his authority (“Als junger Liebe Lust mir verblich”). Wotan then has to explain the situation to his daughter, Brünnhilde, and comes to the realization that in all his efforts to make a free hero, he finds only himself (“Nun einer könnte, was ich nicht darf”). That is, all his creatures are, just that, creatures, and they reflect him and his all-too-real flaws. The optioneers will discover, Wotan-like, that they’ve made communities resembling primarily themselves: good liberal subjects.
This is, in part, why we have talked so much about a ressourcement of Aristotelian-Thomistic political theory, which finds its best modern expression in the magisterium of Leo XIII. Without a proper understanding of the polity, how just laws are framed, and a proper conception of politics, it is simply not rational to expect a withdrawal from society in any meaningful sense to spark a restoration of Christian life. One will most likely create enclaves of religiously flavored liberalism that rely ultimately on liberal concepts such as religious liberty to survive. Now, perhaps the withdrawals proposed are not withdrawals in any meaningful sense. Perhaps they are merely histrionics, designed to emphasize to secular liberals the age-old point “You’ll really miss us when we’re gone.” Such histrionics are understandable—as we say, draw a line from Roe to Obergefell—but ultimately not productive. Either way, no progress is going to be made against the forces of liberalism without rediscovering the teaching of Aristotle, Thomas, and Leo XIII.