The call is coming from inside the option

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.

Aristotle, Thomas, and the “City of Rod”

Rod Dreher has released his book, The Benedict Option, setting forth one more time that which he has set forth many, many times in various essays and blog posts. Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, a leading voice among Catholic leftists, has reviewed the book at great length and, frankly, panned it. Dreher has responded to Bruenig’s review at equally great length, and you can read the whole exchange at the links above. (We will not bore you by summarizing all of Bruenig’s critiques and Dreher’s responses.) However, our attention was grabbed by one passage in Dreher’s response:

As I say in the book, Christians have to stay engaged in ordinary politics, if only to protect our religious liberty interests. (I believe we have to stay involved for other reasons too, but even if you don’t agree, you can at least agree that religious liberty is absolutely vital.) But we cannot put as much trust in politics as we have in past eras. The great error of the Religious Right over the past 30 years or so is not to have gotten politically involved. It’s to have thought that advancing the Kingdom of God was more or less synonymous with helping the Republican Party ascend to power. Our leaders (and a lot of us followers), often without knowing what we were doing, put way too much focus on political engagement, and way too little on personal spiritual formation, and what the Benedictines call “conversion of life.”

(Emphasis supplied.) For someone who claims—as Dreher does—to be encouraging Christians to recover a premodern tradition to fight the corrosive influence of liberalism, this is a stunning statement. Indeed, it constitutes nothing less than a rejection of the premodern tradition regarding politics. Let us put it another way; Bruenig is not the most stringent critic of Dreher on this point—Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas are.

A very brief review of the relevant points is perhaps in order. You no doubt know, dear reader, that Aristotle taught that man is a political animal and that the state arises from nature (Politics I.1, 1253a3–4). Aquinas follows this teaching when he observes, in the context of the natural law, that it is proper for man to know truths about living in society (ST Ia IIae q.94 a.2 co.). And this point remains noncontroversial in the tradition. Leo XIII, for example, reaffirms that it is natural to man to live in society in Immortale Dei. The great pope further reminds us that, in nature, rulers are necessary for the direction of society, even if a particular kind of ruler is not necessary (cf. ST Ia IIae q.90 a.3 co. & ad 3). And the ruler makes laws in order to make the members of the society good (ST Ia IIae q.92 a.2 co.; Ethic. X.9, 1180b24–28). Finally, politics, Aristotle tells us, is simply the practical art of making good laws (Ethic. X.9, 1180b24–25, 1181a22–b1; cf. ST Ia IIae q.95 a.2 co. & ad 3).

With these very basic principles in mind, the extent of Dreher’s error becomes obvious. Man participates in politics, either as ruler or ruled, naturally (cf. ST Ia IIae q.90 a.3 ad 1). The notion that man could withdraw from politics naturally is ridiculous (cf. Politics I.1, 1253a4–6). The notion becomes more ridiculous when one considers that the civil power comes from God, regardless of the political mechanism for its exercise and transmission. We won’t beat this dead horse further by discussing the duties of the state to God and true religion, to say nothing of the indirect subordination of state to Church. The bottom line is that the idea that a Christian could—much less should—limit his or her political engagement simply misunderstands what politics is. Now, one may say that one ought to express his or her engagement in a given way—a Catholic may vote for a pro-abortion politician only in certain circumstances when his opponent’s position on another grave matter requires it—but if that is what Dreher means, you could have fooled us.

Especially because Dreher goes on to say:

Right now, a lot of Christian conservatives believe that we dodged a bullet with the election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. I agree that things aren’t as dangerous for us now as they would have been under Clinton. But it’s simply delusional to think that Trump is going to turn things around. Even if he were a saint, he couldn’t do that. As Bruenig makes clear early in her review, there is increasingly little space for us Christians, at least those who don’t go along with the latest iteration of liberalism, in the public square.

Richard John Neuhaus hoped that we would have a place there. That project has failed, it seems to me. What now? Yes, we still have to be engaged in politics, but what happens when and if we lose? We don’t suddenly cease to be Christian, or to have the obligation to serve Christ, even if we have to suffer for it. How are we going to do that? How will we find the faith and the courage within us to know when we are being asked to believe or to accept something that we cannot if we want to be faithful? Where is our “Here I stand, I can do no other” line? How will we know when we are being asked to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, living as we must as resident aliens in Babylon, and how will we find it within ourselves to go into the furnace singing, as did Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego?

(Emphasis supplied.) Given all of this, it is passing hard to imagine that Dreher simply meant to say that we have to temper our engagement, while remaining politically active as nature requires.

It is, however, not hard at all to see how Dreher loses the thread. A sharp friend of ours has observed that Dreher’s work as a journalist has influenced his thinking on this point. Recall what he said a little bit before what we just quoted:

The great error of the Religious Right over the past 30 years or so is not to have gotten politically involved. It’s to have thought that advancing the Kingdom of God was more or less synonymous with helping the Republican Party ascend to power. Our leaders (and a lot of us followers), often without knowing what we were doing, put way too much focus on political engagement, and way too little on personal spiritual formation, and what the Benedictines call “conversion of life.”

(Emphasis supplied.) In essence, Dreher’s complaint is that American Christians are bad at politics. One does not have to be a journalist reporting on politics and culture—like Dreher—to see that the deal that conservative Christians have cut, knowingly or not, with Republicans has not been a good deal historically. This is obvious. And we will not bore you with all the ways in which it is obvious. You can recite them as well as we can. But it is clear that Dreher’s reporting on this situation has affected how he thinks politics work in general terms.

And this, of course, is the great temptation for a traditionally minded or integralist Catholic (or Christian more broadly): the culture—political, popular, and otherwise—of the United States is undoubtedly disordered. Part of this disorder is the hostility to Christians generally and orthodox Christians specifically. But it extends far beyond that. And confronted with this, the temptation for a serious Christian is to react to the situation itself. But this is ultimately the wrong approach. St. Thomas tells us that law—and therefore politics—is an exercise of reason ordered to the common good (ST Ia IIae q.90 a.2 co. & ad 1). While there is certainly room for the application of discretion and judgment, consistent with the common good and the divine and natural law, in given circumstances, one must be careful not to jettison the conclusions of reason itself based upon those circumstances.

Dreher falls into just that trap. He observes correctly that the culture of the United States is bad, and he reacts to this situation by deciding that Christians should participate in politics only on limited terms. No. Dreher is right that the way out is by recovering the premodern tradition, but recovering the premodern tradition means understanding that political participation is natural to man.

A very brief provocation

In keeping with our recent theme of ressourcement of an Aristotelian-Thomistic political vision, we have been sketching, mostly for ourselves, some theses. However, in preparing these (impossibly) rough drafts, we had occasion to review this passage of the Summa:

as stated above, a law is nothing else than a dictate of reason in the ruler by whom his subjects are governed. Now the virtue of any subordinate thing consists in its being well subordinated to that by which it is regulated: thus we see that the virtue of the irascible and concupiscible faculties consists in their being obedient to reason; and accordingly “the virtue of every subject consists in his being well subjected to his ruler,” as the Philosopher says (Polit. i). But every law aims at being obeyed by those who are subject to it. Consequently it is evident that the proper effect of law is to lead its subjects to their proper virtue: and since virtue is “that which makes its subject good,” it follows that the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good, either simply or in some particular respect. For if the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on true good, which is the common good regulated according to Divine justice, it follows that the effect of the law is to make men good simply. If, however, the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on that which is not simply good, but useful or pleasurable to himself, or in opposition to Divine justice; then the law does not make men good simply, but in respect to that particular government. In this way good is found even in things that are bad of themselves: thus a man is called a good robber, because he works in a way that is adapted to his end.

(ST Ia IIae q.92 a.1 co.) (Emphasis supplied.) It seems to us that this passage contains, in germ, much of the framework for Aristotelian-Thomistic politics generally. (And, if not the passage, then the whole of q.92 a.1.) But this is a discussion for another time.

We have been taken with a more interesting notion: perhaps we should start taking St. Thomas at his word when assessing various political settlements.

De Koninck and the modern age

At Sancrucensis, Pater Edmund Waldstein has a very interesting comment by Jacques Maritain about Charles de Koninck’s The Primacy of the Common Good (1943). Most followers of De Koninck know that Fr. I. Thomas Eschmann, O.P., wrote a scathing critique of The Primacy of the Common Good, called In Defense of Jacques Maritain. Eschmann’s defense was published in 1945. De Koninck responded in 1945, with a very lengthy tract, In Defense of St. Thomas. Pater Waldstein notes that, in a 1945 letter to Étienne Gilson, another eminent Thomist, Maritain largely approved Eschmann’s critique. It is not clear whether Maritain had seen In Defense of St. Thomas when he wrote to Gilson. This may clarify somewhat Maritain’s position in the debate between De Koninck and Eschmann, which remains a little shadowy.

Then again, it might not. Another sharp friend of ours pointed us to a chapter from Ralph McInerny’s 1988 collection of essays on Maritain, Art and Prudence, in which Maritain, writing in 1947, thanks Eschmann for his defense, but ultimately claims not to hold the positions criticized in The Primacy of the Common Good. McInerny also discusses a list of theses set forth by Yves Simon that purports to mark out the common ground between De Koninck, Maritain, and Simon. The letter Pater Waldstein cites helps form an interesting perspective on Maritain’s response to De Koninck. On the one hand, Maritain rejected the suggestion that he actually held the positions at issue in the debate between De Koninck and Eschmann. On the other hand, Maritain certainly approved on Eschmann’s response to De Koninck and thought it wrought by the master hand, so to speak.

At any rate, we encourage you, dear reader, to read The Primacy of the Common Good, if you have not, and, if you have an appetite for controversy, In Defense of Jacques Maritain and In Defense of St. Thomas. Volume two of McInerny’s edition of The Writings of Charles De Koninck contains not only The Primacy of the Common Good, but also Eschmann’s response and De Koninck’s reply. (It also has De Koninck’s fascinating Ego Sapientia, which discusses the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament as applied to Our Lady, and his brief Notes on Marxism.) Pater Waldstein admirably summarizes the importance of De Koninck’s work, especially as conceived in opposition to “Neo-Liberalism, Neo-Individualism, and . . . Neo-Pelagianism,” as Maritain puts it.

 

For a Catholic—indeed, for anyone operating in the western tradition—man is a political animal (Politics I.2, 1253a2–3; ST I-II q.72 a.4 co.). And, from this fact, as McInerny argues, man belongs to his community. To say otherwise is strange and results in strange, usually bad, consequences (Politics I.2, 1253a19–39.) Concern for the common good is, therefore, both inescapable and necessary. Yet much of the modern project—we would say “political project,” but to do so would be to equivocate on the nature of politics—is an attempt to escape concern for the common good. De Koninck discusses any number of errors about the common good—the most pernicious of which is, of course, totalitarianism—and you can, dear reader, see these errors propounded in any number of venues.

As Pater Waldstein observes, De Koninck’s critique of personalism has the note of prophecy about it. It is essential, therefore, to return to authors like De Koninck when contemplating the state of things and the possibility of a way forward. But, as we have said before, the state of theological and philosophical education among Catholics is shocking. Not only have we lost the recent social magisterium of popes like Leo XIII but we have also lost the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. The reaction of the Council and the post-conciliar Church against neo-Scholasticism and “manualism” has gone beyond blotting out the baroque neo-Thomism that so terrorized the Council fathers when they were in seminary to blotting out Thomism itself. And it shows: Catholics are entirely unprepared to grapple with the problems of modernity, including neoliberalism and neo-individualism. They fall into various errors, as a result, some of which are, to our mind, much worse than the problems confronted.

We observe, perhaps idly, that most of these errors seem to find their roots in imperfect understandings of the common good. Funny how that works.

 

Another new essay worth your time

The Josias, after another relatively quiet period, is on a roll lately. A few days ago, they ran a really very insightful and provocative essay by John Francis Nieto. Now, they have an equally insightful and provocative essay by our old friend, Pater Edmund Waldstein. The essay, touching upon the immigration question currently the source of much debate and disquiet in the United States, connects the natural law right of migration recognized by Pius XII in Exsul Familia Nazarethana with the universal destination of goods. He also provides some fascinating, helpful background on the debate between globalism and nationalism, which is part and parcel of the immigration question. In other words, it’s a must-read piece if you want to discuss current events from a Catholic perspective.

We will not spoil it for you by quoting excerpts. Instead we will urge you to go to The Josias and read it.

Another project of ressourcement

Following up on our piece about Leonine ressourcement, it occurs to us that someone could very profitably write a concise (if not brief) introduction to Aristotelian-Thomistic politics, aimed toward a popular audience. Certainly there are already essays pointing in this direction, such as Pater Edmund Waldstein’s introduction to the common good and Coëmgenus’s “Theses and Responses on Antiamericanism.” (Both are at The Josias.) Both essays are excellent, though both presume a certain level of knowledge about Aristotelian-Thomistic politics in their readers. However, we have in mind something considerably more basic.

For example, it is far from clear to us whether there is widespread understanding of the proposition that a law is a dictate of practical reason shaped to the common good. And we are certain that few people understand that the purpose of law is to make citizens good simpliciter (cf. ST Ia IIae q.92 a.1 co. & ad 1). It seems to us, as you, dear reader, may have deduced from our piece on Leonine ressourcement that we think it is a problem that so few Catholics are conversant with their own tradition of political thought. As we said, the liberal order appears to be at an inflection point, if not a point of crisis. Of course, as we did not observe in our original essay, this could be but a simple pause in the development of liberalism, a moment while liberalism is adjusted to take into account the rising ethnic and class-based resentments currently affecting the political order of the west. But such a thought is very depressing. Instead, we prefer to think that this is a moment when Catholics can challenge the liberal order meaningfully, by drawing on their political tradition and the social teaching of the Church.

We think a list of theses, much like the essays linked above, would be a wonderful format for an introduction to Aristotelian-Thomistic politics, though with plenty of citations to authorities, so that readers will be able to run down the sources themselves. And, of course, it will be necessary to draw upon the magisterium to clarify some points. For example, there are certain contradictions between the Leonine magisterium and Aristotelian-Thomistic notions of the state and rights. (Compare Leo’s treatment of the priority of the family to the state in Rerum novarum with Aristotle’s argument in Politics 1, for example.) Given the Church’s authority to interpret and defend the natural law, conferred by divine ordinance, these contradictions must be identified, explored in some detail, and resolved. Ultimately, such an introduction would serve as a resource for Catholics thinking about what comes next.

Perhaps such a handy introduction does exist and we have simply missed it. But, again, we would want to reduce the principles to their simplest possible form.

A provocative essay at The Josias

John Francis Nieto, a longtime tutor at Thomas Aquinas College in California, has a very interesting and provocative essay at The Josias. It is a long, very carefully argued essay about the insufficiency of the political right and left alike due to the acceptance of social contract theory by right and left alike. (We are no doubt oversimplifying the argument, which is, of course, a risk when describing such a careful argument.) We offer a very small excerpt:

I believe that right and left are both proceeding ‘forward’ toward a more and more perfect system of human management.  This demands global government, a fluid worldwide economy, a thorough-going leveling of individuals through society, so that no one can remain outside the reaches of this management and thus a danger to its integrity.  Everyone can enjoy his pri­vate satisfaction so long as he submits to the system, so long as he is ‘with the program’, as it is vulgarly put.

Where then do right and left differ, if they are in fundamental agreement about the social contract?  I think there are many illusions lurking here and do not have time to consider them.  Let me merely propose for the moment that the fundamental difference is this: the left holds that the original formation of society is a system of oppression and must be superseded by a true social contract, while the right accepts this original formation as a binding contract.

For a devotee of Charles de Koninck, especially his essays The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists and The Principle of the New Order, Nieto’s arguments will sound fairly familiar. However, Nieto takes the time to work out some of the fundamentals of the argument that De Koninck makes assuming that his readers have the fundamentals well in hand. Nieto’s essay also has an interesting biographical component to it.

It is well worth a read.