Plain Persons, Popes, and the Benedict Option

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. (Gaudium et Spes, 1)

For many conservative or traditionalist Catholics, Laudato Si, an encyclical devoted to ecological concerns, has the jarring appearance of secular ideology wrapped in the guise of Christian platitudes. (For this, see especially Christopher Ferrara’s post at The Remnant.) Many of the same Catholics would see the roots of such modernism in the doctrines of Vatican II and especially Gaudium et Spes, with its call for sympathy with the aspirations of secular modernity. But this would be mistaken. Laudato Si continues the tradition of papal engagement with modernity begun by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum. Leo linked the concerns of the Church with the concerns of plain persons, the average man or woman suffering as a result of changing economic conditions. Lamenting the concentration of economic power in the hands of the few, he says,

In any case we clearly see, and on this there is general agreement, that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place. (#3)

Although the encyclical opposed revolution, it supported the formation of labor unions as new institutions that could serve to protect and promote the common good of laborers, and counseled profit-sharing as a means of mitigating the tension between labor and capital.

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that Leo’s papacy was essential for the revival of Thomism in modernity as a rival tradition to liberalism and postmodernism. In Natural Law as Subversive, MacIntyre says that “insofar as Aquinas is faithful to his own conception of the natural law, he finds himself at odds with persecutory activities of centralizing power…” For MacIntyre, the Thomistic doctrine of natural law is of paramount importance because it rightly emphasizes the rationality of plain persons’ everyday activities. He says, “The rationality of plain persons is to be elicited by and exhibited in their participation in communal practices, practices that require a shared recognition of their common good as a political bond…”

It is this aspect of the Thomistic doctrine of the natural law that Leo drew upon; by linking such concerns with the Church’s social doctrine, he emphasized the importance of the secular concerns of average people struggling to flourish through their daily activities. Gaudium et Spes highlights this same Thomistic doctrine by linking secular aspirations with the aspirations of the Church. A common theme of this tradition is the conflict between the practical rationality of plain persons and larger social structures that threaten to obstruct or subvert these persons’ efforts to achieve the common good. Whether this threat stems from the owners of capital, atheistic revolutionary movements, or from totalitarian regimes, the popes have been concerned with preserving—especially through the doctrines of subsidiarity and solidarity—the ability of plain persons to flourish in the face of centralizing power. Pope Francis continues this same tradition, stating in his recent encyclical: “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance” (Laudato Si #54).

What does any of this have to do with the recent discussion of the “Benedict Option” in conservative circles? Rod Dreher at The American Conservative has consistently linked his reflections with MacIntyre’s work, but he would do well to follow the trajectory of MacIntyre’s thought in After Virtue concerning “another— doubtless very different— St. Benedict” (After Virtue). MacIntyre connected St. Benedict’s achievements—the creation of monasteries that served to support communities of virtuous practice—to the contemporary need to establish “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” This was essentially the conclusion of his argument that morality had all but disappeared in modernity because of the marginalization of the types of community where plain persons could seek the common good through shared activities.

But how should such “new forms of community” be understood? From the discussions of many proponents of the Benedict Option, and Dreher at times, this project seems to be understood as an effort to achieve separation from the individualistic morality characteristic of contemporary liberalism. While MacIntyre had few words of praise for such individualistic morality, he argued that the individualism of corporate capitalism was just as destructive to the shared bonds of the common good characteristic of virtuous communities. MacIntyre instead points to communities of resistance. Rejecting the extreme pessimism of Theodor Adorno (one the most important critical theorists), MacIntyre says, “To be good, to live rightly, and to think rightly, it may be said in reply to Adorno, is to be engaged in struggle and a perfected life is one perfected in key part in and through conflicts.”

The places and circumstances that MacIntyre identifies when it comes to this struggle include “some rank and file trade union movements, of some tenants’ associations, of the disability movement, of a variety of farming, fishing, and trading cooperatives, and by some feminist groups, and on the other by those who are at work within schools, hospitals, a variety of industrial and financial workplaces, laboratories, theaters, and universities in order to make of these, so far as possible, scenes of resistance to the dominant ideology and the dominant social order.”

MacIntyre’s proposal is radical but it is not quietist nor primarily concerned with religious communities, unlike Dreher’s vision. Instead MacIntyre draws upon the same elements of the Thomistic natural law doctrine that have inspired modern Catholic social teaching. He is concerned with the rationality of plain persons. His work is designed to support communities of practice that seek to achieve the common good and to cultivate the virtues in the face of the individualistic institutions and ideologies of modernity. As such, his work cuts across identity politics and encourages plain persons to reflect upon the nature of the common good as it is concretely embodied in their shared daily lives. It encourages such communities to recognize the threats that they face from those structures of sin identified by a variety popes from Leo to Francis—threats that are very often tied to concentrated economic power—and further, to take steps to resist the rampant injustice of the contemporary order in all of its forms.

Caleb Bernacchio has a B.Phil from the Angelicum and an MBA from LSU; in the fall he will be a PhD candidate in management and business ethics at IESE Business School.