-more Eastern Province Dominicans who reside at the House of Studies, Wash, DC, please click on image for greater detail.
-by C.C. Pecknold, associate professor of systematic theology at Catholic University of America.
“Recently I attended a seminar on religious liberty at Villanova School of Law. I wanted to learn how the law could help protect the Church as we advance into increasingly difficult cultural waters. Instead, the legal eagles offered a much more pessimistic prognosis: legal protections are eroding fast, and law follows culture, so don’t count on the law to protect the Church for long. While I did not walk away entirely hopeless about what the law can do to protect the Church, it did heighten my sense that we are rapidly running out of options. Christians can no longer rely on a cultural consensus and its legal expression in favor of religious belief, especially religious belief that insists on having a place in the public square. After meeting with the lawyers, I had to ask: Now what?
I thought about this question when reading Dale Coulter and Bianca Czaderna’s responses to my “The Dominican Option.” For a number of years I have followed Alasdair MacIntyre and his famous call for “a very different St. Benedict.” As a result, I have often heard MacIntyre’s vision described as “an ethic of withdrawal.” It’s an old canard. It’s not true. But there you have it. I’ve heard it over and over again, not only about the Catholic MacIntyre, but also about Lutherans like George Lindbeck, who embraced a “sociologically sectarian” view of Christian community, and most frequently about the Methodist Stanley Hauerwas. To get beyond these tired disputes about withdrawal and cultural engagement, I proposed the ancient Vita Mixta that St. Augustine recommended: evangelistic witness flowing from cloistered monastic formation. Perhaps the most controversial thing about this was that I suggested that the Dominicans offer us the most visible image of this mixed pattern today.
Dale Coulter responded that the “Options for Cultural Engagement” were much wider than the Benedictine or Dominican options allowed, and he rightly pointed to the diversity of the Body of Christ. Building on Coulter’s critique, Bianca Czaderna argued that there were “Lots of Options,” so many options that even to suggest one “paradigmatic example” was a useless and invidious enterprise. These critiques would have been spot-on if I had argued that the Dominicans provide the one way of being the Body of Christ in the world. But I did not make such a claim. My point in arguing for the Dominican Option was not to pit religious orders against one another, but to raise up a visible model to help us to think about how lay Christians (Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic) can meet the new challenges for Christian witness in America by committing ourselves to a more intensive formation ordered to the conversion of souls that make up American culture.
Christians do indeed have “lots of options” for living as the Body of Christ. But the culture is giving us a rather different set of options: accommodate or it’ll cost you. Our current legal-cultural regime is effectively saying: “Those are nice stained windows you have there; It’d be a shame if anything happened to them.” That threat is a prelude to a cultural concordat, and many Christians will be all too eager to be accommodating in order to be accepted.
Our families are going to need to live according to a rule if we are to endure—very much as religious orders do—with daily habits of prayer, confession, adoration, ingesting the Scriptures, emulating the great saints, learning to think with the doctors of the Church. We will need to find ourselves more habitually engaged in works of charity and mercy, corporal and spiritual. The words of St. Catherine of Siena OP come to mind: “If you are what you should be, you will set all of Italy (the world) ablaze.”
The Dominican Option is meant to challenge us to double down on communal formation, and double up on our missionary endeavor. It’s precisely this mixed pattern of life that must be wholly devoted to forming saints, and must also preach in the public square, in word and deed, about the charity and truth which lead souls to Christ. That’s really our only option.”