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.
“There’s been a long conversation in America about the degree to which Catholic Christianity is compatible with liberalism. From the beginning of the American founding, bishops and theologians claimed that for all the flaws of liberal political philosophy, the American founders “built better than they knew.” And yet Pope Leo XIII could warn Cardinal Gibbons to avoid the errors of an “Americanism,” which would distort the teaching of the Church on the proper relationship between politics and the church.
First Things’s default position derives from this “built better” argument. Yet the incompatibility side has always been there as well, and now is coming to the fore. The cultural and political landscape has changed. If the “built-better” argument made sense for nearly two centuries, it has become clear that evidence in its favor is currently in short supply. Without necessarily saying that the “built-better” argument is always wrong, we need to face up to the growing discord between Catholic Christianity and the new world liberalism that is building in America.
What is to be done about this discord? I have always been drawn to Alasdair MacIntyre’s prediction that we need “a new, doubtless very different Saint Benedict” that enables the great Christian tradition to be passed on, preserving the seeds for a new civilization to emerge after the moral poverty of today’s liberalism leads us into dark, chaotic valleys. Rod Dreher has popularized MacIntyre by formulating this hope as the Benedict Option. It refers to our need for small communities of virtue, a new localist movement, and a return to the land or the place of one’s birth. The Benedict Option means cultivating a new counterculture that can resist the barbarian onslaught.
On one level, the Benedict Option is deeply attractive. Its greatest strength is that it sees that Christians need to attend to their communal formation as a whole. It is not enough to simply go to church on Sundays, for the religion of lifestyle liberalism is working on us the rest of the week. Rather, we need an all-embracing form of life coordinated and ordered to the love of God and neighbor. We can look to the very real Christian witness of cloistered, vowed religious life and say, “see, it can be done.” That should give all of us enormous hope.
On another level, however, “the Benedict Option” has a serious flaw. It can be summed up in one word withdrawal. Neither MacIntyre nor Dreher have intended anything like withdrawal from the common good, or even from a commitment to political institutions. But I must confess that the image of withdrawal is powerfully associated with the Benedictine monastery, and so appeals to the Benedict Option miss something.
Better, therefore, to speak of the Dominican Option. When I see them in the white habits at prayer, or giving lectures, or playing guitars and banjos on the subway, I have a plausible image of a “contrast society” that is very much engaged with the world—an evangelistic witness which is joyful, intellectually serious, expansive, and charitable.
St. Dominic founded the Order of Preachers after a long contemplative season which, in the words of one biographer “burst into flame” when he encountered Albigensians (ancient Manichean dualists) on travels through southern France. Dominic stayed up all night arguing with one Albigensian, and by morning the man turned away from his heresy and turned towards the Catholic faith. Dominic’s missionary zeal flowed directly out of cloistered contemplation, but it convinced him of the need for a new evangelistic order.
Dominic told his men to go into the world without fear. They should study, they should pray, and they should preach. His Order harmonized the life of a contemplative with the activity of an evangelist. This meant intellectual training. One only needs to think of St. Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris to understand the impact this had. Dominicans studied other languages, and other religions, in order to preach more effectively. Aquinas himself wrote the Summa Contra Gentiles precisely to assist the brothers’ preaching to Muslims.
This is what we need today as well: the right pattern of formation and evangelistic witness. Not every Christian will be a Dominican, of course. But we all have something fundamental to learn from the Dominican pattern of life.”
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "“Si comprehendus, non est Deus.” -St Augustine, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "And above all, be on your guard not to want to get anything done by force, because God has given free will to everyone and wants to force no one, but only proposes, invites and counsels." –St. Angela Merici, “Yet such are the pity and compassion of this Lord of ours, so desirous is He that we should seek Him and enjoy His company, that in one way or another He never ceases calling us to Him . . . God here speaks to souls through words uttered by pious people, by sermons or good books, and in many other such ways.” —St. Teresa of Avila, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "We cannot always have access to a spiritual Father for counsel in our actions and in our doubts, but reading will abundantly supply his place by giving us directions to escape the illusions of the devil and of our own self-love, and at the same time to submit to the divine will.” —St. Alphonsus Ligouri, "The harm that comes to souls from the lack of reading holy books makes me shudder . . . What power spiritual reading has to lead to a change of course, and to make even worldly people enter into the way of perfection." –St. Padre Pio, "Screens may grab our attention, but books change our lives!" – Word on Fire, "Reading has made many saints!" -St Josemaría Escrivá, "Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you." —St. Jerome, from his Letter 22 to Eustochium, "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, "God here speaks to souls through…good books“ – St Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, "You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. "Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading." –St. Isidore of Seville “The aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity.… You, who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.” -St. John Chrysostom