The Catholic Writer and The Benedict Option

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To differentiate the Catholic literary writer from the theologian, the philosopher, and the priest, we may fall back upon the expedient of a shibboleth. With one very notable exception, theologians rarely use the word sensibility by itself. Philosophers and priests are known to speak of moral sensibility. But today I will use the word in much the same sense as G. K. Chesterton and T. S. Eliot used it. What, then, do these literary authors intend by sensibility? The Oxford English Dictionary furnishes a somewhat unsatisfactory definition: the “quality of being readily and strongly affected by emotional or artistic influences and experiences; emotional awareness; susceptibility or sensitivity to, keen awareness of.” The problem with this definition is that it fails to account for the more intellectual aspects of sensibility. And this shortcoming strikes me as relevant precisely because a Roman Catholic literary sensibility ought to show a “keen awareness of” two points that move the intellect—two points that we may refer to broadly as (1) the forces of history and (2) the facts of human nature. With respect to history, a sound theologian will tend to know a great deal more than a novelist about the early church, the councils, and the rise and fall of heresies. One must, as a Roman Catholic writer, absorb what one can of these things, while extending one’s historical consciousness to take in literary movements and what Chesterton called literary heresies. Also, a Roman Catholic writer needs to apply his or her sense of history to artistic choices, including subject-matter and style. A contemporary Catholic reader ought to share this sensibility.

By using the word sensibility in a way that identifies art with intellectual depth, I follow the lead of John Henry Newman, whose consciousness of history and literature is vast, integrated, and developmental. Newman’s Roman Catholic sensibility made a lasting impression on the great English humanist Matthew Arnold, who grounded his educational program on the best that has been thought and said. Newman’s influence on such diverse authors as Arnold, Walter Pater, Chesterton, Irving Babbitt, James Joyce, Eliot, Muriel Spark, and Flannery O’Connor likewise testifies that the survival of a Catholic sensibility is not a superficial or parochial affair. It has, we may suggest, implications for non-Catholics and for the study and creation of literature in general.

If a Catholic sensibility follows from a Catholic education, then it is fairly easy to see why educated Catholics would have misgivings about Rod Dreher’s latest blockbuster, The Benedict Option. Mr. Dreher proposes a sweeping Christian response to what he sees as a moment of anti-Christian triumph. His “Benedict Option” calls for a modern Christian exodus under the ancient banner of Benedictine monasticism, “a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity” (2). His rhetoric is uneven, part scaremongering and part reasonable conservativism. Some of it commands my sympathy. But it is the scaremongering that provides the marketing angle, and so it is the scaremongering that requires an intellectual framework.

It is difficult to respond—without sounding mean-spirited—to the hubris that is rampant throughout Mr. Dreher’s portentous account of western intellectual history, to which he gives the chapter heading “The Roots of the Crisis.” Philosophers may object that thinkers of greater note than Mr. Dreher have addressed what Martin Heidegger called “The Question Concerning Technology.” As for literature, Mr. Dreher endorses it on educational and religious grounds. But literature is a problem for Mr. Dreher. And this problem is historical in nature.

By way of C. S. Lewis’s book The Discarded Image, Mr. Dreher endorses the Middle Ages as a golden age of scholastic synthesis and metaphysical certainty, following which occurred “the loss of belief in the integral connection between God and Creation” as well as the “collapse of religious unity and religious authority” (23). This fits the familiar mold of a narrative of decline. The irony eludes Mr. Dreher that Lewis opens The Discarded Image by commenting on medieval man’s lack of historical self-consciousness: Lewis compares medieval Europe to ancient Egypt in this regard. But even if we grant Mr. Dreher his theological premise of a scholastic golden age when “the spirit world and the material world penetrated each other,” when the inhabitants of this world “experienced everything…sacramentally” (24, his emphasis), then (we ask) wouldn’t literature and the study of literature be contaminated by the metaphysical blight at the root of today’s crisis—by the modern denial of this common sacramental experience? As a continuum open to study and criticism, literature did not emerge full-grown from the head of Zeus. In fact, it did not emerge until the Renaissance, which produced Shakespeare, whom Mr. Dreher regrets not having read in college (154). It may be that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Or it may be that Mr. Dreher’s trick of selecting the fruits of history while condemning the forces of history is a dishonest method.

One thinks of his claim that classical Christian schools teach the western tradition—“both Greco-Roman and Christian—in all its depth” (146). The author of this statement might have shown more humility before pronouncing on the western tradition—“both Greco-Roman and Christian—in all its depth.” In any case, Shakespeare, in a very long play called Hamlet, noticed certain tensions—between Achilles and Christ, between classical heroism and Christian heroism—that revealed a core instability in the fusion between the “Greco-Roman” tradition and the Christian one, an instability at the heart of the Christian humanist synthesis. For Shakespeare, this instability did not serve to invalidate classical or Christian truth. But it did serve to draw attention to the limits of what we know. Without surrendering to fashionable cynicism what John Paul II called the “special activity of human reason,” I would argue that an awareness of such limits is, or should be, crucial to the historical consciousness of Roman Catholics.

In his bid to help Catholics compete in a changing world, Newman cultivates a middle ground, which is the University itself. In terms of institutional arrangements, he locates the University between, on the one hand, the Church, and, on the other, the Academies, which are equivalent to our research institutions. He defends at length his view of knowledge as an end in itself: “Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it really be such, is its own reward.” He argues that it is the job of the Church, not of the University, to form an individual’s conscience. His book The Idea of a University is a clear-headed response by Newman to historical circumstances. He was the first Catholic thinker to digest the Enlightenment. By contrast, Mr. Dreher insists that there is “no middle ground” (76, 239)—not for those “serious about living as Christians” (239). This strikes me not only as a salting of the field where literature can flourish, but as a dangerously shortsighted response to grave challenges. School and church, he argues, are to be completely integrated (162). Any “good thing” that “becomes an end in itself…turns into an idol” (195). Mr. Dreher is, in his rough handling of fine materials, a veritable anti-Newman.

I turn now to my second marker of a Catholic sensibility—the knowledge of human nature, the facts of life and the business of the world. Unlike Mr. Dreher, Newman defends literature as an imitation of quotidian reality: “If then by Literature is meant the manifestation of human nature in human language, you will seek for it in vain except for in the world. Put up with it, as it is, or do not pretend to cultivate it; take things as they are, not as you could wish them.” Newman builds his case for secular literature by sketching the fate of the cloistered schoolboy: “Today a pupil, tomorrow a member of the great world: today confined to the Lives of the Saints, tomorrow thrown upon Babel….” (Today, we might add, The Chronicles of Narnia, tomorrow Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.) Newman goes on: “You have refused him the masters of human thought, who would in some sense have educated him, because of their incidental corruption….you have shut him up from Homer, Ariosto, Cervantes, Shakespeare, because the old Adam smelt rank in them.” In his appreciation of Shakespeare, incidentally, Newman eschews the antitheatricalism of the medieval church, as expressed by the Lateran Council of 1215, and affirmed by the papacies of Gregory IX and Boniface VIII.

Mr. Dreher shares none of Newman’s homeopathic idea of literature. He would evidently prefer to appropriate art as an adornment for the temple: “We help [people] to grasp the truth that all goodness and beauty emanate from the eternal God, who loves us and wants to be in a relationship with us. For Christians, this might mean witnessing to others through music, theater, or some other form of art” (119). Mr. Dreher wields the transcendentals—truth, goodness, and beauty—with the same impressive confidence whether he is talking of God or of the theater. Characteristically, he presents beauty in a Platonic and medieval light. He sees it as static and eternal, a divine essence summoning us to meditation. He is a lover of Dante’s Paradiso. But he does at one point make a bolder suggestion: “If Christianity is a true story, then the story the world tells about sexual freedom is a grand deception. It’s fake… [and] we have to attack the fake in the name of the real. Beauty and goodness, embodied in great art and fiction, and in the lives of ordinary Christians, married and single, is the only thing that stands a chance” (210). We applaud Mr. Dreher for calling on novelists to “attack the fake in the name of the real.” But I do not see how we are going to get the novelists we need unless they know the world as it is: a world that is not so often beautiful or good. What I mean is that “great art and fiction” must address some permanently daunting facts about the human animal, even “in the lives of ordinary Christians.” I sense a deeply ingrained unwillingness on Mr. Dreher’s part to do so, to acknowledge, however politely, the unsparing gaze that exalts and horrifies the Greeks, the Hebrews, and the Elizabethans. Mr. Dreher reminds me of many other successful persons—and not a few college administrators—who prefer the reputation of art to the substance of art. This common tendency gives a competitive edge to the lowest type of bad art, that which pretends to speak truth to power while in reality speaking power to truth.

We find we are up to our eyeballs in bad art, and the Church’s teachings on sin are not very popular—not even among non-Catholics. Possibly the common source of these conditions lies deep in the bowels of the culture. If the Catholic writer is to offer a response, it cannot be through a rule of one kind or another, be it Saint Benedict’s or the state’s, but through the wisdom that we must learn good through the discernment of evil. In the words of Shakespeare’s Friar Laurence: “Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied / And vice sometime by action dignified.” It follows that virtue and vice can be difficult to read. But such discernment is possible only, if as Newman suggests, “you take things as they are, not as you could wish them.” This prescription for humanist engagement and cultural sanity cannot ensure that we are saints, or saintlier than others, or that beauty can save the world. But it can remind us (among other things) that we are reasoning animals with remarkable appetites for fooling ourselves.

This essay is based on a talk hosted by the Portsmouth Institute on February 7, 2019.