The True Benedict Option for Our Time
by James Kalb
Catholics who concern themselves with political and social issues, and non-Catholics who believe in a social order that takes natural law and human nature seriously, face trends that seem overwhelming and point toward a social order with no concern for most of what makes us human. Hence the talk about the “Benedict option,“ which seems at bottom to involve doing what’s needed to make possible a social environment that reflects more of human nature, and so provides a better setting for Catholic life to go forward.
The trends of which I speak treat life as a technological problem to be dealt with through a system of organization based on world markets, certified expertise, and transnational bureaucracies. That system relies on what it calls human rights, an idealized image of its own implicit goals, as a quasi-religious justification for its authority and its insistence on turning alternate modes of organization, such as family, religion, and cultural community, into insubstantial private fancies. If something that claims authority is not part of the technocratic system, it’s irrational, and if it’s irrational it’s abusive and therefore evil and oppressive, so it has to go.
That approach to human society goes from victory to victory. All significant institutions and authorities favor it. Consider, for example, the sudden universal insistence that everyone treat “gay marriage“ as marriage, or the power of the support for globalization and the free movement of labor across national boundaries. Opponents feel compelled to keep their heads down or throw in the towel. The Church herself finds ways to enter more and more fully into alliance with the forces now dominant, insistently downplaying radical differences. Many of her members and leaders appear to believe that her message should, at least in practical effect, be merged into that of the evolving global system.
People can still publish dissenting books, articles, and commentary, at least in America, but the superficiality of public discussion, the transitory nature of human connections in an industrialized and networked world, the flood of electronically-transmitted words, images, and distractions, the development of spin and obfuscation into major industries, and the scale, power, and centralized nature of the academic and media institutions that define reality and provide the setting for public discussions that matter, make it unlikely that fundamental dissent will have much effect or even be understood.
Instead, a cacaphony of divergent views becomes a sort of white noise that loses all public significance. Consider combox discussions. Someone skims a piece of writing, picks up a few themes or phrases that remind him of a pet issue, and writes a comment on the topic. Someone else does the same with that comment, and we’re off to the races. Hundreds of comments accumulate on a variety of subjects, everyone has a wonderful time, people even believe they’re arguing with each other or with the original piece, but the issue is never joined, the discussion goes nowhere, and when it’s over the parties disperse and go off to repeat the same things elsewhere. Something very similar is true even with regard to longer pieces, and the result of the universal free-for-all is that the only views with enough continuity and coherence to remain standing in general public discussion are those backed by organized power.
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