David Russell Mosley
26 April 2017
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire
Over several letters I have now attempted to give some critique of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, both the book and the idea. I have given a general outline of my issues; compared the Benedict Option to Michael Martin’ Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything, and the Patrick and Dominic Options. Today I want to provide a final comparative critique. I want to critique the Benedict Option by way of Distributism.
Dreher’s approach with the Benedict Option is certainly a Christians first approach. In his chapter on work and exchange, Dreher has a short section entitled “Buy Christian, Even If It Costs More.” This can be seen as emblematic of Dreher’s whole approach. This whole chapter is actually dedicated to creating Christian networks of work and buying. Now, in itself, this is not an inherently bad thing. But it is, I think, far too short-sighted or perhaps myopic. Here is what I mean:
Let’s say there is a locally owned and run bookstore. Let’s say that it has a halfway decent Christian section. But, horror of horrors, let us assume this bookstore is run by a gay couple. Now if I followed the principle of “Buy Christian” I should buy my books from CBD or a Christian bookstore, even if it is a chain, rather than support my local economy. This is, of course, somewhat of an oversimplification of Dreher’s position (if we can really call it that). After all the section is actually just an anecdote about a large church in Maryland that publishes a directory of its parishioners businesses. But this calls into question not only this section and its title, but all of them. Are these general principles we’re supposed to follow or are they examples of what we might do? Should it always be “Buy Christian” and what about buying local as something important in and of itself (for the planet, for instance)? This chapter even begins with a reminder that many of us may have to give up our cushy non-Christian jobs because of our adherence to a traditional sexual ethics. Instead we may have to get factory jobs in Elkhart, PA (see my introductory letter on the Benedict Option).
This, I think, highlights one of the key problems with the Benedict Option as an idea: it has little or no foundation. Distributists (whom I’ll get to in a moment) get a nod at one point, but Dreher has not provided us with an intellectual, philosophical, or theological foundation for the Benedict Option. And without a foundation, it can have little effective meaning. One person might chose to use it in a neo-agrarian way, another in a more distributist, another as a Catholic Worker, another as a staunch capitalist (despite it being listed as a cause of modernity). And while many of my examples can and do easily overlap, Dreher’s book itself with it’s quoted cry of “Back to Industrialism” shows how the Benedict Option can be taken on routes completely antithetical with many of my examples.
Turn then to distributism: Now, I admit that I am biased. I’ve had a burgeoning preference for distributism for many years now. So, this is not the writings of an objective third party, but of someone who agrees with one side of this argument and not the other. That said, I think distributism, even its detractors must admit, is better thought out and more concerned with the common good than is the Benedict Option.
Distributism could be said to rest on twin pillars that share a single foundation. The pillars are subsidiarity and solidarity. The foundation is Catholic Social Teaching (and thus Catholic doctrine in general) particularly as begun for the modern age by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum novarum. Solidarity is the principle of being for the “least of these.” The common man, and more the common family, is the bedrock of society and deserves our respect and, when necessary, our protection (as a society). Subsidiarity is the principle that:
… a community of a higher order should not assume the task belonging to a community of a lower order and deprive it of its authority. It should rather support it in case of need (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 403).
In other words, power and the means of production in any given field ought to be devolved to the lowest competent authority, and ought to be supported by higher authorities. And here already can we see a stark contrast with Dreher’s Benedict Option. Dreher does not appear (particularly in the book) concerned with the environmental or economic impact on the world or given area of buying Christian first. He doesn’t even stop to consider whether a Christian owner of a business might make a worse product or be a worse business owner than a non-Christian. And he certainly isn’t concerned with society at large.
It would be easy (and it is tempting) to go on and quote from Chesterton or Belloc or McNabb or (not to my knowledge a distributist, but someone useful in this discussion) Josef Pieper to show how as a societal/economic theory or practice or way of life (as Chesterton often called distributism) the Benedict Option doesn’t measure up. But really, for me, it is an issue of foundation. Dreher’s foundation is a reaction to modern sexual ethics (or its lack thereof) and a little bit of moral therapeutic deism. His foundation is reactionary. He isn’t founding this idea on Benedict’s Rule or some other call to live the gospel, not really. Contrast this with distributism which too can be called something of a reaction, but it is a reaction by means of return. Chesterton writes in his book The Outline of Sanity:
Distributism may be a dream; three acres and a cow [a common distributist battle cry] may be a joke; cows may be fabulous animals; liberty may be a name; private enterprise may be a wild goose chase on which the world can go no further. But as for the people who talk as if property and private enterprise were the principles now in operation––those people are so blind and deaf and dead to all the realities of their own daily existence, that they can be dismissed from the debate (61).
Later Chesterton writes:
[Jack and the Bean Stalk] begins with the strange and startling words, “There once was a poor woman who had a cow.” It would be a wild paradox in modern England to imagine that a poor woman could have a cow; but things seem to have been different in ruder and more superstitious ages (97).
Chesterton’s points here are that the poor (peasants as he sometimes calls them in a non-pejorative sense) in former ages were capable of at least somewhat caring for themselves. Truly consider his example, Jack’s mother owned a cow. To buy a cow today would cost (so far as my limited research tells me) nearly $1000 and that doesn’t take into account other fees related with upkeep. Now, of course, in the story, Jack’s mother wants the cow sold because she’s dried up and they need food. But the point remains, to be poor in that story is to own a cow.
Dreher’s Benedict Option lacks not only the political/economic and theological/philosophical foundations of distributism (not even having key texts like Rerum novarum to turn to), but it lacks the general imagination of distributism. It lacks this picture of the common man or the common family all the while touting conservative sexual ethics. It lacks a picture of how we live not only with our Christian brothers and sisters but with all people and with the whole of creation. This is one of the key things I love about distributism: whether one takes a more localist or a more agrarian tack the result for nature, for creation will often be the same. Dreher’s mission seems to be simply about protecting Christians, not about reaching the world around us or caring for our common home.