To the benefit of the Internet, Arturo Vasquez is once again blogging on a regular basis. I first came across his blog more than a decade ago and have followed him through his permutations as traditionalist-Catholic-with-Neoplatonist-leanings to Trotskyite-in-spite-of-himself to primitive-green-anarchist to (now, ostensibly) Neoplatonist-with-traditional-Catholic-leanings thinker: whatever else it has been, it has not been a dull-blog car ride. I have always found his insider views on and occasional critiques of traditionalist Catholicism, if not enlightening, fascinating and even amusing. Plus, as a bonus, who else is out there arguing for a more sympathetic evaluation of (and return to?) folk Catholicism?
In his most recent post, he discusses Rod Dreher’s latest Conservative Inc.-controversy-causing release, The Benedict Option. Numerous summaries can be found at the stroke of a Google pen, so I will not bother with that more than is necessary to speak coherently about a response to it. Mr. Vasquez raises a few questions that all traditionally minded conservatives would do well to consider.
Simplistically put: Mr. Dreher (who, as an aside, based upon the one time that I briefly talked with him at the annual Walker Percy festival in St. Francisville, LA, is an extremely friendly person) argues that traditionally minded conservative Christians have lost their place at the cultural dinner table. (Whether they have forfeited it or have been pushed away or have experienced a combination of both–or have hysterically exaggerated the situation–can be argued to no satisfactory conclusion on his blog.) Taking a cue from St. Benedict, the founder of monastic communities that would become known as the Order of St. Benedict, such aforementioned Christians need to accept the current banquet situation and find another place to eat altogether. In fact, to transition from analogy to reality, they need to start growing their own crops and forming their own restaurants. In other words, traditionally minded conservative Christians need to abjure the realm (to use an expression that I picked up when I was in somewhat regular contact back in the late 90s with a few members of a proto-Benedict-Option group, The League of the South) and form their own communities populated by their own people devoted to their own interests, all without apology or kowtowing to a now dominant secular culture.
Unlike the more vocal critics of the Benedict Option, Mr. Vasquez does not claim that such a movement is unfeasible or even undesirable: “Without giving away too much, I have to admit that I have some experience with the topic of Dreher’s book. I ‘dropped out’ of the world earlier this century and was in a traditionalist Catholic milieu that did a lot of things that Dreher advocates. I saw many families that had ‘returned to the land,’ some who went deep into the forest only to emerge occasionally for this or that reason, and I even helped teach homeschooling children. And under certain circumstances, I could see myself ‘dropping out’ again.” However, he does call for a greater degree of self-awareness: “At the end of the day, people should do whatever they want, but they should do it with their eyes open.”
To what should such people open their eyes? The social realities of close-knit communities versus the romantic imaginings of people historically removed from those types of communities. Namely, we should consider questions as follow: “Do you have the nerve to govern, shame, shun, and punish if necessary? And which of those activities led ‘traditional’ families and societies to give up on ‘oppressive’ Christianity in the first place?” Of course, there are, no doubt, socially (if not more than socially) impotent men who would love to assume positions of power denied to them by an evil, evil world (probably run by Freemasons), allowing them to establish mini-theocracies as interpreted by the Magisterium of the self and their own interpersonal failures. However, most of us would not be too keen on returning to older ways of shaming and shunning and punishing. For instance, anyone who knows me well would probably not be quick to use “chaste” or “sober” as the dominant terms to describe me. In fact, in a smaller, more vigilant community (read: an objectively better one), I probably would have been taken by a father and a team of brothers to the woodshed a time or two for past dalliances before I could reintegrate into the community. Another example: am I willing to avoid speaking to a gay neighbor who also occasionally dresses in drag? No, because when it all boils down, he is not a drag (heh heh) on my life–plus, he is a great bartender to boot (to stiletto?). The point: if we want the social solidarity and stability that Benedict Option communities may bring (and they probably would bring such), we need to be willing to accept the necessary attitudes and practices that makes these communities possible. Are we?
Furthermore, as insulating as these “border wall” mentalities may have been, they sure as hell did not prevent the entrance of the decay of Western civilization or the exodus of those raised within such mindscapes. Still, why do early generations come across as much more virtuous and self-controlled? Perhaps they simply did not have the options of rebellion/non-practice/other practice that most of us currently have. When such “freedom” (e.g., an array of market-granted economic options in lifestyle) was allowed to them, we all know what happened–cases in point: the 1960s and Vatican II. To this, Vasquez writes, “My wonder at Hippy Bob [the only child of eight who stayed with, by way of returning to, the Catholic Church] wasn’t necessarily about how all of his family lapsed, but how miraculous it was that he returned in the first place. At the same religious house, one of the priests characterized the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council as a towering cathedral made out of cardboard: for all of its intimidating presence, it was completely hollow on the inside. This explains why things collapsed as quickly as they did. Perhaps people weren’t ‘holier’ or even more ‘moral’: by and large, they may have just been better at ‘faking it’. All of these close-knit pious communities, well-catechized and cohesive, gone in one generation.”
Mr. Vasquez’s final paragraph leaves us with much to ponder, so I will quote it in its entirety:
I am still not saying that people shouldn’t drop out of society for all of the reasons Dreher cites. His cautions against the dangers of social media and technology particularly resonated with me. I think we will need to create small face-to-face communities to keep some sanity. But there is a reason I don’t consider myself a conservative and sometimes consider myself more of a Neoplatonist than a Christian. The collapse of Christendom means that we should probably take decades to examine in our doctrines and history as to why the collapse took place. In what ways are our “enemies” continuing aspects of the Christian message that we have neglected, even if in a distorted manner? Can we preserve Christian sexual morality and not be bigots about it? Can you really love the sinner but hate the sin? I understand that Dreher and other conservative Christians fear losing their children to “the world”. I am just asking, perhaps just to be a contrarian, if the enemy is already within the gates, in the very genetic fiber of the beliefs that we have long held dear. This isn’t an easy question to answer, but I believe it is a necessary if arduous task to do so.