The lack of specific discussion of groups such as the Catholic Worker movement and the Bruderhof is such that it is hard to envisage just what Dreher’s Benedict-inspired communities might look like – though he strongly commends home-schooling and likes the idea of orthodox believers living in close proximity to one another and to their church. What is left most worryingly vague is how such groups might maintain a level of self-criticism, and how they would handle issues around authority and management of conflict. Benedict has a fair bit to say about this, and Dreher shows he is aware of it and of the problem of alienating a younger generation by excessive exclusivism. However, more information on how actual communities have discovered and handled (or failed to handle) such matters would help.
The Benedict Option is unsettling. It confronts the prevailing consensus about how far the majority is willing to make room for principled dissent and public argument – yet at the same time shows a rather dispiriting lack of confidence in public argument. It puts a solid and appealing case for religious communities to be more serious about the disciplines that sustain prayer, compassion and integrity; but it is also a jeremiad against the decline of a certain sort of American public piety, and the sinister plans of relativists and revisionists.
The book is worth reading because it poses some helpfully tough questions to a socially liberal majority, as well as to believers of a more traditional colour. Yet it also fails to note the irony of advocating what it does in a climate where liberal triumphalism has already been shaken by a very un-Benedictine set of influences, through the resurgence of populist conservatism and protectionism. And neither restating liberal nostrums nor Dreher’s “strategy of hibernation” – to borrow a phrase from Adorno – seems an adequate answer to this.