Flat White

Ecclesia and empire: a church historian and the Benedict Option

23 April 2017

10:50 AM

23 April 2017

10:50 AM

In last week’s Spectator, Orthodox writer and conservative polemicist Rod Dreher invoked Scottish philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre to call on Christians living in a post-Christian West increasingly ready to cast traditional Christian moral teaching as something akin to a hate crime, to ‘stop trying to shore up the imperium,’ and instead build ‘local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us’. Seeing an analogy in the fall of Rome, Dreher invites Christians to choose the ‘Benedict Option’ by imitating St Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-547). ‘The 6th-century saint’s inventive response to a religious collapse had enormous historical ramifications. The monastic communities he founded spread quickly throughout western Europe, and over the next few centuries laid the groundwork for the rebirth of civilisation in the West.’

‘What would a St Benedict for our day say now? What would best ensure Christianity’s resilience and long-term survival?’ he asks.

Now, there’s much with Dreher I agree on. Indeed, I’m inclined to believe his blog for The American Conservative – essentially a long Jeremiad for the fate of Western civilisation – the work of a prophet.

But that doesn’t stop me worrying about the analogy on which his ‘Benedict Option’ rests. After all, aren’t we missing something fundamental about Benedict’s world? By the sixth century, this was one in which the Church was triumphant. For at least two centuries it had won every major engagement with secular power it had been in.

By the time Benedict turned abandoned the Latin classics for a life of prayer and self-denial, the decision to turn his back on the world was – while surely personally momentous – in its social context entirely conventional, replaying a pattern famous in Roman society since Athanasius of Alexandria (298-373) published his Life of Antony, the first Christian hermit.

Scarcely a chapter in Gregory’s Life (written half a century after his death by Gregory ‘the Great’, pope of Rome from 590 to 604) is without an analogue in either Scripture or some other patristic-era Life – a fact that has made many question whether Benedict was a historical person at all or merely an archetype. I once wrote a PhD defending the idea that he was. But there’s a conventionality about Gregory’s account of his life that distinguishes it from Athanasius’s or Jerome’s hagiographical works, on the one hand, or the The Life of Martin of Tours, History of the Monks of Egypt, or Theodoret of Cyrrhus’s History of the Monks of Syria, on the other.

The latter are all works of the fourth and fifth centuries, when Christianity was engaged in a struggle for domination with existing Roman culture. The Lives of their great men were real because the struggles they were engaged in were real. By the time Benedict was writing his Rule, however, Christianity had won. In strictly historical terms, to draw an analogy between the world Benedict left behind and our own is to juxtapose two things that could hardly be more dissimilar.

Of course, the polemicist Dreher is more interested in Benedict as symbol than historical personage. And he makes good rhetorical use of the conventional image we have of the ‘fall of Rome’: while the latter sank into decadence and the barbarians lorded it over its citizens, conscientious Christians retreated to the cloister, only to emerge once the old order had passed away and impress their new barbarian rulers with their holiness and learning.

But there’s a place in the Kingdom of Heaven for historians as well as prophets.


True enough, the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus (the ‘little Augustus’) was deposed in 476, a few years before Benedict’s reputed date of birth; as a result for much of his life Italy was ruled by a ‘barbarian’, Theodoric the Ostrogoth. Yet in contradistinction to what had taken place in Gaul and (to a far greater extent) Britain after the departure of the legions, Romano-Christian civilisation in Italy carried on more or less as before. In Rome, the Senate continued to meet, games continued to be held, and Catholics continued to worship unmolested in the mosaic-studded basilicas that were the pious gift to them of previous emperors, from Constantine (272-337) on. Though relations with Italy’s Catholic aristocracy soured at the very end of his reign, as a Christian (albeit an Arian) raised in the Imperial palace at Constantinople Theodoric provided the conditions for the last flowering of ancient culture in Italy before the Renaissance, with Boethius penning his Consolation of Philosophy and Cassiodorus on his way to assembling the essentials of what would become the medieval trivium and quadrivium.

Moreover, only half the empire fell. In the East, ‘New Rome’ prospered. By the time Benedict had reached later middle age, a Christian emperor sat at Constantinople outlawing the worship of the old gods on pain of death. In Egypt and Syria, the Imperial army hunted down Monophysites (Copts) and Nestorians (Assyrians) as heretics and enemies of the state. In the great cities of Alexandria and Antioch, governors and bishops shared responsibility for taxation, provisioning and the maintenance of civil order. No longer was imperial power seen as deriving from the magistracies of ancient Rome; in his famous Codex, Justinian (482-565) decreed that the emperor’s authority came directly from God.

Few moderns would hesitate to repudiate Justinian. His belief, enshrined in his Codex as law and monumentally expressed in the billowing stone dome and hemispheres of the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia on the Bosphorus, that the good of the commonwealth (Greek: politeia) depends on a symphonia of sacerdotium (priesthood) and basileia (kingship) – the harmonious cooperation of the ecclesiastical and the secular – is a direct affront to the Enlightenment dictum of separation of Church and State. Yet for half a millennium after his death, Orthodox Byzantium, the most sophisticated state west of the Euphrates, was guided by this very principle of symphonia. (By one of history’s tragic paradoxes what shattered the peace of late Roman Italy was not hordes of axe-wielding pagans but the twenty- year war of re-conquest unleashed by Justinian’s desire to ‘make (East) Rome great again’ by reincorporating Italy, the font of empire, into his self-consciously Christian commonwealth.)

Such was the lustre of this Christian state that the barbarian kings of Western Europe who bent their necks for anointing by the Church’s bishops and with them laid the foundations of medieval Christendom did so because of the promise of association – through the Church – with it: when Æthelbert of Kent accepted a missionary party from Rome (headed by St Augustine of Canterbury, a monk but not a Benedictine one) in 596 and converted, Pope Gregory, the mission’s instigator, who had himself spent six years at Constantinople, immediately reported it to the emperor as if the latter’s own dominions had expanded. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that Western Christendom was built on a kind of symphonia by proxy, one that allowed for the blossoming, in the High Middle Ages, of the kind of well-ordered Christian kingdom still expressed in the English coronation rite.

In his acclaimed End of Ancient Christianity, the late Catholic church historian Robert Markus describes the two-fold change that came over Christianity as the late ancient world became that of the early middle (or ‘dark’) ages: first, an ‘ascetic invasion’ of the Church, whereby the culture of the whole Church came to be defined in terms of what had been just one movement within it; secondly, the vast increase in the power of the Church in society as specifically secular institutions (school, city, and, in the West, empire) either withered and collapsed or were recast as clerical.

From this angle, we owe the medieval flowering of Christendom not so much – or at least not only – to the monks who turned their back on the messy post-Roman world as to the very much in-the-world labours of the offspring of the old Gallo-Roman senatorial class who stepped with gusto into the power vacuum left by the fifth-century implosion of the Roman state and incorporated its responsibilities into those of episcopal office. Indeed, in comparison to the East, for centuries after Rome’s collapse the challenge the Western Church continued to face was not the strength of secular culture but its weakness.

To invoke this history is not to fault Dreher. Heaven knows the disciples of the West’s new Progressivist religion seem bent on toppling every last redoubt of revelation, nature and tradition left in their way – every ‘arbitrary’ impediment, it seems, to pure will. It’s rather to help clarify the implications for the Church of his Benedict Option.

As a teenager I hovered half-in and half-out of an Evangelical Christian youth community in suburban Sydney that sounds a lot like the kind of local community of virtue that Dreher urges Christians to redirect their energies towards.

It was an ambivalent experience. The interests of ‘the community’ (as it was known to insiders) came first. If one had to miss the main Saturday night meeting for family or other reasons, it was a good idea to let one of the leaders know you wouldn’t be there and why. The weekly round of talks, Bible study, ministry and praise meetings was so comprehensive, little time was left for sports and other hobbies. Outside friendships withered. Because of the unique release it offered overseas travel in particular was frowned on. The Bible dominated everything, approved conversations typically beginning with the question: ‘What have you been reading?’ (The right answer wasn’t Bernanos let alone Sartre: a problem for me since I was doing a degree in French literature.)

Was ‘the community’ a school of virtue? Yes. Were its members sincere, self-sacrificial, disciplined, devout? Yes.

But is that enough?

In the final pages of his account, Markus notes the homage MacIntyre pays to Benedict in After Virtue. But he nonetheless sounds a note of caution as to the implications for the Church of the ‘monastic turn’ of the early middle ages.

In the fourth and fifth centuries, he writes, the Church had faced the ‘massive secularity’ of the Roman state and in debate with it hammered out the doctrines of the Trinity and Hypostatic Union. By the late sixth, at least in the West, the Church’s leading minds struggled to manage much more than biblical commentary of a fairly obscure allegorical and moralising kind. What had happened in the meantime was, in Markus’s words, the ‘elimination – except for its most basic constituents such as orthography, grammar and the like – from Christian discourse, of a whole sphere which we may call “secular”.’ Its character was ‘something in the nature […] of what we might call an “epistemological excision” […] a constriction in what was comprised within the sphere of Christian discourse, a self-limitation to one of the constituents of what had once been a richer variety’.

Casting the Benedictine monastery as a kind of time capsule preserving the best of ancient civilisation for later generations is rhetorically smart, and historically speaking it’s not entirely wrong. But as Markus points out, the ascetic takeover of the Church was also a symptom of a narrowing of the horizons of Christian culture itself, one which the collapse of the state only to accentuated. The challenge advocates of the Benedict Option face is reassuring the rest of the Church that they don’t advocate a similar constriction of the scope and range of Christian culture – that there’s still room for the ‘secular’ as opposed to the ‘ecclesiastical’ in a well-ordered Christian community.

In any case, the metaphor is at risk of obscuring its message. Is Dreher really advocating monkish withdrawal for all Christians? As American writer Susannah Black has recently written, perhaps what the Benedict Option is really calling Christians to renounce is not the polis as such but ‘the standard model of […] libertarian or neoliberal politics, which sees the polity as a merely instrumental good, and […] the role of “Christians involved in politics” to be something like “making sure Christians get their share of the favours of the state,” or even “making sure that the ‘Christian’ point of view and that ‘the rights of Christians’ are given equal time and equal care.”’

If that’s the imperium Dreher is calling time on, I’m all for it. The Church has seldom got the practice, as opposed to the theory, of symphonia right. But not for the first time in history, it’s up to Christians to remind our fellow citizens that the point of politics, of life in the polis, is the pursuit, rooted in the exercise of virtue in the service of human excellence, of the common good of all its members.

Matthew Dal Santo is an Australian historian and foreign affairs writer resident in Europe. He’s a former fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and officer of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. You can follow him on Twitter at MatthewDalSant1.

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