Note: the following is a rumination taken from an email exchange, so it’s kinda sketchy. But I thought it contained a worthwhile insight to share.
Someone wrote me recently with some pointed questions about the progress of the radical cultural revolutions (or as my emailer worded it, the “re-valuation of values”) that seem to have come to full-term, and are, as he put it, “giving birth to a brave new world where truth is a commodity, love is increasingly self-absorbed, meaning is shallow and life is cheap.” His question was: “How does the Church effectively respond to this?” A monumental question.
The simple answer we concocted: By being herself.
Pope Emeritus Benedict proposed throughout his pontificate the power of “creative minorities” to effect long-term transformation in societies, and argued that the Second Vatican Council’s call for the Church to return to a radical fidelity and holiness among all its members will likely mean, in the context of equally radical secularization, a smaller Church. Creative minorities are small sub-groups within a larger society, made up of an intentional community of deeply invested people who share a common vision and mission, who pro-actively and creatively engage with the larger culture in order to offer a transformative “leavening” influence that is measured not in 5-year plans, but in centuries. This is essentially how Benedict interprets the explosive development of the early Church’s influence within the hostile Roman empire. The early Church was intentional, tightly networked, inspiring, engaging and creative — it was a church of martyrs that was rendered intensely intentional by the high cost of membership, inspiring by means of a lofty ethic of mercy and justice, engaging by means of an impassioned quest for making the living Truth known, and creative by adapting the one Gospel to the many and diverse cultures that made up the Empire. Like the early Church, ours, to make a like difference must show itself to be smitten with the Spirit-filled energy of the re-creating Gospel whose proclamation still echoes even now with the fiery voices of the original apostolic age.
This creative minority, for Benedict, will offer a compelling witness by their bold fidelity to the beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by their fierce commitment to the demands of justice and mercy, by their life of community, and will retain their clear identity in Christ even as they openly and joyfully dialogue with any and all who wish to seek with them the truth in love.
Benedict’s vision is reminiscent of the last lines in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, where MacIntyre looks in hope for a new St. Benedict, the 6th century Father of that wildly successful “creative minority” of Christians called monks. Here are those lines:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the more misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age … and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. … A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman [empire] and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that [empire]. What they set themselves to achieve – often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. … This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers, they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are not waiting for Godot, but for another – and doubtless very different – St. Benedict.
Why wait? Let’s be ourselves now.