Building the Benedict Option

by Leah Libresco, Ignatius Press, 163pp, £13

The concept of authenticity has gained much cachet recently. In politics, the popularity of figures as disparate as Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn has been ascribed to their authenticity. In popular culture, the emergence of academic theories of gender and sexuality into the mainstream has been accomplished due in part to an appeal to “authenticity”. In the marketplace, bespoke is back in vogue and consumer choices in everything from produce to healthcare to underwear are sold as expressions of one’s identity – that is, of one’s authenticity.

But what does it mean to live authentically? We use this word when the reality of our interior lives is reflected in the choices and habits that make up our exterior lives. There is a widely shared, if often inchoate, notion that our world suffers from pervasive disintegration of the interior from the exterior – authenticity is about reintegrating that which should be whole.

Authenticity, therefore, is just a sanitised and subjective version of the traditional virtue of integrity. The authenticity trend is, on the whole, a salutary one because the complete human person is meant to live an integrated life. Like all contemporary social-psychological notions, however, authenticity avoids confronting the question of good versus bad movements of the interior life; it is a perverse kind of integrity that would praise acting on every transient desire. Catholics – and especially young Catholics who have seen the sad effects of a “dis-integrated” faith among their families and friends – have sought to apply the best aspects of our obsession with authenticity to their faith lives.

It is in this context that Leah Libresco, a noted convert from atheism, has written Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name. The title references Rod Dreher’s book and the cover advertises Dreher’s contribution of a foreword, but this is a little misleading. The substance of Libresco’s book doesn’t really depend on the deeply contested concept of the Benedict Option; it’s better to think of it as a book about Catholic authenticity – Catholic integrity – today.

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