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  • Two Kinds of UnanimitySt. Benedict, René Girard, and Modern Democratic Governance
  • Nathan Lefler (bio)

Introduction: St. Benedict'S Account Of Abbatial Selection

Toward the end of his famous Rule (RB), written late in his life, near the middle of the sixth century, St. Benedict provides instructions for the selection of an abbot, the leader and spiritual "father" of the cenobitic monastic community, who is to represent Christ to the men under his charge. The beginning of Chapter 64 of RB states:

In the installation of an abbot, the proper method is always to appoint the one whom the whole community agrees to choose in the fear of God. Or a part of the community, no matter how small, may make the choice if they possess sounder judgment. Let the candidate be chosen for merit of life and wisdom of teaching, even if he hold the last rank in the community.

But it can happen that a whole community may conspire to choose a person who will go along with their vices—may it never happen! If those goings-on somehow come to the notice of the local diocesan bishop, or to the abbots or Christians [End Page 273] of the district, they must block the evildoers from succeeding in their scheme. They should instead set a worthy steward over the house of God.1

Thus, Benedict delineates only three basic scenarios—(1) unanimous support for a good candidate, (2) a divided decision, in which some part of the community, possibly as small as an individual monk, is evidently in favor of the objectively best candidate, or (3) unanimous support for a bad candidate. While Benedict's wording does not omit the possibility of a majority short of the whole community favoring the best candidate, it nevertheless seems to betray a deep conviction that the best—I am even tempted to say here, the "correct"—candidate may well be endorsed by the minority voice. Indeed, the scenario in which the best candidate for abbot is selected by any numerical majority short of unanimous approbation, though not strictly excluded in Benedict's formulation, is noticeably downplayed by the phrasing in the Latin: pars quamvis parva congregationis saniore consilio—literally, "the part however small of the congregation, with sounder judgment." Over the ensuing centuries, Benedict's description would be summed up in legal shorthand as the sanior pars—the sounder, healthier, or saner part of a decision-making body. To the historical evolution of electoral doctrines and their relations to the sanior pars we shall return.

No doubt, Benedict fully intended by this stipulation to provide for the movement of the Holy Spirit and manifestation of God's will. Indeed, in chapter 3 he makes this sentiment explicit, where he asserts that all must be consulted on major decisions in the monastery, as "the Lord often reveals the best course to a younger monk." In chapter 64, however, the theological qualification is conspicuously lacking, rendering Benedict's prescriptions here the more audacious. The trouble is patent: This "practical" policy is utterly impracticable, owing simply to fallen human nature. Consider what Benedict proposes: that ideally the new abbot should be chosen by consensus of the whole community—that is, unanimously2—"in fear of God,"3 or by that part, however small, with sounder4 judgment. Now, imagine any situation in which a minority, as small as one monk, prefers candidate Y to candidate X. Benedict's policy appears to dictate that the majority, as large as the entire community less one, will agree to the will of the one monk, if that one monk has the sounder judgment.5 But will even one individual holding the majority position, let alone all of them, concede that his own judgment is less sound than that of another? This seems utterly implausible. The loner's position will be rejected, whether graciously or with derision. And yet, St. Benedict goes even further to indicate both his earnestness about the hypothetical sanior pars and his thoroughgoing [End Page 274] realism regarding the clay feet of monks: In the second paragraph of the chapter, he entertains the possibility of an abbatial election lacking even a sanior pars, in...


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