The Benedict Option, a book written by Rod Dreher, Senior Editor and blogger at The American Conservative, seems to be getting a fair amount of attention, both pro and con, in Catholic circles these days.
For instance, Bishop Robert Barron wrote :
“So do we need the Benedict Option now? Yes, I would say. But we should also be deft enough in reading the signs of the times, and spiritually nimble enough to shift, when necessary, to a more open and engaging attitude.”
George Weigel also weighed-in, writing:
“This so-called ‘Ben-Op,’ at least as imagined by some, misreads the history of the second half of the first millennium. Yes, the monasteries along the Atlantic littoral helped preserve the civilizational patrimony of the West when public order in Western Europe broke down … but Monte Cassino, the great motherhouse of St. Benedict’s reforming spiritual movement, was never completely cut off from the life around it, and over the centuries it helped educate thinkers of the civilization-forming caliber of Thomas Aquinas.” [ibid.]
Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book.
Dreher, a one-time Methodist convert to Catholicism who made the jump to Eastern Orthodoxy in 2006 (as he tells it, thanks to the homosexual clerical abuse crisis), is quick to insist those who wish to critique his ideas should at least read the book before doing so.
That seems fair enough.
I am reminded of the hue and cry over Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ that came from highly offended Jews who never watched even one minute of the film, with much of their criticism published well before the movie was even made available for viewing.
On the other hand, Dreher has also been keen to say :
“My hope for The Benedict Option is that it starts conversations, and inspires other Christians who have the passion and the expertise to go deeper in these areas to take the plunge. It is far more a question-raiser of a book than a question-answerer.”
Well, then… While it won’t help his ranking on Amazon very much, now that the conversation is underway, Dreher may concede that one need not read the book before commenting upon the ideas that are presently being put forth in its regard.
So, what is the “Benedict Option” all about?
For an answer, Dreher himself recommended “a concise summary of the main thrust of the book” written by Dr. Jared Staudt.
According to Dr. Staudt :
“Here is the real basis of the Benedict Option:
- Given the profound crisis of culture (which has affected the Church as well), we cannot look to mainstream institutions for our future.
- Rather, we need to form intentional communities that more fully embody our Christian faith and in which we are willing to face the consequences of going against the stream.
- It is from such institutions that real cultural change will occur.
Thus, the Benedict Option is all about being active and engaging the problems of society. It recognizes, however, that solutions will begin locally, in the relationships that we can influence. Rebuilding will begin there. Do we really think that our political, educational, and economic institutions will provide a secure future for the practice of our Christian faith?”
The idea is apparently growing in appeal even among more tradition-minded Catholics.
For instance, at the recent conference of lay scholars held in Rome, “Bringing Clarity One Year after Amoris Laetitia,” Dr. Ana Silvas, a world-renowned expert on the Church Fathers and a vocal critic of the exhortation from Hell, said during her presentation :
“I see signs of a common cause between monasticism and the lay faithful who are seeking this interior abiding with Christ. Rod Dreher’s the ‘Benedict Option’ that appeared a few weeks ago, attests this movement. For not in efficient political programs, but ‘below radar’ so to speak, in the humble life of community ordered in Christ, monastic communities quietly established advance outposts of a new liturgical universe in the rubble of the western Roman empire. In other ways too, the lay faithful, and I have in mind especially the domestic churches of families, sense the worsening crises of these times, and intuit that for them the way of spiritual contest is in the local community, in the small, the hidden, the unimportant in this world’s eyes.”
Indeed, our top priority must be engaging in “spiritual contest” in such way as to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling.” (Phil. 2:12) In other words, attaining to personal sanctity, and aiding those in our immediate care in doing the same, is job number one.
This is not, however, our only job in this valley of tears.
Some critics of The Benedict Option, like George Weigel, seem to assume that Dreher is advocating a total withdrawal from the culture at large, but that apparently is not so.
The author responds:
“In the book, I write about the kind of life that lay Christians are called to lead now requires strategic withdrawal for the sake of culturing ourselves in Christianity, so when we go out into the world — where most of us are called to live — we can represent Christ authentically in a world where the pressures to abandon the faith are very strong.” [ibid.]
When we go out into the world to represent Christ authentically…
This is where a so-called “traditionalist” must exercise caution before joining voices with those promoting the Benedict Option as the idea of representing Christ authentically means different things to different people.
At least on this note, however, it seems that Messrs. Dreher and Weigel are brothers-in-arms who just so happen to be fighting on the wrong side of the trenches.
Both men are pleased to imagine that “religious liberty” (the conciliar concept that amounts to nothing more than the separation of Church and State that neo-conservatives claim to be against) is the only mechanism by which the activities of the godless State can be steered toward the greater good.
“Religious liberty is so important to defend,” Dreher concludes, “because it preserves our ability to function in society as members of mediating institutions.” [ibid.]
Apparently, it has never occurred to Dreher that not all “religious” institutions (even self-identified “Christian” ones) have something of value to contribute to society – acting as “mediator” between the impersonal State, wherein civil authority rests, and the people.
The idea that they do is precisely how “the profound crisis of culture” came to be.
“I am especially focused on religious liberty, not because I don’t care about health care, national security, economic progress, and all the other aspects of ordinary political life. I focus on religious liberty because without it, the things we Christians (and all religious people) value most of all will be at risk. I can live as a Christian under Swedish socialism, and I can live as a Christian under Texas free-market libertarianism, and I can live as a Christian under Putin-style illiberalism, and so forth. But if you pare down my religious liberties, especially my ability to participate in Christian institutions governed by Christian beliefs, and my ability to buy, to sell, and to work — well, we’ve got a big problem.” [ibid.]
Notice how Dreher (like Francis and all of the conciliar popes) clings to the fairytale that “all religious people” have something of value to offer that must be preserved; as if Islamic terrorists are something other than religious people who cling to a false religion.
Strangely, Dreher and Weigel disagree when it comes to the work of John Courtney Murray – the latter having all but canonized the Americanist Jesuit whose legacy includes the Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom – the former stating :
“The ‘Murray Project’ — broadly speaking, the idea that one can be both a good Catholic and a good American — is dead, or at least on its last legs.”
Be that as it may, at the end of the day, both Weigel and Dreher are cut from the same cloth in that they are pleased to reject the Church’s immutable doctrine concerning the Social Kingship of Christ and the duties incumbent upon the State toward Him and the one true Church that He Himself established.
In reality, the “culture-in-crisis” at large is not going to be made more holy simply because “religious people” of various stripes engage it with the multiplicity of their ideas and beliefs concerning how things should best be ordered.
Rather, as Pope Pius XI stated so well:
“When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.” ( Quas Primas – 19)
In other words, the only power capable of guiding the State in such way as to foster a culture in which the greater good is well and truly served belongs to Jesus Christ, albeit exercised with the cooperation of men – including and especially those in civil authority – who recognize His Sovereignty over all things in heaven and on earth.
Obviously, today’s ruling class has no interest whatsoever in acknowledging that its authority is dependent upon, and subservient to, the authority of Christ the King.
In their defense, we must admit that the leaders of the Church, all the way to the popes – the same who are charged with baptizing and teaching the nations everything whatsoever that Jesus commanded – have been unwilling to proclaim as much for more than 50 years.
So, where does all of this leave the so-called “traditionalist” (aka Catholic) who finds the Benedict Option appealing?
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with the idea of forming an “intentional community” that is somewhat detached from the godless world at large; a place where Christianity is able to permeate all segments of the local culture – provided, of course, that we understand “Christianity” to mean the one true faith; the Holy Catholic faith.
Such a community would provide a good environment for the formation of persons that will, at minimum, be able to recognize (if not combat) the grave immoralities that have come to define the humanistic, materialistic, individualistic culture at large.
Even if those formed in these communities are limited in their ability to effectively change the broader culture, they may at least be well-equipped to avoid its temptations and pitfalls when engaging it.
This brings to mind St. Marys, Kansas where the Society of St. Pius X – its schools, its parish and its faithful – form the very heart of the community.
In short, promoting the idea of an “intentional community” that is largely self-sustaining and with limited dependence upon the broader “culture-in-crisis” is all well and good, but in order to keep it truly Catholic, it is necessary to realize what our duties entail beyond “the local community, the small, and the hidden” of which Dr. Silvas spoke.
Turning once more to Pope Pius XI:
“While nations insult the beloved name of our Redeemer by suppressing all mention of it in their conferences and parliaments, we must all the more loudly proclaim his kingly dignity and power, all the more universally affirm his rights.” (Quas Primas – 25)
Today, not only do nations insult Our Blessed Lord; so too do priests, bishops, cardinals and even popes. Ever since the dawn of the “New Pentecost” at Vatican Council II, the hierarchy itself has effectively suppressed all mention of the Sovereign Rights of Christ the King.
It is, therefore, perhaps even more necessary today than Pope Pius XI could have imagined as he wrote in 1925 for us to “all the more loudly proclaim His kingly dignity and power, all the more universally affirm His rights.”
With this in mind, the Benedict Option only has value if it is exercised as a means for forming true Christian soldiers who will take every advantage of the modern means of communication at their disposal in order to do precisely this; knowing very well that the world has hated Our King first and will hate us too.
All of that having been said, where many proponents of the Benedict Option primarily seem to err is in believing that a movement of the laity is capable of doing that which the Church (meaning, the Captains of Newchurch in the Rome of today) is unwilling to do; namely, carry out the mission of Christianizing the world as given to her by Christ.
In other words, it is not necessarily the case that solutions and rebuilding of the culture-in-crisis will begin locally as Dr. Staudt suggested in his summary of the Benedict Option.
Don’t get me wrong, we, the laity, are called to participate in the mission of the Church, each in our own way, but the current “culture-in-crisis” is a direct fruit of the Church-in-crisis as the men who are charged with sanctifying, teaching and governing in the name of Christ have largely abandoned their calling in favor of an earthbound enterprise loosely called the “New Evangelization.”
This being so, perhaps the greatest contribution that any of us can make is prayer, penance and reparation offered in full awareness of the grave offenses that are heaped daily upon Our Lord and Our King, even by His churchmen, and doing our best to make others similarly aware; that they too may join us in prayerfully seeking the conversion of those who lead us – especially the pope.
If the Benedict Option is exercised with all of this in mind, I say go for it.