The Benedict Option—not radical enough

The Benedict Option—not radical enough

By Phil Lawler | Apr 21, 2017

The Benedict Option is the most talked-about book of 2017, at least among religious conservatives. Personally I am pleased with this development, for two reasons. First because I count the author, Rod Dreher, as a friend as well as a gifted controversialist, and I’m happy to see his work prosper. Second because the book examines the same question that I have been examining for years: How should American Christians live out their faith in an increasingly hostile environment?

Asking the right question is, of course, not a guarantee that one will find the right answer. The Benedict Option has been roundly criticized as well as highly praised. Even among reviewers who would accept Dreher’s major premise—that we live in a post-Christian society—there is a lively debate about his proposed solution.

That debate, too, is a reason to welcome the book. Dreher has forced religious conservatives—the Americans who might be lumped together in the category of the “Religious Right”— to examine their assumptions and question the effectiveness of their efforts. That stock-taking is long overdue. For the space of a full generation, Christian conservatives in America have based their plans on the assumption that their goals are shared by most of the American public—by the vaunted “moral majority.” If that ever was true, it certainly is not true today. The defenders of faith and family form a minority. So the question now is whether we will be a “creative minority,” as envisioned by Pope Benedict XVI, enriching the culture around us; or a despised minority, shrinking gradually into desuetude.

Dreher proposes that in order to change our culture, believers must first rebuild our own Christian communities, forming pockets of resistance against the onslaught of Neopaganism. His book is based on the example of St. Benedict of Norcia, whose monasteries eventually transformed the face of European society, and on the words of Alasdair MacIntyre, who concluded his book After Virtue by saying that to escape from barbarism: “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

St. Benedict made a conscious decision to withdraw from the world into a monastery, to establish a new way of life founded on communal prayer. Many critics of The Benedict Option have chided Dreher for suggesting that sort of withdrawal; they see him as a defeatist. I think that criticism is misguided. The problem with Dreher’s analysis is not that he wants us all to become monks; the problem is that he does not take St. Benedict’s example seriously enough.

In order to explain, let me set the stage by recounting a few episodes of my own life.

In 1999 my wife Leila and I moved from a suburb Boston, where I had been born and raised, to a little town in rural Massachusetts. We made that move for several reasons:

We found a bigger house, with more land, at a reasonable price.
We wanted a healthy place to raise our children, and we knew that…

We already had like-minded friends in the little rural town, and we knew there was an active Catholic community here.

We were desperate to escape from the barren spiritual wasteland that is the Boston archdiocese, where we were literally driving past five Catholic parishes every Sunday morning to reach a church where the liturgy was celebrated with reverence.

Near our new home was a monastery—a Benedictine abbey, as a matter of fact—where we knew that we could find beautiful liturgy even if things went awry at local parishes.

Were the Lawlers, then, taking the “Benediction Option”—even before we met Rod Dreher (or even read Alasdair MacIntyre)? Not really. Our move was prompted not by a quest to transform the surrounding culture, but by the needs and desires of the Lawler family. We were simply choosing a home where we could raise our family and live our faith.

At about the same time, I plunged into a quixotic political campaign, running for the US Senate, against the late Ted Kennedy. The result was never in doubt, but the process was instructive. When it was over, I made a commitment to step away from politics and concentrate on working for the revival of the Catholic faith. As I wrote at the time, “we cannot expect reform in society at large until we achieve reform within our Church.”

To be honest, I’ve had trouble keeping that commitment. The tug toward activism is strong, particularly for someone who had been involved with political affairs for years. But on my good days, when I am thinking clearly, I recognize that Christian politicians cannot flourish when the Christian churches are weak. If we can repair the Church, the Church can repair society.

But here’s the catch: If you set out to repair the Church in order to repair society, you will accomplish neither. Invariably, Christians who have their eyes on the wrong prize compromise the message of the Gospel in order to seek public favor. When they do, they sap the radical power of the pure Gospel message, and thereby lose their own real claim on the world’s attention.

St. Benedict did not set out to establish Christendom; he sought to help a limited number of men pursue holiness. Paradoxically, through the power of their prayer and their evangelical witness, his monks did transform Europe. Had they set out with that objective, they would have failed.

Dreher’s greatest strength lies in his ability to stir up public discussion. The success of his book reflects the hundreds of blog entries that he has written on the same subject, provoking his critics and answering their objections. He offers a readable and reasonable analysis of how Christian ideas have been supplanted by secularism, and if that analysis fails to satisfy scholars, it will convince most readers. He is at his most persuasive when he argues that the political programs of the “religious right” are doomed to failure:

Today the culture war as we knew it is over. The so-called values voters—social and religious conservatives—have been defeated and are being swept to the political margins.


Benedict Option politics begins with recognition that Western society is post-Christian and that absent a miracle, there is no hope of reversing this condition in the foreseeable future.

But do you see the problem with that last sentence? Dreher writes about “Benedict Option politics.” But politics is the art of the possible, and he himself says that a political revival is virtually impossible. So why search for a political solution, when none is likely to be found? Why not retreat to the monasteries? There is an element of confusion in The Benedict Option, a failure finally to settle between a political or a religious mission.

Most of us will not become monks. We will raise families, living in the secular world, coping with the problems of everyday life in a non-Christian environment. Dreher is right that we need monasteries, as oases where we can find refreshment. But more urgently, we need parishes that will give us support on a regular basis. My friend David Clayton (co-author, with wife Leila, of The Little Oratory, writes:

I think this may be a practical answer to the desire for community in modern man. Most of us are meant to be parish people, not monastic people (which is a special calling) and when life is organized on the pattern of the ideal pattern we will flourish and evangelize others.

Rather than living as proto-monks, lay Catholics should be engaged in the battle for restoration at the parish level. It is true, as Dreher argues, that our political and educational institutions have slipped out of our control; it is true that we need to set up our own alternative institutions. But we cannot accept the demise of our own churches, the squandering of our own religious heritage. We need the support of the sacraments, and so we have no choice: we must demand, and find, and support, and defend parishes where the faith is lived in its fullness.

If our parishes and our dioceses celebrated the liturgy properly, if we all based our lives on the rhythms of the liturgical calendar, we could bring an entirely different perspective to public life, without needing more than an occasional retreat to monasteries. And since we know that the Gospel message “sells,” and that the sacraments nourish the community, we can be confident that strong parish life would produce conversions and reversions, bringing a new vigor to the Christian community, giving us the strength to confront the secular culture—and ultimately to overcome it, since the secular world has no such source of support. Take care of the liturgy—the cult—and the culture will be transformed.

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15 comments on “The Benedict Option—not radical enough

  1. All this is a waste of time. If we reform the world, it must be through the Church, but the Church- buildings, hierarchy, teaching, even the Pope, is compromised. They will not let Catholics be alone, because they will say that we are not being “pastoral”; we would be accused of alienating others. Catholicism is a faith expressed through the community, and hierarchy. We are not Protestants that can just go renegade.

    • Agreed. Phil really ended on a lousy note, “lay Catholics should be engaged in the battle for restoration at the parish level.” That’s up to the priest, and if he’s a pinko fag, then what? Go to the next parish, and get something good only to have a modernist move in one day and wreck it all?

      The other side of this, to have any influence in your parish, is that you have to donate money, and worse, let the priest and religious-ed apostates have at your children. You’ll never explain that away at the final Tribunal.

      Phil had a good start, but his former Opus Dopus involvement leave him of the mind that you must work this out from the inside. Even St. Basil the Great understood why Catholics of his day left the parishes: heresy. Of late, though, I think Phil is beginning to see that the stain of heresy is found almost everywhere in the system. What’s taught at parishes is not the same faith and morals handed down from the popes and saints.

      • How involved was Phil in OD? After Randy Engels’ bombshell the other day, it looks as if all sorts of mutations of “associates” have “made a name” for themselves in Nervous Ordealdom, and banked some serious coin while staying mum about the cult and their affiliation with it.

        Not trying to imply he did not at some point renounce OD and depart for keeps but these days, what and whom can one trust from the NO empire?

      • Amen, amen, Cyprian.

        The entire structure is worm-eaten timber. St. Antony of the Desert, St. Basil, and St. Benedict all give us the solution.

  2. FYI, since the apostate / schismatic / heretical Dreher’s name comes up SO often whenever Lawler & Co. bloviate, a brief bio of their “hero” seems in order:

  3. The First Things editor commented on the topic which led to a rebuttal. A former,disgruntled convert and semi-recovering Southern Methodist argues with an Episcopalian convert over how to interpret and apply Catholic moral theology, ecclesiology, and monastic spirituality to the wasteland of post-Christian America. It’s good theatre, but when we were all really and authentically Catholic and everyone else was damned at least we had the true Mass, schools run by actual Catholics, and our own enclaves. It’s an oversimplification but Vatican II, suburbia, and JFK’s Houston Speech destroyed Catholicism in America. With some help from anti-Catholic urban blockbusters unhappy with Catholic mayors in big cities.

  4. IMHO, we can indeed only reform the world through the Church — but this can happen at various levels.
    1) The individual level. We have to be united to Jesus Christ, as part of His Mystical Body, which is the Church. “Without Me you can do nothing” (i.e. nothing good), and conversely “I can do all things in him who strengtheneth me.” But what is this strength? Sanctifying grace, virtue, the Gifts of the Holy Ghost. Without these, we can do no good, and if we possess them in superlative degree, we can do all things. St. Paul had plenty of success in the active apostolate, but not without first exercising the Benedict Option (before Benedict). It’s a fact little adverted to that, shortly after his conversion, he spent three years in Arabia and the area of Damascus before presuming to present himself as a preacher of the Faith to the Apostles. Since he was already a master of the Old Law, and had no need to study that antecedent of the New, what could he have been doing during all this time beyond learning those few things specifically New that Christ had come to teach? What else but praying, meditating, and striving to acquire virtue to prepare himself for his missionary career? It wasn’t God’s will in his case, but plenty of others, like St. Anthony of the Desert, simply remained in the wilderness. Their apostolate was not “active”, as St. Paul’s, but contemplative (as if contemplation is not an action!)
    Who is to say that the contemplatives, or the hermits, the “hardcore Benedictines” did not accomplish more for the world, through their power of intercession, as even the best of the “activists” did? In either case, we can be sure of one thing: the effectiveness of one’s apostolate is limited by how holy one is, for God helps more and listens more to those He loves more, and He loves more those who are more holy.
    At this level, we don’t even need the external aid of the Church hierarchy to help convert the world. We can be effective even with a corrupt hierarchy’s active resistance. And of course, the first way we will be effective is by calling down God’s grace to either convert or remove that corrupt hierarchy.
    This first level of effective apostolate is available to everyone — but it’s effectiveness is governed by the level of holiness, and that in turn is governed by the quality of one’s prayer and contemplation (assuming as a given that one is making proper use of the sacraments).
    2) The community level. Here some degree of active and organized apostolate is by definition necessary. You can’t have a parish, school, or any other Catholic community activities without exterior action. But again, the effectiveness of the exterior activities depends on the interior of the individuals making up the collective. A community made up of vice-filled souls will never be effectively united — unless for an ineffective, or even evil, purpose.
    3) There is also the diocesan level,
    4) The national level, and
    5) The world level.
    Of course, the same what was said as to how to make level 2 effective applies to levels 3-5.
    Draw the conclusion. There ain’t no magic bullet; no merely exterior winning plan. When used by spiritual losers, the most powerful bullet just does more damage to the foot, and the winningest plan cannot be maintained.

    • BTW, I’m convinced that this is the reason that AQ is one of the best Catholic sites on the net.
      Prayer warriors.
      What other site has them, as it were an integral echelon of this apostolate?
      All you who eschew the abstruse discussions of us activists — and you know who you are — and we know who you are — you should know that you have chosen the better part.

    • In either case, we can be sure of one thing: the effectiveness of one’s apostolate is limited by how holy one is, for God helps more and listens more to those He loves more, and He loves more those who are more holy.

      Bingo. Then the first order of business is to find God’s will for oneself. Some are hermits, some are moms and dads, some are in the limelight – but we are all warriors. And the first and last of it is holiness.

      • Yep. Vocation discernment is a sine qua non. It is said that all the saints had perfect clarity about their calling, and it is precisely because they were then able to laser-focus on a concrete and convinced mission that they progressed in everything necessary to accomplish that mission, to which holiness was a fundamental prerequisite, but which holiness also was an inevitable result of that dedication, so that a sort of holy synergy was always operating.
        But now, what if one does not yet know one’s vocation? Well then, one’s vocation is to discover one’s vocation. But that too normally requires a certain minimal holiness; humility, prayer, perseverance, patience.
        I’ve seen many lives derailed, and much misery and sin, because of the lack of these things; perhaps lack of perseverance and patience more than anything.

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