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.