Rod Dreher: why Christians need to embrace the ‘Benedict Option’

Rod Dreher: why Christians need to embrace the ‘Benedict Option’

Dreher says Christians in America have to accept they will soon be part of a tiny, embattled minority

[Headlined in the Catholic Herald as “ROD DREHER explains why he is not a Catholic”]

by Michael Duggan
posted Thursday, 27 Apr 2017


Dreher: Christianity may be weakened in the US, but it’s in better shape than in the UK

Your book The Benedict Option [which calls on the faithful to step back from politics and embrace a traditional, Christian way of life] and recent books by RR Reno, Archbishop Charles Chaput and Anthony Esolen are based on the premise that Christian civilisation in America has reached a new low. Do you feel that you are in the vanguard of a fundamental reassessment of the standing and future of Christian culture in America?

ROD DREHER Without question. There is nothing coordinated about this, I hasten to say. We are simply taking stock of the direction of trends, and the wherewithal of American Christians to withstand them. The picture is disheartening. Nobody likes to hear bad news. Americans, with our congenital optimism, are especially resistant. But somebody has to say it. Perhaps the best thing I’ve done for this reassessment is to give it a name: the Benedict Option. Suddenly people pay attention, want to talk about it, fight about it, argue over it.

You position Christianity as the new “counterculture”. How do you think traditional Christians will react to occupying this kind of ground, which the Left would normally claim?

RD The vast majority of conservative Christians in America simply cannot fathom what it’s like to be a cultural minority, and struggle to accept the Benedict Option diagnosis because of that. Many of my fellow believers have this groundless faith that everything is going to work out for us, because, well, it has to. It’s a failure of imagination. Eventually reality will catch up with them. When it does, I am afraid that more than a few Christians will find some way to rationalise accommodating themselves to the anti-Christian order, because the idea of being an outsider terrifies them more than the fear of the Lord.

You picked up the idea of the “parallel polis” from the late Czech dissident Václav Benda. How would you assess the health of the parallel polis in America right now?

RD An English friend recently told me that the opportunities for creating a parallel polis in America are vastly better than in the UK, because people there [in Britain] look with deep suspicion on those who set themselves apart. In the US, we have a much greater tolerance for people who do their own thing. This has benefited the classical Christian school movement tremendously, and the homeschool movement. Those are the most complete expressions of the parallel polis that I can think of. We will need more of them.

You briefly refer to an experience you had in Chartes Cathedral. What happened to you in Chartres?

RD I was raised in a lukewarm Methodist family. As a teenager, I decided that Christianity was probably nonsense. When I was 17, my mother won a coach tour of Europe in a church raffle. She sent me, because she knew how much I wanted to go to Europe, especially Paris. I was a huge Hemingway fan.

The coach stopped in Chartres on its way to Paris. I didn’t want to go into another old church, but it was better than sitting on the bus alone. Nothing in my experience had prepared me for the grandeur of that cathedral. I had no categories for it. I stood there in complete awe, the presence of God conveyed to me through stone and glass. I recall deeply wanting to know the God to whose glory those anonymous craftsmen constructed such a temple. God was far greater than I had ever imagined, and Christianity far deeper.

The experience of awe was a tsunami that washed away my feeble rationalisations against Christianity. I was philosophically disoriented for years after that, but I eventually found my way to faith in my mid-twenties: the Roman Catholic faith.

Can you explain why you left Catholicism and converted to Eastern Orthodoxy? How would you characterise your relationship with Catholicism now?

RD I rushed into covering the clerical sex abuse story as an ardent Catholic, determined to uncover these crimes and help get justice for the victims and their families. A brave Catholic priest who had sacrificed his clerical career to stand up for victims told me that I would go to places darker than I could imagine. I thanked him for the warning, but told him that, as a journalist and as a faithful Catholic, I needed to do this.

He was right. I was a New York journalist at the time, and didn’t think of myself as easily shockable. But this thing was diabolical. I mean that literally: the layers and layers of lies and bullying to cover up for these devils who ought to have been defrocked and sent to jail, the depraved indifference to evil of these bishops. A faithful Catholic priest told me: “The only real explanation for it is that they do not believe in God.”

The day finally came when I simply no longer could believe as a Roman Catholic, nor could my wife. We knew that, ultimately, there would be little or no justice in this life for those victims and their victimisers. The breaking point was finding out that a couple of priests we trusted without question had compromised themselves, and lied about it.

I had always imagined that people lost their faith by arguing themselves out of it. That’s why I figured that as long as I had the arguments for Catholicism straight in my head, my faith could withstand anything. I learned in an excruciating way that that is not true. My faith was torn out of me. In retrospect, I can see that if I had not made my faith so intellectual, I might have held on.

As Catholics, the only place we could think of going was to the Orthodox Church. We knew without a doubt that Christ was fully present in the Eucharist there.

I can’t exaggerate the pain I suffered in losing my Catholic faith, though today I regard it as a severe mercy. I had been very prideful as a Catholic. I hero-worshipped the institutional Church. God broke me of that, and broke me hard. I have been Orthodox for 11 years. I cannot imagine being any other kind of Christian. After I gave up feeling responsible, somehow, for cleaning up the abuse scandal, I found that the things I first loved and cherished about the Catholic Church returned to me. I hope that my book in tribute to the Benedictine monks, especially the ones living today in Norcia, is a sign of the love and respect I have for Catholicism.

Does Europe stand in need of the Benedict Option just as much as the US?

RD Oh, much more so. However weakened our Christianity is in the US, we are in far better shape. I hope my book leads to committed Christians on both sides of the Atlantic helping each other, spiritually and otherwise. We have so much to learn from each other. Chartres, Durham, Salisbury, the Duomo in Florence: they are ours, too, as Christians of the West.

I’m delighted that so far I’ve made deals to have the book translated into French and into Czech, and I’ve received invitations from Scotland and Ireland to speak. Glory to God for that! The Benedict Option is for all believing Christians in the post-Christian West.

Finally, in your own daily life, what are the tangible things you do that mean you are living the Benedict Option? What would an outside observer see you do that would mark you out?

RD Julie and I have three children. The relationship our family has with media sets us apart from most Americans. Our two younger children, 13 and 10 years old, will not get smartphones until they are significantly older. Nor do they have internet access, unless they need to look something up, and ask our permission. We do not have cable TV, but have our television hooked up only to streaming services. We get to choose what our kids watch and when they watch it. What we’ve found is that our kids have become pretty eclectic, as we have opened up for them worlds that many kids don’t have.

You would be surprised, though, by how many Christian parents cannot bring themselves to say no to smartphones for their children. They are desperately afraid of being thought of as weirdos. Sorry, but that’s not going to work. If you’re going to do what you need to do to stay Christian, and raise Christian children and grandchildren, you’re going to have to be willing to let your freak flag fly.

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7 comments on “Rod Dreher: why Christians need to embrace the ‘Benedict Option’

  1. The sins of the deviants who infiltrated the clergy in the modernist Church do not cancel out the truth of the Catholic faith. There have been plenty of great saints, great theologians, great teachers, and great moral leaders in the Roman Catholic clergy. There were great achievements in the Catholic Church in America before the modern homosexual movement began eroding the modernist priesthood. No lapsed convert is going to take that away.

  2. What are we to make of “The Benedict Option”?

    Louie Verrecchio
    May 3, 2017

    [Dig those specs]

    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 [1]:

    “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 [2]:

    “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 [3]:

    “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 [4]:

    “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.

    How so?

    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.

    Dreher writes:

    “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 [5]:

    “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.


  3. When Father John Courtney Murray, S.J. wrote We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Sheed & Ward, 1960) we still had Catholic neighborhoods with large Catholic families. Abortion was illegal and kids even in public schools could pray the Lord’s Prayer in school. The Mass at all Catholic parishes then was the traditional Latin Mass. Divorce rates were low for Catholics. No Catholic college was openly promoting an anti-Catholic liberal agenda. Most Jesuit colleges and schools were taught by priests who said the Latin Mass. The Catholic Option was thriving then and Catholicism
    was still based on a supernatural faith rather than the gnostic emphasis on socialism today. If those trends had continued the U.S. would be a Catholic country today.

    What’s missing from a lapsed convert’s account is any historical awareness of the disaster of modernism and the specific errors which occurred in Catholic history within the progressive modernist movement during and right after Vatican II. Only Catholics can tell that story and it explains the present crisis. Dreher left American modernism, not the Catholic Church.

    • !!! If those trends had continued the U.S. would be a Catholic country today. !!!

      Bingo!! We probably wouldn’t have a Catholic constitution yet, but you’re absolutely correct that the Faith would have increased and held the line against the social Marxists and Frankfurt-school devotees, and would have rejected wholeheartedly the Land-o-Lakes and similar charters. Baby killing could never have advanced to legal status.

      Our country was at kind of a breaking point, and the Church was still strong enough to hold the upper hand. It was likewise at a critical opportunity point for Satan and his Marxists. This is the Message of Our Lady of Fatima, to be sure. It must have detailed the battle lines existing ca 1960 and also how the Church would fail to engage in the battle while a significant portion of her soldiers would turn on Her. Roncalli obviously could not accept that he appeared in the prophecy as one of the latter, and hence, he suppressed it. Had he humbled himself and repented, he could have been the pope to consecrate Russia to the immaculate Heart of Mary.

  4. While you can’t overestime the damage the modernist Spirit of Vatican II did to the Catholic Church in the U.S., it also did damage to American culture as well by removing traditional Catholic influence from the public square. All of the sudden we found ourselves in the malaise of the 1980s with crazy liberal fruitcakes like Bernardin deconstructing Catholicism, the same agenda which is now installed at places like Notre Dame. It’s a mistake to overlook where this came from. While the Illuminati, the Frankfurt School. and secular humanist jackasses can claim credit for destroying the rest of American culture, it was progressive modernism which ruined the Catholic Church in the U.S. through the Vatican II project and the Land O’Lakes conference agenda.

    The PC multiculturalist nonsense that Anthony Esolen has complained about at Providence College is in large part due to the Land O’Lakes conference agenda to deconstruct Catholic education at Catholic colleges and universities. Modernists, liberals, and homos attack Catholic identity at Catholic colleges because they hate Catholic moral teachings. Hatred of traditional moral teachings has driven the counterculture in America since the upheaval of the 1960s when the modernist clergy went bananas during the Vietnam War and its aftermath, resulting in Catholics losing control of their own institutions when the gay insurgency overtook the clergy in the 1970s and 1980s.

  5. Reading Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option with MacIntyre and Schmemann

    May 05, 2017

    Though I have every sympathy with Dreher’s evidently sincere desire to see Christianity flourish everywhere possible, I regret to say that Dreher’s book offers little that is new and fresh to assist with such a task.

    Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille

    After having written something in 2015 about Rod Dreher’s project of marketing MacIntyre’s concluding (and regretted) peroration to After Virtue, I decided to not bother with the “Benedict option” any more pending the release of the book, which is now upon us.

    In the meantime I had hoped the nascent book might deal with serious issues in a way that Dreher’s journalistic jottings up to 2015 had not manifested–not least in its relentlessly tendentious treatment of one paragraph of MacIntyre while neglecting many more important essays and books of his, not the least of which is Secularization and Moral Change.

    Dreher did not read Secularization and Moral Change, and we know this from the potted history he gives us as when, e.g., he insouciantly claims that “the loss of the Christian religion is why the West has been fragmenting for some time now, a process that is accelerating” (22). MacIntyre—who is as much an intellectual historian as he is moral philosopher—writing in 1967, having laid out in this book (as well as other places—e.g., A Short History of Ethics) abundant historical evidence for his thesis, argued forcefully that “the view that moral and social change is consequent upon the decline of religion is false, and the view therefore that such change could be arrested or could have been arrested by halting the decline of religion is also false. I have argued instead that the causes of moral and social change have lain in the same urbanization and industrialization that produce secularization” (p. 58; my emphasis). While Dreher nods his head towards the Industrial Revolution, he never really takes MacIntyre seriously and investigates the role of urbanization and industrialization. Nor, worse, does he do the only sensible thing and pursue a critical analysis of the role of economics beyond the dominant neoliberal paradigm. We shall return to this problem presently.

    Though I have every sympathy with Dreher’s evidently sincere desire to see Christianity flourish everywhere possible, I regret to say that Dreher’s book offers little that is new and fresh to assist with such a task. It is, rather, wreathed about with the stale air of apocalypticism on the cheap. In reading Dreher I was ineluctably drawn back to a passage from the great Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann’s Journals: “In the Bible, there is space and air. In Byzantium the air is always stuffy, always heavy, static, petrified.”

    In fact, several passages from Schmemann came back to mind in reading Dreher, whose book fixates on same-sex marriage and gender issues to an unhealthy and unhelpful degree. None seems more acute or appropriate than this one: In March 1976 during Lent, Schmemann wrote: “Students’ confessions. Always sex. I am beginning to think that this sin is useful; otherwise they would consider themselves saintly and plunge into guruism.” Dreher’s entire project reeks of guruism.

    It is, of course, the nature of gurus that they must convince you of their epistemological superiority, as it were: they know things that you cannot possibly know, or know as fully as the guru. And one of the things the guru knows is just how bad things are, and how badly you need his advice, his counsel and wisdom, his program and, especially, his merchandise to get you out of the deplorable state of affairs you are otherwise condemned to inhabit.

    That is the most objectionable feature of Dreher’s book: its profiteering on the back of despondency and determinism as manifested in several such claims as “the wave cannot be stopped, only ridden.” Or when he counsels Christians to build an “ark” instead of fighting “unwinnable political battles” (12). Or when he flatly insists that “the new order is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived with” (18).

    These claims are theologically objectionable insofar as he presumes to know that nothing can be changed, and thus there is no room for the virtue of hope.

    These claims are objectionable also on historical grounds, for while Christianity has dwindled and even died off in parts of the world at different points of history (see the history of the Assyrian Church of the East for the clearest example of this), such a process is by no means inevitable or, as Dreher suggests, entirely out of our control. Such a process, moreover, forgets the surprising ways in which the Church can rebound precisely when, in worldly eyes, she seems to be at her weakest.

    Those who are more literate in Catholic history than Dreher is can tell you that as recently as 1978 the Catholic Church was increasingly being written off by journalists like Dreher as having suffered mortal blows coming out of the 1960s (with the Sexual Revolution that Dreher tediously bores on about: “History’s Most Revolutionary Revolution” [201]) and in the aftermath of the chaotic Second Vatican Council, which sapped the Church’s energy and focus from within at precisely the moment she was also beset from without by seemingly inexorable political forces—communism, consumerism, etc. But along came the whirlwind from Poland to upend all expectations of decline, and to sow seeds of dramatic new birth, not least in Eastern Europe, but also elsewhere in the Church through new programs, communities, and movements. Many problems remain, to be sure, but it is undeniable that John Paul II gave new dynamism to the Church at a moment when some pundits were pessimistically predicting inexorable decline and doom, as Dreher is now doing with a grandly (if very superficially) ecumenical sweep that includes Protestants and Orthodox (whose own resurgence in the post-Soviet period, after far worse, and much more genuine, “persecution” than anything faced by Christians in America today, is ignored by Dreher).

    At the turn of the 19th century, similar prognostications of decline and demise were made by many as the Church in the West was being clobbered in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and the rise of modern nation-states, including Italy, whose formation would deprive the Church of the Papal States which were thought–wrongly, as we now see, and as Pope Leo XIII [r. 1878-1903] himself quickly came to see—as being essential to the mission of the Church. But it was under Leo especially that the Church—and especially the papacy—found a new focus and dynamism and emerged into the twentieth century on an upward trajectory, aided in no small part by money gained as compensation from Italy for loss of the Papal States and as part of the Lateran Treaty process.

    In the middle of the 16th century, in the heat of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the plight of the Church again looked dire to many, and even what ultimately proved to be the great reforming Council of Trent was, for some of the time, a very close-run thing that nearly fell apart. But ultimately Trent proved to be a success, and the Church was again on the move with new orders like the Jesuits and new dynamism that recovered much of what she had lost, and opened up new avenues, taking on new nations and continuing to grow globally.

    Going back further still to the rise of the mendicant orders, the Church in the age of Dominic and Francis was, as is well known, thought by those giants, and many others, to be in a massive state of disrepair and dissolution, perhaps fatally so. But responding, so he believed, to the Lord’s call to “repair my Church,” the poverello of Assisi launched a reformation that is still going on more than 800 years after his death, as the Sisters who sponsor and run my own University of Saint Francis daily, cheerfully attest.

    Knowing even just a little bit of this history must surely give one pause and reason to question Dreher’s firm determination that Christianity in North America and Western Europe is finished, a judgment from which he seemingly permits no dissent. Examining Christian history all the way back to the beginning helps one to see that the Church has always been in a cycle of decline and rebirth, rising in some places at some times while sinking in others.

    There are other serious problems with Dreher’s recounting of history, not least his retailing of the discredited notion of “wars of religion” and his indifference—which nobody who takes MacIntyre seriously could ever justify—around the founding of the modern nation-state.

    But arguably the most egregious flaw with Dreher’s historical section (ch.2) is its attempt to describe the history of the Enlightenment without even mentioning, let alone having read, MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, a book MacIntyre himself said was necessitated by what After Virtue didn’t accomplish, left out, or needed to be further developed or changed. The convenient neglect of such a crucial if dense book reveals once and for all that Dreher’s read of MacIntyre is entirely selective and tendentious.

    Dreher’s lack of familiarity not just with Catholic and broader philosophical history, but also with Catholic life in this country (and others) in any serious detail is really telling—apart, that is, from his boutique examples in Italy, Oklahoma, Maryland, etc. For there are plenty of Catholics I know who have been doing the things he has packaged together, and been doing them without fanfare for decades. There are, moreover, many Catholics emerging today—especially among the much-feared and much-derided “millennials—who have a deep grasp of the faith and a deeper desire to live it. I see them every semester in my classes, and they give me a modest degree of hope.

    Dreher goes on and on about “moralistic therapeutic deism” (never taking seriously some of the criticism of that claim and its research, which I have myself heard from other Catholic sociologists), but the Catholics I see in my classes are, with each passing year, farther and farther removed from that. He also makes much of the previous pope’s comments about the “dictatorship of relativism,” but with all due respect to Ratzinger, and again following MacIntyre (see his essay “Plain Persons and Moral Philosophy: Rules, Virtues, and Goods,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 66 [1992]: 3-19), my classroom experience has made it clear to me that nobody is ever really a relativist. When I have taught ethics and moral theology to students, disabusing students of a lazy relativism is an easy job by asking them to tell me how they live their lives when faced with significant moral choices.

    I have now taught for almost 20 years in three countries at a number of Catholic institutions at both the high-school and university level. With each passing year my students seem, quietly and imperfectly, but firmly and hopefully, to be growing in the strength and depth of their faith. I find, therefore, Dreher’s narrative of unrelenting decline to be extremely selective in its evidence, and plainly to ignore plenty of evidence I have myself seen first-hand.

    So are my examples correct, and Dreher’s wrong? Do my anecdotes trump his? I would not for a moment claim that. In fact, for a moment, let us suppose, that Dreher is more right than wrong about our particular moment in North American and West-European Christian history. Let us suppose Christianity is largely on life support, and may soon die out almost entirely. What is to be done? The answer he proposes to this is of course the “Benedict option.”

    But what kind of solution is this? Here remedy and disease seem almost indistinguishable, and here a deeper appreciation of MacIntyre could, perhaps, have rescued Dreher’s project at the moment of its conception. For Dreher’s project seems ab initio to have fallen into the very pit MacIntyre predicted not in After Virtue but in a 1979 essay “Theology, Ethics, and the Ethics of Medicine and Health Care: Comments on Papers by Novak, Mouw, Roach, Cahill, and Hartt” in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 4 (4): 435-443. There MacIntyre recognized the dangers of “the peculiarly deep secularization of our pluralist culture,” which

    “offers traps to the theologians into which they continually fall. A culture of systematic unbelief would provide a relatively unambiguous context for theological utterance, while a pluralist culture offers an atmosphere of tolerant absorption through which the theologian is diminished and patronized and in which the theologian too often responds either by an anxious accommodation to the culture or by an equally adaptive reaction against it.”

    Dreher is clearly in the latter category, offering a reactionary take on this moment in our history. Like too many reactionaries he is a member of the bourgeoisie, proof of which can be seen in the very notion of a Benedict option, which can be dismissed as both harmless and irrelevant precisely because it has failed to offer us—as MacIntyre continues later in the same essay—”a theological critique of secular morality and culture,” including, of course, the economics of late capitalism.

    The “Benedict option,” then, seems to participate too much in the fatalistic neoliberal economics of the culture it claims to resist. Dreher’s whole project seems an example of the “normal nihilism” Stanley Hauerwas, himself hugely influenced by MacIntyre of course (but here, instead, drawing on James Edwards) describes thus:

    “Laid out before one are whole lives that one can, if one has the necessary credit line, freely choose to inhabit: devout Christian; high-tech yuppie; Down East guide; great white hunter. This striking transformation of life into lifestyle, the way in which the tools, garments, and attitudes specific to particular times and places become commodities to be marketed to anonymous and rootless consumers.
    The whole “Benedict option” smacks of just such a “transformation of life into lifestyle,” and its uses and abuses of Benedict have turned that great saint into a commodity to be marketed to “anonymous and rootless [Christian] consumers,” alas.”

    In this regard, all those commentators worried about the political implications and applications of Dreher’s proposal have nothing to worry about: he is simply not radical enough, for his proposal—to borrow Pickstock’s language about the dreamy reforms of Vatican II—manifests “an entirely more sinister conservatism” that fails “to challenge those structures of the modern secular world that are wholly inimical to liturgical purpose.”

    Far from challenging, let alone overthrowing, those structures, Dreher beats an unseemly and hasty retreat from them and says the idea of anybody challenging them is pointless. Worse, Dreher sneers that those who still want to challenge the structures of the modern secular world are deluded. Those who do not read the signs as he does are dismissed as “the most deluded of the old-school Religious Right” or as out of touch as “White Russians” after the Revolution (12). But assertions do not arguments make, and such derisive dismissals as these merely underscore Dreher’s very flimsy and intellectually fragile plaidoyer for a particular program that will appeal to people most like Dreher—middle-class American Christians.

    But gurus have no greater insight into the future than anyone else. Indeed, gurus are especially to be put rather severely to the question (to use a MacIntyrean formula) precisely insofar as they try to see and say how things are and how they are going to turn out. Let us invent a law here—call it Merited Commensurability: the more adamant someone is in saying that such and such is bound to happen, the more we ought to greet such claims with the strongest skepticism.

    I rather wish Dreher had a deeper recognition of the contingencies of culture and unpredictability of human events. At one point he edges up to such a recognition, saying “History is a poem, not a syllogism” (23) but he has no sooner delivered himself of that single line then he races back to what the psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan has called a narrative of “chosen trauma” in which the West is in inexorable decline, and persecution of Christians is coming in fast and thick as far as the eye can see. (Dreher’s treatment of Freud [pp. 42-43] turns the latter into the usual sort of grotesque one would expect from those who have never read primary sources. Dreher reads everything through Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud.)

    Dreher’s overheated narrative of trauma and decline could have benefited from a hefty dose of modesty and restraint at the urge to predict the future. Here I rather wish he had some of the modesty as manifested, e.g., in Churchill’s eloquent eulogy for Neville Chamberlain delivered in the mother of Parliaments in late 1940 after his predecessor’s death:

    “At the lychgate we may all pass our own conduct and our own judgments under a searching review. It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values.”

    Dreher’s “scale of values” inclines toward recommending such things (“options” indeed!) as deeper prayer and more frequent fasting, these being unobjectionable–indeed noble–in themselves.

    But when they are packaged together with still further options enjoined upon others, and when especially they are read, as they only can be read, in light of his regular gastronomic ejaculations on his blog about oysters and mustards, or, now, the bourbon cocktail invented by a friend and called the “Benedict option,” I could not help but think of another work of MacIntyre’s that Dreher seems never to have read, viz., Marxism and Christianity. There MacIntyre says of the Tractarians and the “ascetic disciplines” (weekly communion, intense local community life, regular fasting, auricular confession, and other devotions practiced in ritually resplendent churches) which they commended to everyone that these disciplines “were of a kind possible only to a leisured class.”

    Like most members of the leisure class, Dreher evidences little interest in the social environment flourishing on a wide scale, preferring only that it do so for the small communities he advocates, and, of course, for himself. Though Dreher commendably says at one point, “love the community but don’t idolize it” (137), the rest of his book is precisely such near-idolatry. Here again one can only note that a deeper, more sophisticated engagement with MacIntyre would have saved Dreher from such fatuities.

    In dozens of places, MacIntyre has offered repeated demonstrations of, and arguments against, what he calls the “communitarian mistake” which is premised upon “a further mistake…that there is anything good about local community as such” because those “communities are always open to corruption by narrowness, by complacency, by prejudice against outsiders and by a whole range of other deformities, including those that arise from a cult of local community” (Dependent Rational Animals, 142; my emphasis). To avoid such problems and deformities, local communities must engage in many things, including “a rejection of the economic goals of advanced capitalism” (Ibid., 145). Dreher seems totally uninterested in any such rejection.

    It is more than a little amazing that Dreher seems to lack self-awareness of how such advanced capitalism makes his peripatetic blogging life possible, but makes many of his proposals impossible for too many other people, who must pick up and move far from family and community merely to survive economically. Here we must include his praise of “stability” (65-67), his advocacy that one must “live close to other members of your community” (129-34), his insistence that public schools be abandoned and people should home-school their kids (165-66), and his impertinent demand that “church can’t just be the place you go on Sundays—it must become the center of your life” (131). Try recommending any one of these things, never mind all of them (and still others he recommends) to the people working three jobs just to pay rent and forced to relocate every few years when jobs disappear.

    Incidentally, those Tractarians recommending such ascetic disciplines as Dreher does, and those practicing them, did not always have an easy time of it in the Church of England of the late 19th century. There was considerable opposition to many of these proposals, as John Shelton Reid’s fascinating book Glorious Battle: The Cultural Politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism showed. In the end, the “ritualists” and Tractarians, when they did not decamp for Rome, were reduced to a Dreher style of pleading merely for the right to be left alone pursuing their “option” for what Cardinal Manning came caustically to call “private judgment in gorgeous raiment, wrought about with divers colours.”

    Newman, of course, came to loathe private judgment. In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua and then especially in his famous Biglietto speech, he denounced private judgment as just another species of liberalism. Newman, acutely aware of the contingencies of history, especially Christian history, and loathe to make the sorts of facile prognostications that Dreher does, ended that speech in Rome after being given a red hat by Leo XIII with this apt reminder:

    “Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now. … Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.”

    Dreher is not content to stand still and see the salvation of God. His busybody guruism seeking to safeguard “orthodox Christianity” is, as MacIntyre suggested decades ago, a typical reaction of the leisure class that often has the greatest tendency to fixate (as Kate Daloz has recently shown in fascinating detail) on simplicity, intentional community, and various forms of voluntary self-denial—whether in monasteries or pseudo-monastic communities. It is the leisure class especially among converts to Orthodoxy (in what Amy Slagle has aptly called the The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity) who most often seem to fetishize monasteries, who have the time and money to obsess over “monasticism” and “tradition” in psychologically suspect ways, running after their “spiritual fathers” for permission to pee or clip their toenails on Fridays in Lent.

    Dreher, of course, is not made of such stern fanaticism, and, curiously but revealingly, his gaze falls primarily upon Catholic and Protestant communities in preference to, e.g., Mt. Athos (which is to his credit given some of the hysterical nonsense that sometimes issues from the so-called holy mountain). Nevertheless, one must challenge this desire to play at being a monk or a quasi-monastic, and one must regard any and all calls for “new forms of community” with a great deal of skepticism until and unless they engage in—as MacIntyre says—“rethinking even further some well-established notions of freedom of expression and of toleration. But about how to do this constructively in defence of the rational politics of local community no one has yet known what to say. Nor do I.”

    Absent such serious rational thought, and attendant safeguards, one can only be cautious and reluctant to pursue such a life, much as would-be monks rightly were before their tonsure. I am told by a liturgist of impeccable scholarship that some recensions of the Byzantine rite of monastic tonsure saw the hegumen or abbot toss the scissors away three times when presented with them by the would-be monk, who would then have to scramble across the floor to retrieve them repeatedly, each time being reminded of the seriousness of the state of life he was about to enter and the real risks he would run thereby.

    Because of those risks, it is imperative, then, that one must repeatedly and ruthlessly interrogate any romanticism about monastic or community life in any form, for they are fraught with conflicts and problems, not the least of which is a tendency toward escapism and subtle forms of self-promotion–and not-so-subtle forms of control and manipulation or outright sexual abuse. Returning once again to Dreher’s fellow Orthodox Alexander Schmemann (the relative neglect of serious engagement with Orthodox sources in this book must be read as a marketing strategy to appeal to the vastly more numerous Catholics and Protestants in this country), we see that Schmemann has already offered us severe warnings about these temptations in a bracing and acid passage from January 1981:

    “More and more often it seems to me that revising the monasticism that everybody so ecstatically talks about–or at least trying to revive it–can be done only by liquidating first of all the monastic institution itself, i.e. the whole vaudeville of klobuks, cowls, stylization, etc. If I were a staretz–an elder–I would tell a candidate for monasticism roughly the following:

    –get a job, if possible the simplest one, without creativity (for example as a cashier in a bank);
    –while working, pray and seek inner peace; do not get angry; do not think of yourself (rights, fairness, etc.). Accept everyone (coworkers, clients) as someone sent to you; pray for them;
    –after paying for a modest apartment and groceries, give your money to the poor; to individuals rather than foundations;
    –always go to the same church and there try to be a real helper, not by lecturing about spiritual life or icons, not by teaching but with a “dust rag” (cf. St Seraphim of Sarov)….
    –do not thrust yourself and your service on anyone; do not be sad that your talents are not being used; be helpful; serve where needed and not where you think you are needed;
    –read and learn as much as you can; do not read only monastic literature, but broadly…;
    –be always simple, light, joyous. Do not teach. Avoid like the plague any “spiritual” conversations and any religious or churchly idle talk.

    Real monastics, whether Benedictine or otherwise, know that the course of wisdom is to be found not in talking “church talk” or promoting “options” but in listening and serving everyone without drawing attention to oneself. Real monastics who have done that include another of Dreher’s fellow Orthodox nowhere in evidence in his book: Mother Maria Skobtsova, who made wartime Paris her “monastery” without walls, serving the suffering she encountered there, including the Jews service to whom and protection of whom cost Maria her life in the gas chamber of Ravensbrück. She would later be canonized by the Orthodox church not just for this sacrifice of her life but also for her monastic service in and for the city of Paris—not atop some mountain somewhere or in an inaccessible cloister.

    What Skobtsova was living was something later described by another Franco-Russian Orthodox theologian, Paul Evdokimov, as “interiorized monasticism” which is lived anywhere and everywhere for the life of the world.

    Precisely insofar as it is interiorized, such a monastic spirit it is silent, reflecting, as Thomas Merton once said succinctly, the entire wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers, thus: “Shut up, and go to your cell!”

    May we all do so.

    Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).

  6. Benedictine Options

    May 02, 2017
    When worldly life is brutal and disordered, and the Church is persecuted, she needs a place where she can remember her ultimate goal. And when it’s easy and prosperous, she needs to have examples of heroic dedication to her fundamental vision.

    James Kalb

    “Benedict Option“ is a fertile expression that could refer to several things worth discussing. Saint Benedict had one version of what it means, Rod Dreher has another, and commentators have presented still more.

    For Benedict himself it meant turning away from worldly ties so he could follow Christ and grow closer to God. As a secondary matter it meant establishing a rule whereby those who wanted to do likewise could live together productively.

    He didn’t originate those ideas. In the Bible God repeatedly calls people out of established ways of life to something separate and higher. He called Abraham out of Ur and Moses out of Egypt, much as Jesus called disciples to leave home, family, and possessions to follow him.

    It was the latter call that Benedict wanted to follow. Especially in the East, there had long been groups and solitaries pursuing, in a more or less organized fashion, a secluded life of prayer, abstinence, and penitence. Benedict wanted to follow in their footsteps, and his famous Rule for doing so in community developed previous schemes of monastic life into a system that has proved enduringly useful.

    Such efforts are part of all higher religions. An ideal of life based on a direct relationship to ultimate reality will always sit awkwardly with the actual system of life that grows up in everyday society. We can’t expect Alexandria, Rome, New York, or Ashtabula to be Christian in more than a very faltering way, and cities are notoriously full of distractions.

    Many people despair of making spiritual progress in such settings, so they separate themselves, leaving home, property, and human connections, to focus on the one necessary thing. The effort has sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed, but overall it’s been enormously fruitful.

    People today are inclined to view leaving the world to save one’s soul as self-centered. That vision is too utilitarian and narrow. Souls matter, loving God comes first, there’s a lot we have to do to get there, how we’re oriented is what’s most important about us, and we can’t live other people’s lives for them. Each chooses his own way, and if yours solves your problems others will notice and some may find it useful to follow it as well.

    What could be more helpful than making a better way of life a reality for others by living it? And what’s stopping them from choosing it as well? Many people have difficulties and obligations that put Benedict’s way out of reach, especially at some points in their lives, but many don’t. And even for those who can’t or don’t follow it, its existence fills out their understanding of what life can be, and that can change their world in subtle but powerful ways.

    Even by the most practical standards, Benedict benefited the world immensely. He made monasteries more stable and functional, improving the lives of monks and giving a chaotic world examples of ordered and productive community. And the monasteries that followed his rule were charitable and civilizing influences in the country around them and throughout Europe. Put it all together, and what man of action ever did more to improve the world than he did?

    Such considerations, of course, leave out the benefits to the world of prayer and contemplation by monks or by anyone. If people don’t take such things seriously it will be harder, although not impossible, for them to see the value of Benedict’s way of life. But others can speak of them better than I, and space is limited, so I will not discuss them here.

    It seems clear though that something like monasticism is necessary to Christianity, just as pure science concerned only with truth is necessary to applied science and technology. Its sharpness of focus points it in a particularly striking way toward the realities that should always guide the Church, and that kind of reminder is very helpful to those involved in secular life.

    The need is especially great when life in the world is either too hard or too soft. When worldly life is brutal and disordered, and the Church is persecuted, she needs a place where she can catch her breath, collect her thoughts, and remember her ultimate goal. And when it’s easy and prosperous, so that believers grow worldly and mediocre, and the institutional Church grows ever more compromised by her relation to the governing powers, she needs to have examples of heroic dedication to her fundamental vision.

    Today we in the West have something of both problems. Intellectually, and at the level of informal human relationships, life grows disordered, inhuman, and anti-Christian. But physically life is soft for most people, certainly by historical standards, with endless opportunities for distraction, and powerful forces within the Church support assimilation to secular society.

    So there is reason to expect—to the extent such things can be predicted—a revival of monasticism. There’s a need for it, and at some point people will hear the need and answer the call. There may be signs of such a development already, although as with all beginnings there is also skepticism as to its value and how best to proceed.

    However, most current discussion relates less to Benedict’s own choices than to a “Benedict Option“ understood in a figurative sense, as a way of life that allows ordinary occupations, family life, and other everyday activities and connections to go forward while holding mainstream secular life at enough of a distance to maintain Christian habits and understandings.

    There’s a need for something of the sort. Social life today is run more and more on technological principles oriented toward economic and utilitarian ends. Work, education, entertainment, and care of the young, sick, aged, and unfortunate are increasingly handled through commercial and bureaucratic institutions rather than traditional family, religious, and communal arrangements. The result is that people become more loosely connected to each other and their traditions. That effect is heightened by the ease of travel and all-pervasiveness of electronic communications, which bathe us in propaganda and commercial pop culture and weaken our connection to our actual surroundings.

    Such changes make religious and cultural standards and traditions irrelevant to the publicly recognized basis on which life is carried on, the technocratic principles now thought to promote efficiency, rationality, choice, and justice. The result is that the former come to seem oppressive, disruptive, and incomprehensible. Institutional culture and religion absorb the all-pervasive secular outlook and turn against themselves. Diversity, equality, and choice become sacred principles, so every community has to dissolve into every other and into the choices of individuals. The meaning of America, the West, and (for many people) Christianity thus become their own abolition.

    Without tradition and culture life becomes stupid and brutal, so no intelligent Christian or indeed intelligent and well-disposed person can live with such tendencies forever. But tradition and culture are always particular, tied to particular community, and dependent on boundaries that define and guard them. So to carry on a Christian life in an un-Christian and even anti-Christian society, Christians must form their own communities with a certain degree of separateness. That is part of what it means, as a practical matter, to say the Church is necessary to what we are as Christians.

    That kind of separation has existed before. The early Christians carried on a way of life different enough and superior enough to that led by others to conquer the Roman world. But the mainstream was less intrusive then. The Roman games and doings of temple prostitutes weren’t livestreamed into every home. Education and employment weren’t organized into vast centrally-regulated hierarchies, and didn’t insist on celebration of every conceivable religion, way of life, and purported family form as the equivalent of every other.

    So what to do under actual conditions today? A big question, and space is short, so it will have to be explored on another occasion.

    James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

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