It’s Not The Benedict Option, It’s The Benedict Options

I have tried to stay silent on the so-called Benedict Option because, as I suspected from the start, most of the debates around this topic have been reduced to semantic debates, with opponents (or “opponents”) taking it to mean “withdrawal from social life”, and with respondents angrily responding that, no, no, that’s not what it’s about, and everyone using that term as a Rorschach Test.

But I got into a discussion about it on Twitter, and I am listening to the (excellent) Mere Fidelity podcast and they have one episode on the Benedict Option.

So here are some thoughts that may help to clarify some things and maybe make a sharper and more useful critique.

The first thing I would say is that when we talk about “the Benedict Option” we are actually talking about a spectrum of options. Critics pick out one point on the spectrum and say “Aha! Here’s what the Benedict Option is and here’s what I think about it” and then respondents point to another point on the spectrum and say “No! Look! This is what the Benedict Option is!”

I think this goes back to Rod Dreher’s landmark article on the Benedict Option. In the article, he highlights as examples of the Benedict Option, both the community around the traditional Clear Creek Benedictine monastery (Clear Creek is a little sister of Fontgombault, a French Benedictine movement to which I have devotion and fellowship), which seem to me a straightforward example of the “retreat” that critics charge the Benedict Option of endorsing, and families in suburban Alaska that lead lives that seem “normal” from a 30,000 ft. view, but with a strong communitarian and subversive edge underlying their “normal” suburban lives. And, on his blog, Rod has repeated many times that what he means by Benedict Option isn’t “retreat” but rather a strengthening of community ties between Christians, and everything that flows from that.

Okay.

But this is why it makes sense to me to talk about a spectrum. And you have two extremes on the spectrum. On the one side, you have what you might call (humorously! don’t freak out!) the “David Koresh Option”: complete sectarian withdrawal, the Barbarians are flooding the Empire, and all we can do is huddle in the ark (mixing up my metaphors over here) and wait for the flood to end. And I think everyone involved in this discussion would agree that this extreme is wrong and that nobody is talking about that.

And then on the other end of the spectrum, you have: people basically living the same lives, but with more piety, and a greater emphasis of community ties between Christians, and a stronger sense of being “in the world but not of it.” And this is the language that Rod uses most often when talking about the Benedict Option.

But here’s the thing about that other end of the spectrum: if what the Benedict Option is is just Christians having more piety, and being more involved in their parish, and having a greater sense of their “dual citizenship” of Heaven and Earth–is there anybody who opposes that? Is there anyone saying Christians should be less pious, or less involved in their church, or less critical of, or complicit in the evil that surrounds them? It seems to me that if that’s what you’re talking about you’re not talking about “the Benedict Option”, you’re just talking about “Christianity.”

So I guess the question that I would like the “Benedicters” to answer is: sincerely granted that you’re not about the David Koresh Option, then what is it that you’re about that’s not just Christians being more pious, such that it makes sense to not just call for more piety, but for something more specific called “the Benedict Option”? What is on the spectrum between the David Koresh Option and what you might call the “Mere Christianity Option” that you find so interesting, and how do your interlocutors distinguish that from not just one of them, but both?

So that’s one thing.

The second thing I’d like to write about is what my impressions have been of the Benedict Option, which might help the Benedicters understand where the criticism comes from, and maybe even sharpen their argument.

The first is this: I’ve been a longtime reader of Rod’s blog, and what I saw playing out is that, if not causally, then chronologically, the emphasis on the Benedict Option played out in a sequence that began with the same-sex marriage debate. Rod’s main concern about this debate in the past few years has been that, granted that the “traditional view” has lost the debate, we should fall back to a “live and let live” pluralist commitment that allows institutions that still hold to the “traditional view” to do so without too much social and legal opprobrium. In that context, then, it’s hard to interpret “the Benedict Option” as anything but a sense that Christianity, having lost the main field of battle, has to now attempt what has to be called a strategic retreat to stronger redoubts. It might not be a “retreat” in the sense of “giving up the fight”, but it’s certainly (or at least sounds an awful lot like) a “retreat” in the sense of, as the old joke has it, “advancing in a different direction.”

And the very phrase “the Benedict Option” can’t help but evoke the idea of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, i.e. of a complete civilizational collapse, within which all that can be hoped is for a holy remnant to preserve what few things can be preserved and basically wait out the long winter until springtime returns. Protest though they might that this is not what they’re about, I hope at least the “Benedicters” can see why the phrase can scarcely help but evoke such a narrative. And indeed, this is exactly the parallel Alasdair MacIntyre had in mind when he called for a “new St Benedict”, which is what gave rise to the phrase “the Benedict Option” to begin with.

The second is this: as I wrote previously, within those metanarratives, both the “localized” “same-sex marriage” narrative, and the grand-historical “Fall of the Empire” narrative, it’s hard to construe the Benedict Option as premised on anything but a sense of defeat for Christianity, a defeat which is impossible to reverse in at least, let’s say, our children’s lifetimes. (MacIntyre: “a crucial turning point”)  This is the premise that I see no reason of endorsing. I am not claiming that it’s not true. Maybe it is. But I see no reason to take that for granted. And it’s hard to construe the Benedict Option as not doing that. I prefer to “rage, rage, against the dying of the night.” Things looked pretty bleak on the evening of Good Friday too, and I really want to avoid making the same mistake. And maybe, indeed, the defeat won’t be reversed within our children’s lifetimes, but it seems to me that there is a significant risk that if we take it for granted that this is the case, we will end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy. Revivals can and do happen, sometimes under our very noses.

The second implicit premise that I detect, and I will get in trouble for saying this but I will anyway, and one that I think is not only empirically wrong but spiritually dangerous, is, frankly, a “us vs. them” mentality. Over here are the pure, the virtuous (MacIntyre again), the civilized, and then there are the impure ones over there. (Again: I am describing a sense that is being conveyed, so if you, Benedicter, respond “I never wrote that I’m holier-than-thou and everyone else is a barbarian” you’re missing the point.) And again, it seems hard to avoid that sense being conveyed with the word “Benedict”, and the associations it brings of the holy monks on the one side and the faithless barbarian hordes on the other. This is, I think, a problem with our side in the “culture wars” generally, which is a narrative whereby sexual libertinism suddenly “happened” to a virtuous society, like a storm suddenly breaking out of a clear summer sky (or barbarians streaming over the Rhine). There is obviously a sense in which that is true (the Pill, for starters, was a deus ex machina, in so many ways), after all we don’t talk of a Sexual “Revolution” for nothing. But it is not the whole story, and we will be totally unable to wage a culture war without a searching critique of where we went wrong. This variant of “Modernity” (whatever you want to call it, that’s not important here), is clearly a Christian heresy, something that grew out of Christendom, and when sheep leave the fold, it means the shepherd isn’t doing his job. Marriage wouldn’t have seemed so stultifying and suffocating to so many people if more Christians had modeled true Christian marriage. Christians would have more than absolute zero credibility talking about homosexuality if gay people hadn’t been our scapegoats for centuries, and if they gave a stronger impression that “upholding traditional marriage” means talking a lot more about heterosexual divorce and heterosexual serial monogamy and heterosexual libertinism and heterosexual contraceptivism than about homosexuality and not just making prescriptions but actually, practically, concretely, coming up with ways to help people live out a Christian life. By now (i.e., much too late) it is mostly recognized that same-sex marriage is not a cause but a symptom of a redefinition of marriage done by and for straight people with the two-fer of acceptance of the Pill and of no-fault divorce.

But my point isn’t so much about social critique or culture war strategizing. It is a spiritual point. We will not grow spiritually, indeed we will stumble, if our controlling narrative is “Barbarians came in and ruined the Empire”, rather than “Barbarians came in and ruined the Empire because we were unfaithful” (which is how the Bible always describes those sorts of events).  The old self must be crucified with Christ so that the new self can be born of the Spirit.

Call it strawmanning if you like. May be it’s in my head, that when Alasdair MacIntyre draws a parallel between our current era and the Fall of the Roman Empire, I see that as drawing a parallel between our current era and the Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s very easy to deflect this critique. I hope instead that some of the Benedicters will take it seriously and prayerfully and that we can have a productive discussion.

UPDATE: Leah Libresco has an excellent response.

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  • Nick Cotta

    This is a very insightful article, first for addressing a core issue: the terms of the debate. The second is that I think you hit the nail on the head with the false bifurcation of holiness, which is a modern Orthodox view in my opinion, and not a Catholic one, and also why “traditionalists” love the narrative: “If we would only live as the fathers would live, we would be fine.” I think this is a false narrative, and one that misunderstands the development of the teaching office which is always to teach the Gospel to the times in which we live.
    There is a space between modernism, which is to view the Gospel with the lens of the culture, and “traditionalism” which is to resist changes for the sake of resisting changes as if the Gospel was not given to the church to be translated through time and space. I digress a bit but I would say some stuff about Fr. Barron, seeds-of-the-word, etc., to talk more about a Trojan Horse option rather than a Benedictine one, but anyways, great stuff!

    • http://pegobry.tumblr.com/ Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

      Yep. Thank you.

    • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

      the space between modernism and traditionalism is nowhere close to as deep as the space between secularism and the Bible.

  • LJ

    Very well written article, and I agree with your main points. That is, color me (very) skeptical of the “Benedict Option” … still, I think the “Benedicters” are on to something significant. Namely, we can’t just continue on with what we’re doing, only 5% more intense maybe, and things will swing back in a positive way. Society has crossed (several) tipping points– of which, I agree, the Pill and no-fault divorce are prominent, but also the abuse scandal– and we need to start doing different things, not just the same things with a bit more fervor.

    OK, maybe my military background is showing here, but: the counterinsurgency approach is called an “ink blot” strategy. You don’t have enough resources to do everything, everywhere, and simply attempting to obliterate any possible insurgent activity is likely to be massively counterproductive. So, you concentrate your resources in a few places, doing what you have to do to make the legitimate government visible and effective. (Of course, you also have to make sure that living under the law and order of the legitimate government is dramatically better than the chaos and violence of the insurgents.) You then let these “ink blots” spread out, eventually squeezing out the rebellion. The ultimate goal is to peel away most of the insurgents’ supporters by giving them a real, better alternative way to live. That is, not by destroying them, but by getting them to thrive.

    So: if the Church is right in what she says she is, and what she says human beings are, then living under the lordship of Christ is going to be a LOT better than living under the slavery of the insurgents. But right now, we’re not concentrated enough to show the world a visible, viable alternative– that, say, virginity until marriage is even possible, or that huge majorities of married couples stay married for life, or that large families do not equal guaranteed poverty and misery. Parish life is too “thin”, at least in the US– I’d love more vibrant parishes, but the deficiency is VERY large, and I’d say that most Catholics don’t even realize how much more needs to happen for the parish to have a serious effect on their lives and the society. We used to have this sort of thing, where immigrant parishes provided everything from poverty relief, to schools, social clubs, sports leagues, newspapers, hospitals, and more. But that was as much due to the rejection from “secular” society as it was to Catholics bonding together to serve the Lord, and now that the outside discrimination is gone, so is that model.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    I’m of “own the property for the David Koresh Option just in case; engage in the world and continue to do charity in hope that we can stop the madness”.

    But I trace the sexual revolution back through the French Revolution right back to St. Thomas Aquinas’s toleration of evil and encouraging the formation of brothels in Paris, so what do I know? We have already lost every battle, I see no hope of us winning any future battles given what we have already surrendered.

    And that’s how we get to German Bishops approving of every possible sexual sin, but equating not paying your government mandated tithe with blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

    Let’s face facts for once. You would not be able to rage against the night without the possibility of retreat to Fontgombault, let us build our Clear Creeks so that our families have a safe place to retreat from the battle.

    • Nick Cotta

      Isn’t this a crazy underestimation of the power of the gospel? Is the influence of secularism so powerful that a family that is trying to keep holy can do nothing to defeat it? I don’t buy that secularism is as powerful as you, and other Benedictines, say it is.
      My kids go to public school and I sure hope that between my efforts and petitions to the Holy Spirit, we are able to not only withstand the culture, but transform it in our own little corner. I see it all the time from many families in my parish so I think it is more than possible.

      • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

        The Gospel has very little power in the secular world, and 85% of Catholics will leave the church within 15 years of confirmation.

        • Nick Cotta

          You sound like the apostles who woke Jesus on the boat during the storm.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            That is certainly how most people over the age of 40 feel- Christ has gone to sleep and abandoned the Church. The boat is sinking in the storm, and the gates of hell are prevailing against the Church.

            If you want an example, when your kids hit middle school, volunteer to be a chaperone at a school dance, and listen to the music kids today request. If you aren’t appalled at the misogyny, violence, and rape culture exhibited in rap and hip hop today, then you’d have to already be more secular than religious.

            After that experience at my son’s public middle school dance, I am never volunteering there again, and seriously considering pulling him out of public school. A serious issue though is his learning disabilities, and no Catholic school around here has the resources to deal with that.

            I’m Grand Knight of a Knights of Columbus Council. Several of my Knights are older than I am, in their 60s. Of their children, who are my age, I’ve only met two who are still Catholic- the majority have left the Church.

            Pray for your kids. I do, often. And I also have my three options- I own my own house, my brother and cousin own farms within 40 miles, and if worst comes to worst, we own boats and 12 miles offshore is a current that will take us to nominally Catholic, if slightly more corrupt, countries in Latin America.

          • LJ

            A few points: first, 85% of kids don’t leave the Church. The polls say about 30% do, which is still way too high; and maybe 50% drift around in their late teens and early 20’s, but end up back and about as religious as their fathers (not mothers) were when they were growing up.

            Second: when given real, substantive Catholicism, most young adults eat it up. I do some work from time to time at a major state university in the deep South. There’s a Catholic center (with a chapel) on campus, and I try to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament every day when I’m here. Quite to my surprise, it turns out that the students decided to have 24-hour adoration through Lent: straight through mid-terms, spring break, and finals week, all day, all night. They make no fuss about it at all; just taking care of business. I went by today, and they’re running another 40-day adoration now, through the end of the semester. It’s all student-driven, and it’s also 50-50 males/females. Also on for tonight: confessions, the (second) daily Mass, followed by a pizza dinner, and an ongoing class on how to pray the liturgy of the hours. There’s an ongoing food drive for Thanksgiving, regular meetings for discernment of vocations, a chapter of Courage, weekly Bible study, rosary group, pro-life group, inquiry dinners, tutoring at the Cristo Rey highschool, and more. (Also a special tailgate Mass before home football games– hey, it’s college.)

            I guess what I’m saying is that the Spirit is clearly moving among these young people. We never did anything so ambitious when I was in college! But they do it with natural ease, no preening about how “Catholic” they are, just going about the day-to-day job of bringing God’s grace down upon this university and this city. The media will shove your face into “Sex Week” at one college– they don’t show you ordinary undergrads quietly walking over to the Catholic center at 3:00 AM during spring break, to pray before Christ. The negative is real, but the positive is even more real, if you follow me.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            The statistic comes from DynamicCatholic.com’s research, and it fits the 40-something children of the older folks I know, as well as most of my GenX friends.

            Some don’t come back from their 20 something wanderings. Others actually make it very close to 15 years past their confirmation, but then some life event gets in the way.

            Of course, one could point out that we didn’t have any substantial catholicism growing up- the Baltimore catechism had gone away, we’d be 20 somethings ourselves before it was replaced. I was born in 1970.

            I’m glad to hear this may be changing for the millenials, but then again, most of them are *still* in that 20-something-searching-for-themselves mindset, and I’ve had many of them argue for gay marriage with me (seeing the church as a bunch of old fuddy duddies trying to ruin their fun).

          • LJ

            I’d trust Pew’s research over an organization with, shall we say, a dog in the fight:

            http://www.pewforum.org/2009/04/27/faith-in-flux3/

            Yes, wandering away is a problem– it leaves the young people unprotected and vulnerable, and they don’t even know it. But all the more reason to, well, use our reason, instead of amplifying our negative emotions. (One “Reefer Madness” was enough!)

            My view, i.e. the view from a 43-year-old, just as fuddy-duddy as you :) … Young people mostly leave for one of three reasons. First, they’ve been living in a high-conflict family (or faced a clerical so-and-so) as a teen, and they rebel as soon as feasible against everything they associate with their unhappy home life. Second, they had no internal connection with Jesus or prayer, so they see no reason to continue with (to them) empty ritual. (Many of these go to Protestant churches which DO give them this felt connection.) Third, the Church teachings conflict with their “lifestyle,” typically sex or marriage related.

            For the first group, prevention is better than treatment, so you should focus on the parents! After the kids have rebelled, I don’t know that there is a good solution, other than listening patiently to (probably justified) anger for a long, long time before talking about how Jesus loves them. For the second group: really they were never “in” the Church to begin with. We need to give teens real, substantive doctrine and practice, like adoration and serious study of the Creed, catechism, etc. For the third group– prayer and fasting is the first line of approach. Also, good catechism focused on the specific issue can help, as a lot of people who have “issues” with Church doctrine have wild misperceptions of what that doctrine actually is (e.g. the Church hates gays, divorced people are excommunicated, annulments declare their kids to be illegitimate, etc.)

  • http://losthunderlads.com LosThunderlads

    I don’t think you’re completely strawmanning when you say that the evocation of Saint Benedict binds the whole thing up with the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. I take the main point of the Benedicters to be that our society has become so estranged from the basic ideas Christianity starts with that the only way Christians can effectively witness to the Gospel is to have behind them working models of communities that show those ideas in operation. So it’s necessary to build communities in which self-realization, self-esteem, self-gratification, material productivity, fame, etc, are not openly celebrated as the highest goods if Christians are to build anything lasting in the world at large.

    As you say, there’s a spectrum, largely defined by the question of how complete those communities have to be before service outside them has a chance of taking hold, and largely also by the question of how far the existing structures of the church already embody such communities. If you’re at one extreme and hold that the beloved community has to be 100% up and running before you can venture out into the world and accomplish anything and also that the existing structures of the church provide nothing at all towards that sort of community, then we won’t be looking for you at the shelter by the docks. If you’re at the opposite extreme and think that the mere idea of a beloved community, added to the already just about perfect world of institutional Christianity, is sufficient, then we’ll try to think of something comforting to say when you break down in incomprehension at the steadily dwindling numbers of volunteers there.

    • http://pegobry.tumblr.com/ Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

      Stated thus, it’s impossible to disagree.

      But I guess I do think that society has not become as estranged from Christianity (more than the vikings? the aztecs?) as many Benedicters seem to think.

      • http://losthunderlads.com LosThunderlads

        In a way, I think the West in the 21st century is further from Christianity, if not from Christ, than were the Aztecs or the Vikings. At least those people believed in a supernatural order and saw their lives as having an innate purpose. Nowadays, people don’t just reject Christian answers, they don’t seem to have the least understanding of the questions Christians have spent the last twenty centuries grappling with.

  • mochalite

    Your section on marriage and gay marriage is brilliant! May I quote it to a friend?

    To the rest: Don’t all of us Christians do the Benedict thing in small ways? As Paul advised in Philippians, we consciously guard our hearts and minds and keep our homes as sanctuaries from a lot of the trash flying around in the world. We cultivate church community to help each other do that too.

    For myself, I can’t see any more intentional separation than that, because I’d grow even more insular than is my natural bent and, as you’ve said, the tendency toward obsessive and ultimately mandated piety in such communities would be very great. If Christians are scared of the coming darkness, I say pray for and learn to be more light where you are. If you get noticed and burned for it, then you’ll be part of the blood of martyrs that builds the Church. If you get noticed and bring people to God, then yay!

    Jesus said the gates of Hell wouldn’t stand against his Church. Do we really fear Miley Cyrus and Richard Dawkins?

    • http://pegobry.tumblr.com/ Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

      Amen to your last paragraph!

      And, of course, feel free to quote me.

  • Michael Brooks

    It isn’t either/or. It is both/and. We have cloistered Carmelites and hardcore Carthusians on one end, and nominal Catholics out there smoking a bowl and having abortons. We will never get everyone into the cloister, and never everyone smoking refer and killing children. If we let Catholic freedom reign, within that proper order there will be “Benedicters”, which the Church has neither never condemned but directly supported in at least the form of cloistered religious orders. It is only on the other end, where “living in the world” involves compromising the Faith that the Church says no to (smoking mj, getting abortions, whatever). So if there is a bit of a shift towards cloistering in a given age, that is fine. Do we really think that there will be anything like a billion Catholics cloistering themselves because some bloggers like the idea? No. At most, it would be a subtle shift, which is consistent with the Christian freedom those who choose to shift enjoy.

  • Bill Martin

    Here is the elephant in the room no one dare speak of – the church has whored itself with Empire – it is utterly captured by the allure of complexity and materialism – the things Empire does best – where is the prophetic voice? Just reframing things