What a remarkable letter from a reader:
I’ve been reading your coverage (and Lawler’s and Skojec’s) on the latest Francis debacle. As a recent convert to Catholicism myself, I’ve found myself identifying strongly with your words about the role that concrete realities play over intellectual abstractions in holding onto one’s faith. It brought to mind a connection to the Benedict Option that I think many Catholics need to make.
In the past few years I’ve started to see more and more Catholic intellectuals who were allied with the JPII conservative hermeneutic of Vatican II – Cardinal Muller, George Weigel, Michael D. O’Brien, Phil Lawler, Ross Douthat, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, and other less visible figures – and who tried to keep up the impression that nothing was going wrong in Rome start to break under the pressure of facts. All of them have moved in the direction of being critical of Pope Francis. More than one have come very close to publicly calling him a heretic. There’s still a faction of non-trad conservative Catholics who are trying to keep up the “nothing to see here folks” interpretation of the Francis pontificate, especially those who focus in Catholic apologetics and for obvious reasons don’t want to let on to those outside that the man up top is running the ship into an iceberg, but their attempts at justifying and explaining away Francis’s perpetual sowing of confusion border on the delusional, and everyone except them knows it. Among Catholic intellectuals who aren’t primarily apologists (although I wouldn’t put all of the latter in the former category by a long shot), there are really only two positions left: embracing liberal Catholicism and swallowing the Francis Kool-Aid, or leaning in the trad direction and having to admit (whether implicitly or explicitly) that Francis is one of the worst, if not the worst, pontiffs in the history of the Church. Increasingly, it’s down to a worldview contest between First Things and Commonweal. The JPII synthesis is fast becoming irrelevant.
What all this has to do with the Benedict Option is when this confusion drips down to the ground level. Most Catholics in the pews are blissfully unaware of what’s going on, because they are not Catholics and also not in the pews. But increasingly large numbers of faithful Catholics are starting to realize the danger that this pontificate poses to their faith. The reason comes from what you said about the contrast between the concrete and the abstract. The Catholic mind and spirit is naturally directed towards submission to the Pope and the hierarchy as guardians of the faith. With the situation being what it is, that submission becomes bifurcated in a very psychologically painful way: there’s the nominal submission to Pope Francis and the heretics and traitors who make up much of the hierarchy, which basically amounts to lip service, and then the real submission to the Catholic faith as it really is, which at best is embodied in the local parish. (At worst, and more common, it’s not even embodied there and has to be pieced together from books and the Internet.)
Keeping up this kind of theoretical submission to “the Church” as an abstract entity while having to maintain a perpetual disgust and spirit of hostility and submission towards “the Church” as she really is is spiritually dangerous. It puts you at serious risk of eventually burning out and either leaving the Church (and perhaps Christianity) entirely, running off into the wildlands of sedevacantism (a movement I predict will grow if Francis-style popes keep coming), or settling down to a lifetime of perpetual bitterness and ill-content. All of these are, from the Catholic standpoint, deadly to the soul. And so the only real solution is simply to make submission to the Church as concrete as possible: become part of a community that really adheres to the Catholic faith, a Ben-Op style community, and never, never lose sight of that small but concrete embodiment of the Church. The best-case scenario is if this Ben-Op community corresponds to an actual parish. I know of some where the priest and laypeople are very faithful, and the benefit is that the community is actually directly under the clergy. A less good scenario is if the community is simply an informal organization of faithful laypeople, but that’s better than nothing.
I’ve seen more than one Catholics who are relatively unknown – obscure enough that you wouldn’t have heard of them via Twitter or social media, although they’ve certainly heard of you – talk about using the Benedict Option as a model for riding out the madness in the Catholic Church, even before you started making that application in the last few months. The people who don’t see why this is necessary, on the grounds that Catholicism can be shown to be true intellectually and thus just is true, whatever’s going on in Rome, are kidding themselves about human psychology. Anecdotally, I notice that many of these people aren’t married or don’t have kids. There’s a certain amount of reflexive bullshit filter in Catholics like this for bad liturgy or heretical homilies that they’re so used to using, they don’t even notice it – until they have to look at the prospect of raising kids in the church and get shaken out of their complacency.
In short – the Benedict Option is necessary for all Christians, without doubt. I hope in my own small way to help get the movement started among American Catholics. Every day I pray for God to give us another Pope who will be nothing like Francis, but in the meantime, we’ve got to find some way to spiritually survive – and it sure as hell won’t be by doing the same thing we’ve been doing for the last fifty years as Catholics have hemorrhaged from the Church like blood from an open wound.
What a moving letter. Not just a moving letter, a challenging letter — and not just for Catholics.
Let me reiterate some of the reader’s points. I am talking here not only to Catholics, but to Orthodox, Protestants, and all Christians.
Going along to get along, and hoping it’s all going to work out, is not an option. This week — Holy Week — Catholics have had to deal with the spectacle of the Pope giving an interview to a highly unreliable elderly journalist, who quoted the Pope saying that Hell does not exist. And then, after the story went viral around the globe, rather than issue a clear repudiation of the claim, the Vatican press office played coy.
This is so sordid. https://t.co/MqXaXNgWus
So the reason the Vatican won’t say Scalfari inaccurately represents the popes thoughts, rather than casting doubt on the level of transcription is to be nice to Scalfari? But we should all, on our own, impugn Scalfari? What a joke.
— Michael Brendan Dougherty (@michaelbd) March 30, 2018
Confusion is the name of the game. Has been for the past few years, and will be as long as this pontificate lasts. But let’s be honest: there has been a lot of confusion in the Catholic Church in the decades after the Council. It has just never been at the very top of the Church.
It’s not like we outside the Roman Catholic Church are in much better shape. We all have our own problems: leadership that says the wrong things, leadership that won’t say the right things, leadership that won’t say anything. The faults in the leadership show up in the followership too. Far too many of us want to believe that things aren’t as bad as all that, and that if we just sit tight and keep doing what we’ve been doing, it’s going to be fine.
This is a lie, and a consequential one at that. These are not normal times. We have never faced conditions like those of liquid modernity.
Tendering bitterness and resentment is not an option either. You can’t build a healthy faith on that. I tried. Before the crisis that led me to lose my Catholic faith, I kept my distance from Traditionalists, because even though I agreed with them on a lot, I found the bitterness among many (though not all) of those I knew to be off-putting. Then, in my own crisis of faith over the sex scandal, friends warned me that my anger over those injustices were going to overwhelm me. I recognized that they were probably right, but I felt that I could not break faith with the victims. In the end, my anger — justified anger, righteous anger — dissolved the bonds of faith I had built over 13 years of practicing as a Catholic.
Your faith is not likely to survive if your primary emotion around it is anger. For example, I know that there are plenty of Evangelicals who are outraged over the way right-wing politics are dealt with in their congregations. There are others who are disgusted with the way left-wing cultural politics are cresting within their congregations. If you feel called to fight this where you are, then do so, but be very, very clear that if your church experience is one of conflict, anger, fear, and mistrust, then you will burn out. Either find another church or parish (if you can), or if you can’t, then develop ways of shielding yourself from the toxic effects of anger while at the same time not closing your eyes to what’s happening. You and others like you may need to create some sort of group within the church, or among churches, to strengthen you in the small-o orthodox faith. That’s what the reader who wrote the letter above is saying.
You will not see in The Benedict Option me calling on anybody to change churches. That’s not my place, not in that book, anyway. What I do call on readers to do is to undertake radical measures where they are to prepare for even more confusion and tumult. If you are a convinced Presbyterian, then dig in deeply into the Bible, worship, and Presbyterian teaching, as well as build bonds of fellowship with other Presbyterians who understand the nature of the crisis. If you are Orthodox, go deep into the Orthodox life, and stop it with the half-measures. Same with Catholics. The thing that all of us have to understand and take into our hearts is that Christianity in the post-Christian world cannot be something we do only on Sundays and holy days, and it can’t be mostly a set of propositions we carry around in our heads. It has to be embodied in regular communal and individual practices. It has to be not part of our entire lives, but rather our entire lives.
The crisis in the Roman Catholic Church is particularly stark, and certainly draws a lot of headlines, given the global rock star nature of the papacy post John Paul II. But if you think your non-Catholic church isn’t facing a crisis, you aren’t paying attention. There is nowhere to hide from this. Nobody is going to come riding in to save us. We are going to have to do this ourselves, by God’s grace.
Next week (April 3), The Benedict Option will be out in paperback. This edition is more affordable, and has a Study Guide that I wrote to facilitate constructive group discussion. I hope that this encourages people from all churches who are concerned about the future of Christianity to read the book together and talk about what they can do in their own families, churches, schools, and communities, to build the structures capable of carrying them and future generations through the long crisis ahead.
This week, I published an interview with Prof. Stephen Bullivant, a British sociologist and theologian who studies religion in Europe, about his findings on the dismal level of Christian faith among young European adults. Notice this exchange:
In my travels in Europe promoting The Benedict Option, I have been amazed and gratified to see young Catholics who are palpably strong in their faith, confident, happy, and really interested in the Benedict Option idea. I notice too a significant distinction between them and between older Catholics, who strike me as more timid and hesitant. I also see a real difference between young European Christians, who are really excited by the idea, and young American Christians, who may find it intriguing, but aren’t quite sure about it. Help me understand what’s going on here.
First of all, America is still a much more Christian place than most of western Europe, although the current “direction of travel” is certainly concerning. So there’s a sense in which The Benedict Option is prophetic in the US context. In lots of European places, however, young committed Christians recognize much of what you’re talking about from personal experience. Certainly, that was my immediate feeling about the book: that the ‘Benedict Option’ as a concept crystallizes and gives a handy label to something that, in lots of different ways, some big, some small, I’ve been noticing for several years.
I’ve seen it very clearly on several university campuses, around both Catholic chaplaincies and (evangelical) Christian Unions, for example. The kinds of late-teens or twenty-somethings who are going to join those in the first place are already at the more extreme end of religious spectrum (as the report’s figures amply demonstrate!). And they know it. They’ve been the “weirdly religious one”, swimming against the tide, in their peer groups, schools, even their own families, for years. And then suddenly, simply by being one of the very few students who will go to church on a Sunday, they suddenly find themselves in a group of people just like them (plus a good number of international students from countries where being overtly religious is, if not normal, then at least abnormal). And that becomes their social group, and they all encourage and challenge each other. Then you start to get some of them discerning vocations as though that were still a thing that people actually do. Some of them fall in love, get married, and take the teachings of their faith on sexual matters seriously in a way that their parents’ generation never did.
So that’s why. They don’t read The Benedict Option and think “What does this Dreher guy want us to do? Become Amish?”. They read it and say, “Hey guys, there’s this book you should read… it kinda sounds like us….”
Bullivant goes on to say that Americans aren’t fated to follow the UK and Europe, though we are certainly on that path now. We have the time and the freedom to change our destiny. But it’s not going to happen unless we read the signs of the times and take serious measures appropriate to our local conditions (ecclesial, geographic, etc).