According to his biographer Austen Ivereigh, who reports on the pontiff’s speech last Saturday, Francis has outlined his own personal Benedict Option for Europe. Excerpts:
In the pope’s lengthy speech, there was both a strong critique of the current state of things as well as more than a hint that the status quo has had its day. Much of the speech, in fact, delineated what Francis sees as the Church’s task now, which is to construct a counter-culture from the ruins of a collapsing political and economic order.
It is not new for papal speeches on Europe to refer to its patron, the sixth-century St. Benedict of Nursia. But what made Francis’s reference to the founder of western monasticism unusual was the parallel he drew between the twilight of the Roman empire then and Europe now.
For St. Benedict, said Francis, “the important thing was not functions but persons.” He pointed to a view of man radically different from classical Greek and Roman culture, one that transcended role and status, which was rooted in man as the image of God. The outworking of this novel concept became – through monasteries – the source of Europe’s cultural and economic rebirth.
Francis sees in this story both a lesson about Europe’s current moment and a signpost to the Church’s future role. The greatest contribution Christians can make, he argued, is to rescue the importance of the person in the face of a soulless technification of politics and economics.
While none of these messages about the Church’s role are either new or surprising, the speech’s sting lies in the assumption that Europe is living in a similar twilight to St. Benedict’s time, when the structures binding together the disparate peoples of the Roman Empire were irreparably frayed.
Aware that “European Project Over, Declares Pope” would be a headline too far, Francis never quite says that about the contemporary scene. But some of his statements apocalyptically suggest that it’s heading that way.
We might call it “Pope Francis’s Benedict Option.” He’s not giving up on the European Union just yet, but preparing the Church for its likely collapse.
An unprecedented generational conflict has been taking place since the 1960’s. In passing on to new generations the ideals that made Europe great, one could say, with a touch of hyperbole, that betrayal was preferred to tradition. The rejection of what had been passed down from earlier generations was followed by a period of dramatic sterility. Not only because Europe has fewer children, and all too many were denied the right to be born, but also because there has been a failure to pass on the material and cultural tools that young people need to face the future. Europe has a kind of memory deficit. To become once more a solid community means rediscovering the value of our own past, in order to enrich the present and to pass on a future of hope to future generations.
The author of the Letter to Diognetus states that “what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world”. In our day, Christians are called to revitalize Europe and to revive its conscience, not by occupying spaces, but by generating processes capable of awakening new energies in society. This is exactly what Saint Benedict did. It was not by chance that Paul VI proclaimed him the Patron of Europe. He was not concerned to occupy spaces in a wayward and confused world. Sustained by faith, Benedict looked ahead, and from a tiny cave in Subiaco he gave birth to an exciting and irresistible movement that changed the face of Europe. May Saint Benedict, “messenger of peace, promoter of union, master of civilization” make clear to us, the Christians of our own time, how a joyful hope, flowing from faith, is able to change the world.
So, here’s what I think.
There’s a lot in the Pope’s speech that I agree with. What I don’t see are specifics. Francis rightly points out that in the postconciliar generation, “betrayal was preferred to tradition. The rejection of what had been passed down from earlier generations was followed by a period of dramatic sterility.” Yes! True! But what is he doing in his pontificate to encourage the recovery of that lost tradition, and to defend what’s left of it?
Where will these regenerative processes come from, given that the Church in Europe is spiritually exhausted and assimilated to the post-Christian order? I’ll tell you: from the orthodox Catholics like the ones I write about in The Benedict Option, and that I’ve met in my subsequent travels there.
Recently at the University of Notre Dame, Father Anthony Spadaro, the Vatican-based liberal Jesuit who is a top Francis adviser, gave a speech in which he specifically condemned the Benedict Option as evidencing a “Masada complex,” and said it was not consonant with the Pope’s vision. Last Thursday at Notre Dame, I responded to him. Here’s that excerpt from the speech:
Father Spadaro condemned alarmists like me who, in his view, are spreading worries that “have no basis in reality.”
The Benedict Option, he said, is contrary to Pope Francis’s vision of engagement with the world. The church is not a fortress, but rather, in Francis’s phrase, a field hospital.
Allow me to offer a fraternal correction to the good father.
Yes, it is true that the church is a field hospital. But what kind of doctors and nurses will staff this field hospital? We Christians today are not ready to do so. We cannot share with the world what we do not have. In our present state, it would be like going out into a field hospital with no medical training, armed with nothing but a sack full of opioid pills to take away the pain without doing real healing.
An Orthodox priest friend of mine also says the church is a field hospital. He says lots of people come to the church complaining of pain, but they only want a pill to make the hurting stop. What they really need is surgery and therapy for the sake of true healing. Sometimes it’s got to hurt for a while in order to get truly better. This is true spiritual medicine.
I want to share some insights with you to counter Father Spadaro’s Candide Catholicism. These come from the work of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his teams over the years. I cannot recommend to you strongly enough Dr. Smith’s work.
In 2011, he published a book called “Lost In Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood.” It’s about the moral lives of 18 to 23 year olds. It makes for very depressing reading.
Among his findings:
– 60 percent of this group say morality is entirely a personal choice. They make no appeal to religion, tradition, or philosophy as an external guide to inform that choice.
– Most are not strict moral relativists, but they cannot explain or justify their beliefs.
– An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults have no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”
– This is not their fault, necessarily. These young people were failed by parents, churches, schools and other institutions that offered them nothing but platitudes. Adults like to tell themselves that the kids are okay, that they’re nice, hardworking, committed to social justice, and so forth. It’s just not true.
– We older Americans are just as bad. It’s not that we have something good and useful to teach them, but are failing to communicate it. We are just as lost as they are.
These are all Americans [not only Catholics]. But things are as bad or worse with Catholics in particular (sorry, Father Spadaro). In 2014, Smith and his team published a book focusing exclusively on the US Catholic Church. It is extremely grim reading.
For most young Catholics, the faith does not set them apart from the secular world. They have been almost entirely assimilated. Most do not accept the Church as their authoritative teacher, and don’t consider the church to be necessary for their spiritual lives at all. Young people raised in liberal Catholic homes are abandoning the faith in massive numbers. It looks better for those raised in traditionally Catholic homes are doing better, but the picture is still pretty dire.
When Catholics look and think like the rest of the world, what does Father Spadaro think they have to share with the world? I wrote The Benedict Option for Catholics and other Christians who prefer to see the world as it really is, not through the gauzy haze of the failed sentimentality of 1970s Catholicism. Contrary to Father Spadaro’s diagnosis, the problem is not that Catholics are not enough in the world. The problem is that the world is too much in Catholics. Catholic leaders trying to turn the Catholic Church into a Romanized version of Mainline Protestantism are not helping to turn the tide of liquid modernity, but are rather channeling it right into the heart of the church. They are not the future.
The future of the Church, in fact, is in the distant past. There never was a Golden Age, heaven knows, but our fathers and mothers in the faith had resources that we do not. We can find them again. As Marco Sermarini of the Tipi Loschi Catholic community tells me in The Benedict Option, “We invented nothing. We discovered nothing. We are only rediscovering a tradition that was locked away inside an old box. We had forgotten.”
Again, I think Pope Francis is right about a lot of things in his speech. What’s needed is a plan to shore up the Catholics and other Christians who are still holding firm, and to draw others in. The German bishops have no idea how to do this, and I wish the Pope would stop listening to them. He doesn’t have to listen to the schismatic author of The Benedict Option, but there are some faithful European Catholics remaining who can give him good advice. Their names and their stories are in The Benedict Option, and in blogging on this site related to it.
Or, to make it easy, just motor across the peninsula to San Benedetto del Tronto and pay a pastoral visit to the Tipi Loschi.