In the new issue of La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit priest named Andreas Gonçalves Lind publishes a lengthy critique of The Benedict Option. At this point, I don’t respond to most critiques of the Benedict Option, but this one is a big deal. The venerable Jesuit magazine, based in Rome carries a lot of weight in the Catholic elite world, especially under this Jesuit pope. Its editorial director, Father Antonio Spadaro, is a close collaborator of Pope Francis, and last year condemned the Benedict Option in a speech at Notre Dame. Though the review today is negative, I am grateful that my thesis is being considered seriously at the highest levels of the Catholic Church.

Here is a link to the Italian version that appeared today.  I was given an English language draft provided to journalists. I will be quoting from it below. If you want to read the entire thing, but can’t read Italian, cut and paste it into Google Translate.

The gist of Fr. Lind’s complaint is that the Ben Op advocates for a latter-day Donatism, the fourth-century heresy that proclaimed strict moral rigorism, and denied the validity of sacraments administered by priests who had not adequately withstood Roman persecution. The Donatists denied that even a repentant priest was able to administer valid sacraments. The Church ruled that repentance was sufficient, and besides, the validity of sacraments did not depend on the spiritual condition of a particular priest.

Fr. Lind’s abstract of his essay is as follows:

The recent publication of a book titled The Benedict Option in the United States has sparked off much debate. The book refers to St. Benedict of Nursia and intends to illustrate a strategy for Christians in a “post-Christian” age. This article aims to contribute to this debate and, in particular, points out that this “option” brings the risk of an exclusive focus on moral rigidity, doctrinal purity and the reestablishment of a parallel society rather than on the construction of unity and communion within the Church and with all people of goodwill.

Here’s the favorable part of Fr. Lind’s essay:

Dreher has the merit of looking at questions of Christian life within the challenge of growing secularization. His attempt to create a non-individualistic, communitarian Christian life in the present world is also laudable. As is praiseworthy the desire to give Christian witness. Dreher’s “option” is a kind of re-adaptation of Benedict’s rule and charism for our times.

But:

Even though the Benedict option might be acceptable within contemporary American society, it does seem to be founded on an oversimplified and questionable narrative of the Benedictine charism. According to Dreher, “Benedict Option politics begins with recognition that Western society is post-Christian.” He grounds this option in our contemporary context, not only by interpreting contemporary Western societies as the beginning of a “post-Christian Dark era,” but also by asserting St. Benedict’s rule as a response to paganism.

Well, not quite. The Roman Empire had been officially Christian for nearly two centuries when it collapsed in the West. The barbarians who overthrew the imperial government were Christians too, of a sort (Arians, therefore heretics — but not pagans). Benedict’s was a response not to paganism, but to the chaos that resulted from the fall of Roman order. And as I point out in the book, St. Benedict did not set out to “make Rome great again” or anything like it. He only wanted to live in resilient, vowed Christian community as an alternative to the vice and chaos outside. From The Benedict Option:

It all grew from the mustard seed of faith planted by a faithful young Italian who wanted nothing more than to seek and to serve God in a community of faith constructed to withstand the chaos and decadence all around them. Benedict’s example gives us hope today, because it reveals what a small cohort of believers who respond creatively to the challenges of their own time and place can accomplish by channeling the grace that flows through them from their radical openness to God, and embodying that grace in a distinct way of life.

I’ll add this part from the book, from a conversation it records with Father Cassian, at that time the prior of the Norcia monastery:

Though the monks here have rejected the world, “there’s not just a no; there’s a yes too,” Father Cassian says. “It’s both that we reject what is not life-giving, and that we build something new. And we spend a lot of time in the rebuilding, and people see that too, which is why people flock to the monastery. We have so much involvement with guests and pilgrims that it’s exhausting. But that is what we do. We are rebuilding. That’s the yes that people have to hear about.”

Rebuilding what? I asked.

“To use Pope Benedict’s phrase, which he repeated many times, the Western world today lives as though God does not exist,” he says. “I think that’s true. Fragmentation, fear, disorientation, drifting—those are widely diffused characteristics of our society.”

Yes, I thought, this is exactly right. When we lost our Christian religion in modernity, we lost the thing that bound ourselves together and to our neighbors and anchored us in both the eternal and the temporal orders. We are adrift in liquid modernity, with no direction home.

The point of the book is to acknowledge our own condition of radical fragmentation and rootlessness — which Pope Benedict XVI spoke of many times — and to investigate the Benedictine charism and tradition to see what we lay Christians in the 21st century seeking to overcome that condition can learn from it. Lo, guess who else believes that we are in a very, very bad state in this regard. Reports Austen Ivereigh on the Pope’s address last night in Chile:

As I’ve often pointed out, Francis is, if not gloomy, certainly apocalyptic about these times. He believes contemporary society increasingly faces a life-or-death choice.

He sees the technology-driven forces of globalized postmodernity dissolving the bonds of belonging, sweeping away institutions and turning us into consuming individuals obsessed with gratification and increasingly divorced from cultural and religious roots.

In such a society, as he put it in Santiago, “points of reference that people use to build themselves individually and socially are disappearing,” such that “the new meeting place today is the “cloud, characterized by instability since everything evaporates and thus loses consistency.”

Back to Fr. Lind’s paper. He writes:

If contemporary Christians can learn from and adapt the Benedictine rule to present times, it might also be said that emphasizing the reality of persecution could be a risk for Christians; a risk that may be accompanied by the feeling that our “small” group is the real Church and better than the others. To be concise: It is the risk of arrogance linked to an ecclesial sin against unity and communion.

Well, sure, you might say that, and that is certainly something to be watched out for. But the gist of The Benedict Option book is not so much persecution (though that is certainly cited as something to come), but the grinding-down of religious vitality and belief by everyday life in liquid modernity. I wonder if this Catholic family is really all that worried about the potential danger Fr. Lind cites.

Here is the core of Fr. Lind’s objection:

Dreher, obviously without falling into heresy, seems to echo Donatus: “If today’s churches are to survive the new Dark Age, they must stop ‘being normal.’ We will need to commit ourselves more deeply to our faith, and we will need to do that in ways that seem odd to contemporary eyes. By rediscovering the past, recovering liturgical worship and asceticism, centering our lives on the church community, and tightening church discipline, we will, by God’s grace, again become the peculiar people we should always have been. The fruits of this focus on Christian formation will result not only in stronger Christians but in a new evangelism as the salt recovers its savor.”

Wanting to be linked to the early Church of persecuted martyrs, Donatists did not accept a different way to live and practice the faith. Even in a new historical context, wherein persecution could be over, they felt their persecution was a confirmation that they were the good and true Christians.

In so doing, those schismatic Christians constituted a small party of the “pure ones.” By opposing integer to profanus as the main difference between belonging or not to the Church, Donatists tended to admit only irreproachable members.

Here’s the problem — and it’s a problem that has recurred in the rhetoric of this pope. Are there rigid, bitter, extreme Catholics? Absolutely. But Francis and his supporters have a terrible and profoundly unjust habit of denouncing as “rigid” priests and laymen who simply believe the Catholic faith, and want to live it out as it is authoritatively proclaimed — and, in some cases, in its older liturgical forms.

It has been said that Francis’s experience in Argentina with hardcore conservative priests made him reflexively hostile towards anything that resembles tradition. Maybe so. I don’t know. But let me quote my post from last year referring to Fr. Spadaro’s criticism of the Benedict Option:

4. In the United States, Catholicism is declining faster than any other church. “And perhaps more troubling for the church, for every one Catholic convert, more than six Catholics leave the church.”

5. In terms of catechesis and Catholic identity, the US Catholic Church is facing a catastrophe. Here are excerpts from Commonweal story about sociologist Christian Smith’s book concerning Catholic youth:

Here’s the bad news for Commonweal readers, and we may as well get right to it: Just over half the young people raised by parents who describe themselves as “liberal” Catholics stop going to Mass entirely once they become “emerging adults”—a new demographic category that means either prolonged adolescence or delayed adulthood, defined here in Young Catholic America as ages eighteen to twenty-three.

But now, let’s put that sad trend in perspective: The picture isn’t all that much better for the children of “traditional” Catholics. Although only a quarter of those young adults say they’ve stopped going to Mass entirely, only 17 percent say they’re going every week, and in general, their allegiance to church membership and participation seems nearly as faded as the kids of so-called feckless liberals.

The fact is: In this discouraging book, the future looks bad for just about every flavor of Catholic. For those who remember Commonweal’s series on “Raising Catholic Kids” last November, the worry expressed by those dedicated, well-meaning parents seems here to be fully justified. You may hear about pockets of enthusiastically “orthodox” young adults out there somewhere, but as my old mentor in the market-research business used to say, the plural of the word “anecdote” is not “data.” Smith (a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame) and his co-authors have the data, and it tells us that the majority of Catholic “emergers” are, by our historical standards, not what we are used to thinking of as practicing Catholics at all.

That “Raising Catholic Kids” series had this excruciatingly sad account from Sidney Callahan. Excerpt:

In 1967, my husband Dan and I, along with our five sons and one daughter (all born between 1955 and ’65), could be found each Sunday at Mass. Everyone was baptized, the three oldest confirmed. I had been teaching in the CCD program for seven years. We were a full-court-press Catholic family, members of the Christian Family Movement (observe, judge, act), Catholic Worker enthusiasts, and eager advocates of Vatican II reforms. Dan was an editor of Commonweal and we both wrote for and participated in exciting Catholic intellectual circles. Forty-six years later, I sit alone in the same pew on Sundays, and have been doing so for decades. I remain a grateful Catholic convert, while everyone else in the family is long gone from the church.

Got that? She is the only member of her family still in the Church. 

Christian Smith’s broader work on the religious beliefs and identities of younger Americans — not only Catholics — reveals trends that ought to be extremely worrying to any serious Christian, not least the Roman pontiff. Check out this 2009 interview Smith gave to Christianity TodayExcerpt:

… the center of gravity among emerging adults is definitely MTD. Most emerging adults view religion as training in becoming a good person. And they think they are basically good people. To not be a good person, you have to be a horrible person. Therefore, everything’s fine.

I have done a lot of traveling in the US and abroad doing Benedict Option research and speaking. I repeatedly hear the same message, no matter where I am: young adults today who still identify as Christian know little to nothing about the Christian faith, either in terms of content or in terms of how to practice it in daily life. To the extent they have any faith at all, it usually turns out to be entirely emotional. I often return to a discussion I observed among older (conservative) Catholics and younger (conservative) Catholic academics. The older ones were still operating under the impression that the young ones had basic Catholic formation, however lacking. The younger profs told them that this is completely unrealistic, that the undergraduates they were seeing on their campus in most cases knew nothing.

So: when I hear professional church bureaucrats like Father Spadaro telling the world to relax, everything is just fine, that the concerns of Christians like me “bear no relation to reality,” it makes me furious. It’s an attempt to anesthetize the faithful. It’s a self-serving lie, and it’s a lie that is going to cost a lot of people their souls.

Yet Fr. Lind is worried about the “rigid” Catholics who want to practice orthodox Catholicism, and raise their children to be believing, faithful Catholics. What a time we live in!

Fr. Lind cites St. Augustine against the Donatists:

While the Benedict option of Dreher wants to build communities wherein discipline is “tightened” in order to secure a supposed true and healthier Christianity, Augustine’s writings that address Donatism also underline other aspects like patience with respect to sinners and the value of preserving communion.

Augustine notices the arrogance of those who want to separate good people from bad people, the “just” from the “unjust,” before the opportune time. In this context, he asks for “humility,” “patience” and “tolerance.” Humility appears as a fundamental Christian virtue, without which unity and communion are not possible within the Mystical Body of Christ. The bishop of Hippo relies to a greater extent on Cyprian’s authority and he shows how this martyr tried to accept different opinions in order to maintain the Church’s unity.[1

The Benedict option does not automatically imply the arrogance that Augustine perceived in Donatist attitudes. However, its appeal for a “tightened Church discipline” resounds with Donatist moral rigidity. Moreover, the will to build small communities with “strong Christians” could erase the importance of Christian virtues like humility, patience and tolerance – emphasized in Augustine’s writings – calling into question the communion among believers and the formation of peaceful relationships in the world.

This is an elementary mistake by Fr. Lind. He is confusing the Donatist belief that the Church should be strictly a fellowship of the pure with the bog-standard basic Catholic Christian belief that we should seek to be holy. All sinners are welcome in the Church, because the Church has within it no one who is without sin. The Christian life is a pilgrimage toward growing in Christlikeness. We all stumble, but that’s what confession and forgiveness are for. One gets the impression that Christians like Fr. Lind don’t care about holiness. Surely that is not true, but I genuinely struggle to comprehend what they think the Church, and life with Christ, is for.

I’m thinking at the moment about a Catholic friend who is in what you might call a lay Ben Op school and faith life community. He said that some of the parish priests in his diocese look down on them, even though its members are all faithful attendees at mass. My friend told me that when his priest challenged him about it, he responded that the group felt compelled to gather so they and their children can learn and practice the fullness of the faith, which they were not getting in their parishes and diocesan schools.

That priest felt that the community’s existence was a judgment on him and the Catholic bureaucracy’s way of running itself (managing the decline, pretty much). And you know what: that priest was right! But the parents of that community are responsible for passing the faith on to their children, not for that priest’s feelings.

More Fr. Lind:

Another characteristic of Donatist attitudes mentioned by Yves Congar concerns hostility toward secular institutions. Donatists tended to refuse to collaborate with the authorities of the Empire who, for them, represented pagan powers. In their theological point of view, the purity of Christian practice implied the refusal to participate, collaborate or be engaged with pagans in their non-Christian institutions.

In this sense, Donatists were actually a “parallel polis.” On the contrary, Catholics like Augustine remained linked to some imperial institutions and were forced to consider Donatists as schismatic Christians.

This emphasis on purity, as a precaution regarding non-contamination with whatever is outside the Christian milieu, is related to the interpretation Donatists gave to the theological concept of “Catholicism.” According to them, “catholic” was supposed to mean sacramental perfection and fullness. In this sense, Donatists considered that real Catholicism was restricted to their local and small church, in Northern Africa.

Following the theology of Optatus, Augustine proposed another interpretation of “Catholicism,” emphasizing universality as unity of the entire Church as Christ’s Mystical Body. Augustine insisted that local Churches spread all over the world should be in communion in order to accomplish the biblical prophecies regarding the efficacy of announcing Christ’s resurrection.

All in all, Augustine’s argument tried to show that Donatists, even if they were more virtuous than all other faithful Christians, could never have the exclusivity of the true Church. Augustine wants to show that, in his context, isolation from other Christians and from society in general was not a good sign.

Although Dreher does not want the isolation of Christian communities, his Benedict option requires “separation” from secular political powers and institutions, up to the point of developing our lives as far as possible within Christian institutions in which Christian entrepreneurs hire workers predominantly from their own churches. Furthermore, the emphasis on the negative aspects of technology and the internet is intelligible in accordance with the warning not to be contaminated by pagan culture. In so doing, this option could “close off” Christian communities.

This is a flagrant misrepresentation of my work. The idea of the “parallel polis” is introduced like this in The Benedict Option:

[Czech dissident Vaclav] Benda’s distinct contribution to the dissident movement was the idea of a “parallel polis” — a separate but porous society existing alongside the official Communist order. Says Flagg Taylor, an American political philosopher and expert on Czech dissident movements, “ Benda’s point was that dissidents couldn’t simply protest the Communist government, but had to support positive engagement with the world.”

At serious risk to himself and his family (he and his wife had six children), Benda rejected ghettoization. He saw no possibility for collaboration with the Communists, but he also rejected quietism, considering it a failure to display proper Christian concern for justice, charity, and bearing evangelical witness to Christ in the public square. For Benda, Havel’s injunction to “live in truth” could only mean one thing: to live as a Christian in community.

Benda did not advocate retreat to a Christian ghetto. He insisted that the parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word — along with the defense of all the values, institutions, and material conditions to which the existence of such a community is bound.”

Fr. Lind would have his readers believe that I’m telling Catholics and other Christians to withdraw from the world to avoid contamination. In fact, in context of the book’s narrative, the “parallel polis” would come about chiefly when Christians are not permitted to be Christian in the public square. In the book, I talk about Christians patronizing Christian businesses as a way to protect those business owners when their livelihoods are threatened by law or custom.

Maybe this doesn’t make sense to Father Lind, who teaches at the Jesuit University of Namur, in Belgium (where, by the way, the Catholic faith is flat on its back, with barely a pulse). I don’t know what the situation is like with regard to Church and State in Belgium. Here in the US, though, we are well into a time when Christian colleges and institutions will face severe penalties if they don’t compromise their teachings and internal practices to conform to LGBT dogma and gender ideology. We are seeing some Christian businesses destroyed. As I write in The Benedict Option, and as Fr. Lind ignores in his review essay:

Public school teachers, college professors, doctors, and lawyers will all face tremendous pressure to capitulate to this ideology as a condition of employment. So will psychologists, social workers, and all in the helping professions; and of course, florists, photographers, backers, and all businesses that are subject to public accommodation laws.

As I make clear in the book, this is not a matter of idle speculation. I interviewed a number of law professors and professionals within these fields. They see what’s coming, even if Father Lind does not.

There’s a lot more to his piece, but I’ll close with this:

In doing so, the Benedict option bears the weight of a pessimistic outlook regarding contemporary societies. Although religious liberty should be affirmed to let Christians practice their faith, Dreher does not seem to want to show the importance of true dialogue, springing from that human dignity in which all liberties are grounded. Even if the internet could be “the most radical, disruptive, and transformative technology” that a Christian must avoid and limit, especially regarding children, Dreher’s option does not propose a way to live in and evangelize this new “place.”

Well, he’s got that right: I do have a pessimistic outlook regarding contemporary societies. How could any small-o orthodox Christian who pays attention not be pessimistic? Heck, even Pope Francis is, in the word of his biographer, “apocalyptic”! Of course Dreher wants to talk to others — The Benedict Option explicitly calls for open collaboration among Christians and others (I mention Jews in particular) who share our countercultural stance towards the world, if not our theological convictions — but I have no interest in the failed assimilationist ideas of the modern Jesuits. Those might have seemed reasonable in 1968, but we know what the fruits of that approach have been: collapse.

I have confidence that Catholics who want their faith to survive this particular apocalypse, and live on in their children, and their children’s children, will join me and other Christians of goodwill in trying to forge a new path, out of the ruins of contemporary Christianity. It will come as a shock to many, but there are pre-1965 traditions within the Catholic Church that actually have something to say to Catholics today — and to all Christians. That’s the main message of The Benedict Option. My own approach is no doubt flawed, and I welcome correction. But I prefer to try something serious to resist over pious strategies of capitulation.

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45 Responses to The Donatist Option

  1. Leroy Huizenga says:

    Can’t dialogue with ideologues, and that’s often what we’re up against.

  2. “The venerable Jesuit magazine, based in Rome carries a lot of weight in the Catholic elite world…” Possibly. But for many of us serious Catholics, the magazine has become a joke, in large part because Fr. Antonio “2+2=5” Spadaro has proven time and again that he is not only in over his head, he has nothing to offer but recycled nonsense from the trendy-lefty Catholic-lite crowd of the ’60s and ’70s.

  3. catbird says:

    Donatists on the right vs. Gnostics on the left — and the battle of the misleading patristic analogies continues!

  4. OnceIndoctrinatedMyself says:

    I have confidence that Catholics who want their faith to survive this particular apocalypse, and live on in their children, and their children’s children, will join me and other Christians of goodwill in trying to forge a new path, out of the ruins of contemporary Christianity.

    A clear statement of the obvious: Christianity’s survival is totally dependent on parents indoctrinating their children. It’s almost as if God doesn’t exist and Christianity isn’t objectively true.

    [NFR: Bless your heart. — RD]

  5. As an outsider, this looks to me like an attempt to put a label on Dreher’s work, not because there are objective, genuine, close empirical parallels between The Benedict Option and the documented beliefs of the Donatists, but because Donatist is an ugly label and a convenient way to dismiss a line of thought.

  6. Major Wootton says:

    Seems pretty much business as usual for the Roman hierarchy, to this Lutheran. Luther noticed that the official church had diverged from sound doctrine and practice as seen in the Bible and the Fathers. He drew attention to it and asked for a safe council for discussion; and was kicked out, and to this day gets the blame for “breaking” the unity of the Church.

    I don’t suppose you have much use for Luther, Rod (the brief discussion of the Reformation in the Ben Op book wasn’t its strongest section), but to me it sounds like you’re kind of in a similar place, though of course you moved on from the Roman communion years ago.

  7. bob says:

    OK, being a serious layman = Donatist. I couldn’t be a Latin, they don’t take their laymen seriously. They think having one (celibate by law) cleric for every 2,000-3,000 laymen is ministering to them, then warn them from “high” levels not to take this stuff too seriously. It’s working real well, they seem afraid somebody might fix it when they don’t think it’s broken.

  8. Jefferson Smith says:

    The gist of Fr. Lind’s complaint is that the Ben Op advocates for a latter-day Donatism, the fourth-century heresy that proclaimed strict moral rigorism….

    Yeah. I have pointed out on several recent threads that the BenOp is based on a “rigorist” approach to Christian life. For good or ill. But if its virtues are not impressing themselves even on other faithful clerics and churchgoers, it might be because most people are not rigorists — nor is it clear that a community of rigorists is going to function very well.

  9. William Tighe says:

    Two comments:

    First, Rod wrote:

    “The Roman Empire had been officially Christian for nearly two centuries when it collapsed in the West.”

    It collapsed in either 476 (when the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, a boy of 16, was forced to abdicate) or in 480 (when Julius Nepos, a previous Western emperor who was still recognized in Constantinople as such, was assassinated). Christianity had been legalized in February 313 by the Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan, but although most later emperors supported Christianity (without always being baptized themselves, however, and with the exception of “Julian the Apostate”) it did not become the “official religion” of the Empire until the Edict of Thessalonika, issued by Theodosius I in February 380 in the name of the three then-reigning emperors, Theodosius I, Gratian, and Valentinian II, declared it to be such. So in fact it had been “officially Christian” for barely a century by the time of its collapse.

    Secondly, Fr. Lind seems simply to be using the term “Donatist” as a “cuss word” meaning nothing much more than “traditional Christian,” to cast opprobrium upon them; indeed, as he uses it, the term could apply equally well to faithful orthodox Catholics. It reminds me of the way in which liberal Anglicans, both in America in the 1970s and among their English counterparts a couple of decades later, applied the term “Donatist” to traditionalist Anglicans who refused to accept the sacramental ministrations of “woman priests.” In both cases, the views of the “traditionalists” had nothing in common with those beliefs and practices of the North African Donatists which were condemned as heretical by Catholic Christendom generally.

  10. Captain P says:

    Don’t talk about persecution, don’t practice a critical outlook towards technology, and don’t build local community, because … we don’t want to fall into a heretical sacramentology from 1500 years ago. If this is the outlook of Francis and the Jesuits, no wonder Catholicism is disappearing in the Western world.

  11. MikeS says:

    He seems to be taking the worst possible scenario of your proposal and connecting it to an ancient group he deems heretical. Therefore it must be dismissed because it _might_ express itself in a bad way. You are advocating building an ark for the coming flood, but because you might use some ugly paint on the boat, the whole operation is suspect. Is this what they call ‘Jesuitical reasoning’?

  12. James C. says:

    Ah, so he’s writing from Belgium.

    It’s like sitting in the ecclesiastical equivalent of a toxic waste dump and focusing your attack on the few survivors trying to recultivate a remaining patch of fertile land. “If only you weren’t so rigid and concerned with purity, you’d see the glorious New Springtime all around you!”

  13. Will Harrington says:

    Meh. Looking in as an outsider, this is not a surprise. A heretical hierarchy can use the threat of Donatists to keep their laity in line by in turn accusing the dissident faithful of, not just schism, but falling into actual heresy.

  14. matthew says:

    Perhaps because I’ve never fully figured out how to balance humility, patience and tolerance and also not include or validate a non-celibate homosexual couple seeking admittance, I don’t know where the line is in specific cases. Perhaps Fr. Lind could provide some specific line drawing for that specific example.

  15. GSW says:

    “…the feeling that our “small” group is the real Church and better than the others. To be concise: It is the risk of arrogance linked to an ecclesial sin against unity and communion.” @ Fr Lind

    “All sinners are welcome in the Church, because the Church has within it no one who is without sin. The Christian life is a pilgrimage toward growing in Christlikeness. We all stumble, but that’s what confession and forgiveness are for.” @ RD

    I think the first quote more accurately represents a significant number of Mr. Dreher’s views, as set forth in his blog, than the positon he (correctly) embraces in the second quote.

    Unless I have completely misunderstood what Mr. Dreher has previously written here, he believes unchaste gays should be excluded from the Orthodox Church, even if/when they confess and by economia are allowed to commune. Priests and bishops who offer such economia to Orthodox gays should be disciplined, he has said. On a personal note, when given the opportunity to show some understanding and compassion in this regard to my lesbian Orthodox-raised daughter who has been in a long term monogamous relationship of several years, he demurred, suggesting instead that I was soft on sexual sin.

    (BTW, for context, according to Pew, over three-fifths of U.S. Orthodox think that society should accept homosexuality and just over half would allow for legal same-sex marriage. In my experience, this translates to a ‘don’t ask/don’t tell’ attitude in the life of most Orthodox parishes. Full disclosure, I favour civil unions for gays rather than marriage but that ship has sailed in part because it was an offer that was politically too little/too late.)

    [NFR: All sinners who make a sincere confession should be allowed to commune. What does economia have to do with it? But if someone is unwilling to repent, why should they receive communion? Your daughter persists in sin, indeed serious sin. I’m sure this is painful to you — I don’t say that lightly — but that does not change the reality. — RD]

  16. Giuseppe Scalas says:

    Rigorist?
    People don’t realize what’s going on. Even John 3:16 is being relativized.

  17. Giuseppe Scalas says:

    The parallel with Donatist is the usual jesuitical balderdash. The Benedict Option arises from the awareness of our sinfulness, not from a claim of perfection or of being “chosen”.
    The rather gnostic claim to universal perfection is to be rather found in the abolition of sin implicitly advocated by the modernist currents, of which the Jesuits are the most prominent standard bearers.

  18. Robert E. says:

    @Jefferson Smith

    I have to push back a little on the idea that the Benedict Option is a “rigorist” approach. The “rigorist” approach was more like the kind of Integralism that was believed in widely by Orthodox and Catholics back in the day (Though we’ve seen that creep back lately!), or the exclusionary politics of the evangelicals during their revivalist periods.

    This form of Christianity could go nowhere in a pluralistic society like 1970’s America though, where there was a lot of social upheaval that really drew attention to the fact that Americans weren’t all on the same page as far as religion was concerned. You’d get all sorts of weird, high profile and “scary” (to the rigorists) movements popping up like the Erisians and the popularity of the Hare Krishna, and that was sort of a wakeup call that led Christians to abandon this insular path of rigorism.

    The solution was a weird style of Christian politics that tried to scrub out the differences between sects. Evangelicals co-opted the previously Catholic cause of being “pro-life”, and all of these evangelical groups came together to form the “moral majority”. Theological differences were scrubbed out, at least on the national scale, in service of political realities. Both Evangelicals and Catholics sacrificed their particularism, and therefore their rigor, to make it happen.

    And that leaves us at Rod, trapped between a rock and a hard place. He realizes that Integralism and the kind of exclusionary Christian politics practiced before the 70’s is a no go. But he also realizes somewhat that scrubbing the particularism out of his religion to pursue political goals was kind of like kicking the legs out of a table to try to save what was on top of it. It didn’t really work so well.

    So he has this really weird combination of the two, that attempts to find a balance by focusing on localism and community. The Benedict Option is only halfway at most rigorist, because Rod champion’s everyone’s local version of religious particularism while glossing over the fact that these theological differences are still, to him at least, incredibly important.

  19. GSW says:

    “But if someone is unwilling to repent, why should they receive communion? Your daughter persists in sin, indeed serious sin. I’m sure this is painful to you — I don’t say that lightly — but that does not change the reality. “ @ RD

    On the contrary, I thank God every hour of every single day that He blessed me with a daughter who is a good, upright and loving person in the world around her.

    “Wanting to be linked to the early Church of persecuted martyrs, Donatists did not accept a different way to live and practice the faith. Even in a new historical context, wherein persecution could be over, they felt their persecution was a confirmation that they were the good and true Christians. In so doing, those schismatic Christians constituted a small party of the “pure ones.” By opposing integer to profanus as the main difference between belonging or not to the Church, Donatists tended to admit only irreproachable members.” @ Fr Lind

    “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.” Matthew 18:11

  20. charles cosimano says:

    It all sounds like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The ship is going down anyway no matter what the band plays.

    That being said, the Donatists do sound like a particularly annoying pack of lunatics and not fun at all like the Pelagians whose argosy has yet to land.

  21. LeastAmongSapiens says:

    They are failing as sheperds.

    It took me awhile to figure out why the Pope’s preaching for mass Islamic immigration into Europe bothers me so much, as well as the same preaching here in the United States about migrants by our priests and bishops.

    All migrants are children of God, made in His image and likeness and dearly loved by Him. Many are lovely people, some are not, but either way it doesn’t change God’s love for them. True.

    The same is also true of the people who already live in the countries, even if – gasp – they are “bigoted” or “rigid.” Still loved by God.

    My anger is that for those migrants who are in error (believing, for example, that Mohammed was God’s prophet and that Jesus was not Christ, the Son of the Father and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity) are not being evangelized by the Church.

    Oh sure, the ministering Church to migrants will say, “We ARE preaching the gospel, but words aren’t always necessary,” (see, e.g. St. Francis of Assissi).

    But I believe that they are afraid to preach the gospel to some of these migrants because they fear martyrdom. It’s an understandable fear. I’m an imperfect Christian and I pray, as the Lord taught us, not to be put to the test.

    But when Bishops and priests refuse to preach the gospel because they are afraid of physical martrydom, then turn around and castigate me for not wanting to live with my children next door to the same people they’re afraid of, that really rankles me.

    They are failing as sheperds because they are not evangelizing those in error, and they are indifferent to the risks to others who are also in their care, who are already here. They would rather virtual-signal and put their trust in some fantastical “interfaith dialogue,” while their sheep (which is all of them) are lost.

  22. Anastasios says:

    GSW said,

    “Unless I have completely misunderstood what Mr. Dreher has previously written here, he believes unchaste gays should be excluded from the Orthodox Church, even if/when they confess and by economia are allowed to commune. Priests and bishops who offer such economia to Orthodox gays should be disciplined, he has said. On a personal note, when given the opportunity to show some understanding and compassion in this regard to my lesbian Orthodox-raised daughter who has been in a long term monogamous relationship of several years, he demurred, suggesting instead that I was soft on sexual sin.

    (BTW, for context, according to Pew, over three-fifths of U.S. Orthodox think that society should accept homosexuality and just over half would allow for legal same-sex marriage. In my experience, this translates to a ‘don’t ask/don’t tell’ attitude in the life of most Orthodox parishes. Full disclosure, I favour civil unions for gays rather than marriage but that ship has sailed in part because it was an offer that was politically too little/too late.)”

    In my experience, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is indeed the actual practice of many, likely the large majority, of Orthodox parishes. I am pretty sure it is the same for Catholic parishes. But it is also the same, judging by the home churches of many family and friends, for many evangelical congregations. It is just the best policy for people who don’t want to explicitly reject doctrine on hand or foul their own nest on the other.

    In fairness, this policy extends well beyond questions of homosexuality to include wide swaths of behavior and belief. Cafeteria Catholicism was an epithet in my long ago youth, well before homosexuals became widely visible, or at least widely prominent in cultural awareness. It does make for intellectual inconsistency, and some within Orthodoxy invoke the idea of economia to address at least some of these situations. Without getting into a doctrinal dispute, and widening the scope beyond Orthodox parishes, I think it is accurate to just say that the practical incentives strongly encourage some form of accommodation.

    You are also correct that surveys show most Orthodox Christians in America favor gay marriage and general acceptance of homosexuality. There are all sorts of caveats one should probably make and have been made elsewhere. We are dealing with a complex cultural phenomenon. But that is what the data shows.

    As for Rod having an opinion, of course he does! But opinions and noses, as they say. And few of our opinions are dispositive in any given local situation.

  23. Captain P says:

    GSW:

    If you think you understand the will of God regarding sexuality better than the Apostle Paul did, then why do you care what little ol’ Rod Dreher has to say?

  24. Ron Chandonia says:

    You saved the punchline for the end of the post: “Father Lind . . . teaches at the Jesuit University of Namur, in Belgium.” And instead of standing out in the streets of that godless place telling the neo-pagans about Christ, he is crabbing about “moral rigorism.” Sadly, that is today’s Jesuit.

  25. catbird says:

    “As an outsider, this looks to me like an attempt to put a label on Dreher’s work, not because there are objective, genuine, close empirical parallels between The Benedict Option and the documented beliefs of the Donatists, but because Donatist is an ugly label and a convenient way to dismiss a line of thought.”

    Right — but this is exactly what gnosticism is when used for any and every left of center movement the speaker dislikes. Now Rod and those sympathetic with him know how its feels.

    Sorry to continue another thread, but it’s a really annoying tic that conservative Christian writers have to call everything they don’t like Gnostic.

  26. Downtown and Gown says:

    The Donatist comparison is interesting. Rod, I’d suggest you do question how much you value “purity” in some sense.

    If you look at Haidt’s Moral foundations theory, one of the dimensions is purity. In general, I’ve noticed on the blog that you tend to have strong reactions toward certain actors who in their efforts might overlap with BenOp objectives, but you either disapprove of their means or their character. Examples, Romanus Cessario, Kim Davis, the Republican establishment, the Catholic hierarchy, Trump, etc.

    My impression is that you are rejecting these folks on “purity” grounds. They may be doing something that agrees with the Benedict Option, but somehow they violate your “purity” standards.

    On the plus side, when you’ve talked about the history of your small town, you’ve been more sympathetic to people having mixed character that has good and bad aspects.

    You have to think about change in persons and organizations, reconciliation and forgiveness, and how much you’re willing to work with allies that fail to meet your standards in some way (for example, their willingness to question or stand up to authority more than you, like Kim Davis).

    Just a suggestion for thinking about the tensions between “purity” and “loyalty” and “authority”.

  27. Jefferson Smith says:

    @Robert E.:

    And that leaves us at Rod, trapped between a rock and a hard place. He realizes that Integralism and the kind of exclusionary Christian politics practiced before the 70’s is a no go. But he also realizes somewhat that scrubbing the particularism out of his religion to pursue political goals was kind of like kicking the legs out of a table to try to save what was on top of it. It didn’t really work so well.

    So he has this really weird combination of the two, that attempts to find a balance by focusing on localism and community.

    I think I basically agree with you, if I’m understanding correctly. RD is a rigorist in certain ways, with his talk about “thicker” religious commitments, his fondness for difficult liturgies and prayer disciplines, his reprimanding of various priests and bishops (and sometimes the Pope) if they seem to be wandering off the SoCon reservation, and of course anything having to do with sexual morality or sexual identity and orientation. Much of those sorts of rigor — especially the hard liturgies and other practices — are what I’m saying most people don’t share, including those whose beliefs are otherwise “orthodox.” Increasingly, I think even the orthodox will cease to share the sexual strictures as well, especially regarding gays.

    But then, as you say, all of that is oddly combined with a seeming complete lack of interest in other kinds of rigor, particularly in terms of the specifics of doctrine. I have never seen a post here that even hints that it’s important to be right about issues like, for instance, the Filioque question (which divides Catholics from EO) or transubstantiation (which divides most Protestants from Catholics). Even the vast theological differences between Christians and Jews don’t seem to matter for most purposes. Rigorists of a different kind would consider this itself to be extreme squishiness (your “table” metaphor), and some hardline commenters here occasionally do level that very charge. (Me, I’m not a hardliner, nor a rigorist on any of these issues, but I do find this contrast interesting and instructive — an unusually well-articulated example of religion as a certain kind of politique.)

    [NFR: You should keep in mind that though I am very interested in religion and make it a big part of this blog, I intentionally leave out a lot of doctrinal disputes, because it seems out of place in a blog that’s generally about the intersection of religion, culture, art, and politics. How many people here really want to read us all throwing down over the filioque? I agree that it is important, but it’s not important to me in this particular forum. Also, I got burned by focusing way too much on doctrine as a Catholic. That is a problem for me. — RD]

  28. Lee Penn says:

    So your priest-critic called you a Donatist?

    Here’s one possible response: a pun.

    During some protest marches in the US in the 1980s, one popular chant was “Bad cop! No donut!” (This referred to the stereotype of policemen wasting their time and getting fat at donut shops.)

    If accused of Donatism, we can reply: “Bad priest! No Donat!”

  29. Rob G says:

    “though I am very interested in religion and make it a big part of this blog, I intentionally leave out a lot of doctrinal disputes, because it seems out of place in a blog that’s generally about the intersection of religion, culture, art, and politics. How many people here really want to read us all throwing down over the filioque? I agree that it is important, but it’s not important to me in this particular forum.”

    Yea, verily. As numerous Gulag survivors have attested, denominational distinctives tend to become secondary in such situations. Bigger fish to fry.

    This, of course, does not mean that such distinctives therefore do not really matter at all. Back in 2001 Touchstone Magazine did an entire conference on this subject called “Christian Unity and the Divisions We Must Sustain.” Its various papers are recommended to those who continue to be flummoxed by the idea of an ecumenism that neither throws the baby out with the bathwater nor attempts to save it by declaring that the water is not so bad after all.

  30. Rob G says:

    “So he has this really weird combination of the two, that attempts to find a balance by focusing on localism and community.”

    If you jettison the proper Christian asceticism from your version of Christianity what remains will tend to either legalism, its opposite, antinomianism, or some combination of the two. American Protestants by and large have no historical groundwork from which to understand asceticism, hence they are bound to see it as “rigorist” or “legalistic.”

  31. JohnT says:

    Hi Rod
    It is hard to understand their inability to comprehend your argument. These types of people tend to hide behind the bureaucracy. You should really think about what it means to someone to be able to hide behind the bureaucracy. How safe it must feel.

  32. Elijah says:

    “A clear statement of the obvious: Christianity’s survival is totally dependent on parents indoctrinating their children. It’s almost as if God doesn’t exist and Christianity isn’t objectively true.”

    In charity to your snotty comment, ALL parents indoctrinate their children (if you insist on using that loaded word), even if it’s just basic manners and right v. wrong. Ultimately children have the right and obligation to decide if what their parents taught them is true or just their preference.

    Even if you throw your children out every day with no food or clothing to fend for themselves and find their own way, you’re indoctrinating them as to what you believe is true.

    “throwing down over the filioque?”

    This made me laugh. Maybe I need more coffee.

  33. Liam says:

    Being equally a non-fan of the use of Donatism here as Gnostism elsewhere as a facile crutch, I happened upon this new article in Commonweal that, while tangential, may yet be relevant to thinking through the B-Op! – at least David Cloutier’s response to William Shea’s lead.

    https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/imagine-theres-no-clergy

    I definitely consider the arc of 20th century reform – starting with Pope St Pius X’s sacramental revolution – to be bending towards supersacramentalism.

  34. Daniel (not Larrison) says:

    GSW wrote:

    “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.” Matthew 18:11

    (Actually Luke 18:11, but I’ve made those kind of errors myself before.)

    I find it telling that, more often than not, we quote this parable to attack our enemies as hypocrites…Rather than see ourselves in the Pharisee. And often we miss the point of the parable: it is NOT that the Pharisee was guilty of an unforgivable sin that was worse than the sin of the tax collector (or those of the “other men” as he listed in his prayer–the extortioners, unjust, adulterers). The point is that, if we think we’re not sinners, that we’re better than others, we fail…indeed, we will not receive justification from God (see Luke 18:14). Note this self-righteousness flows just as easily from when we (rightly) condemn the sins of, say, racism and sexual harrasiment…or when we condemn (as the Pharisee) those who are extortioners, the unjust, adulterers, and tax collectors for an oppressive government.

    There’s one thing to be truly broken by your sin, and coming in dust and ashes, in tearful repentance for your rebellion against God. It’s quite another to tell the King of Kings that you’re not a sinner if you are a nice person who loves others…But do what He forbids.

    Your daughter may be a lovely person (most people think their daughters are…I know I do). And she may have a view of God that is ok with her expression of her sexuality. And I honestly wish her well. But to say it’s compatible with Orthodoxy (or even just orthodoxy) is false. It’s a different religion.

    Of course, the repentant homosexual–even one who repeatedly falls into that sin again and again–has a place in the church, along with other sinners (for there are no Christians who do not sin). But to dismiss homosexual actions as not sin and not something for which repentance is needed is squarely against the teachings of orthodox Christianity.

  35. Hector_St_Clare says:

    How many people here really want to read us all throwing down over the filioque? </o?

    I'd actually find it fascinating. I’m realitively eccentric in that I actually find that kind of theological debate fascinating, but you might be surprised how many of the rest of us find those issues really exciting and compelling too.

    I’m not Catholic nor Orthodox and at this point quite alienated from the “Great Tradition” more generally, but I still think that the discussion of the Filioque in the Summa Theologica is really interesting as a piece of reasoning.

    Right — but this is exactly what gnosticism is when used for any and every left of center movement the speaker dislikes. Now Rod and those sympathetic with him know how its feels.

    “Gnosticism” isn’t really even a very useful word for the late-antique and medieval movements commonly known as gnostic. It’s a loose label applied to lots of religious movements that don’t have a lot in common except that they rejected cosmological monotheism and the goodness of the created world. Two people can both reject those two things (and I’m personally quite sympathetic to both hypotheses) and still disagree radically with each other on other topics. ‘Gnostic’ is supposed to connote ‘knowledge’, but lots of “gnostics” (Marcion, for one) believed you were saved through faith, not knowledge (just, not faith in the God of Israel). The movements called ‘gnostic’ (they didn’t call themselves that, nor did their contemporary Catholic critics call them that) in thirteenth century Western Europe disagreed quite strenuously with each other as well (on absolute dualism vs. mitigated dualism and on the role of the Old Testament among other things).

  36. simon94022 says:

    It’s an open secret that the intellectual standards of La Civiltà Cattolica have fallen off a cliff in recent years, particularly under Spadaro and while Francis has been Pope. The problem isn’t so much that the magazine has a wrong perspective, but that its tendentious articles so often mischaracterize and confuse the arguments of its opponents.

    Like so many venerable institutions within and outside the Church, this one has become an embarassment.

  37. JonF says:

    Re: for context, according to Pew, over three-fifths of U.S. Orthodox think that society should accept homosexuality and just over half would allow for legal same-sex marriage.

    “Accepting” can mean “have no laws criminalizing it”, which even Rod agrees with in principle. As for SSM, if we’re just talking civil marriage that in no way impinges on the Church’s sacrament of matrimony then it’s easy to see why even devout people might be tolerant of it since the laws of the state and the canons of the Church need not be in full accord.

  38. Philemon says:

    Once again, great post and superb comments.

    Something was bugging me and the comments teased it out. These days, what I see is that when someone from Rome says that some position is rigorist, they will often also say it does not show mercy. They say rigorism enough, sometimes this “flip side” or “second part” goes unstated.

    So, is the BenOp merciful? The very simplistic summary seems to be that it is about strengthening bonds of community, or even about the Church being the Church and Christians being Christians. It would be easy enough to draw the line from Being the Church to being merciful. In practice, it would be much easier to draw that line to liturgical renewal (if to avoid that word “purity”) and forget mercy’s inconvenient pleas (as I know I do).

    I think about those foundations that started off as conservative but became liberal over the years. As I recall, the John M Olin Foundation had a time limit rather than experience that fate. My point is that even organizations built to resist a point of view can eventually change to do the exact opposite.

    It’s easy for anyone and any group not to be merciful. How do we build in mercy from the start, so that “its end is embedded in its beginning” (if I’m remembering – and appropriating out of context – Sepher Yetzirah correctly). I think we have a pretty god idea of how to do liturgical and doctrinal purity and I’m on board with that.

  39. I’ve always understood Gnosticism to have been primarily a set of beliefs that castigated the created, material, world as not only not good, but pure evil, leading to attitudes and rituals that bordered on masochism. “Knowing” seems to be more of a veneer in which to encase this line of belief.

    For once, Charles Cosimano shows himself to be an astute theologian. I have a soft spot for Pelagius (who was Welsh after all, as well as making some appropriate observations about the sinful life of the Roman hierarchy). I’ve read that Mormons lean Pelagian also.

  40. Seven sleepers says:

    The trouble the Church is facing, and the nature of the technology that is already here and coming, absolutely invalidates the idea that any form of “walling off” and hiding will even be possible.

    Still, the only problem Christians have is arguments. Thats it. If we had strong compelling arguments to believe the way we do, we would be winning. But we don’t. Also, we are not in control of the conversation, so heavy losses are handed us because of that. The media and other entities at play have myriad ways of disparaging us and painting us into corners. Take these freaks who tortured their kids. Immediately much was made of them being pentecostals (no idea if substantiated). But clearly has nothing whatsoever to do with this atrocity. However, not being able to control the conversation is also key.

    Which leads me to the actual core of the core of the problem, as it becomes clearer every passing day to me: who the heck are these BISHOPS? What they heck are they doing? Playing footsie with power is what. And the body becomes gangrenous.

    The problem is the protestants are so fractured they have no political power. And the Catholics have a gigantic bully pulpit in the pope and, well, I refrain from saying more there.

    Unless Christian answers to what are monumental universalist heresies are answered, we have no chance. Even the ones that join fall later when they reach questions for which they cannot get an answer. Our battle is theological/philosophical.

    The days of national baptism and guaranteed crops is dead as a door nail. It’s time to wake up and go on the offensive. Massive publishing and media efforts are required. Massive. And massive legal teams need to be funded. Again, we need to steal the entire playbook from the Orthodox Jews (for the second time). Otherwise, we are slouching towards Gomorrah.

  41. mwing says:

    NFR:…I intentionally leave out a lot of doctrinal disputes, because it seems out of place in a blog that’s generally about the intersection of religion, culture, art, and politics. How many people here really want to read us all throwing down over the filioque?

    It’s true. If you went all in on the theology, it would make your blog incomprehensible to, at least, me.

  42. Antonia says:

    Donatists refused to accept the repentant back into communion.
    The Church welcomed the repentant back into communion.
    Fr. Lind et al. think repentance is unnecessary, and welcome active heretics into a communion-in-name-only.

  43. Renzo Puccetti says:

    It is not surprising for me that the Catholic Civilization edited by Spadaro publishes an article of this indecent content. The whole argument by father Lind echoes those lapsi, who burnt the grain of incense to Caesar and to the idols, accusing the martyrs and those who remained faithful, of being arrogant and of sinning against the unity of the Church and communion just because of their faithfulness and orthodoxy. Same usual thin diabolical perversions.

  44. Renzo Puccetti says:

    I’m not surprised that Civiltà Cattolica, directed by fr. Antonio Spadaro, publish an article of this indecent content. There is a passage of the text that is revealing: “If it is true that contemporary Christians can learn from the Benedictine rule and adapt it to current times, it is also true that exalting the reality of persecution could entail a risk: that of perceiving one’s own” small group “as the true and better Church of the others.This is ultimately the risk of arrogance, connected to an ecclesial sin against unity and communion”. I hear echoed the antique defences by lapsi – those who burnt the grain of incense to Caesar and to the idols-, accusing the martyrs and those remaining faithful of arrogance and of sinning against the unity of the Church and communion. Just the same old thin satanic perversions .

  45. Howard says:

    As a Protestant, I’m glad that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist does not depend on whether the celebrant is a “priest” at all, period. That, I realized, is the ultimate reason why I can’t be a Catholic.

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