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Do We Need The Benedict Option? Yes, Says Bishop

Many people who say no simply have not read the book
short ben op bloggable cover

Well, hello. You didn’t hear from me on Monday because I was busy gallivanting around New Orleans with J.D. Vance, Ken Bickford, and others. J.D. really, really wanted to eat at Toups Meatery, but it was closed on Monday. We ended up at Lüke, where they didn’t have the charcuterie board (either it wasn’t on the lunch menu, or they took it off the menu, period, since I was last there), but we did eat the chicken liver and rabbit pate, which was crazy good. I spent the day fighting off the flu, which has all three of my kids down with fever. We had a good turnout for the event at UNO, and a delicious dinner afterward at Ralph’s On The Park. J.D. is as nice as you expect that he would be, and New Orleans is … New Orleans. I don’t get down there often enough.

On Tuesday, I slept most of the day, fighting what at this point appears to be a losing battle against the flu. Who the heck gets the flu in April?! My kids do, and I’m thisclose to joining them. So, I apologize for the light posting. Let’s hope for a better day today.

I did see that the great Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles has written an endorsement, of sorts, of The Benedict Option, which he calls “the most talked-about religious book of 2017.” He concludes by saying:

So do we need the Benedict Option now? Yes, I would say. But we should also be deft enough in reading the signs of the times, and spiritually nimble enough to shift, when necessary, to a more open and engaging attitude.

This remark reminds me of this passage from G.K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis:

[I]t is true to say that what St. Benedict had stored St. Francis scattered; but in the world of spiritual things what had been stored into the barns like grain was scattered over the world as seed. The servants of God who had been a besieged garrison became a marching army; the ways of the world were filled as with thunder with the trampling of their feet and far ahead of that ever swelling host went a man singing; as simply he had sung that morning in the winter woods, where he walked alone.

Similarly, this passage from The Benedict Option, in which Marco Sermarini, standing in his olive grove, reflected:

“I know from the olive trees that some years we will have a big harvest, and other years we will take few,” he said. “The monks, when they brought agriculture to this place a thousand years ago, they taught our ancestors that there are times when we have to save seed. That’s why I think we have to walk on this road of Saint Benedict, in this Benedict Option. This is a season for saving the seed. If we don’t save the seed now, we won’t have a harvest in the years to come.”

The point, obviously, is that we are in a period of storing-up. As I keep saying, We cannot give what we do not have. Robert Wilken, the historian of the early church, says: 

Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.

My sense is that a failure — willful or otherwise — on the part of conservative Christians to comprehend the depths of the current crisis has a lot to do with their knee-jerk rejection of The Benedict Option, especially if they haven’t read it. It sounds like it even affected Alasdair MacIntyre, if this account is correct. Excerpt:

MacIntyre heartily criticized this movement during the Q&A after his lecture on “Common Goods, Frequent Evils” on March 27. The central point, MacIntyre emphasized, was that St. Benedict “inadvertently created a new set” of ways of life, when all he intended to do was found a monastic order. The monastery symbiotically supported the “education and liturgy” of the local villagers who provided them with postulants, over decades and centuries “build[ing] up a local community [largely] independent of the feudal order.”

Hence, despite the youthful St. Benedict’s flee from Rome to become a hermit, his mature work was “not a withdrawal from society into isolation,” but rather a “creation of a new set of social institutions which evolved.” The new St. Benedict whom we await must offer a “new kind of engagement with the social order now, not any kind of withdrawal from it.”

The Benedict Optionas people who have actually read it know, makes it clear that St. Benedict’s historic work had sociological effects secondary to his seeking the face of God as a monk. St. Benedict did not go to the forest to Make Rome Great Again; he only went out there to pray and to seek God, and to figure out how to serve Him under the post-imperial conditions in which he found himself. This is how it will have to be with us too.

As I’ve said over and over — but apparently cannot say often enough — we in the laity are not called to total withdrawal from the world, but only withdrawal sufficient to make possible Wilken’s “rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.” As Bishop Barron writes in his piece, the danger we face is that we seek to be so “relevant” to the culture outside the church that we lose what makes us distinct. If the church (by which I mean the people of God, broadly) is to produce the kind of men and women who will be able to go out into the world and convert it, and work for its redemption under God, then it will have to do what Prof. Wilken says it must do.

So, when George Weigel writes, critically:

Yet proponents of the Benedict Option would do well to rethink several things. To begin with, this so-called “Ben-Op,” at least as imagined by some, misreads the history of the second half of the first millennium. Yes, the monasteries along the Atlantic littoral helped preserve the civilizational patrimony of the West when public order in Western Europe broke down and the Norsemen wrought havoc along the Atlantic seaboard and beyond. But Monte Cassino, the great motherhouse of St. Benedict’s reforming spiritual movement, was never completely cut off from the life around it, and over the centuries it helped educate thinkers of the civilization-forming caliber of Thomas Aquinas.

… he’s revealing that he hasn’t actually read the book, because in the book, I write about the kind of life that lay Christians are called to lead now requires strategic withdrawal for the sake of culturing ourselves in Christianity, so when we go out into the world — where most of us are called to live — we can represent Christ authentically in a world where the pressures to abandon the faith are very strong. As Prof. Wilken says, this culture is no longer neutral about Christianity; it is positively opposed to it. A Christian who lives as if these are normal times is going to get steamrolled.

The Catholic blogger Dr. Jared Staudt does a real service in this piece of his titled, “Stop Misunderstanding The Benedict Option”. Excerpt:

I’ve heard so many people characterize the Benedict Option as: “We can’t just retreat, give up, or bury our heads in the sand.” Many people have equated the Benedict Option with disengagement and withdraw.

Here is the real basis of the Benedict Option:

  • Given the profound crisis of culture (which has affected the Church as well), we cannot look to mainstream institutions for our future.
  • Rather, we need to form intentional communities that more fully embody our Christian faith and in which we are willing to face the consequences of going against the stream.
  • It is from such institutions that real cultural change will occur.

Thus, the Benedict Option is all about being active and engaging the problems of society. It recognizes, however, that solutions will begin locally, in the relationships that we can influence. Rebuilding will begin there. Do we really think that our political, educational, and economic institutions will provide a secure future for the practice of our Christian faith?

Dr. Staudt goes on to explain why the particular model given to us by St. Benedict is well-suited to our time and place. He concludes:

I recommend actually reading Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, before forming opinions about it. The strength of the book comes from its description of the Benedictine ideal, primarily through the lens of the monks of Norcia, and from providing other concrete examples such as the Tipi Loschi lay community, also of Italy. The book certainly has its limits. It is a reflection, which should begin a conversation, and—even more that—a process of discernment. We all need to find our own particular way to respond to the crisis of our time. St. Benedict certainly provides an important, and we might even say crucial, witness on how to build a Christian culture, centered on what Pope Benedict described as quaerere Deum, the search for God.

Not everyone may be called to follow the [Benedict] Option, but at least don’t misunderstand it.

Read the whole thing. It’s a concise summary of the main thrust of the book. For Catholics who think everything is going pretty well with the next generation of the Catholic Church, allow the (Catholic) sociologist Christian Smith to disabuse you of that notion. Except for Mormons, and to some extent Evangelicals (but far fewer than you might imagine), no church in the broad Christian tradition is doing a good job of forming its youth into disciples.

At the J.D. Vance event the other night, someone said to me that he had read The Benedict Option twice, and though he doesn’t want to accept its conclusions (“I’m an optimist by temperament,” he said), he can’t find where my diagnosis is wrong. I’ve been thinking about that since I was in New Orleans. It is certainly true that some critics of the book dissent from it in good faith, but of course many do not. I am convinced that they refuse to see what’s in the book because if I’m right, then they will have to change their lives in ways that they don’t want to. Understand me clearly: I concede that I might be wrong! But if I am wrong, then show me where I am wrong; don’t satisfy yourself with endless griping about the book you think I have written, or by creating straw men that are easy to knock down.

UPDATE: Another good, explanatory piece by the Protestant scholar Scot McKnight.  One thing he says, though:

When I heard of this book and when I opened it I expected to read about Ave Maria University in Ave Maria FL, a community Kris and I wandered around one day. Not a word. Nor does it seem to me Dreher sees Ave Maria as what he’s on about. From my reading he imagines Christians remaining where they are but forming tighter fellowship with other like-minded Christians in their community. Unlike the Essenes of Qumran they are like the Pharisees of Galilee. (I know many see the word “Pharisee” and think “negative.” Forgive me, but I don’t. The Pharisees remained where they were and lived in their community according to their own rule of life, the Torah interpreted.)

I would have liked to have written about Ave Maria, and a number of other communities, but I simply didn’t have the time. I had hoped to have a couple of years to work on the book, but that’s not how the deadline worked. Rest assured that I am aware that there are plenty of communities I could have written about.

About the Pharisees, I appreciate McKnight’s point. The main problem with the Pharisees (from the perspective of the Gospels) is that they observed the outward form of the Law, but were inwardly corrupt. This is a problem that all of us, Christians and otherwise, can easily develop. The answer for Christians is not to say that we are to have no rule of life, but rather to make sure that our rule of life does not become an idol, but rather serves as a means of deepening our transformative relationship to Jesus Christ. Similarly, the Church is necessary to draw us to Christ, but if it becomes a destination (as opposed to a way), it turns into an idol.



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