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Boundaries and the Benedict Option

Why we can't all just get along: a response to Gerald Schlabach

Prof. Gerald Schlabach, a Catholic convert and Benedictine oblate, has published a critique of the Benedict Option in Commonweal. I’m grateful for his attention to my ideas, and I will respond to his article between quoting sections of it. He writes:

There is no doubt, however, that many who currently advocate for the Benedict Option do envision precisely this kind of retreat. What’s troubling about such advocacy is that too often it overlooks what is most Benedictine about the Benedict Option, and not, in fact, optional at all: the imperative of all Catholics to stay together, both in global communion and in face-to-face relationships, even when those relationships are hard.

This is his basic line: that Catholics should stick together no matter what, because that’s the Benedictine thing to do. Nowhere, though, does Schlabach address an obvious question: what does one do when one’s parish (or school, or other Catholic community) teaches or practices something seriously contrary to the Catholic faith, as authoritatively proclaimed by the Church’s Magisterium? (Christians from the Orthodox and Protestant traditions face their own versions of the same question.)

Buried in Schlabach’s position is the assumption that being a member of the religious community is the ultimate goal of the Christian life. If that were true, it wouldn’t matter what one believed, as long as one stayed in community. But if one believes that the purpose of the Christian life is to grow in holiness, and to do so in community, then one has to know when the community no longer promotes holiness, but something else. And one has to know when the gap between holiness and what is taught and practiced in one’s local parish (or other community) is so great that one has to break communion.

Let’s say, for example, that you are a white Christian attending a church in the Deep South during the Civil Rights years. The pastor routinely delivers sermons defending white supremacy and denouncing “outside agitators” spreading a heretical “social gospel,” (that is, Christians from outside the South working for civil rights). Most of the congregation agrees with the pastor. But you do not. You deeply do not. You have told your children not to take what their pastor says seriously, that he is wrong about racial matters. Nevertheless, it is clear to you that the pastor is not going to stop, and that he really does speak for the sense of the congregation.

What do you do? If you are a Catholic, and this was a Catholic parish, you might be able to find another parish where this kind of preaching didn’t go on. You would be obliged by the church’s teaching, though, to go to mass. In the end, if you could not find another parish, you might have to suffer through the pastor’s immoral teaching, if only to satisfy your Sunday obligation. You would take what comfort you could in knowing that Christ is really present in the Eucharist. That might be a solution, but it would exact a tremendous cost on you and your family. You would be a member of that community only formally.

If you were a Protestant under this scenario, you would probably leave that congregation. If all the Protestant congregations in town were preaching white supremacy, you would be justified, I would think, in not worshiping with them on Sunday, but instead doing some form of worship at home with your family. That’s what I would do if I were a Protestant under those circumstances. Teaching racial supremacy as a Gospel value, especially in a place like the Jim Crow South, is such a profound and wicked violation of authentic Christian teaching that I could not in good conscience dignify it with my presence, nor could I have it taught as truth to my children by religious authorities. I think it is that important. Don’t you?

Now, there are other issues that are so fundamental that to treat them as if belief in them were optional for Christians is impossible. I would hope that all Christians reading this can agree that the case in the United Church in Canada right now, in which an atheist pastor is trying to keep her pulpit, in the name of inclusion and diversity, is absurd. Denying the existence of God and/or the divinity of Jesus Christ ought to be a deal-breaker for Christians when it comes to their pastors. If not, then you are in no way worshiping Jesus, but rather you have made an idol of the community.

Take the principle of the atheist pastor and work back from that. If you concede that a parish or congregation has a right and even an obligation to dismiss a pastor who denies something so fundamental to the faith as the existence of God, then you have drawn a line laying out the bounds of the community. All communities built around ideas have boundaries. They have to, to know who they are. If you do not believe in Jesus Christ, you are not a Christian. That’s an easy one. There really are differences in belief that ought to be tolerated for the sake of charity, but to believe that there is nothing that should cause one to break with a congregation, or to support expelling others from the congregation, is untenable.

Here’s something happening right now in a Catholic parish in Providence, RI, that illustrates this dilemma. Michael Templeton, the music director in the church, is a gay man who formally married his partner in a civil ceremony. The pastor of the parish dismissed him from his job as music director. Excerpt from the (ridiculously biased) story in the Providence Journal:

Glen Beattie, who came to St. Mary’s in 2008, waved goodbye to the altar Sunday as he headed out the door. “Bye church,” he said, sadly. If Templeton isn’t welcome, Beattie, also a gay man, doesn’t feel safe, either.

Templeton, 38, echoed this idea in an interview last week. He grew up Catholic, and has been in music ministry since he was a teenager. He’s dedicated his life to translating Scripture into song, he said.

“This is about a real statement on who is welcome and who is not,” Templeton said. “About who should feel safe and who shouldn’t.”

Templeton’s firing comes after Pope Francis released Amoris Laetitia, or “The Joy of Love,” which outlined a different path for the Church. Instead of casting out people that haven’t strictly aligned themselves with the Church’s belief system, Catholics should invite them in.

Bishop Tobin has taken a different approach. On Friday, he issued a statement saying he had “no choice” but to dismiss Templeton.

“Any person who holds a ministerial position in the Church, as an employee or a volunteer, is expected to live in a way that is fully consistent with the teachings and faith of the Church,” Bishop Tobin wrote. “If an individual deliberately and knowingly enters into a relationship or engages in activity that contradicts the core teachings of the Church, that individual leaves the Church no choice but to respond.”

Many St. Mary’s parishioners don’t agree. One woman, who has been attending church there for 40 years but did not want to give her name, said she’s thinking of leaving the religion altogether.

“This isn’t right,” she said with tears in her eyes. “This isn’t what being a Christian is.”

There is a very important issue at stake in this controversy — something important to both orthodox and progressive Catholics in the congregation. Bishop Tobin does not say that Michael Templeton is unwelcome in the church. He is saying that Templeton cannot serve as a lay minister within the church if he chooses to publicly defy Catholic teaching in such a significant way. The weeping woman quoted at the end has a very different idea of what being a faithful Catholic means — so much so that she may leave not only the parish, but Catholicism altogether over it.

Is Prof. Schlabach willing to tell Templeton and his supporters to suck it up and stay in that parish? Maybe he would. But for them, this would be a huge sacrifice, it seems to me. Yet  orthodox Catholics in the parish would conceivably also be making a big sacrifice if the church’s leadership saw it as a matter of indifference to allow someone who publicly denied the Church’s teaching on such a core issue to remain in a position of authority in the parish. And the orthodox Catholics have Catholic teaching on their side, regarding the moral and theological gravity of Templeton’s choice.

The point is simply this: one way or another, people within that congregation would have to make a big sacrifice to remain part of it. Both believe that the situation with Templeton embodies a core Christian truth, one that is not optional. The Roman Catholic Church also has a means of determining what truth is regarding this matter. The application of it to a particular situation is a matter of discretion, certainly, but the truth of the thing is not up for debate. Not for Catholics, anyway. Those who do believe that the Church’s teaching on this matter is wrong, or at least optional, are, in the eyes of orthodox Catholics, substituting a lie for the truth, and leading people away from holiness. And those progressive Catholics who believe otherwise, like the weeping lady, no doubt believe the same. One side or the other is going to have to accept what they see as a grave injustice to stay in that congregation.

Should they do so? Perhaps. But it’s a big deal, and it’s the kind of thing Schlabach does not address. The Benedict Option, broadly speaking, is for Christians (Catholic and otherwise) who see Christian orthodoxy besieged on a number of fronts, and who want to live out a communal life with other Christians who agree on fundamental beliefs, and who want to live them out together.

More Schlabach:

Interestingly, MacIntyrian localism has not aligned neatly with standard left/right polarities. Yes, some Catholics and former Catholics such as Dreher (who was raised as a Methodist and converted to Catholicism before finally joining the Orthodox Church) promote the Benedict Option out of dismay over issues such as same-sex marriage or alleged federal encroachments through Obamacare. Yet among the first and most prominent voices citing MacIntyre’s call were Catholic students of the Methodist ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, who were animated by a left-leaning critique of war, militarism, and American empire. From that circle emerged one of the most notable examples of groups prompted by MacIntyre and inspired by St. Benedict in fresh ways, the New Monasticism movement among young Evangelicals. When Dreher asked one of its leaders, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, what others can learn from the patron of historic monasticism in the West, Wilson-Hartgrove bluntly replied that “Benedict saved me from the Religious Right.”

Well, yeah, and bless them. I admire and respect the radicalism of what the New Monastics are trying to do regarding community life, and thought about whether or not I should include them under the Benedict Option umbrella, for purposes of writing my book. I have benefitted in particular for Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book on stability. I decided in the end not to write about them in the book not out of disrespect, but because it seemed to me that they do not have a commitment to Christian orthodoxy as I understand it, and as the people I’m trying to reach with the Ben Op book understand it. I recommend that you take a look at the dialogue JWH and I had about this issue. 

Prof. Schlabach has argued for same-sex marriage.  That puts him outside of Catholic orthodoxy, and Christian orthodoxy. And this is not an issue on which we can agree to disagree as a matter of ecclesial discipline. Certainly we can agree to disagree and still remain friends. I’d say that at least half of my friends support same-sex marriage, and I love them no less for that. I hope they feel the same way about me. But as a matter of what is taught within the community of the Church, this is a bright, clear line, though not the only one (abortion is another, and so too, in my view, is racism).

More Schlabach:

In any case, the question of whether the Benedict Option necessarily entails a retreat from public matters depends not so much on what we are leaving or resisting in doing so as on what we do once we go deeper into our locales.

Right. As will be perfectly clear when The Benedict Option is published next year, I do not argue that orthodox Christians should withdraw entirely from public life. I do argue, however, that we should, as MacIntyre counsels, “[turn] aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and [cease] to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.” What we should do instead is focus on “the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life [can] be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.”

This requires not just some form of withdrawal from the mainstream — as the New Monastics are doing in their own way. It also requires going towards something good. And it requires sharing the goods we find in our own community with the rest of the world, insofar as we can do that without compromising the integrity of our faith. I have no problem at all with Ben Op Christians running for public office or otherwise being engaged with the wider community. My contention is that it is more important to focus on building up the local Christian community — but that is merely a matter of priorities. The Benedictine monk doesn’t turn his back entirely on the outside community. He couldn’t do so without violating the Rule of St. Benedict‘s command to show hospitality to visitors and pilgrims. But he can only show true hospitality to the visitor if he has made a priority of prayer and communal life according to the Rule. In other words, Benedictine hospitality is not the point of the Rule, but flows naturally from the virtues inculcated by the practices of Benedictine community life — practices that can only be carried out in relative isolation from the world.

Schlabach builds his essay around the Benedictine vow of “stability” — that is, the mandate that when a monk makes his final profession and becomes a Benedictine, he is bound to remain a part of that same monastery’s community until the day he dies, barring exceptional circumstances. Schlabach says:

What makes Benedictines unique among religious orders is precisely this vow of stability and the practices it entails for monks as they commit to living the rest of their lives in one place, within one community. Whatever other spiritual practices they may have developed (liturgy of hours, lectio divina) or borrowed (Ignatian self-examination), monks in this tradition embrace community life itself as the most basic of their spiritual disciplines. Continuing to live together with people whom one cannot simply “unfriend” exposes self-deceptions and wears off uncharitable rough edges like nothing else.

This is true, and I have been told the same things by the monks I interviewed. However — and this is a crucial point — I suspect it would be unthinkable (at least for the Norcia monks) to keep in community a monk who openly and persistently denied Catholic teaching, and/or the Church’s teaching authority. Chapter 23 of the Rule prescribes excommunication (being prohibited from receiving communion) for lesser faults:

If a brother is found to be obstinate,
or disobedient, or proud, or murmuring,
or habitually transgressing the Holy Rule in any point
and contemptuous of the orders of his seniors,
the latter shall admonish him secretly a first and a second time,
as Our Lord commands (Matt. 18:15).
If he fails to amend,
let him be given a public rebuke in front of the whole community.
But if even then he does not reform,
let him be placed under excommunication,
provided that he understands the seriousness of that penalty;
if he is perverse, however,
let him undergo corporal punishment.

For heavier faults (Chapter 25):

Let the brother who is guilty of a weightier fault
be excluded both from the table and from the oratory.
Let none of the brethren join him
either for company or for conversation.
Let him be alone at the work assigned him,
abiding in penitential sorrow
and pondering that terrible sentence of the Apostle
where he says that a man of that kind is handed over
for the destruction of the flesh,
that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Cor. 5:5).
Let him take his meals alone
in the measure and at the hour
which the Abbot shall consider suitable for him.
He shall not be blessed by those who pass by,
nor shall the food that is given him be blessed.

If, after all these attempts at correction, a monk persists in the error, the Rule is unsparing:

But if he is not healed even in this way,
then let the Abbot use the knife of amputation,
according to the Apostle’s words,
“Expel the evil one from your midst” (1 Cor. 5:13),
and again,
“If the faithless one departs, let him depart” (1 Cor. 7:15)
lest one diseased sheep contaminate the whole flock.

“Stability,” then, is not an absolute value in the Benedictine life. The Rule advises progressively stronger measures to deal with someone obstinate, and also advises the abbot to be quick to receive back a penitent. But if someone persists in error, he must be disfellowshipped, because to do otherwise would sow disorder and disease within the entire community. Does the professor know better than St. Benedict himself?


Unlike participating in other forms of Christianity, being Catholic necessitates a refusal to leave in protest when the going gets tough, or to start a new church, or to shop around for another identity, or to bandy about threats of schism. In this sense, to leave Catholicism in favor of another high-church communion such as the Eastern Orthodox is fundamentally a Protestant act.

Well. I am going to assume in charity that Prof. Schlabach is being unintentionally snotty here because he does not know the circumstances surrounding my departure from Catholicism. If he cares to inform himself, he could start here.  I left Catholicism not because I was protesting anything, or seeking another identity, but because after a long period of spiritual agony over the abuse scandal, I found that I had lost my ability to believe in Catholic Christianity. As I have said in this space many times, that was the most painful experience of my life, even more painful than losing my sister and my father. I would not have chosen it for anything. That said, let me suggest that my decision to leave Catholicism when I could no longer affirm that everything the Roman Catholic Church taught was true shows a greater respect for the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church than that of someone who rejects that authority when it conflicts with what he prefers to believe, yet continues to teach theology and Christian ethics at a Catholic university. 

More Schlabach:

Lacking this imperative [staying together no matter what], the option of resolving church conflicts by departing from communion becomes all too tempting. Yet that is precisely what appears to be happening when Dreher cites concrete examples of families and communities embracing the Benedict Option not only because they are disillusioned with American culture, but because they are disappointed with the Catholic Church in America.

Wait, what? If faithful orthodox Catholics feel the need to establish Benedict Option communities in whatever form to help them live more faithfully Catholic lives in communion with the Catholic Church, what’s wrong with that?

Schlabach suggests that if liberal and conservative Catholics were more tolerant of each other, they could learn to work together, and maybe quit thinking of themselves as liberals or conservatives. That’s a nice thought, but it applies political reasoning to theology and morality. Politics is the art of managing the common life of a community. Politics in any community depends on shared agreement on basic principles. Liberal democratic politics are by nature flexible, because they accept the individual as the basic political unit, and focus primarily on establishing procedures for allowing the community to govern itself while maintaining respect for individual liberty. You become an American by virtue of your birth, or if you are a naturalized citizen. There is nothing you can do to lose your American citizenship, aside from renouncing it. It is an essentially different thing than membership in the church.

Christianity is a revealed religion. It proclaims non-negotiable truths, first principles that must be affirmed for membership in the community. Where the line gets drawn depends on your denomination, but no Christian church can say that everything is up for grabs, or that truth is determined solely by the majority vote of the congregation. There may be a Protestant church that operates that way, but to the best of my knowledge, even the more liberal churches affirm that there are some truths that are non-negotiable, at least in principle. In the Order of St. Benedict, as we have seen, there is a mandate to expel persisently heretical or persistently disobedient monks from the monastery. Some churches have procedures that exclude people from the church entirely, but normally, excommunication only means that Church authorities have declared that a particular sinner is barred from receiving communion until and unless he repents.

My point simply is that it is untenable to think that churches can be run as secular political organizations. You can’t say that pro-choice Christians can say that abortion is morally permissible because the fetus is not a human being while pro-life Christians hold that abortion is a grave offense involving the taking of a human life — and the two sides can resolve their differences by concluding either a) that they should meet halfway, and agree that abortion is wrong only some of the time, or b) that abortion is a matter on which Christians can agree to disagree, because it’s not ultimately that important. In secular liberal democratic politics, people within a polity tend to find a way to split the difference to accommodate everyone. Churches can’t operate that way, because their telos is fundamentally different. The only way that principle could be said to apply to a church is if the telos of the church was not to proclaim the truth and disciple the congregation in living that truth out, but rather to keep the congregation together for its own sake.

For Catholic Christians, at least, there is a way to resolve these differences: by seeing what the Roman Catholic Church has authoritatively taught based on its magisterial interpretation of Scripture. This is essential to what it means to be a Catholic. To say that moral truth is determined by the individual Christian is, well, Protestant, or if not Protestant (because many Protestants deny this), at least not Catholic. It shouldn’t have to be necessary to explain this to a trained Catholic theologian, but we live in interesting times.

And so we return to MacIntyre’s basic observation: that in modernity, we have fewer and fewer shared sources of authority to which we can appeal to resolve our differences. I don’t know enough about the various Protestant traditions to say, but one great advantage of Roman Catholicism over Protestantism, at least in theory, is that Rome settles doctrinal conflicts authoritatively. Based on my reading of his Commonweal article, Prof. Schlabach does not recognize Rome’s authority except in an advisory capacity to the individual, which is no real authority at all.

That may well be an unfair judgment on my part, in which case I invite correction. It really is a difficult and complex question, trying to figure out how far one can go in disagreeing with Church teaching and practice without violating the boundaries of what one must believe to be a Catholic (or, more broadly, a Christian). There is a tension there that can be creative and constructive.

But a tension there is, and the boundaries can only be stretched so far. Take the example of St. Dismas parish and school in this anonymous piece from First Things. I happen to know who the author is, and the name of the actual parish and school that he’s talking about. Read it, and tell me how on earth that parish and its pastor, and that school, have anything but the faintest thing to do with Roman Catholicism. The Benedict Option is for people like the author of that essay, who believe in what the Roman Catholic church teaches, and who want to live authentically Catholic lives, and want and need other Catholics, and Catholic families, to share that pilgrimage of faith with them. They’re not going to find it at St. Dismas. And there are small-o orthodox Christian in every faith tradition who find themselves in similar situations.

I appreciate the opportunity to have these conversations in public. These issues are important, though I look forward to being able to discuss them when the book is published, so the fullest expression of my thinking about the Ben Op is available for public scrutiny. It is irresponsible to say, “Peace, peace” where there is no peace. There should not be any reason for people to feel the need to take the Benedict Option within their own religious tradition. But that is not the world we live in, and we ignore the facts at our own spiritual peril — and our children’s.