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Cardinal Müller & The Benedict Option

He laments the 'dechristianization' of Europe, but dismisses -- wrongly -- the Ben Op as a catacombs strategy

An Italian friend reports that the influential Italian newspaper Il Foglio published today an interview with Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the German cardinal who was recently dismissed by Pope Francis as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal office. It’s an important position; one man who held the office previously was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who left when he was elected Pope Benedict XVI.

The interview is behind a paywall, but I have been sent the Italian text. I’ve run it through Google Translate, and cleaned the English up a bit, but beware that what follows could be mistaken inadvertently. I have pasted in the original Italian text below the jump.

Here’s the part of the article that’s relevant to our purposes here:

About the German Church: From there, in the last three years, the strongest winds of change have come, with Cardinal Marx saying in front of the microphones that “Rome can never tell us what to do or do in Germany”. But how is the situation today in that land?

“Dramatic,” says Müller, who for ten years was bishop of Regensburg before being called to Rome by Benedict XVI. “Active and actual participation is greatly diminished, even the transmission of faith as a theory, but as a meeting with living Jesus Christ has fallen. And so religious vocations. These are signs, factors from which we can see the situation of the Church. But it is the whole of Europe that is now experiencing a forced dechristianization process, far beyond simple secularization.

“It is” – says our interlocutor – “the dechristianization of the whole anthropological base, with the man defined strictly without God and without transcendence. Religion is experienced as a feeling, but not worshiping God as creator and savior. In this great picture, these factors are not good for the transmission of the lived Christian faith, and for this reason it is necessary not to lose our energies in internal struggles, in conflict with each other, with the so-called progressivists seeking revenge by hunting all so-called conservatives.

“If you think about it” – says Müller – “it gives an idea of ​​the Church as something strongly politicized. Our a priori is not being conservative or progressive. Our a priori is Jesus. Believing in the resurrection, ascension, or return of Christ on the last day is traditional or progressive faith? No, this is simply Truth. Our categories must be truth and justice, not categories that go in the spirit of time.”

The cardinal calls the current situation “serious” because “sacramental practice, vocal prayer, and private prayer have been reduced. All the elements of faith lived, of popular faith, have collapsed. And the drama is that you no longer feel the need for God, the sacred and visible word of Jesus. One lives as if God did not exist. Responding to all this is our great challenge. We are not propaganda agents of our own truths, but witnesses of saving truth. Not an idea of ​​faith, but of the reality of the presence of Christ in the world. ”

… Regarding dechristianization, we ask Cardinal Müller what he thinks of the “Benedict Option”, the theme launched years ago by writer Rod Dreher who speculates on a way to live as Christians within the un-Christianized West or, to put it to the former prefect For the Doctrine of the Faith, the de-Christianized West.

The essential thing to say, Müller explains, “is that Christians cannot return to the catacombs. The missionary dimension is fundamental to the Catholic Church. We can not avoid contemporary battles. Christ said that he did not come to the world to achieve superficial peace, but to challenge, so that Christians would gain the grace of living by following the way He indicated. And so we have to do it even when conditions, like today, are not favorable. “

I know, I know. If somebody knows how I can get a copy of The Benedict Option to Cardinal Müller personally, please write me privately at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com, and I will mail him one. He and I agree on the “dechristianization” diagnosis, but he shares a common misunderstanding of the Benedict Option.

As I have said many times — and as is clear in the book — the Benedict Option is not a “head for the hills” or “fly to the catacombs” exhortation. It is rather a book that calls on Christians to withdraw partially from living in the world (as if there were no differences between the life of the world and the life of the Church), for the sake of rebuilding ourselves spiritually (in prayer, contemplation, Bible study, and practices), so that we can live more faithfully and resiliently in the world as Christians.

This passage from The Benedict Option captures what I’m getting at. The speakers are monks of Norcia:

Saint Benedict commands his monks to be open to the outside world—to a point. Hospitality must be dispensed according to prudence, so that visitors are not allowed to do things that disrupt the monastery’s way of life. For example, at table, silence is kept by visitors and monks alike. As Brother Augustine put it, “If we let visitors upset the rhythm of our life too much, then we can’t really welcome anyone.” The monastery receives visitors constantly who have all kinds of problems and are seeking advice, help, or just someone to listen to them, and it’s important that the monks maintain the order needed to allow them to offer this kind of hospitality.
Rather than erring on the side of caution, though, Father Benedict believes Christians should be as open to the world as they can be without compromise. “I think too many Christians have decided that the world is bad and should be avoided as much as possible. Well, it’s hard to convert people if that’s your stance,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to help people to see their own goodness and then bring them in than to point out how bad they are and bring them in.”
The power of popular culture is so overwhelming that faithful orthodox Christians often feel the need to retreat behind defensive lines. But Brother Ignatius warned that Christians must not become so anxious and fearful that they cease to share the Good News, in word and deed, with a world held captive by hatred and darkness. It is prudent to draw reasonable boundaries, but we have to take care not to be like the unfaithful servant in the Parable of the Talents, who was punished by his master for his poor, fearful stewardship of the master’s property.
“The best defense is offense. You defend by attacking,” Brother Ignatius said. “Let’s attack by expanding God’s kingdom—first in our hearts, then in our own families, and then in the world. Yes, have to have borders, but our duty is not to let the borders stay there. We have to push outward, infinitely.”

We cannot give the world what we do not have. Cardinal Müller speaks bluntly about the collapse of the faith in Europe. How, exactly, does he propose for those who still believe to strengthen themselves in community so they can evangelize the world? This is what I don’t get about Christian, like Cardinal Müller, who concede that the Church is in a very bad way — even that we are in an emergency! — yet seem weirdly unwilling to do anything different than what we have been doing, and that has been at best a matter of managing decline.

The Benedict Option may not be the complete answer for the Church. But I prefer my flawed attempt to come up with something constructive to stop the bleeding and prepare us for very hard times to come, to the unwillingness of church leaders to do much more than stand there lamenting the rising tide of dechristianization.

Below is the Italian text of the interview.

UPDATE: To clarify, I can’t really expect a German cardinal to have an informed opinion on the Benedict Option, given that the book has not (yet) been published in Germany or in Italy, or anywhere else in Europe. Thinking about his clerical and lay American counterparts among US church leaders (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox), I very much want to know:

1. If The Benedict Option is too negative in its diagnosis, why are things with the Church not as bad as I say?

2. If you more or less agree with the book’s dire diagnosis regarding the state of Christianity in the US (and the West more generally), what do you propose to do about it, and why is that better than the Benedict Option?

Again, below is the Italian text of the relevant Il Foglio interview excerpt:

From Il Foglio:
A proposito di Chiesa tedesca: da lì, negli ultimi tre anni, sono giunti i venti più forti del cambiamento, con il cardinale Marx che diceva davanti ai microfoni che “Roma non potrà mai dirci cosa fare o non fare in Germania”. Ma com’è la situazione, oggi, in quella terra? “Drammatica”, dice subito Müller, che per dieci anni è stato vescovo di Ratisbona, prima di essere chiamato a Roma da Benedetto XVI. “La partecipazione activa e actuosa è molto diminuita, anche la trasmissione della fede non come teoria ma come incontro con Gesù Cristo vivo è calata. E così le vocazioni religiose. Questi sono segni, fattori da cui si vede la situazione della Chiesa. ma è tutta l’Europa che vive ormai un processo di decristianizzazione forzata, che va ben oltre la semplice secolarizzazione. E’ – dice il nostro interlocutore – la decristianizzazione di tutta la base antropologica, con l’uomo definito strettamente senza Dio e senza la trascendenza. La religione è vissuta come un sentimento, ma non come adorazione di Dio creatore e salvatore. In questo grande quadro, tali fattori non sono buoni per la trasmissione della fede cristiana vissuta e per questo è necessario non perdere le nostre energie in lotte interne, in scontri l’uno contro l’altro, con i cosiddetti progressisti che cercano la vittoria cacciando tutti i cosiddetti conservatori. Se si ragiona così – dice Müller – si dà un’idea della Chiesa come di qualcosa di fortemente politicizzato. Il nostro a priori non è l’essere conservatore o progressista. Il nostro a priori è Gesù. Credere nella resurrezione, nell’ascensione o nel ritorno di Cristo nell’ultimo giorno è fede tradizionalista o progressita? No, questa è semplicemente la Verità. Le nostre categorie devono essere la verità e la giustizia, non le categorie che vanno secondo lo spirito del tempo”.

Il cardinale definisce “grave” la situazione corrente, perché “si è ridotta la prassi sacramentale, l’orazione, la preghiera. Tutti gli elementi della fede vissuta, della fede popolare, sono crollati. E il dramma è che non si sente più il bisogno di Dio, della parola sacra e visibile di Gesù. Si vive come se Dio non esistesse. Rispondere a tutto ciò è la nostra grande sfida. Noi non siamo agenti propagandisti delle nostre proprie verità, bensì testimoni della verità salvifica. Non di un’idea della fede, ma della realtà vissuta della presenza di Cristo nel mondo”.

… A proposito di decristianizzazione, chiediamo al cardinale Müller che ne pensi dell’“Opzione Benedetto”, il tema lanciato anni fa dallo scrittore Rod Dreher che ipotizza un modo per vivere da cristiani dentro l’occidente scristianizzato o, per dirla con l’ex prefetto per la Dottrina della fede, decristianizzato. L’essenziale da dire, spiega Müller, “è che i cristiani non possono tornare nelle catacombe. La dimensione missionaria è fondamentale per la Chiesa cattolica. Non possiamo evitare le battaglie contemporanee. Cristo ha detto di non essere venuto al mondo per ottenere una pace superficiale, bensì per sfidare, affinché i cristiani conquistino la grazia di vivere seguendo la strada da Lui indicata. E così dobbiamo fare anche quando le condizioni, come oggi, non sono favorevoli”.