Benedict Option, Augustine Option
I have a friend of many years, a man committed to his wife and family, well-educated and very Catholic, whose son attended West Point. Over the years he’s taken great pride in his son, and in the ideals of the military academy. He’s still proud of his son. And he still admires the legacy of West Point.
But he would never send another child to a service academy. He simply doesn’t believe that America, as it currently stands, is the same country he once loved. And, in his words, it’s not worth risking a son or a daughter to fight for it. The America he sees now—an America of abortion, confused sex, language police, entitlements, consumer and corporate greed, clownish politics, and government bullying of religious groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor—is different in kind, not merely in degree, from the nation he thought he knew. It’s no longer a country he considers his own. And keep in mind that this is a man of the cultural right, where support for the military has typically been strong.
Now those are harsh feelings. But I do understand them.
Me too. More:
Sexual confusion isn’t unique to our age, but the scope of it is. No society can sustain itself for long if marriage and the family fall apart on a mass scale. And that’s exactly what’s happening as we gather here today. The Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision approving same-sex marriage last June was a legal disaster. But it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It fits very comfortably with trends in our culture that go back many decades, even before the 1960s. It’s useful to read or reread Wilhelm Reich’s book from 1936, The Sexual Revolution. Reich argues that a real revolution can only be made at the level of sexual freedom. And it needs to begin by wiping away institutions like marriage, family and traditional sexual morality.
What’s interesting about Reich’s work is that, 80 years ago, he saw the United States as the most promising place for that kind of revolution, despite its Puritan history. The reason is simple. Americans have a deep streak of individualism, a distrust of authority and a big appetite for self-invention. As religion loses its hold on people’s behavior, all of these instincts accelerate. The trouble is that once the genie is out of the bottle, sexual freedom goes in directions and takes on shapes that nobody imagined. And ultimately it leads to questions about who a person is and what it means to be human.
There’s a lot of talk in Christian circles today about the need to protect believing families from a flawed culture that often seems to be getting worse. And the talk frequently turns to a thing called the “Benedict Option.” It’s an idea worth explaining. Benedict of Nursia was a sixth century Italian saint and the founder of Western monasticism. The son of a Roman nobleman, he left Rome as a young man for the peace of the countryside. He eventually founded 12 religious communities that grew into the worldwide Benedictine Order of monks we have today. So the core of a modern “Benedict Option” involves finding a way to preserve people from the most dysfunctional elements of the secular world—either by building new communities or withdrawing mentally, or even physically, from the public culture around us.
It’s a compelling idea. Critics don’t do it justice if they write it off as a form of escapism. But for me as a bishop—and I’ve heard this from many other believers—I think an even better model is St. Augustine, who led the fifth century Church in the North African city of Hippo Regius. Augustine lived and worked in the thick of his people. As a bishop, he engaged the problems of the society around him every day—even as the Roman world fell apart, and his own city came under siege.
I think we need to think and act in the same way Augustine did. Our task as believers, whatever our religious tradition, is to witness our love for God and for each other in the time and place God puts us. That means we have duties—first to the City of God, but also to the City of Man.
I appreciate the Archbishop’s kind words about the Ben Op. I know this won’t be clear to people until I publish the book, but I want to say that the Benedict Option is not really about actual, physical withdrawal (though it could entail that), but about learning how to live as orthodox Christians, resiliently, in an anti-Christian culture. Living as orthodox Christians has to mean caring for the common good; after all, the Lord told the captive Israelites, through the Prophet Jeremiah, to “pray for the peace of the city” — Babylon — because if the city prospers, so will they. This is what the Tipiloschi, a Ben Op community in Italy, do. But the Tipiloschi are keenly aware that the only way they can be of authentically Christian service to the wider community is by first deepening and strengthening their own particular community in its Catholic faith and practice.
To me, that is the Benedict Option at its best. I think it entails what Archbishop Chaput is talking about when he mentions Augustine. I chose “Benedict” for several reasons: 1) because I endorse Alasdair MacIntyre’s view of the roots of our crisis, and he said we are looking for a new, quite different St. Benedict; 2) because the Rule of St. Benedict is full of practical instructions for how to live and to thrive as a Christian community; and 3) because the fidelity of the Benedictines, over time, did serve those outside the monasteries, and ultimately laid the groundwork for the rebirth of civilization in western Europe.
Those early Benedictines are an example of what Pope Benedict XVI called a “creative minority.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks devoted his 2013 Erasmus Lecture to the idea of creative minorities. Excerpts:
So you can be a minority, living in a country whose religion, culture, and legal system are not your own, and yet sustain your identity, live your faith, and contribute to the common good, exactly as Jeremiah said. It isn’t easy. It demands a complex finessing of identities. It involves a willingness to live in a state of cognitive dissonance. It isn’t for the fainthearted. But it is creative.
Fast forward twenty-six centuries from Jeremiah to May 13, 2004, to a lecture on the Christian roots of Europe by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI. There he confronted the phenomenon of a deeply secularized Europe, more so perhaps than at any time since the conversion of Constantine in the third century.
That loss of faith, Ratzinger argued, had brought with it three other kinds of loss: a loss of European identity, a loss of moral foundations, and a loss of faith in posterity, evident in the falling birthrates that he described as “a strange lack of desire for the future.” The closest analogue to today’s Europe, he said, was the Roman Empire on the brink of its decline and fall. Though he did not use these words, he implied that when a civilization loses faith in God, it ultimately loses faith in itself.
What if at least one creative minority had long ago seen what Toynbee and other historians would eventually realize? What if they had witnessed the decline and fall of the first great civilizations: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Assyria? What if they had seen how dominant minorities treat the masses, the proletariat, turning them into forced labor and conscripted armies so that rulers could be heroes in expansionist wars, immortalized in monumental buildings? What if they saw all of this as a profound insult to human dignity and a betrayal of the human condition?
What if they saw religion time and again enlisted to give heavenly sanction to purely human hierarchies? What if they knew that truth and power have nothing to do with one another and that you do not need to rule the world to bring truth into the world? What if they had realized that once you seek to create a universal state you have already begun down a road from which there is no escape, a process that ends in disintegration and decline? What if they were convinced that in the long run, the real battle is spiritual, not political or military, and that in this battle influence matters more than power?
What if they believed they had heard God calling on them to be a creative minority that never sought to become a dominant minority, that never sought to become a universal state, nor even in the conventional sense a universal church? What if they believed that God is universal but that love—all love, even God’s love—is irreducibly particular? What if they were convinced that the God who created biodiversity cares for human diversity? What if they had seen the great empires conquer smaller nations, and impose their culture on them, and had been profoundly disturbed by this, as we today are disturbed when an animal species is driven to extinction by human exploitation and carelessness?
What if these insights led a figure like Jeremiah to reconceptualize the entire phenomenon of defeat and exile? The Israelites had betrayed their mission by becoming obsessed with politics at the cost of moral and spiritual integrity. So taught all the prophets from Moses to Malachi. Every time you try to be like your neighbors, they said, you will be defeated by your neighbors. Every time you worship power, you will be defeated by power. Every time you seek to dominate, you will be dominated. For you, says God, are my witnesses to the world that there is nothing sacred about power or holy about empires and imperialism.
Read the whole thing. Christians of the small-o orthodox kind are now minorities in this country, and will increasingly be so. The American Empire, by which I mean the American idea, is falling. Maybe this is something to be mourned, maybe not. But it’s happening, and it’s happening largely because we have turned our back on the God of the Bible, and instead turned to the worship of Self, and power. Just as the Jews in Babylonian captivity could only serve themselves and the wider community by being faithful Jews (as opposed to assimilated ones), so too can orthodox Christians in our time only serve the West by being authentically and uncompromisingly Christian. Our assimilation into mass consumerism, individualism, and hedonism destroys that possibility. Destroys it.
I would say, then, that if we are going to be good Augustines, we first have to be good Benedicts: willing to turn inward in our thought and practices so that when we turn outward to the world, they will see the face of Christ instead of a mirror. There is no other realistic option. Not if you want your children and your children’s children to remain Christian.