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Benedict Option & Christian Resilience

Area Man speaks at Orthodox Christian conference at Jordanville last weekend (Ancient Faith video screenshot)

More bad news for the US Catholic Church, via Gallup:

As the Catholic church responds to more allegations of sexual abuse of young people by priests, an increasing percentage of Catholics are re-examining their commitment to the religion. Thirty-seven percent of U.S. Catholics, up from 22% in 2002, say news of the abuse has led them to question whether they would remain in the church.

Actually I think the fact that despite everything, 62 percent of Catholics polled said they haven’t even thought about leaving the Catholic Church is pretty amazing. More:

Substantial minorities of both practicing and nonpracticing Catholics say they are questioning their commitment to the church — but, as might be expected, those less committed to their religion are more likely to be questioning it. Whereas 46% of Catholics who seldom or never attend church say they have questioned whether they would remain in the faith, 37% of those who attend church on a monthly basis and 22% who attend weekly say the same.

Not surprising that the more nominal Catholics are the ones thinking of falling away, but one in five weekly massgoers is not a small number.

Here’s something interesting from the survey:

Note the numbers for weekly massgoers. They have much less confidence in the US priesthood in general (versus in their own parish) and in the US bishops — but are still pretty confident in the pope.

I still maintain that Catholics — and all other Christians — who want to remain in church and who want their kids to remain in church will need to do some form of the Benedict Option.  These past few days of travel have made that even clearer to me.

I started out at a conference at the Russian Orthodox monastery in upstate New York. You can hear all the talks archived at Ancient Faith Radio. If you don’t have time for anybody else’s talk, I commend to you the one from Father John Parker, a longtime parish priest. In my own talk, I was able to give for the first time in the two years since my book was published a speech about the Ben Op written for an Orthodox audience. In it, I explained why, in Ben Op terms, I believe that Orthodox Christianity is the best equipped of all forms of Christianity to live the option out, and to produce a Christianity that is resilient in the face of liquid modernity.

(To be clear, I am not an Orthodox triumphalist, and in fact hate triumphalism; my Catholic triumphalism — something that’s my own fault, not the Catholic Church’s — had a lot to do with my own loss of faith in Catholicism. I am not going to make the same mistake again in Orthodoxy, though it is also the case that I believe Orthodox Christianity to be true, or at the very least more true than other forms. I think this is what any honest ecumenism has to face: the fact that Evangelicals wouldn’t be Evangelicals, nor Catholics Catholic, nor Orthodox Orthodox, if we didn’t believe that our own confessions were true. This unavoidably excludes to some extent the other truth claims. That said, I honestly believe that all of us small-o orthodox Christians need each other now, more than we ever did. None of us are going to get through this alone. None of us can lecture the others from a position of strength. God bless those who act on their calling to do intra-Christian apologetics. That’s not my calling. Having gotten stuck in my head as a Catholic, I have to fight hard not to do that as an Orthodox. I have to fight it every day. Don’t take my refusal to engage in apologetics as evidence that I lack faith. Aside from the fact that this blog is not an apologetics blog, I don’t have interest in apologetics or, perhaps more importantly, the credibility to engage in them.)

Anyway, I had to leave the conference immediately after my own talk, and did not get to hear Father Alexander Webster’s response. You can hear it online if you follow the link. It’s another one of those commentaries that makes me wonder if the critic actually read the book. Father Alexander says that “something other than the Benedict Option alone is required” for Christians to endure the dark times ahead. He says that without political protection, Christian communities will have a hard time surviving.

That’s a fair enough point, I guess, but in the book, I say clearly that Christians should fight hard in the political arena to preserve religious liberty. But power is not only something exercised by the government, and besides, Christians who can read the signs of the times would be fools not to prepare themselves now for a time when they will not enjoy freedom like we have today. Father Alexander appears to have overlooked the book’s overarching message, which is that modern culture itself is the greatest enemy of authentic Christianity. If we could somehow keep the current legal status quo on religious liberty, it would not do a single thing to arrest the steep decline in Christian faith and practice in this culture. 

Look at the Catholic numbers above. No government is forcing US Catholics to abandon their church. I assure you that the Orthodox, who have not been hit with sex abuse scandals as the Catholics have, are also suffering declines. Many of us Orthodox are also failing to pass the faith on to the next generation. At the conference this past weekend, a laywoman in the audience asked a question (one that was really more of a long comment) based on the idea that unnamed elites in the US have been conspiring to oppress us Orthodox. She will get no argument from me that cultural elites in the US are, by and large, opposed in meaningful and damaging ways to faith and tradition. But man, do I ever have little patience for the idea that we in the church aren’t heavily complicit in the unwinding of our faith.

We are also, incidentally, having the same internal conflicts within Orthodox academia and among the clergy, over sexual morality and theology, as other churches. There is no place to escape this stuff completely. Father Alexander said in his talk that we Orthodox in the US ought to look to Russia as our protector. Huh? What on earth is Russia, or any other nation, going to do for the Orthodox wedding photographer forced by law to close her business because she won’t photograph same-sex weddings? It’s a total fantasy. Anyway, even if Putin sent regiments of Cossacks to stand guard around Orthodox parishes, that wouldn’t do a thing to prevent internal decay. If we American Orthodox (and other Christian churches) can’t succeed in passing our faith along under conditions of freedom, what makes people confident that we would be able to do it better when there are serious costs to pay for being a believer?

We need our prophetic Solzhenitsyns for sure, but we also need the anonymous babushkas who keep the traditions and pass them on in families, and the unnamed fathers who pray with their families. Somebody told a story in a conversation I had at the conference, about growing up in a communist country — Bulgaria, I think, but I might have that wrong — and her parents being too terrified even to talk about the faith at home. But the children all saw their mother praying fervently, every day, and saw what a difference it made in her. And they all eventually converted — this, not because their mother went out onto the streets to take on the government, but because of the daily spiritual battle she fought in her own home.

I went down from New York to Miami to speak at a panel discussion about a new book, The Life Of Luigi Giussani, written by Alberto Savorana (who was on the panel). Monsignor Giussani was the founder of the international Catholic movement Communion And Liberation. I have friends in CL, and always love talking to them about the faith, though I confess that I have always found Giussani hard to read, because he can be sort of esoteric. But I learned surprising things about Monsignor Giussani (d. 2005) from the biography. From my talk:

I love what Monsignor Giussani had to say about the early Benedictines. According to Giussani, St. Benedict’s movement was “the testimony of people who didn’t live life as chaos, but lived according to an order. It is the testimony of a different way to share a life. Now the time has come, the same time as Benedict’s, because if we go any further downhill from here, we’re dead.”

Is it possible that Monsignor Giussani suggested the Benedict Option decades ago? I don’t want to make a claim as bold as that, but I do want to say how gratifying it was for me to read about Giussani’s recognition that St. Benedict’s spiritual creativity is directly relevant to us today.

Most of us lay Christians are not called to be monks, however. How can we make St. Benedict’s teachings relevant to our lives in the world? Reading Giussani has helped illuminate my own thinking about this question.

Giussani taught that we are at a point in history in which no one will be reasoned into believing in Christianity because of an appeal to tradition. This is not because Christianity is unreasonable. Rather, it is because people in our late modern civilization place no value on tradition. Modernity has trained us to believe that we are self-created beings. This is not true, but this is the mental condition of people today. We think we are liberated from the chains of the past, but it’s the freedom of the astronaut on a space walk, who slices through his air hose and declares himself free at last.

People today will only be converted by what Giussani called an “event” – that is, a meeting with Jesus through His followers, who have through grace become icons of him. Giussani says this is an encounter with “presence as a different humanity, a changed humanity, from which all the rest derives.” I want to briefly expand upon that. Pope Benedict XVI, who I consider to be the second Benedict of the Benedict Option, once said that the best arguments the Church has for the faith are not the syllogisms and the books of rational apologetics. No, the best arguments are the art that comes from the Church’s encounter with Christ, and the saints who have been radically changed by that encounter. That is to say, Beauty and Goodness made incarnate open the door inside our hearts and minds for the Truth.

Here, from the CL website (linked above), is a capsule description of Giussani’s method:

  • The event of an encounter: those who encounter the Movement are faced with an experience of life hailing back to the faith the Catholic Church has been handing down for centuries. This encounter, carried in the form of an event, generates an experience and correspondence humanly impossible to imagine.

  • Faithfulness to tradition: to educate, you must present an adequate account of the past. Without knowing the past, a young person has no reference point for comparison.

  • Authority: the past can only be proposed to young people if it is presented within an experience lived in the present that emphasizes its correspondence to the ultimate needs of the heart. This task is executed by an authority: a person who lives and proposes tradition with [awareness] and providing reasons for it.

  • Education to criticism and personal verification: a proposal conceived of in these terms must be personally verified, which means a person must compare the proposal with their own ultimate needs and most basic evidences. This comparison, which applies to the environment they live in and all of reality, is the only way not to end up alienated or conforming to the dominant culture.

  • Risk, a necessity for freedom: this comparison with the world around them opens young people up to the risk of choices and positions other than those taught by an educator. This risk is necessary and unavoidable for a person to truly mature and for freedom to be put fully into play.

In talking privately in Miami with author Savorana, Father José Medina (who heads up CL in the US), and lay members of CL, I learned some other things not only about Giussani, but about how to live more faithfully as an Orthodox Christian. We are simply not going to argue people into the faith, not today. (Reading in the book about the trauma of 1968 for Giussani and the Catholic Church in Italy really was illuminating.) Giussani’s take on faith and culture was helpful to me as an Orthodox Christian, in understanding why it is so important to incarnate the faith in our daily lives.

I met three members of Memores Domini, which is an association of lay consecrated CL members who live in single-sex group houses, and who work at normal vocations in the world. One of them asked me if it was true that the Benedict Option told Christians to run away from the world, as he had heard. No, no! I said. I explained that it takes for granted that lay Christians will be present in the world to a certain degree (though certainly less than before). But if we are going to be faithfully present in the world, then we will have to live with far more spiritual discipline in our private, family, and parish lives than most of us do.

He said that sounds a lot like what Memores Domini members do. Then he explained the structure of their Christian life together. He’s right.

So: both the Orthodox conference and the Miami CL meeting gave me inspiration for living the Benedict Option more faithfully in my own life (and parish), and for thinking of ways that we Christians following these different pilgrim paths can help each other while remaining faithful to our own traditions and confessions. To be specific, I find myself wondering if it’s possible and desirable to borrow from CL’s “School of Community” method and make it work within an Orthodox Christian parish context. See, this is the kind of positive cross-fertilization that I hope for with the Benedict Option at its best.

Nobody in this world — no pope, no patriarch, no secular protector — is going to swoop in and save us Christians from modernity. We have to do this ourselves, by the grace of God. If the problem were chiefly political, the answer would be better politicians. If the problem were chiefly ecclesiastical, the answer would be better bishops, priests, evangelists and pastors. We do need better politicians, and we do need better bishops, priests, evangelists and pastors. But more than anything, we need personal conversion, greater spiritual discipline, and the renewal of Christian culture. That’s what I propose in The Benedict Option — which celebrates its second anniversary of publication tomorrow, March 14, the Feast of St. Benedict in the Orthodox Church.

Funny story: nobody at Sentinel, the book’s publisher, had any idea that was St. Benedict’s feast day when they set that date for the book’s publication. It just kind of happened that way. Just kind of happened. Heh.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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