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Benedict Option: The Only Option

Reader Bill Tighe e-mails this piece from the Catholic trad site One Peter Five. The author is Brendan Buckley, a Naval officer. He writes:

Since its publication in 2017, many of my Catholic friends have criticized Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option: “It’s too pessimistic. Christians shouldn’t run for the hills. Besides, the culture isn’t in decline. We just elected a pro-life president.” These were some of the common responses I would get after sharing my enthusiastic thoughts on the bestseller. However, just three years later in 2020, it seems that the Benedict Option has become the only option for the survival of our faith in the 21st century. The faithful have not found staunch leadership at the highest levels of the Church hierarchy willing to brace the Church’s gates against the battering ram of our rotten culture. With the help of holy priests willing to teach in an orthodox manner, lay Catholics must take up a large part of passing on the Faith to future generations themselves.

Buckley talks about the unwillingness of many priests and bishops to take a stand for unpopular truths, and about how cancel culture has been coming for faithful Catholics. More:

Additionally, in some Catholic parishes and dioceses, laity now hear sermons and messages that sound more like “woke” social justice “morality” than the teachings of the Holy Catholic Church and Our Lord. This is even happening at the highest levels of the Church. Consider that the Vatican itself praised Black Lives Matter as a nonviolent organization while criticizing priests who resisted closing their church doors for COVID-19 as “adolescents”. None of this can be reconciled with the Catholic faith. A brief glimpse at the “What We Believe” section of the Black Lives Matter website proves instantly that it does not align with Catholicism in any way. It is in fact explicitly Marxist, a fact the group’s founder recently and proudly admitted in a live interview. And perhaps the “adolescent” priests who criticized church closures really believe what they preach: that the sacraments are essential to our eternal salvation and are more “essential” than any business.

Buckley, a Latin mass Catholic, goes on:

For Catholics who haven’t already, it is time to implement the Benedict Option. When barbarians sacked Rome, Saint Benedict kept the flame of orthodox Christian discipline alive in the hills of Italy. In cities and towns in which they are available, Latin Mass parishes offer Catholics many ways carry this flame. If the United States and Western Europe fall to the “woke” barbarians of 2020 and beyond, we need to prepare our families and ourselves for what is to come.

Amen, brother. Read it all.

I cannot emphasize Buckley’s message too strongly. In the Ben Op follow-up, Live Not By Lies (to be published on 9/29), I tell the story of Father Tomislav Kolakovic, a visionary priest who, in 1943, saw totalitarianism coming to Czechoslovakia, where he served, and organized underground networks of faithful Catholics. Five years later, when the communist seized dictatorial powers, Father Kolakovic’s network became the backbone of the underground church in the Slovak region. Regular readers have seen me mention his name a lot here, but I bring it up again in this context because this blog tends to get readers whose first introduction to it is particular posts.

Father Kolakovic’s example is important in context of Buckley’s comments in part because when he first started sounding the alarm about the coming totalitarianism, and organizing the laity, some in the Slovak church establishment looked at him askance. They thought that it was dangerous for Father Kolakovic to be trusting so much in the laity. Father Kolakovic, though, knew that when the communists took over, they were going to try to crush Christianity by subduing the clergy. That is exactly what happened. A well-formed, spiritually disciplined laity, accompanied by clergy who had not been compromised, and who were willing to suffer, kept the faith alive under persecution.

Slovak historian Blanka Kudlacova has recently written an academic paper about the role of the Catholic Church in Communist Czechoslovakia. She writes:

According to Jakubčin, “The Church was the only legally operated institution in Communist Czechoslovakia, the worldview of which was not identical with the official state ideology of Marxism-Leninism, moreover, it defied it.” That was the reason why representatives of the state power devoted great attention to the Church and its activities and wanted to break the impact of the Church on society.

Kudlacova, who teaches in the department of education at Trnava University, writes that the Marxist government flooded the zone with communist propaganda aimed at the country’s youth.

One of the religious groups that went ‘underground’ after 1948 was the community Family [orig. Rodina]. The community was formed in Bratislava in 1943 and its founder was the Croatian Jesuit Tomislav Kolakovič (1906- 1999), who came to Slovakia in this particular year33. Kolakovič, having good knowledge of Soviet politics, presupposed establishment of a Communist regime in Slovakia and, therefore, tried to prepare the members of Family for existence in the tough times of Socialism . Family consisted mainly of university students who used to meet in small communities, so-called circles [orig. krúžky or stretká] that had an educational-formative nature both in a religious and personal sense.

Back then, Bratislava was the only university town in Slovakia and, thus, the members of Family came from all parts of Slovakia. Kolakovič travelled with them to their homes and thus established contacts with priests and laymen across Slovakia. The aim was to educate mature Christian personalities. The communities of the Family used to meet every Sunday morning. The meeting would start with a Mass, followed by breakfast and exchange of information on the political situation and news from the life of the Church, a so-called “briefing.” The activities of the Family gradually spread from Bratislava to the
whole of Slovakia.

After the Communists took power in 1948, members of the Family began to meet secretly and had to carry out their activities very carefully. After their discovery by the Communists in 1951, hard sentences and imprisonment for many of its members followed.

When they emerged from prison, these Family members got to work implementing the teachings of the Catholic Church using the methods taught to them by Father Kolakovic, who had been expelled by the government in 1946. The first secret meeting they organized with university students was in 1966. Writes Kudlacova: “The secret activity was performed mainly by active laymen, secretly ordained priests and votaries, but also official priests who also had to carry out the unauthorised activities secretly.”

The official Catholic hierarchy was so strongly oppressed by the State that it could do little. The underground bishop Jan Chryzoztom Korec, serving as an ordinary street cleaner and mechanic, was the secret church’s spiritual father (after the end of communism, Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal). The Family was a form of the Benedict Option: of Christians coming together to pray, study, and build thick communities that could help them withstand both persecution and the insanity of a completely ideologized environment.

That last part is something many of us Americans fail to appreciate. If you’ve paid any attention to the sociology of religion, you know that the younger generations are falling away from Christianity, especially historically orthodox Christianity, in dramatic numbers. Whatever the institutional leaders of our churches are doing, it’s not working. Brendan Buckley is right: the laity have to take things into their own hands instead of sitting back waiting for the clergy to get its act together.

As I have written here many times before, an orthodox Catholic priest told me the same thing back in 2001, when I was a Catholic, but I didn’t take it seriously. He told me and some other conservative Catholics that everything we said about how messed up the Church was was true, and that it was also true that no bishops were coming to save us. You all have so many resources available to you these days, he said, enabling you to educate yourselves and your children in the faith. Don’t be complacent!

Alas for us laymen and laywomen listening, complaining about the failures of the institutional church was much easier and more pleasurable than doing the hard work of building the structures of faithful community. That failure was not on the institutional church: it was on us. It still is. If the young Catholic students of 1940s Czechoslovakia had not listened to Father Kolakovic, and instead simply sat around waiting for the bishops and priests to tell them what to do, they would have been flattened by the communists after the 1948 putsch.

In my own communion now, the Orthodox Church, a senior bishop — the newly appointed Greek Orthodox Archbishop, who is the head of the Greek church in America — said recently that he was no fan of the Benedict Option:

I am not for the so-called “Benedict Option,” a retreat from the world to some form of Christian “Hasidism” that seeks separation based on external forms. We may not be of this world, but we have surely been placed in this world to be agents of change, and indeed transfiguration.

Based on this familiar mischaracterization of my work, I would bet my 2021 tithe that the good archbishop has not read The Benedict Option, and is just going on what the liberal Greek Orthodox guys at Fordham told him about it after he arrived in the US in 2019. I would suggest that he read the book for himself. The situation in the Greek Orthodox Church in America is calamitous. Back in 2012, according to the GOA’s own research, 90 percent of Americans with Greek roots are no longer in communion with the Orthodox Church.

And how orthodox are the Orthodox? Back in 2011, when I was living in Philadelphia, I had lunch one Friday with a friend who had been raised Greek Orthodox, but who had been an Evangelical for most of his adult life. He was curious as to why I wasn’t eating meat. “You know, Orthodox abstain from meat on Fridays,” I said. He told me that he had been raised in the Greek church, and had done all his elementary and secondary schooling in the Greek Archdiocesan cathedral school (through eighth grade), and had never been told that Orthodox Christians are expected to fast from meat during the week.

Three years ago, the Pew Research Center included Orthodox Christians in its study of American Christianity. It did not separate out Greeks from other jurisdictions, though overall, Greeks alone make up about 60 percent of American Orthodoxy. The Pew data on Orthodoxy (see here) don’t go into much detail on theological issues, but it appears that US Orthodox Christians dissent from Church teaching in some significant ways. Majorities favor abortion and homosexuality, and 27 percent say that the Bible is not the Word of God.

I’m not picking on the Greeks. All of us Orthodox Christians have a lot of work to do to build up our orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and evangelism. I am only saying that the Benedict Option is something we Orthodox need as much as the Catholics do — and that we should not realistically expect the hierarchy to take a leading role here. The new Greek archbishop went to a Black Lives Matter march in Brooklyn recently. One is certainly pleased that the Greek Orthodox primate stands up against police brutality and against racism, but as the What We Believe page of the Black Lives Matter website indicates, the organization is directly opposed to some fundamental teachings of Orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, the Greek archbishop said to Greek News:

The vast majority of our faithful appreciate the emergency [sic] of “Black Lives Matter”, and I was overwhelmed by the support I have received by peacefully marching in Brooklyn to declare that racial injustice cannot be tolerated. I know that some few are worried about some political associations, but, as a Church and as a Church leader, there is a responsibility to speak up and speak out for justice and the rule of law for all people.

I will continue to speak and to act in the ways that are consistent with the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the high office with which I have been entrusted by our Holy Mother Church.

OK, but as the BLM website says:

We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.

We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.

We build a space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered.

… We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.

We foster a queer‐affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking, or rather, the belief that all in the world are heterosexual (unless s/he or they disclose otherwise).

Well. Insofar as the laity have to strengthen the gates of the church against the battering ram of this rotten culture, I stand by the Benedict Option as something Christians within the Orthodox Church (and the Catholic Church, and all churches) need in this time of crisis. I hope that the archbishop will read the book and agree. As Brendan Buckley writes, “If the United States and Western Europe fall to the ‘woke’ barbarians of 2020 and beyond, we need to prepare our families and ourselves for what is to come.” There’s no if about it.



about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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