Benedict Option: What Else Is There?
A reader sends in this short piece by Catholic activist Peter Wolfgang, who is frustrated by George Weigel’s same old same old response to the crisis. Excerpts:
The speech George Weigel gave the other night? He could have given it 20 years ago. He’s one of the leading Christian intellectuals of my lifetime. He sees what’s wrong with the world, and he has an idea what we must do about it. But he answers with the view from 30,000 feet in the air, the world as seen from Mount Olympus. He doesn’t give those of us on the ground a plan of action.
Wolfgang says that Weigel, along with the late Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak, inspired him to go into Catholic activism. But now, he says, Weigel’s words are insufficient to the challenges of this time:
Weigel is not blind to this radical change. His speech argued that both the ship of state and the Barque of Peter are off course and need to be steered back. But he didn’t tell us why this happened. And he didn’t tell us how to get back on course.
I mean, ok, he did. It’s all there in the teaching pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II, he told us. And honestly, I agree with that answer. But people like me, involved in the practical work of protecting life, promoting sexual sanity and defending religious freedom, need a plan of action.
Twenty years ago Weigel and the other Catholic neocons told us the world would heed John Paul II’s call to “open wide the doors to Christ,” because he offered the only remaining alternative to a humanity that had been exhausted by the failures of totalitarianism. But Christians face new forms of oppression today.
Wolfgang goes on:
That’s why it’s not enough today to simply keep saying that JPII has all the answers. That doesn’t tell parents how to cope with laws forbidding them from bringing their gender-confused children to “conversion therapy,” or help pregnancy center directors deal with laws restricting their advertising. It doesn’t guide Christians in academia or corporate America who could lose their jobs if they don’t promote the LGBT agenda.
“It’s all in JPII” doesn’t answer any number of similar new challenges that have cropped up in the last two decades. The pope beat worse challenges under full-blown communism. But their Western versions, most of which did not exist at the time of his death, have proven more difficult to vanquish.
Weigel’s recipe for success is … well, there isn’t one. Again, I love Weigel. But except for a few lines, he could have given that same speech 20 years ago.
This doesn’t surprise me. A few months ago, Weigel appeared at an event in Providence, RI, to discuss the Benedict Option. I had a couple of Catholic friends in the audience that night. One said Weigel sneered at the Benedict Option, and just wanted to talk about all the good things going on in the Catholic Church now. The other, a Weigel fan, had the same reaction that Peter Wolfgang did: he said Weigel is living in a perpetual 1998.
To be sure, Wolfgang isn’t entirely approving of the Benedict Option:
No one in Christian life today fills the space that Neuhaus/Novak/Weigel did 20 years ago. No one has a comprehensive vision of the near-future like theirs, and no one offers a battle plan like theirs. In that empty space, we get Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher. They’re smart guys who are trying to think our way out of this. But they haven’t answered the challenges either.
I can’t really argue with him there, but in my own defense (and in partial defense of George Weigel), the challenges are so massive and protean that I don’t think it’s possible to discern a comprehensive vision of the near-future, much less formulate a battle plan. Besides, I would point out to Wolfgang: Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel failed. They gave it their best, heaven knows, but their battle plan presumed that the Christian basis of Western thought and life would hold. I urge you all to read Michael Hanby’s 2014 paper on the civic project of American Christianity, delivered at a First Things conference that as a fellow observer (I was there, as was Weigel) characterized as being about this question: “OK, so the Neuhaus-Novak-Weigel project has failed; now what?”
As I’ve mentioned in this space several times, I well remember being in that room, and listening to the younger Catholic professors at my end of the table telling Weigel and the older scholars at the other end of the table that they don’t grasp how fully Catholicism as a culture and a set of truth claims has collapsed within the Millennials and Generation Z. There is nothing left to build on.
In the paper, Hanby writes:
Broadly speaking, we may characterize the civic project of American Christianity as the attempt to harmonize Christianity and liberal order and to anchor American public philosophy in the substance of Protestant morality, Catholic social teaching, or some version of natural law that might qualify as public reason. George Weigel articulated one of the assumptions animating protagonists on all sides of this project when in Tranquilitas Ordinis he wrote that “there is no contradiction between the truth claims of Catholicism and the American democratic experiment.” This assertion rests on some form of Murray’s familiar distinction between articles of faith and articles of peace. This view defines the state as a juridical order that exists principally for the purpose of securing public order and protecting our ability to act on our own initiative. It therefore renounces all competence in religious and ontological matters. This ostensibly modest view of government opens up space that is then filled with the Christian substance that animates civil society.
One needn’t be ungrateful for the genuine achievements of American liberalism in order to question the wisdom of this project and its guiding assumptions. First, a purely juridical order devoid of metaphysical and theological judgment is as logically and theologically impossible as a pure, metaphysically innocent science. One cannot set a limit to one’s own religious competence without an implicit judgment about what falls on the other side of that limit; one cannot draw a clear and distinct boundary between the political and the religious, or between science, metaphysics, and theology, without tacitly determining what sort of God transcends these realms. The very act by which liberalism declares its religious incompetence is thus a theological act. Its supposed indifference to metaphysics conceals a metaphysics of original indifference. A thing’s relation to God, being a creature, makes no difference to its nature or intelligibility. Those are tacked on extrinsically through the free act of the agent.
Liberalism’s articles of peace thus mask tacit articles of faith in a particular eighteenth-century conception of nature and nature’s God, which also entails an eighteenth-century view of the Church. Moreover, liberalism refuses integration into any more comprehensive order over which it is not finally arbiter and judge. It establishes its peculiar absolutism, not as the exhaustive dictator of everything one can and cannot do—to the contrary, liberal order persists precisely by generating an ever expanding space for the exercise of private options—but as the all-encompassing totality within which atomic social facts are permitted to appear like so many Congregationalist polities, the horizon beyond which there is no outside. Hobbes’s thought aspired to this kind of sovereignty, and Locke’s thought more effectively achieved it, but it was Rousseau who really understood it.
The Neuhaus-Novak-Weigel project, crudely considered, was to Christianize liberalism. It depended on both a strong, credible Christian witness (especially a Catholic one), and using political power for broadly Christian humanist ends. I too was a partisan of this project back in my younger years. I think now that it was bound to fail no matter what, but its doom was assured in the years 2002-2008, when both the Catholic Church and the Republican Party destroyed their own credibility, through scandal (the Church) and bad governance (Iraq, primarily, but also Katrina and the economic collapse).
Wolfgang seems to want a set of political marching orders. Hanby says that is not possible today:
This synthesis cannot be a political one, as if the civic project of American Christianity could be revived by rejiggered coalitions or a new united front. We must rather conceive of it principally as a form of witness. Here some elements of the Benedict Option become essential: educating our children, rebuilding our parishes, and patiently building little bulwarks of truly humanist culture within our decaying civilization. This decay is internal as well as external, for while the civic project has been a spectacular failure at Christianizing liberalism, it has been wildly successful at liberalizing Christianity.
A witness is, first, one who sees. And none of these efforts are likely to come to much unless we are able to see outside the ontology of liberalism to the truth of things, to enter more deeply into the meaning of our creaturehood. Only then can we rediscover, as a matter of reason, the truth of the human being, the truth of freedom, and the truth of truth itself. It is no accident that Benedict XVI placed the spirit of monasticism at the foundation of any authentically human culture. For nothing less than an all-consuming quest for God, one that lays claim to heart, soul, and mind, will suffice to save Christianity from this decaying civilization—or this civilization from itself.
Read it all. It’s deep.
If Wolfgang says that the Benedict Option doesn’t meet the challenges of our time, he’s right insofar as it doesn’t offer a program like his erstwhile heroes did. But that’s like sitting in a boat in a flood, floating above a town so fully submerged that only the tippy-top of the church steeple pierces the water’s surface, and complaining that nobody has written a map to point the way to the traffic roundabout.
The Benedict Option — obligatory link to book here — is not even trying to do what N-N-W tried to do in their day. I don’t think it’s possible. The Ben Op is about keeping the faith alive in a time of collapse. At this point, Christianizing society is a second-order goal. In the US and Europe, the Catholic Church itself is collapsing internally — see Catholic sociologist Christian Smith on this point — and Evangelicalism is traveling the same declining road. Before we Christians can convert the world, we have to re-convert ourselves.
(To be clear, the Ben Op is not merely defensive. As Brother Ignatius of Norcia tells me in the book, Christians must always be reaching out to the world. But we cannot hope to accomplish anything in our outreach to the world if we are not acting from a position of strength. But this is an old topic around these parts.)
I make clear in the book that I offer the Benedict Option not as a formula for worldly success, but as an orientation towards the world, from which we can work creatively to come up with ways to meet the challenges of our time. I can’t tell Peter Wolfgang what to do in part because the paradigm collapse is happening so quickly that it’s hard to devise a strategy to meet the new realities before they change again. This is why Zygmunt Bauman called our condition “liquid modernity”: nothing is solid anymore.
Last weekend when I was in Boston, the conversations I had with faithful Catholics and Protestants about the cultural and legal conditions under which they are trying to live out their faith really knocked me back. In that part of our country, simply to proclaim Christian truth about sexuality, for example, is considered to be an act of unspeakable hatred. In Louisiana, we are not yet as far gone as the folks in New England are, though we’re headed that way. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t tell any Christian to avoid political fights, about religious liberty or anything else (though religious liberty is the most important political fight of our moment). Some of the bravest Christians I know are on the front lines, like Andrew Beckwith and his team at the Massachusetts Family Institute. But I would say, with Michael Hanby, that Christians should not be under the illusion that the fight is primarily political, or that there is a political solution.
The Neuhaus-Novak-Weigel project asked: How can we Christianize liberalism? The Benedict Option asks: How can Christianity survive post-Christianity and liquid modernity? Things are changing so fast within liquid modernity — for example, the rapid deconstruction of male vs female, and the rise of surveillance capitalism and the digitized security state — that any program we come up with is likely to be outdated shortly. The Benedict Option is my attempt to focus on building up resilience, and core beliefs and practices, so that local Christian families and communities can be nimble in facing whatever comes their way. All of us — Christians and otherwise — are going to be living through a long time of chaos, in which the old solutions aren’t going to make a lot of sense.
Much has been written about Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.” It has been portrayed as not so much an option as an opting out. Critics have said it is a call to run away from the public square, an escape, an indefensible retreat, and an admission of defeat. The Benedict Option is thought to be a flight into the desert—not so much to pray as to put one’s head in the sand.
It has struck me in recent days, however, that the Benedict Option may be the only option. It may be the only option not because the surrounding culture is decadent and we want to protect our children. It is not the only option because we are fed up with the technological, fast-paced, shallow existence of twenty-first-century life. It is not the only option because we are disgusted by porn, shocked by war, and spooked by gender confused radicals who are on the warpath. It is not the only option because we think the worldlings are worldly beyond redemption.
It is the only option because it is the only option.
Father Longenecker cites C.S. Lewis in his explanation about why things are so far gone in our civilization that there is no real reason to carry on conversation. He goes on:
I am convinced that this is the true reason why Benedict headed for the hills in the sixth century. The dialogue was pointless. The debate was a dead-end. So Benedict did what he could with what he had where he was.
Read it all — it’s short but punchy. That’s hardly a rallying cry — “Do what you can with what you have where you are!” — but it has the advantage of being true, and practical. As I say in The Benedict Option book, the Ben Op is going to look different for communities in different faith traditions. It’s going to look different for urban Christians than for rural ones. It is, as Father Longenecker says, more about a change of heart and mind than running to the mountains and building a utopia. Rather:
The Benedict Option means coming to the realization that the time for dialogue and debate is over and the time for quiet action has begun.
Faith is a journey and a way of life. In the old Church, the catechumenate was created as a habitat against an increasingly demoralized culture, in which the distinctive and fresh aspects of the Christian way of life were practiced and at the same time protected from the common way of life. I think that even today something like catechumenal communities are necessary so that Christian life can assert itself in its own way.
And finally, there is the Mystery of the Church. The sentence with which Romano Guardini, almost 100 years ago, expressed the joyful hope that was instilled in him and many others, remains unforgotten: “An event of incalculable importance has begun; the Church is awakening in souls.”
He meant to say that no longer was the Church experienced and perceived as merely an external system entering our lives, as a kind of authority, but rather it began to be perceived as being present within people’s hearts — as something not merely external, but internally moving us. About half a century later, in reconsidering this process and looking at what had been happening, I felt tempted to reverse the sentence: “The Church is dying in souls.”
Indeed, the Church today is widely regarded as just some kind of political apparatus. One speaks of it almost exclusively in political categories, and this applies even to bishops, who formulate their conception of the church of tomorrow almost exclusively in political terms.
Today’s Church is more than ever a “Church of the Martyrs” and thus a witness to the living God. If we look around and listen with an attentive heart, we can find witnesses everywhere today, especially among ordinary people, but also in the high ranks of the Church, who stand up for God with their life and suffering. It is an inertia of the heart that leads us to not wish to recognize them. One of the great and essential tasks of our evangelization is, as far as we can, to establish habitats of Faith and, above all, to find and recognize them.
I live in a house, in a small community of people who discover such witnesses of the living God again and again in everyday life and who joyfully point this out to me as well. To see and find the living Church is a wonderful task which strengthens us and makes us joyful in our Faith time and again.
1) The culture is demoralized, and Christians need to form small communities within which the distinctly Christian way of life can be lived and expressed amid the collapse;
2) there is no political solution to this crisis within Christianity, no rejiggering of the external apparatus to set everything aright; only rediscovering and rekindling the fire of God within individual hearts can save us; and
3) the Church today — the living Church — is a church of men and women who suffer to bear witness to the faith. Renovating the Sacrament Factory will not save us; we have to create small gardens within which to cultivate martyrs;
4) We need each other to remind ourselves of God’s presence among us, to bear the light of Christ in a time of post-Christian darkness
That is the essence of the Benedict Option. How you cultivate that garden as a Catholic in suburban Boston is going to look different from how you cultivate that garden as an Evangelical in rural Louisiana. Over the years, as the rest of the world grows wild and covered by weeds and briars, people will see our gardens, and want to know what we know, and Who we know, that allows us to live like that. This is why Benedict XVI says that planting these gardens is “one of the great and essential tasks of our evangelization.”
Peter Wolfgang ends his piece with:
I think we are waiting for a new, doubtless very different, Neuhaus/Novak/Weigel.
You wait in vain. The times cannot produce such figures, who were products of a more stable culture (though one much less stable than they knew). We still await, as MacIntyre said, a new, doubtless very different, St. Benedict: a figure who knows how to build something enduring in the ruins of a civilization. As I like to tell audiences, perhaps the new, doubtless very different Benedict we now await is … you.