Cardinal Pell Vs. The Benedict Option
National Catholic Reporter interviewed Cardinal George Pell, who said at the end:
When asked during his latest interview what reading recommendations he would offer for those seeking a better understanding of the church, Pell ticked off a number of prominent conservative writers.
Among those he named were New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Pope John Paul II biographer George Weigel, before offering a limited endorsement of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, which advocates for Christians to withdraw from the mainstream and focus on a renewal of Christian counterculture.
“The Benedict option is not my option,” Pell said. “I’m not sympathetic to just a small, little elite church.”
He added: “I would like to keep as many of the semi-religious slobs like myself in the stream.”
I have immense respect, even affection, for Cardinal Pell, who so bravely bore the injustice of his imprisonment, so it disappoints me to see him mischaracterize The Benedict Option like this. The point of the book is that in the roiling whitewater river that is liquid modernity, anyone who wants to hold on to any historically orthodox form of the Christian faith is going to have to live counterculturally, and in some meaningful sense outside the mainstream. Does the Cardinal doubt this? I wonder if he’s living in the past in his imagination — a past in which people could kind of go along with the flow, not being especially devout. That’s the world I grew up in, and is certainly the world George Pell grew up in. My family weren’t big churchgoers, but we didn’t question the truth claims of Biblical Christianity. The world we live in today could hardly be more different.
I wonder if Cardinal Pell even read the book. If he did, I would love to know why he believes that the book calls for a “small, little elite church”. I quote young Father Joseph Ratzinger prophesying that that is what is going to come into being, at least in the West. No Christian wants that to happen, but Father Ratzinger said (in 1969) that this was coming, whether we wanted it to or not. There is going to be a massive falling away — we are living through that now, and it’s going to get much worse. Cardinal Pell’s remarks are like saying he doesn’t like what that guy Noah is saying about how we need to build an ark, because he doesn’t want to cruise with a small, little elite group of passengers.
I will never, ever understand why so many people who should know better mischaracterize my book like this. I could be wrong in my diagnosis and prescription, but come on, guys, let’s argue about what I actually wrote, and wrote clearly, not what you think I wrote. One of the group of heroes in my book is the Tipi Loschi, the Catholic community in San Benedetto del Tronto, on Italy’s Adriatic coast. They are a bunch of normal Catholics, really happy, open-hearted people. If anybody reading this knows Cardinal Pell, ask him to please take a trip outside of Rome to visit the Tipi Loschi. They are the Benedict Option. What an inspiring group of believers!
I hope the cardinal also reads the text of the speech that Archbishop Georg Gänswein gave on September 11, 2018, in a hall at the Italian Senate. Monsignor Gänswein, the personal secretary of Benedict XVI, gave a powerful endorsement of The Benedict Option. He said, in part:
The number of people turning their back on the Church is dramatic. Even more dramatic, however, is another statistic: According to the most recent surveys, of the Catholics who have not yet left the Church in Germany, only 9.8 percent still meet on Sunday in their places of worship to celebrate the Blessed Eucharist together.
This brings to mind Pope Benedict’s very first journey after his election. On May 29, 2005, on the banks of the Adriatic Sea, he reminded the predominantly youthful audience that Sunday is a “weekly celebration of Easter”, thereby expressing the identity of the Christian community and the center of its life and mission. However, the theme of the Eucharistic Congress (“We cannot live without Sunday”) goes back to the year 304, when Emperor Diocletian forbade Christians under death penalty to possess Holy Scripture, to meet on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist, and to construct rooms for their meetings.
“In Abitene, a small village in present-day Tunisia, 49 Christians were taken by surprise one Sunday while they were celebrating the Eucharist, gathered in the house of Octavius Felix, thereby defying the imperial prohibitions. They were arrested and taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus.
Significant among other things is the answer a certain Emeritus gave to the Proconsul who asked him why on earth they had disobeyed the Emperor’s severe orders. He replied: “Sine dominico non possumus”: that is, we cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. We would lack the strength to face our daily problems and not to succumb.
After atrocious tortures, these 49 martyrs of Abitene were killed. Thus, they confirmed their faith with bloodshed. They died, but they were victorious: today we remember them in the glory of the Risen Christ.”
In other words, what we, as children of the so-called “popular church”, have come to know as the “Sunday obligation” is, in fact, the precious, unique characteristic of Christians. And it is much older than any Volkskirche. Therefore, it is truly an eschatological crisis that the Catholic Church has been in for a long time now, just as my mother and father reckoned they could perceive it in their day – with “horrors of devastation in holy places” – something perhaps every generation in church history recognized from a distance on its own horizon.
Obviously, I am not alone in this. In May, the Archbishop of Utrecht in Holland, Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk, confessed that the present crisis reminded him of the “final trial” of the Church, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it in paragraph 675, which the Church must undergo before the return of Christ, as a trial that ” will shake the faith of many believers”. The Catechism continues: “The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the ‘mystery of iniquity.’”
In the great cultural upheaval of the migration period of the Völkerwanderung and the emergence of new structures of state, the monasteries were the place where the treasures of the old culture survived and at the same time a new culture was slowly formed by them, said Benedict XVI at the time and asked:
“But how did it happen? What motivated men to come together to these places? What did they want? How did they live?
First and foremost, it must be frankly admitted straight away that it was not their intention to create a culture nor even to preserve a culture from the past. Their motivation was much more basic. Their goal was: Quaerere Deum [to seek God]. Amid the confusion of the times, in which nothing seemed permanent, they wanted to do the essential – to make an effort to find what was perennially valid and lasting, life itself. They were searching for God. They wanted to go from the inessential to the essential, to the only truly important and reliable thing there is…they were seeking the definitive behind the provisional… Quaerere Deum – to seek God and to let oneself be found by him, that is today no less necessary than in former times. A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences. What gave Europe’s culture its foundation – the search for God and the readiness to listen to him – remains today the basis of any genuine culture.”
These were the words of Pope Benedict XVI on September 12, 2008 about the true “option” of Saint Benedict of Nursia. – After that, all that remains for me to say about Dreher’s book is this: It does not contain a finished answer. There is no panacea, no skeleton key for all the gates that were open to us for so long and have now been thrown shut again. Between these two books covers, however, there is an authentic example of what Pope Benedict said ten years ago about the Benedictine spirit of the beginning. It is a true “Quaerere Deum”. It is that search for the true God of Isaac and Jacob, who showed his human face in Jesus of Nazareth.
For this reason, a sentence from chapter 4,21 of the Rule of Saint Benedict comes to my mind, which also pervades and animates the entire book of Dreher as Cantus Firmus. This is the legendary “Nihil amori Christi praeponere”. That means translated: the love of Christ must come before all else. It is the key to the whole miracle of occidental monasticism.
Benedict of Nursia was a lighthouse during the migration of peoples, when he saved the Church through the turmoil of time and thus in a certain sense re-founded European civilization. But now, not only in Europe, but all over the world, we are experiencing for decades a migration of peoples that will never come to an end again, as Pope Francis has clearly recognized and urgently speaks about to our consciences. That is why not everything is different this time, as compared to how it was then.
If the Church does not know how to renew itself again this time with God’s help, then the whole project of our civilization is at stake again. For many it looks as if the Church of Jesus Christ will never be able to recover from the catastrophe of its sin – it almost seems about to be devoured by it.
The Benedict Option is about keeping the search for God alive in a world where everything is working against the search. Before Mons. Gänswein gave that speech, Vatican journalist friends warned me that whatever Gänswein said will have been approved by Benedict XVI. I was so anxious, because I feared that BXVI, a hero of mine, would not have liked the book. In fact, if the journalists were right, then judging by the Gänswein speech, BXVI thinks the book is a light in a time of darkness.
I hope Cardinal Pell will read it to see why the Pope Emeritus — or at least his closest aide — finds the book to be so necessary and so hopeful. I hope you will too, if you haven’t already. It’s much later than many Western Christians think.
On the other hand, it is possible that Cardinal Pell did read the book, and has drawn the negative conclusion. If so — and if you are an actual reader of the book (versus a reader about the book) who has done the same — I genuinely want to know how you arrived at that conclusion. I think it’s possible that out of charity, some Christians hate to think about the church being exclusive. I get that, and it’s not always a bad thing. In fact, it’s probably a good thing, because it shows mercy.
But there are limits. In Evangelicalism, the “seeker-friendly” model of church has been criticized for being so given over to attracting non-Christians that it badly watered down what it means to be Christian. Being a Christian requires discipleship. A main point of The Benedict Option is that without serious discipleship, Christianity is going to dissolve in liquid modernity. It’s already doing it, and nothing many churchmen — even good ones, like Cardinal Pell — are saying and doing is going against the tide. It’s what little guys on the ground — men like Marco Sermarini of the Tipi Loschi, like the monks of Norcia and the Community of the Raven And The Dove, a tiny community of believing families that have moved there to live near them, and so many others — are doing that might make a difference.
Obviously I don’t know what Cardinal Pell’s thought process is that led him to this conclusion, but I have observed in older Catholic churchmen a deep and understandable reticence to see the world as it is today. In France back in 2018 on the Benedict Option book tour, I quickly discerned a big difference between Catholics aged 55 and older, and those aged 40 and under (the rest of us are in the middle). The older Catholics pretty much rejected the book’s premises, but the younger ones accepted them as obvious truths. I surmised that the older Catholics could not bear to accept that the world had moved on, and did not have any use for the Church. They still wanted to believe if only we tweaked this or that, that the world would make a place for the Church. By contrast, the younger Catholics had internalized that as faithful Christians, they were going to have to live on the margins of society. They were interested in learning more about how to do that.
It’s not that they were uninterested in evangelization. It’s rather that they realized that Christians cannot give the world what they don’t have — and the modern world is structured in ways that make it harder to be faithful than in ages past. I got the impression that the older churchmen were living in the past, while the younger Catholics were trying to figure out how they and their families could have a Christian future.
The bottom line is this: at some point, if the Church is not going to be completely absorbed by the world, and assimilated, it is going to have to draw clear lines around what it means to be a faithful Christian, and defend those lines. It’s not because the Church wants to be mean. It’s because we Christians believe, or ought to believe, that the Bible discloses truth about who God is, who we are, and how we are to relate to Him, and to the world into which we have been thrown. To forget those truths is to lose the Way. You can have a church full of people who are hearing a false gospel, and the fact that the false gospel is popular does no good for the Kingdom of God. The Church’s doors should always be open to seekers and people struggling with belief — but without discipling those who have committed to the faith, and without creating communities of discipleship, the forces of dissolution and fragmentation in liquid modernity will win. That is the main point of The Benedict Option: how we Christians of the 21st century are supposed to deal creatively with that hard truth.