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Christianity In Negative World

Reader SB writes:

Rod, and Jefferson Smith above – Catholics won’t give in to the LGBT agenda, but liberal fake catholics will (a tragedy, not a sneer!).

The question is not – how is a LGBT dance being held at a Catholic University? But why is there no accountability? That is, why is there no mechanism for outraged Catholics to have action taken?

Instead, we hear the usual calls for action, even (in the Providence College case) the local bishop Tobin calls for change from the university, but nothing substantive happens. Like Notre Dame Uni no allowing staff & student insurance for contraception.

So, who owns and controls these ‘Christian’ institutions? If they are Catholic, then who is enforcing them to uphold Catholic values? And if that mechanism is (clearly) broken, how can we fix that to get fast, Christian resolution to these disputes?

Lay people should be able to lay a complaint, have a quick investigation and decision (in line with church teaching) to uphold the faith ad prevent scandal.

The real problem is not people asking for or planning a gay dance, but that there appears to be no mechanism to prevent it and uphold the university’s supposed Christian values.

This is why I am unconvinced of your Benedict Option – withdrawing into devout intentional communities abandons the many ‘stray’ Christians attending these colleges and confused by gay dances promoted by the church… we should fight for valuable institutions, not surrender them meekly.

You say that, and in principle I agree, but tell me, where are the fights that you can hope to win? Do you really think that most Catholics are with you? There is no “accountability” because most of the stakeholders have already gone over to the progressive side. According to surveys, most Catholics are to the left of the American public on key issues. Even half of weekly massgoers (for example) believe that employers should be forced to provide contraception as part of their health care plan. More broadly, the news about the beliefs and practices of young Catholic adults is very grim from an orthodox Catholic point of view, as I pointed out in my answer last fall to Father Spadaro. Spend a little time online in the Pew research, and looking through Christian Smith’s research out of Notre Dame, and honesty will compel you to ask: with what Catholic army are you going to fight for these institutions?

I’m honestly not trying to be snarky. I wish you well if you choose to fight for them. I think the battle for most of them, though, is already lost, and that the orthodox Catholics remaining within them would do well simply to hold their own in hostile territory.

What’s more, how do you fight for institutions when you can’t even hold the chanceries in the Francis era? Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark is emerging as a leading pro-gay, pro-Francis voice in the US church. He just delivered a speech at Villanova in which he warned against the Benedict Option. From America magazine’s coverage:

“Even from ancient times, there have been individuals and movements who have tried to define and delimit what it means to be a Catholic Christian. Nevertheless, the universal church has always repudiated such attempts. It is only the Lord who ultimately judges who belongs or does not belong.”

This is preposterous, spectacularly so, and cannot withstand a moment’s reflection. What on earth does Cardinal Tobin think that church councils did? They had to decide what Christian doctrine was. Were the Arians Christians, or were they not? What is the Nicene Creed for? What was the Reformation, and Counter-Reformation, about? Why does the Catholic Church need a catechism if the Church denies any attempt to define Catholicism?

Of course that’s not what the Church does at all. Cardinal Tobin is being extremely dishonest — but he can get away with it because he’s counting on Catholics in his audience either a) not knowing the slightest thing about Church history and theology, which will lead them to take him at his word here, or b) understanding that he’s saying what he has to say to stigmatize orthodoxy within Catholicism, and open the door for all manner of heterodoxy.

It appears that the cardinal did not bring up the Ben Op by name, but condemned it all the same:

Cardinal Tobin seemingly condemned this approach to faith, characterizing it as an effort to form “small enclaves” of believers who will somehow “safeguard the treasure of the Christian tradition in its purest form from the corrosive intrusion of a corrupt society.” He said instead that engagement with the world is a Christian principle that dates back to the earliest followers of Jesus.

Reading his remarks from an electronic tablet, the cardinal said Catholics must not be afraid of engaging with the world.

“The church has no other option but to turn outward,” he said. “This turning outward extends to the human condition in its heights and depths.”

Readers of The Benedict Option know perfectly well that’s a mischaracterization of the book’s argument, and I’d bet money that Cardinal Tobin knows it, and knows what he’s doing here, just as he knows what he’s doing by wildly mischaracterizing Church history. If Catholics were to do what the Ben Op says they should do, and study their own history, and the teachings of their Church, it would become crystal clear to them that Cardinal Tobin and his ilk are deceiving them. Therefore, the Cardinal assures them that the past is not what they may think it is, that indeed in the past, the Church has always been wide open to anybody professing anything. And then they tell them that the Church shouldn’t look inward, only outward. That is, no examination of tradition and its teachings, in order to help Catholics know how to look outward, and how to engage the world as Catholics.

Look at this short passage from The Benedict Option. Does it sound to you like the book counsels turning away from sharing the Good News with the world?

Father Bryce Sibley, who directs Catholic campus ministry at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL), told me that the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), a growing national campus ministry that has a chapter in over one hundred universities, including ULL, has been key to building a strong intentional Catholic student communities among Millennials. “These young Catholics are orthodox. They want to confession, they want the sacraments, they want formation,” Father Sibley said. “We’re not just about pizza and having fun. As a result, in the past six years, we’ve had almost fifty people enter seminary or religious life.”

Unlike Catholic campus ministry when he was in college a generation ago, said Father Sibley, FOCUS concentrates intensely on discipleship through prayer, study, and worship—often in small groups—and preparing students for evangelization. “You talk to most Catholic campus ministers today, we’re really hopeful,” said Father Sibley. “These kids want the real faith, not a watered-down version. If you want to evangelize, things will change.”

Spadaro, Tobin, Cardinal Cupich, and that crowd know perfectly well that the Ben Op does not call for total withdrawal from the world. Rather, it calls for Catholics (and other Christians) to prioritize strengthening their catechesis and spiritual disciplines, so that when they go out into the world (as we must), we can faithfully stand for authentic Christianity. By bearing false witness against what I’m actually advocating in The Benedict Option, these churchmen want to discourage Catholics from reading it.

Actually, I don’t blame them. Catholics who read the book and are encouraged by it to go deeper into Catholic teaching and history, will not be as susceptible to the lines peddled by these churchmen.

On the question of LGBTs in the Church, Cardinal Tobin said:

He added that “the church is moving on the question of same-sex couples,” albeit not as quickly as some people would like. Dialogue, he said, is key.

Ah yes, dialogue. That’s the liberal Christian word for the process by which they slowly wear down the orthodox, until liberals get the upper hand, then it’s whammo! 

So, what do Catholics learn from Cardinal Tobin’s talk, as reported by America?

  1. Catholicism has never tried to define itself, to to limit who counts as a Catholic, and who doesn’t.
  2. Catholics should keep their focus outward, because focusing inward only leads to sectarianism and rigidity.
  3. LGBT Catholics and their allies should be patient, because prelates like him are using the “dialogue” tactic to neutralize and marginalize orthodox Catholics.

This is the new line in the Francis-era Catholic church. This man is a cardinal, chosen and elevated by Pope Francis. Reader SB, you say that “true Catholics” won’t give in to this kind of thing, but you ought to reflect on the fact that generations of terrible catechesis and lack of formation has prepared the majority of American Catholics to do precisely what you say they won’t do. Though not a Catholic, I agree with you about the need for orthodoxy within the Catholic Church and other Christian churches. My contention is that there are far fewer people like you and me than you prefer to see.


Well, this is half right.

The position of reader SB, and the plight of the orthodox Catholic in a liberalizing Catholic Church, should be understood in light of Aaron Renn’s commentary in the current issue of the e-mail newsletter The Masculinist. Renn writes:

In Masc #13 I laid out the three cultural worlds Christianity has faced in America over the last few decades:

Positive World (Pre-1994). To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms is a social positive. Christianity is a status enhancer. In some cases failure to embrace those norms hurt you.

Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute. It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person is not a knock either. It’s more like a personal affectation or hobby. Traditional norms of behavior retain residual force.

Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is a social negative, especially in high status positions. Christianity in many ways as seen as undermining the social good. Traditional norms are expressly repudiated.

Today’s church is divided between a legacy positive world contingent (typically religious right types) and a neutral world contingent of mostly urban based cultural engagement types. Each as their own characteristic memetic styles.

I don’t know reader SB, but my guess is that he (she?) believes that we live in Positive World or Neutral World. Renn says that characteristic Neutral World churches are Hillsong and New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian, both of which have been quite successful in their context. Renn writes:

Both of them use a memetic strategy based on communicating that “we are just like you [neutral world]” and which delivers aesthetic and programmatic excellence in markets where that’s expected. It’s a memetic strategy, blending both new and other media, that has delivered results in the neutral world.

But Neutral World is swiftly passing into Negative World. Renn says that the Benedict Option is the only attempt he has yet seen in which mainstream figures anticipate this and try to figure out how to face it:

In the negative world, there’s an agonistic relationship between the church and the world, whether or not the church seeks it out. But unlike with positive worlder thinking, there’s no prospect in sight of dominating or even much influencing the direction of secular culture or potentially even thinking that’s not even something to aspire to. Christianity may get reduced to a relatively small minority.

This space requires the masculine virtues because being a cultural minority requires being comfortable with something of a low status or outlier memetic that is self-consciously different. But understanding that you are in that minority position opens up tremendous cultural space too. Historically Christianity, as a default national faith, had to ensure a relatively broad based, mainstream appeal. That’s no longer a requirement. What does that give the church the freedom to do?

Renn says that Christians should observe the memetic strategies of minority religions. He posts a photo of two Hasidic Jewish men, with their distinctive way of dressing, and says:

Despite being a tiny minority, Hasidic Jews have immense confidence in being highly visibly distinct from mainstream society. Their very appearance (memetics) conveys that while they don’t care what you do, they are doing something different and are not ashamed of it.

Muslims are another group that figured it out. You’ve probably seen pictures of people observing the Muslim prayer times in the streets of various Western cities. Islam, as a universalist religion, is more culturally aggressive than Judaism. The memetics of praying in the street make clear that they are not just broadcasting distinctiveness but symbolically occupying territory. Nevertheless it’s a self-confident, attractional memetic for a minority religion in Western countries. There’s a lot to learn from Muslim communities.

Christianity is fundamentally a religion of the Word. The gospel is Good News, not Good Aesthetics. So the logos aspect must be right. That’s a precondition to anything more.

Where memetics comes in is creating the ethos and pathos that attract people who are willing to sign up for a status lowering religion. I posit that this requires showing that the church has something you can’t get from the world, and which has the self-confidence to be different.

In the negative world the church has to be distinct, not assimilationist, in the manner (if not the exact way) of the early church. The early church had many distinctives from the surrounding culture: they refused to worship the culture’s gods, they avoided many of the practices approved of by the culture, and they established their own practices like refusing to abandon the sick. They had a community that was difficult to be part of, but which generated immense value as well (in addition to possessing metaphysical truth). They did this by and large without attacking anyone else (though they did have what was essentially an intragroup feud with Jews who did not buy into Jesus as the Messiah).

I’m going to give one idea for a possible negative world move for the church: a reinvigorated and unapologetic memetic around healthy traditional families.

You can read the whole thing by subscribing to The Masculinist(it’s free).

In an important sense, what one thinks of the Benedict Option depends on whether one has made the shift yet from Positive or Neutral World to Negative World.

If you live in Positive World, of course it looks crazy. But Positive Worlders are living in an impenetrable bubble. I think even Neutral Worlders would agree that the Positives are totally unrealistic.

If you live in Neutral World, the Ben Op looks alarmist and defeatist. Neutral Worlders think that winsomeness can conquer all. They believe that the church can ultimately accommodate itself to post-Christianity, and be tolerated, if not affirmatively embraced. Neutral Worlders have either surrendered traditional Christian morality about sexuality or soon will, because that is the price of maintaining their status in the public square.

Why is sex such a big deal? Why can’t Christians agree to disagree on this point? Both seculars and Neutral World Christians who wish to rid themselves of the tension between the Church and the World ask.

The answer, in short, is that the Sexual Revolution challenges Christianity at a fundamental level. There is the matter of Biblical authority, but there is also the matter of Christian anthropology (what is man for?) and ultimately, of metaphysics (does matter matter?). This post has already gone on for too long, so I won’t get into these questions again right here; I’ve talked about them at length in this space before. For a wholly secular take on the issue, read Philip Rieff’s introduction to his 1966 book The Triumph Of The Therapeutic. 

The more important questions are: Why is sex such a big deal to the gatekeepers of the public square? Why can’t they tolerate religious traditionalists, especially given that we have lost, and don’t threaten them in any meaningful way? After all, a prohibition on sex outside of male-female marriage is one of many basic teachings of orthodox Christianity. Nobody in the world is going after Christians, their livelihoods, and their reputations, for affirming any other teachings.

Neutral World Christians will find that if they surrender on this issue, it won’t be the last one. In fact, having surrendered here, they will find it easier to surrender when the next demand is made of them.

I find what Cardinal Tobin argues for — and, to a large extent, Pope Francis’s agenda — to amount to the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church betting all the chips it has left on Neutral World — that is, on the belief that the modern world is not hostile to Christianity, and that Christians can be just like everybody else. How else could one explain the absurd view that “the universal church has always repudiated … individuals and movements who have tried to define and delimit what it means to be a Catholic Christian”?

How is this not saying, “You can believe whatever you want to, and if you call it Catholic, that’s okay with us. Who is anybody to judge?”

If that’s the case, the Catholic Church will be absorbed fully into modern liberalism, which is by no means neutral about orthodox Christianity. The modern world is not particularly hostile to Christianity, as long as it doesn’t challenge the modern world’s cherished dogmas But a Christianity that doesn’t fundamentally challenge the modern world is something other than Christianity.

Christians who can read the signs of the times will get about preparing themselves for Christian life in Negative World, and building church and church-related institutions to survive, and even to thrive, in Negative World. That’s what the Benedict Option tries to do. It’s only “defeatist” to people who don’t understand how decisively the Western world has changed with regard to traditional Christianity.

I’ll leave you with a link to Issue 13 of The Masculinist, in which Renn (a conservative Presbyterian) goes more deeply into his ideas of Positive, Neutral, and Negative World. He’s writing about American Evangelicalism specifically, but these same ideas could be transferred over to American Catholicism without losing much.

I first created this positive/neutral/negative framework in 2014 when I saw For the Life of the World, a series of seven short films talking about Christianity and life. A friend of mine was heavily involved in making this. It played to enthusiastic crowds at Christian colleges and elsewhere, with at least half a million people having watched it.

When I saw it the first time, I said to myself walking out, “That was really well done, but it was the film for five years ago.” I went back and started taking notes, and rapidly sketched out my framework.

My initial thought  is that as soon as being known as a Christian would incur a material social penalty, which I anticipated happening soon, there would be a mass abandonment of the faith by the megachurch crowd, etc.

I was wrong about that. What happened instead is that the neutral world Evangelicals largely decided to follow the response of the traditional mainline denominations before them in embracing the world and focusing on the social gospel. In other words, they decided to sign on with the winning team.

The average neutral world Christian leader – and that’s a lot of the high profile ones other than the remaining religious righters, ones who have a more dominant role than ever thanks to the internet – talks obsessively about two topics today: refugees (immigrants) and racism. They combine that with angry, militant anti-Trump politics. These are not just expounded as internal to the church (e.g., helping the actual refugee family on your block), but explicitly in a social reform register (changing legacy culture and government policy).

I’m not going to argue that they are wrong are those points. But it’s notable how selective these folks were in picking topics to talk about. They seem to have landed on causes where they are 100% in agreement with the elite secular consensus. It’s amazing how loud and publicly chest thumping they are on these topics while never saying anything that would get them uninvited from a Manhattan cocktail hour.


People are going to be forced to make choices, across a wide spectrum of domains. I’m afraid current trends indicate that Christian leaders are going to make the wrong ones. We already know from the past that social gospel style Christianity is a gateway to apostasy. That’s where the trend is heading here. I was speaking with one pastor who is a national council member of the Gospel Coalition. He’s a classic neutral worlder who strongly disapproves of Trump. But he notes that the Millennials in his congregation are in effect Biblically illiterate and have a definition of God’s justice that is taken from secular leftist politics. They did not, for example, see anything at all problematic about Hillary Clinton and her views. A generation or so from now when these people are the leaders, they won’t be people keeping unpopular positions to themselves. They won’t have any unpopular positions to hide. They will be completely assimilated to the world. Only their ethics will no longer be Hillary’s, but the new fashion du jour.

Rather than a mass blowout then, Evangelicalism would thus die from a slow bleed, much as the mainlines and the Church of England did before them. Indeed, today’s Evangelicals are retracing the steps of the mainlines. The parallels with the late 19th/early 20th centuries are there and should be studied. Back then, for example, virtually all of the sophisticated intellectual and cultural types – the cultural engagers of their day – sided with the world and became today’s liberal mainlines. Many of the ones who remained orthodox, like Gresham Machen, paid a huge price for doing so – largely inflicted by their erstwhile brethren who assimilated. As it turns out, intellectuals are very easy to co-opt with a few trinkets. It looks like it’s happening again. Almost every Evangelical institution I know is explicitly reformulating itself around secular social gospel principles, even if they wouldn’t use those words to describe it. There will be residual beliefs in place, but over time they could dissipate to nothing. (Remember, the liberal mainlines didn’t go from A to B overnight. It was a long process. For example, earlier this year I read a book by famed early 20th century liberal preacher Henry Emerson Fosdick that contained things so reactionary that even many “conservative” pastors today would be unwilling to write them). Practically speaking, folks like Ben Sasse might obtain great sinecures for themselves, but they will never effect any real, positive change in the world. And their attractiveness to others will dwindle over time and their Christianity will fade into the background and ultimately disappear.

Read the whole thing. 


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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