Once upon a time, Catholics longed for and worked for the conversion of others, including a nation’s cultural elites. Now many of our Catholic leaders, intellectuals and academic institutions bend over backwards to assure the gatekeepers of culture and prestige that they’re just as right-thinking as they are.
For Haldane this results in “the displacement of Catholic faith and sacramental practice understood in terms of a rigorous theology of grace and salvation, and their substitution by good works, identified and sustained typically through emotive rhetoric, with an eye to seeking approbation or at least minimizing exposure to criticism from secular critics of religion.” It’s a kind of virtue-signaling.
So, is there any good news? Or should we just take “the Benedict Option” and head for a religious bomb-shelter in the mountains? I have two answers.
First, there’s quite a lot of good news. And second, Augustine is a much better model for our times and our work as pastors than Benedict.
Augustine stayed with his people. He loved them and fed them and led them like the great pastor he was, even while the Roman world fell apart and even with an army of barbarians at the gates. The Church in the United States is in vastly better shape than anything Augustine could have imagined, but his life is still a lesson. A good shepherd never leaves his sheep. He loves and defends his people, even when some of them don’t love him back.
As for the good news: The Church in the United States is doing exceptionally well.
From these comments, I don’t think the Archbishop understands the book at all. I doubt that he has read it.
Second, this is just pie-in-the-sky blatherskite. The Catholic Church in the United States is only doing “exceptionally well” by comparison to the Catholic Church in Europe. Political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell found that if not for Latino immigration, the US Catholic Church would be hemorrhaging members at the same rate of Mainline Protestantism. Take a look at this 2014 article on the Catholic sociologist Christian Smith’s findings on young US Catholic adults . Excerpt:
As in decades past, only a minority of Catholic young adults attend Mass most or all Sundays (34 percent in the 1970s, 20 percent in the 2000s), pray daily (36 percent in the 80s, 45 percent now), and rate their religious affiliation as strong (26 percent in both the 1970s and the 2000s).
Disagreement with the Church’s most controversial moral teachings is also common: 33 percent of young Catholics consider abortion OK for any reason, 43 percent consider homosexual sex not wrong at all (one of few numbers that has changed markedly), and more than 90 percent reject the Church’s ban on premarital sex. As the authors conclude, “whatever religious decline that may have happened must have taken place before the 1970s,” most likely during the upheaval following the Second Vatican Council and the 1968 release of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical reiterating the Church’s longstanding ban on artificial birth control.
Since that time, Catholics’ religious practices and moral views have hardly differed from those of their non-Catholic peers. In other life outcomes, from mental health and family relationships to educational attainment and volunteer activities, the same story broadly applies. Today, even young adults who were raised unequivocally Catholic—as teens they had Catholic parents, attended Mass regularly, and self-identified as Catholic—say that you don’t need the Church to be religious (74 percent) and that it’s OK to pick and choose your beliefs (64 percent). They do not accept the Church as an authoritative teacher of Christian doctrine and do not consider the Church necessary to their spiritual lives at all: by baptism they are Catholic but by belief, they are effectively Protestant.
This is not a problem unique to Catholicism, but is rather general in American Christianity. I only bring it up here to say that the Archbishop has his head in the sand. He should read Christian Smith’s summary of his findings about the religious beliefs of American young people. And by my reckoning, his blaming American Catholic leaders for suppressing their convictions to curry favor with cultural elites is wide of the mark. Many of those leaders actually share the views of the cultural elites hostile to Catholic orthodoxy.
One of the American churches that is doing a good job of teaching and holding on to its young people is the Mormon church. MC, a contributor to the Mormon blog Junior Ganymede, writes about the Benedict Option. Excerpt:
While I don’t kid myself that nothing has been lost from the pioneer generation, I believe this literal belief endures. Faithful Mormons believe that God is really real, and we are really his children, and he’s actually watching over us and expects us to follow his commandments.
And this is why I continue to be dismayed by ostensibly serious Christians who resist Dreher’s ideas so strongly. Is Christianity just a nice moral code to them? How can they be so sanguine when Christian faith is bombarded from every side? I look at the communities already living some form of the Benedict Option, and I see people who simply live as if they truly believe God sees them, cares whether they are faithful to Him, and intervenes directly in their lives. They do not see their lives as separate from the spiritual realm, but an integral part of it.
This realness of belief is scandalous to our modern world. Yes, He really died on a cross and came back to life. No, it’s not just a metaphor for bouncing back from a demotion at work. Yes, He’s still alive. I talk to Him everyday.
We cannot fear being weird. I suspect that what bothers Dreher’s Christian intellectual opponents the most is that he shatters their aspiration to be fully Christian and also fully normal and accepted.
Is Dreher being unnecessarily alarmist? Hardly. The collapse of faith among the millennials is well known. Here in Britain, church attendance figures are in freefall. He is also right to challenge how we fail to notice where the sexual revolution is leading. It has consequences that ramify into family law, school curricula, reproductive technology, the business world and politics. He worries that conservative Christians will find themselves shut out from jobs because they cannot sign up to this agenda. If you still doubt the need for alarm, consider the recent insouciant announcement about transgender rights here in the UK made by Justine Greening, Minister for Education (and Minister for Women and Inequalities). She wants to streamline the process of transition. Even before this there were reports of growing numbers of children, with support from social workers, telling their parents that they want medication to begin the transition process.
Look, if you want to understand what has happened to religion in the West, you would do well to read the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, an atheist (or perhaps agnostic) who has taken the full measure of materialism. He’s not always an easy read — not because his prose is difficult, but because at times he writes in cringing detail about the descent of his characters into sexual debauchery. Houellebecq is no pornographer, though. He is, as the French literature scholar Louis Betty writes in his highly readable study of Houllebecq’s religious vision, Without God: Michel Houellebecq and Materialist Horror. Betty writes that:
…Houellebecq’s novels represent a kind of fictional experiment in the death of God. And this experiment is best understood as a confrontation between two radically opposed domains: the materialism of modern science and the desire of transcendence and survival, which is best expressed in and through religion.
The unbinding of humanity from God lies at the heart of the historical narrative the reader encounters in Houellebecq’s work: lacking a set of moral principles legitimated by a higher power and unable to find meaningful answers to existential questions, human beings descend into selfishness and narcissism and can only stymie their mortal terror by recourse to the carnal distractions of sexuality. Modern capitalism is the mode of social organization best suited to, and best suited to maintain, such a worldview. Materialism — that is, the limiting of all that is real to the physical, which rules out the existence of God, soul, and spirit and with them any transcendent meaning to human life — thus produces and environment in which consumption becomes the norm. such is the historical narrative that Houellebecq’s fiction enacts, with modern economic liberalism emerging as the last, devastating consequence of humanity’s despiritualization.
“Materialist horror” is the term most appropriate to describe this worldview, for what readers discover throughout Houellebecq’s fiction are societies and persons in which the terminal social and psychological consequences of materialism are being played out. It is little wonder, then, that these texts are so often apocalyptic in tone.
Here is a vital quote from Betty’s book — vital, that is, to understanding The Benedict Option:
Houellebecq’s novels suggest that once religion becomes definable as religion that is, once its symbols no longer address themselves to society at large as representative of discipline and moral authority, but rather address only the individual as motivators of religious “moods and motivations” — it is already doomed. Religion must do more than provide a space for the individual to enter, à la [anthropologist Clifford] Geertz, into the “religious perspective.” This is simply not enough for modern people; the symbols therein are too weak, too uncoupled from ordinary existence to give serious motivation. Religion must set a disciplinary canopy over the head of humankind, must order its acts and its moral commitments, must furnish ultimate explanations capable of determining the remainder of social life; otherwise, religion loses itself in the morass of competing perspectives (scientific, commonsense, political, etc.) This is precisely what has happened in the West… .
What he’s saying is that when one’s faith becomes an add-on to one’s life, as opposed to the ground of one’s life, then it is doomed. From The Benedict Option:
For the traditional Christian, establishing internal order is not mere discipline, nor is it simply an act of will. Rather, it is what theologian Romano Guardini called man’s efforts to “regain his right relation to the truth of things, to the demands of his own deepest self, and finally to God.” This means the discovery of the order, the logos, that God has written into the nature of Creation and seeking to live in harmony with it. It also implies the realization of natural limits within Creation’s givenness, as opposed to believing that nature is something we can deny or refute, according to our own desires. Finally, it means disciplining one’s life to live a life to glorify God and help others.
Order is not simply a matter of law and its enforcement. In the classical Christian view, the law itself depends on a deeper conception of order, an idea of the way ultimate reality is constructed. This order may be unseen, but it is believed and internalized by those living within a community that professes it. The point of life, for individual persons, for the church, and for the state, is to pursue harmony with that transcendent, eternal order.
To order the world rightly as Christians requires regarding all things as pointing to Christ. Chapter 19 of the Rule offers a succinct example of the connection between a disciplinary teaching and the unseen order. In it, Benedict instructs his monks to keep their minds focused on the presence of God and His Angels when they are engaged in chanting the Divine Office, called the opus Dei or “work of God.”
“We believe that the divine presence is everywhere, and that ‘the eyes of the Lord are looking on the good and the evil in every place” (Proverbs 15:3),” writes Benedict. “But we should believe this especially without any doubt when we are assisting at the Work of God.” He concludes with an admonition to remember that when they pray the Psalms together, they are standing before God and must pray “in such a way that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.”
Every monk’s life, and all his labors, must be directed to the service of God. The Rule teaches that God must be the beginning and the end of all our actions. To bound our spiritual passion by the rhythm of daily life and its disciplines, and to do so with others in our family and in our community, is to build a strong foundation of faith, within which one can become fully human and fully Christian.
You can’t do this well by yourself. You need a community of believers who share the same radical commitment to religion. And you need not just orthodox beliefs, but practices that make those beliefs real in daily life.
This is what the Benedictine monks do. As I write in the book, the rest of us are living in the world. We are not called to be cloistered monks. But if we don’t make God absolutely central to our entire lives, and order every part of it to Him, and if we don’t do that in community — our faith is doomed. It cannot withstand the disintegrating forces of materialist modernity.
The Archbishop of Glasgow was speaking to American priests. The Benedict Option doesn’t urge them to get out of dodge and leave their parishioners behind. That’s absurd. What it does is to urge them to go back into the roots of Christian tradition, especially in reviving practices — both collectively, in the parish, and in the lives of the parish’s families — that weave the truth and the experience of God into everyday life. That, and teach the truth. And, teach the flocks why Christians are different from the world today, and why we must be “weird” by the world’s standards if we are to be faithful. Tell stories of the saints and martyrs. Fast in season, and feast in season.
In short: help the people in your spiritual care to see that the sacred canopy has collapsed, and that they must work together to rebuild it — or face the end of Christianity in their descendants. This is not a normal time, and we don’t need empty pep talks from religious professionals who have demonstrably failed to rise to the existential challenge of this post-Christian era.
There is a reason why the Monks of Norcia look at their ruined basilica as a symbol of Christianity in the West. Think about it. And yet … they have hope! Where does that come from? How do they find the strength to withstand it all? There’s wisdom in their tradition — wisdom that every lay Christian can profit from.