The Civiltà Cattolica Smear
A week ago, I published a lengthy response to an attack on The Benedict Option that appeared in the influential Rome-based Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica. The author is a Jesuit priest named Andreas Gonçalves Lind. At that time, I was working from an English-language draft that had been circulated among journalists. The Italian version was public then. Now an English language translation has been made public. It’s the same as the draft, but now you can read the whole thing in English.
I stand by my initial response. You might not be interested in reading the whole thing, so consider this post a summary of my points.
1. The Lind piece treats ordinary Christian moral seriousness as more or less a heresy. Donatism was an ancient Christian heresy promoting extreme moral rigorism. Donatist denied that priests and bishops who had sold out the church during persecution could ever celebrate valid sacraments, and implicitly denied the validity of a sacramental confession. It is a slur to say that the Benedict Option, which simply calls for Christians to regain traditional Christian spiritual and moral discipline (which, for Catholics and Orthodox, means returning to regular confession), is a heresy.
“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” said Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:48) in the Sermon on the Mount. By contemporary Jesuit standards, was he a Donatist too?
2. The Lind piece often commits the fallacy of association — that is, implying guilt by association. Lind does it using weaselly words and phrases.
For example, “Dreher, obviously without falling into heresy, seems to echo Donatus…” and “the Benedict option does not automatically imply the arrogance that Augustine perceived in Donatist attitudes. However, its appeal for a ‘tightened Church discipline’ resounds with Donatist moral rigidity.”
I always assumed that whatever else they were, Jesuits were aces at reasoning. Guess that no longer holds. You could just as plausibly say, “The Jesuit order does not automatically imply Donatism, but their claim that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ resounds with Donatist theology.”
3. Lind frequently mischaracterizes the claims and arguments in my book. For example:
Another characteristic of Donatist attitudes mentioned by Yves Congar concerns hostility toward secular institutions. Donatists tended to refuse to collaborate with the authorities of the Empire who, for them, represented pagan powers. In their theological point of view, the purity of Christian practice implied the refusal to participate, collaborate or be engaged with pagans in their non-Christian institutions.
In this sense, Donatists were actually a “parallel polis.”
The Benedict Option is completely clear that the concept of the “parallel polis” is something Christians may have to do when the secular institutions become too hostile to us, or will not allow our participation. This is why the Catholic hierarchy in the United States founded Catholic schools in America back in the day. We are quickly getting to the point where the purity of secular practice refuses to allow Christians to participate, etc. The book, which Father Lind purports to have read, makes this crystal clear. Unless Father Lind proposes unqualified collaboration — and that seems to be a popular thing in Rome these days — what, then, would he have Christians facing these situations do?
In Belgium, where Father Lind lives, does he believe that Christian doctors and medical personnel should capitulate to the state and perform euthanasia? If not, how should they live, and practice their vocation? The Benedict Option considers this challenge. Does Father Lind? He is living in a fantasy land if he doesn’t think Christians are facing and will increasingly face these kinds of choices. The words in my book come from law professors, physicians, and others on the front lines of real life.
4. Father Lind faults me for pessimism, and for not being committed to “true dialogue” with the world.
Well, he’s got that right: I do have a pessimistic outlook regarding contemporary societies. How could any small-o orthodox Christian who pays attention not be pessimistic? Heck, even Pope Francis is, in the word of his biographer, “apocalyptic”! Of course Dreher wants to talk to others — The Benedict Option explicitly calls for open collaboration among Christians and others (I mention Jews in particular) who share our countercultural stance towards the world, if not our theological convictions — but I have no interest in the failed assimilationist ideas of the modern Jesuits. Those might have seemed reasonable in 1968, but we know what the fruits of that approach have been: collapse.
I have confidence that Catholics who want their faith to survive this particular apocalypse, and live on in their children, and their children’s children, will join me and other Christians of goodwill in trying to forge a new path, out of the ruins of contemporary Christianity. It will come as a shock to many, but there are pre-1965 traditions within the Catholic Church that actually have something to say to Catholics today — and to all Christians. That’s the main message of The Benedict Option. My own approach is no doubt flawed, and I welcome correction. But I prefer to try something serious to resist over pious strategies of capitulation.
Again, if you want to read my full response, you can see it here. This has been a summary of what I believe was by no means a critique made in good faith, but a smear. The bizarre thing is that I concede straight up that I do not have all the answers, and that I welcome correction and improvement. Yet over and over, many (but not all!) critics keep seriously misrepresenting what I argue. It’s wild. The moral panic in these people is something to observe. Is it because they fear, deep down, that I might be right, and they have no idea what to do except doubling down on the same failed strategies?
As I point out in the response, Catholicism in the West is in free fall. This letter from an American Catholic mom, about what passes for Catholic higher education in her part of the world, is a missive from the front lines. Ignatian Yoga retreats might be cool and Jesuitical, but they aren’t going to turn this sinking ship around. But there are Catholics (and other Christians) who are taking it upon themselves to be what Pope Benedict XVI called on them to be: creative minorities, who are working hard, at great sacrifice, to find ways to live out the fullness of the faith in a post-Christian time and place.
People expect unjust opposition and even persecution from outside the Church. They don’t expect it from within. They had better get used to it. When one of the world’s most prestigious Catholic journals, one known for being particularly close to the Pope, smears one with associations of heresy, simply because you want to be more faithful to what the Church teaches, and seek to learn from Catholic practices prior to the 1960s, well then, let this be a sign to one of the times.