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The ‘Francis Option’: An Alternative to The Benedict Option?

One of my Italian readers sends me a short piece from the daily Corriere della Sera, in which the interviewer interrogates Father Julian Carron, the head of the international Catholic movement Communion & Liberation. This week, Father Carron will publish a book-length series of interviews with Andrea Tornielli, a journalist close to Pope Francis. Excerpts, courtesy of Google Translate:

Hence profound consequences for the ongoing debate in the Christian world. In the United States, for example, he discusses Rod Dreher’s book, the author of The Benedict Option comparing liquid modernity with the Universal Flood of the Bible, and invites Christians to do as the Saint of Norcia in the 6th century , to retreat to new convents: “Build us the arches with which to survive, and with the help of God to float until we see the mainland again, and we will begin to rebuild, replicate and renew the world.”

>Carrón points to the opposite, what he calls the “Francis Care”, the therapy of Pope Bergoglio: instead of retreat, rather throwing oneself into the world. However, knowing that the only way to do this is to return to the origins of the Christian message: not to present it as a doctrine, as a set of rules and formulas, or a morality, a civil religion, a private devotion. But rather as a historical event, an event, meeting with Christ; which is communicated not for proselytizing, but “by attraction,” writes Francis in Evangelii gaudium. Just as at the dawn of Christianity, when people looked at those crazy people who believed in the equality of men who cured sick people during epidemics, who respected women and did not force them to abort or kill newborns, and began imitating them . “Christianity,” says Carrón, “ultimately communicates with envy: seeing that Christian life is fuller, more intense, more capable of embracing the other, loving the other, the desire to live so is turned on.”

The Francis Option, which the CL leader constantly points out is consistent with the founder’s magisterium, Fr Giussani, and the continuity with the papacy of Benedict XVI, is truly a firm stand for a movement that has long been told as a bastion of conservatism, militant on the front of “non negotiable values”, a piece of the Christian right, which does not coincide with some of the sharpest critics of this papacy. “I must confess that I miss the reasons for such positions,” Carrón says. “Pope Francis represents a grace for the Church in today’s world. Those who do not believe that Francis is the cure do not understand what the illness is. “

Here we go again. I feel that I have to answer this, because Father Carron is a really big deal in the Catholic Church, and I don’t want to let his claims go unaddressed.

It is perfectly clear to anyone who reads my book that I do not advocate simply running away from the world. I advocate an inward turn towards deepening contemplation, strengthening Christian practices, and thickening community, so that when we go out into the world, we will do so as authentic Christians. The Benedict Option is about recovering discipleship, and doing so with the understanding that the world, especially in the West, is going through epochal changes. If we continue to live the way we have been doing as Christians, we will continue to be assimilated, and ultimately cease to be Christian. It is happening right now, and has been happening. The statistics don’t lie.

I agree with Francis that we in the church have to bear witness to the world. What I don’t see in him is a clear sense of what distinct things Christians must bring to that encounter.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview earlier this year that Father Carron did with Crux. It gets to the heart of what I’m saying:

Of course, what worries some people is that when Jesus met Zacchaeus, the point was to get him to change his heart. Today, some worry that the pope, along with some priests and bishops, are engaging in ‘encounter’ without the same expectation of conversion from the errors they’re committing.

Conversion doesn’t depend on the act, it depends on us. When we go to meet a thief, we bring ourselves to that encounter. Jesus had no problem going to the house of Zacchaeus, without explaining all his theology or moral rules. He went because the truth was incarnate in his person. The problem is, what people are meeting when they meet us? If what they meet in you is simply a manual of things to do, they already know that and they’re still not able to do it. But if they find themselves in front of a person who offers love, they’ll start wanting to follow that person and be like them, which is what happened to Jesus.

I suspect many would grant that we can’t start with the rules, but what worries people is whether we’re ever going to get to them at all.

If a person falls in love, at a certain point that happens naturally. When you get married and are really in love, it’s just natural to want to clean the house, to put together a nice lunch, and so on. The problem now is that people aren’t meeting someone for whom it seems to make sense to invest themselves like that. An ethical code isn’t that kind of encounter.

To get concrete, lots of people inspired by Pope Francis today say the Church needs to accompany the LGBT community, for instance, or divorced and civilly remarried believers, and we do it regularly. But what critics would say is, doesn’t that have to involve at some point telling them that their behavior has to change?

I’ll respond with an example. Too often, we think the choices come down to either saying nothing or being ambiguous. I knew a group of couples, families, that involves about 18 to 20 families, and no one is married, all for different reasons, sometimes with understandable reasons. Some of our families involved in Communion and Liberation spent time with them, without saying anything about their ‘irregular’ situation. Over time, they all got married! They found themselves in front of people who were living family life in a way that just couldn’t leave them indifferent. In the end, they all got married not because someone explained the rules or Christian doctrine on marriage, but because they didn’t want to lose what they saw alive in these other families.

In Christianity, the truth has been made flesh. You only understand the full dimensions of this truth made flesh by meeting and watching a witness. The whole Christmas liturgy is about the fullness of God becoming visible. If it hadn’t become visible, we would never have understood it … that’s the great challenge.

It’s useless to ask others if they’re everything they’re supposed to be. The real question is, are we convincing witnesses to the faith? Do we still believe in the disarmed beauty of the faith? A person who’s in love will know what to do, and you fall in love through meeting someone. That’s what made the experience of Jesus a ‘Copernican revolution’ for humanity.

I agree with this, for the most part. That’s why I say in my book and in the speeches I give that the best argument for the faith today is not the arguments we make — the world cannot hear those — but the lives Christians live and the things Christians create. (This is not my idea; it comes from Pope Benedict XVI.)

The problem is that in today’s world, far too many churches and Christian individuals have lost the knowledge of what it means to be a Christian. This is why sociologist Christian Smith’s findings that the overwhelming number of US Christians believe in a pseudo-Christianity he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is so important — and so catastrophic to the present and future of the faith. Christianity is not whatever people who call themselves Christians happen to believe. That is MTD. That is emotivism. You cannot authentically disciple people who believe there is no truth beyond themselves to which they should conform. What many, many Catholics and other Christians think of the faith has been conditioned by liquid modernity: it is always changing to fit the felt needs of the time.

Here, by the way, is what Smith means by MTD:

By ‘moralistic’ I mean oriented toward being good and nice, in ways that assert certain moral claims (for example, ‘You should never have sex with someone you don’t really care about.’) in fairly arbitrary ways without their being integrated into any larger, coherent moral tradition.

By ‘therapeutic’ I mean being primarily concerned with one’s own happiness, good feeling, personal comfortability, and emotional wellbeing—in contrast to, say, a focus on glorifying God, learning obedience, or serving others.

Finally, by ‘deism’ I mean a view of God as normally distant and not involved in one’s life, except (as qualified by the ‘therapeutic’) if one has a problem one needs God to solve, one can call on God to fix it and make one feel better. In MTD, in other words, God functions as a combination divine butler and cosmic therapist.

More from that interview with Christian Smith:

CS: Right. Teenagers aren’t universally inarticulate. In areas where the adult world has made a point to get their attention and educate them, where the young people can see that something really matters, like not diving drunk or getting pregnant, teenagers can be quite articulate.

But it hit us like a ton of bricks that most religious teenagers aren’t being well educated in the faith or given much practice in articulating their beliefs and why and how they matter. For more than a few teenagers, in fact, it seems like ours was the first time any adult ever asked them what they believed. Some of them said exactly that.

TJ: If you’re right about this—and I suspect that you are—it would seem that Christian parenting and Christian youth ministry have largely failed to inculcate or implant a distinctly Christian identity in our 13- to 17 year olds. Would you agree?

CS: Yes. In very many cases it seems that is so. Many parents come from a generation that has bent over backwards not to ‘shove anything down anyone’s throat.’ Consequently, their kids aren’t getting much direct theological substance to embrace, revise, or reject. If so, that’s a real disservice to kids.

My sense is that most youth ministers are knocking themselves out to do their best. Many also tell me they’re under pressure from all sides to entertain their teenagers, which isn’t a great context for sustained, solid teaching in faith. But for whatever reasons, the bottom line is that the majority of teenagers, including many evangelicals, turn out to be pretty clueless and inarticulate about their own faith perspectives.

TJ: You surmise that this ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ isn’t unique to young people, but that they’re actually just reflecting the less-than-passionate faith of their parents. Many youth workers will agree with you on this; yet you caution church youth workers not to see parents as their adversaries. Why?

CS: One of the most powerful realizations I took from our research is how formative parents are in their teenagers’ lives. They often don’t realize it, but parents are the most significant influences on their teenage children’s faith lives. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that normally the most important pastor a young person is going to have is his or her father and mother—for better or worse (often the latter).

If this were the case, youth ministers would be much more effective working with parents rather than against them. I realize not all parents want to work with the youth minister. I’ve picked up among youth ministers from many faith traditions a distinct sense of tremendous frustration with the parents of their teenagers—and I can understand why—but in the long run, an adversarial relationship with teenagers’ parents is counterproductive. It seems to me that the more youth ministry can work with parents and be set in a larger context of family and church ministry, the more effective it will be.

That was Smith (who is a Roman Catholic convert) talking about the spirituality of the coming generation of Christians in general. On the specific situation with Catholic youth, Smith calls it “grim.”

The indisputable fact is that the Catholic Church in this country — both the institution and the parents within it — has done a terrible job in passing on the faith to their children. Look at this report, based on Christian Smith’s book Young Catholic America. Excerpt:

Since [the 1960s], 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.

And they are leaving the church in huge numbers. This is a crisis, and all the happy-clappy in the world will not address it effectively. This may not be clear to Father Carron. I count a few CL members as friends, and I have found that CL members are well formed in their faith. But that’s not most people in the Church.

My question is: where are all these Catholic Christians who are going to engage the world and spark transformative encounters with non-believers going to come from? Pope Francis’s ideas would make sense if the Church, and Catholic families, were already doing a good job of forming faithful Catholic disciples. You cannot have the “Francis Option” without meaningful formation and spiritually disciplined practices in daily life. The pope often leaves the impression that this is unimportant, that this is something that only Pharisaical Catholics care about. But without real formation, the Francis Option is nothing but emotivism.

My sense is that the so-called “Francis Option” is a gateway to MTD, because it downplays the importance of intellectual and spiritual formation. So I will repeat: Yes, lay Christians must go into the world to serve and to evangelize. They are not called to the cloister. But they cannot do that effectively if they don’t have far better formation, first of all in their families, but also in the community of the church. Without that, Pope Francis is sending medics to the field hospitals with no medical training. They are as likely to put Nutella on wounds as they are real medicine.

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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