In my post yesterday, titled “Pope Francis’s Fake News,” I wrote:

I had never thought of it this way, but maybe Catholics in particular need the Benedict Option to preserve the legacy of Benedict XVI — and, in turn, the Catholic tradition — through this confusing time of crisis within their Church. I certainly did not write the book in opposition to Pope Francis, who doesn’t appear in the text. But it’s becoming ever more clear with Father Spadaro, Cardinal Cupich, and others in Francis’s inner circle hate the book, and the idea. And it’s becoming clearer why the Vaticanist Sandro Magister called the Benedict Option idea “a matter of global import.” I saw this with my own eyes the past few days in Hungary and the Czech Republic: Catholics who care about their own tradition are profoundly unsettled by what’s going on in both the world and their Church. They are accustomed to regarding the Church, and the papacy, as a center point in an ever-moving world. But it is no longer so. That’s why The Benedict Option urges all Christians (including Catholics) to anchor themselves deeply in Scripture and Tradition, and into small communities that are so anchored, so as not to be carried away by the tide of faddish liquid modernity. Catholic Ben Op communities will hold on to what their Church has always taught, and will not be confused.

A super-smart conservative Protestant reader responded, jokingly:

So just to be clear — what you are saying in the last paragraph is that the Benedict Option is actually … Protestant! 😉

I responded that no, I’m not saying that. More seriously, the reader explained his take like this:

We are all now responsible to tend and mend our own far smaller, more local canopies of belief. And I’m good with that. I celebrate it, in fact. But it is a fundamentally Protestant, emigrant, refugee way of being in the world.

I concede that the reader has a good point. In fact, I have been saying in my Ben Op lectures that all Christians who wish to be faithful to the tradition — however it has been handed down to them — must regard themselves (ourselves) as in exile now. Let me expand on this point.

The reader, in our exchange, said that it simply makes no sense to him to see Catholic writers like Schmitz, who writes for a Catholic magazine, so strongly criticizing the Pope. If a Catholic criticizes the Pope like that, how is he not Protestant? seems to be the point. Well, no. As Francis’s Catholic critics assert, Catholicism does not mean whatever this or any Pope says it means. Popes are also bound by tradition and canon law. The crisis now in the Catholic Church broadly has to do with whether or not Francis and his theological allies are stretching Catholic tradition past the breaking point with their marriage reforms. To put it crudely (but, in my opinion, accurately): Is the Pope’s new teaching authentically Catholic? 

The fact that the question can even be asked is a sign of how profound the crisis is.

I mentioned in the earlier post a Catholic woman I talked to in the Czech Republic. She converted as an adult, and suffered significantly from family over her decision. You have to remember that hers is a former Communist country, and that most people there are atheists. She told me that in the Catholic faith, she found the Truth, and life. To this day she has to suffer in particular ways for her faith — ways that most Catholics and other Christians in this country do not. She doesn’t complain; she knows this is part of what it means to be a Christian.

The hardest thing — at least from what I gathered in our conversation — is not suffering for the Church, but suffering from the Church. She told a story about a woman in her parish who said that she (the woman) did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God or had been raised from the dead. My interlocutor said that she told the woman that if that’s what she believed, she shouldn’t call herself a Christian. The woman threw a fit, and claimed that she felt marginalized by the woman’s judgementalism.

My interlocutor was expressing why she, as a believing Catholic, feels ever more besieged within the Catholic Church itself. To her, Pope Francis represents not only an emerging tyranny of relativism, but has also shaken her confidence in the Church itself. To be clear, in no way did she indicate that she regretted her decision or was thinking of leaving the Catholic Church. She was just expressing how shocking it is to have come out of an atheist, relativist background, washed ashore onto what she took as the rock of truth, only to be faced with a crisis exacerbated by what she believes to be this pontiff’s recklessness.

Thinking about that conversation just now, I recalled how I came into the Catholic Church with a similar belief that it was a solid Rock, in a way that Protestantism was not. It wasn’t true, at least not at the parish level, not in the United States. Broadly speaking, American Catholicism felt like Mainline Protestantism. What gave me hope to hold on in that time was that Rome — meaning the papacy, and the Magisterium — was solid. Yes, John Paul II may have been on the other side of the ocean, but he was there, and he was holding the line. That confidence got me through a number of crises, but as you well know, my Catholic faith did not survive the Scandal.

Back in my Catholic days, most of the intellectually engaged Catholic friends I had acknowledged that the Church was in a de facto schism. Left-wing Catholics had their own favorite bishops, their own magazines, their own favorite books, and so forth — and so did right-wing Catholics. Somehow, it all held together — and this was something that a convert like me never could understand. If you don’t believe that what the Catholic Church teaches is authoritative, because God gave it the power to teach on faith and morals, then why bother? Why not go be some kind of Protestant?

Well, I’m older now, and I know the power of tribalism when it comes to religion. In the Czech Republic, someone said to me, of a certain intellectual, “He’s an atheist, but he’s a Protestant atheist.” It was a joke, but one that carried with it a certain truth. The intellectual in question had been raised in the Protestant tradition, and that formed his way of thinking in certain ways. I can concede now that my way of thinking about the Catholic faith, as a Catholic, lacked subtlety.

Still, the Catholic faith is not infinitely malleable. How many times did I get into intellectual arguments with other Catholics who refused to acknowledge the authority of the Catholic Church, but who also insisted that they were just as authentically Catholic as those who assented to Catholic teaching? These aren’t arguments at all, not in the formal sense. In fact, if two people calling themselves Catholics do not agree that to be Catholic means that the church has authority to proclaim dogmatic and doctrinal truth, then it is impossible for them to resolve theological disputes within the Catholic tradition.

Put simply, the woman who denied the Incarnation and the Resurrection could not reasonably claim to be Catholic, except in a nominal sense (i.e., because she had been baptized). If someone can deny the Incarnation and the Resurrection and still be thought Catholic in a meaningful sense, then Catholicism is meaningless.

Most Catholic disputes aren’t so starkly delineated, of course. But at some point, lines have to be drawn: beyond this point, you have left authentic Catholicism. For modernist types, religion is infinitely malleable, because it is about arranging theological claims to suit our desires. For traditionalists, big-T Truth exists independently and objectively, though our ability to know it is limited by our own mortality and finitude. Christianity is a religion of revelation. One Czech intellectual I met, not a believer but sympathetic to Catholicism, said, “The Catholics made a mistake when they forgot what Moses knew: that their religion is built on revelation.” His point was that in the end, Christian rationality, however sophisticated, exists on the solid base of assenting to the truth of Biblical revelation.

Note well: Christian authority, not simply Catholic authority. Obviously churches disagree on how to interpret revelation, but in the end, Christianity, like Islam and Judaism, is a revealed religion. This is not the place to get into the interpretive weeds here. The point is this: the Christian religion, whatever its modern forms, makes exclusive truth claims. If it is treated as nothing but a philosophy or law code, it dies. But if it is treated as nothing but a vague, malleable humanitarianism, it also dies. There has to be a there there.

The serious Catholic critics of Pope Francis understand this about the papacy (the quote is from Pope Benedict XVI:

The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the Pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.

They also understand that something absolutely tectonic is happening now to their Church, which is undergoing its distinct version of the crisis that is sweeping over all Christian churches in the modern world. As Catholic Herald deputy editor Dan Hitchens says:

So even if one tries to ignore it, Vatican politics still works its influence. When Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, shocked his admirers by expressing qualified support for assisted suicide laws, he explained: “Pope Francis continues to tell us that everything cannot be regulated by a law and there are always exceptions.” Vanier’s is not the only interpretation of Pope Francis’s ideas—the pope is ambiguous on the question of moral absolutes. The point is that Vanier, in so many other ways a hero of the faith, might not have made such a serious mistake without the influence of the Vatican.

Vanier is just one example of how the pope changes people’s minds. And if he is changing them—even by accident—in the direction of doctrinal errors, then those errors should be named and rejected. Even if the pope does not intend the present doctrinal confusion, it still calls for an urgent remedy. Leo XIII was speaking out of a well-established tradition when he quoted an ancient warning: “There can be nothing more dangerous than those heretics who admit nearly the whole cycle of doctrine, and yet by one word, as with a drop of poison, infect the real and simple faith taught by our Lord and handed down by Apostolic tradition.” If a single false word is so fatal, then how can Catholics ever be relaxed about major ambiguities being broadcast and major errors being allowed to spread? It is right to be on one’s guard against false doctrine, and it may be right to put others on their guard too.

Some will agree with this, but say that only the errors should be pointed out, without naming names. It is not for laypeople to identify false or confusing teaching from bishops, they say, let alone from popes. Which, again, is a reasonable argument …

… And yet, deliberately to ignore the source of an error makes that error harder to uproot. Nor is there any clear principle that says the little people in the Church cannot speak up to the great, or St. Catherine of Siena would have been wrong to rebuke the pope, and St. Thomas Aquinas and canon law would not identify a possible duty for the faithful to address their superiors “even publicly.”

This is not to justify every word of mockery, anger, and vindictiveness in the Church. But the line between prideful rebellion and justified remonstration is not easily drawn. Also unclear is the question of scandal, of whether Catholics should debate these matters publicly. True, the Church is less attractive to non-Catholics when it resembles an especially vitriolic debating society. But it is also less attractive when truth is marginalized. I have heard more often of people drifting from their faith, or being deterred from entering the Church, because of unchecked heresy than because of public disagreement. There is potential scandal in open debate—but also in pretending that everything is fine, thus making Catholicism seem a game in which one conceals one’s opinion when the most serious truths are at stake.

I know that when I was on the road to an adult conversion to Christianity in the late 1980s, the very solidity of the Catholic Church made it the only possible option for me (I knew next to nothing about Orthodoxy). I understood through personal experience that it was folly to expect Catholic orthodoxy out of the local parish, but as I said earlier, Rome was a bulwark. That gave me the confidence to become a Catholic. Today, if I were a young seeker, I wouldn’t have that confidence — because of Francis.

And yet, it must be said, and said as clearly as possible: the kind of spiritual safe haven that I was looking for as a seeker in the 1980s does not exist anywhere in the modern world. 

From The Benedict Option:

Not only have we lost the public square, but the supposed high ground of our churches is no safe place either. So what if those around us don’t share our morality? We can still retain our faith and teaching within the walls of our churches, we may think, but that’s placing unwarranted confidence in the health of our religious institutions. The changes that have overtaken the West in modern times have revolutionized everything , even the church, which no longer forms souls but caters to selves. As conservative Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner has said, “There is no safe place in the world or in our churches within which to be a Christian. It is a new epoch.”

If you haven’t read Dr. Radner’s three-part series on the “Anthropocene epoch” and the church’s life in it, please do. The quote I have above appears in this passage from his first essay:

…I believe that the recent debate in our churches over same-sex marriage has been a distraction from a more fundamental challenge Christians must face. Not that same-sex marriage is unimportant, or should not be opposed. But it is hardly an anti-evangelical Rubicon. At worst, same-sex marriage is a late-stage sign of a far deeper, wider, and long-rooted set of cultural and social changes that have completely reoriented human existence away from its prior and universal understanding of purpose. These changes have engulfed almost all Christians in the world, largely because they are global changes, systemic in every respect, complex, and voracious.

Aspects of these changes have, in themselves, little moral character. Others are intrinsically repugnant. Taken together, however, they constitute an attempt at reinventing what it means to be human. They thereby profoundly obscure our true human character as creatures of God; indeed, they have obscured from our eyes God himself. Since Christians are also bound up in these vast socio-cultural changes, our calling to clarify the truth in their face has been made very difficult indeed: in speaking the truth, we are criticizing ourselves. We are all caught up in the dynamics of the anti-human in major and profound ways, whatever stand we take on individual issues. There is no safe place in the world or in our churches within which to be a Christian. It is a new epoch.

Dr. Radner goes on, in the third part of his long essay:

It no longer matters what church we belong to. We can leave individual destinies to the secret purposes of God, but there is little reason to think that such destinies are tied to a person’s denomination. More broadly, there is but one people of God, whose membership is founded on baptism and whose integrity is given in faithful following of Christ. That one people, the Israel of God, is the subject of divine election, and hence the gifts of all its members are those to be lifted up for all, while their wretched foibles and vices are to be suffered by all in a spirit of correction. The embrace of divine mercy upon a flailing humankind implies far-flung and pointed connections among Christians of every ilk, rather than reliance upon (the now well-rehearsed failures of) individual churches. There are no safe places to run to, but there is a divine calling to be shared, showered with a common set of gifts. [Emphasis his — RD]

On the other hand, such a new ecumenism will never succeed if it merely mimics the structural and communicative dynamics of today’s global ordering, that aims at optimized control over preferred activities, i.e., technocratic centralizations. Such mimicking is simply the sign of cooption and complicity. In our era, the Church’s life, as a single people witnessing to the truths of Christ, will take the form of localities and leaven, of “Benedict options” that multiply, filiate, and propagate, encouraged and supported by all Christians who are willing, no longer simply according to institutional identity.

I do not agree with him, strictly speaking, that “it no longer matters what church we belong to.” It does matter, because we must have a sure way of “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). But in the broader sense, Dr. Radner is absolutely correct: ecclesial membership is not sufficient to the unprecedented challenges of 21st century life. If the Church of ages past was preoccupied with questions of Christology and ecclesiology, today the great challenge is anthropology — that is, What is man?

The LGBT questions tearing the churches apart are at bottom about anthropology. The Bible has one answer; modernity has another. In his forthcoming book about Catholicism in the age of Francis, Ross Douthat argues that what Francis is doing is changing Catholic teaching on marriage, and that by so doing he is demolishing something foundational in the Catholic edifice. I won’t reconstruct his argument here (I’ll be doing an interview with him for this page soon), but it is one that every Catholic ought to take seriously. Indeed, every single Christian needs to recognize the breadth and the depth of the crisis, and accept that there is no ecclesial safe haven.

Some of my fellow Orthodox Christians see what’s happening in the Roman church and Protestant churches and feel grateful that we are not being torn apart like they are. This is illusory. It’s true that we don’t have a Pope Francis figure among us, nor does our ecclesiology allow one to emerge. But what we may not see is that the battle hasn’t broken out generally among us yet, but it is still very much present. Polling shows that Orthodox Christians in the US think no differently on key issues (abortion, marriage) than most Americans. The liberals may not hold the high ground now in the Orthodox Church, but the battles are coming. Orthodox Christians who think it is sufficient to belong to the Orthodox Church, and to go to liturgy on Sundays, but otherwise decline to allow Orthodoxy to direct their ways of life, will find themselves powerless before what’s coming. The same spirit of confusion that is eviscerating the Western churches is going to turn on us too. Our people also allow the world, not the Church, to catechize them and their children.

Let me be blunt: thirty years ago, I thought the Roman Catholic Church was a bulwark against liquid modernity, in the way Protestants were not and could not be. I was wrong. I will not make the same mistake with Orthodoxy.

This is not to say that Catholicism (or Orthodoxy, or whatever form of Protestantism) is not true! That’s a different question, and an important question. But it’s not the most important question in this unprecedented time for the Church, and for humanity. In my recent travels in Eastern Europe, I met an Orthodox parish priest. Within a couple of minutes, he asked me which jurisdiction I belonged to. “Orthodox Church in America,” I said.

“You don’t have autocephaly,” he shot back. And it is true that not all Orthodox jurisdictions recognize the OCA’s autocephaly. What I found tragicomic here is that Christianity is in total collapse in Europe, where this priest lives and serves, but within minutes after being introduced to a fellow Orthodox Christian who, the priest was told, is a writer trying to rally Christians in this time of crisis, he wanted to throw down over a point of ecclesiology. Christians like that have no idea, no idea at all, what’s happening. The flood waters are fast rising, and they want to argue over which team has the better plan to build the boat (if they even see the need to build the boat at all).

So, to go back to the original claim that started this digression: does the Benedict Option recognize that all Christians are more or less Protestants now? No, it does not, and it cannot, because for Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians, where the bishop is, there is the Church. This is a principle that goes back to the early church (specifically, to St. Ignatius of Antioch); it cannot be discarded. The bishop (who symbolizes licit ecclesial authority) is necessary to create the Church locally, but not sufficient to guarantee its thriving. Orthodox Ben Oppers will and should remain Orthodox — which is to say, in communion with their bishop, and the tradition he carries. So will Roman Catholic Ben Oppers, with their bishop and their tradition. The painful and extremely difficult part will come if there is a schism, with rival claimants to episcopal legitimacy. This has happened before: the Western Schism of the late 13th and early 14th century at one point saw three popes arguing over which was the real pope. In Orthodoxy, the Bolshevik Revolution saw two Russian hierarchies — one controlled by the KGB, and the other in the exile Russian church — claiming legitimacy. We cannot ever allow ourselves to think that such things cannot happen to us today.

But if by “Protestant,” the reader means this (from his earlier quote):

We are all now responsible to tend and mend our own far smaller, more local canopies of belief. And I’m good with that. I celebrate it, in fact. But it is a fundamentally Protestant, emigrant, refugee way of being in the world.

… then yes, the Ben Op is “Protestant” in this narrowly construed way. Only in thick local churches can the Church live faithfully today, bearing witness resiliently against the fragmentation of the post-Christian world, and holding onto — and passing down — the tradition that we received. This is because we all live in a world where traditional authority has been shattered. Some Catholics may blame the Reformation for this, but I think doing so serves no purpose. Catholic life in the United States (at least) has been heavily Protestantized — which is to say, modernized — in that it’s quite common for US Catholics to assert the right to make their own decisions about what’s true and what’s not, irrespective of what the Magisterium says. That is not going to change anytime soon. Within Catholicism today, you have irreconcilable positions on what the Church is, and even what Man is.

All of us Christians in liquid modernity are exiles, refugees, the dispossessed. We are in many ways like the Hebrews held captive in Babylon, having to figure out how to keep their faith alive and theologically intact in the absence of Temple worship. Let us look at the opening of Jeremiah 29, in which God, speaking through the prophet, addressed the Israelites in captivity:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.  Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”   Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have.   They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.  For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

This passage, I believe, is the outline of a model for us exiled Christians. It can be broken down like this:

  1. Accept that exile is our fate now, by the will of God, and work for the common good;
  2. Understand that not everyone claiming to speak for God today actually does speak for God authentically — and that we should be very wary of religious leaders telling us what we want to hear; in Jeremiah’s time, the Israelites were encouraging prophets to tell them what they wanted to hear (that God was going to restore them quickly to their homeland);
  3. That now is a time for us to repent of our sins (not, I hasten to add, to listen to false prophets who tell us that we have no sin, or that our sins are actually virtues);
  4. That we have every reason to hope in the long term — but that our hope is tied to that repentance.

As for Catholics and their particular struggle, let me repeat a story I told to audiences in Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Back around the turn of the century, when I was still a Catholic and living in New York City, a favorite pastime of mine was to sit around with my other conservative Catholic friends, whining and complaining about the failings of the institutional church. One night, over drinks, a Catholic priest friend of ours listened to us until he had had about enough.

“Listen, everything you all are saying about the Church is true,” he said. “We are in a terrible crisis now, and it’s not an easy one to explain or to solve. Everything you say about how bad the bishops and the priests are is true. You are fools if you sit around waiting for the Church to get its act together.

“But here’s the thing,” he continued. “The Church gives you everything you need to hold fast, and to raise your kids in the Catholic faith. In the Seventies, my parents knew that they couldn’t trust the parish to catechize their children. They also knew that they had a responsibility to raise us as faithful Catholics. They worked hard to do it, and they succeeded. Today, you have so many more resources available to you than they did. For one, you have the Catechism. For another, you can go on Amazon and order a theological library that Aquinas could only have dreamed of, and have it delivered to your front door in days.”

He went on to say that yes, times are bad, but if we knew what was good for us, we would band together and figure out ways to catechize ourselves, to build strong fellowship among orthodox Catholic families, and to form our children in the authentic faith, no matter what was happening in the parish, the archdiocese, or the global Church. He exhorted us to stop complaining, and start doing the hard work of being creative minorities in the post-Christian age.

We knew that he was right, this priest. But do you think it changed us? Do you think it change me? No, not at all. Six years later, my Catholic faith was in ruins, swept away by scandal, fear, and loathing.

I’m not going to let that happen to me and my family as Orthodox Christians. I urge you Christian readers — Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant — not to let it happen to you. Because I assure you, it will. Take nothing for granted. One Catholic man in the Czech city of Brno rose during the Q&A period after my speech there to say, “But we know from Scripture that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church.”

“Yes, that’s true,” I replied. “But Scripture does not say that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church in the Czech Republic, or the United States. That’s up to us to determine.”