Francis Swipes The Benedict Option
There is always a temptation to build “nests”, to cling to our little group, to the things and people we like, to resist all contamination. It is only a small step from a nest to a sect, even within the Church. How many times do we define our identity in opposition to someone or something! The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, brings together those who were distant, unites those far off, brings home those who were scattered.
Huh. I have always denied that The Benedict Option is opposed to Pope Francis. His name does not appear in the book, and in fact I started writing about the concept in the final years of John Paul’s papacy. When I heard reliably, and in detail, that certain figures in the Vatican tried to sabotage my Benedict Option book tour in Italy, in part by calling around bishops and telling them to steer clear of Rod Dreher, because his book attacks the Pope, I didn’t blame Francis. But now he’s taken a pretty clear swipe at the idea, so while I still don’t conceive of the Benedict Option as “opposed to Francis” (in part because the Ben Op would still be necessary if Benedict XVI was Pope, and will be necessary after Francis is gone), I do want to take this opportunity to remind readers, in light of the Pope’s remarks, why Catholics, in particular, need the Benedict Option, and not the vision Francis is selling.
Let’s leave aside the fraudulent characterization of the Benedict Option as a scheme to avoid “contamination,” and opposed to evangelization. I have dealt with that tiresome libel many times. For example, Antonio Spadaro, the Jesuit priest who is part of Francis’s inner circle of advisors, came to the University of Notre Dame and denounced the Benedict Option in a speech in terms like the ones used by the Pope on Pentecost. I answered his claims here. Francis’s language on Pentecost is the same kind of language Spadaro has used in attacking the Ben Op directly.
For the record, here is a passage from The Benedict Option that explains the concept as a form of withdrawal for the sake of discipleship and effective evangelization:
What these orthodox Christians are doing now are the seeds of what I call the Benedict Option, a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to embrace “exile in place” and form a vibrant counterculture. Recognizing the toxins of modern secularism, as well as the fragmentation caused by relativism, Benedict Option Christians look to Scripture and to Benedict’s Rule for ways to cultivate practices and communities. Rather than panicking or remaining complacent, they recognize that the new order is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived with. It will be those who learn how to endure with faith and creativity, to deepen their own prayer lives and adopting practices, focusing on families and communities instead of on partisan politics, and building churches, schools, and other institutions within which the orthodox Christian faith, can survive and prosper through the flood.
This is not just about our own survival. If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have. If Israel had been assimilated by the world of the ancient Near East, it would have ceased being a light to the world. So it is with the church.
So that’s what I propose. And, crucially, I do not take a stand behind a particular church or confession in the book. I profile in its pages Evangelicals who are doing the Ben Op in their own way, Catholics who are doing so, and Orthodox who are doing the same. I say in its pages that the Ben Op is going to look different for Christians in different traditions, as well as for Christians living in different circumstances (e.g., urban vs. rural) — but there are principles that should be present in all Ben Op communities. To put a fine point on it: the implication for Catholics is that the Benedict Option is to help you live the orthodox Catholic faith out more faithfully, not to dissent.
Francis’s words on Pentecost remind me of a propaganda blast from a Soviet official puffing the “record grain harvests,” thanks to the collectivization of agriculture, when in fact millions were starving. He contrasts the Ben Op (though not using its name) to the work of the Holy Spirit, who “brings home those who were scattered.”
What kind of home in the Catholic Church would the Holy Spirit be bringing the lost to?
It’s a home in which the senior institutional leadership — the Pope, cardinals, bishops — is in a catastrophic crisis of credibility caused by its own gross mismanagement, including in some cases personal corruption. The endless revelations are driving even solid Catholics to the brink of despair (read what Elizabeth Scalia said on Pentecost; makes for quite the contrast with Francis). It is beginning to dawn on more and more people that the institutional Church is more rotten than they thought, and that this crisis is not nearly over. They are coming to see that they cannot trust the hierarchy, even the Pope, to reform itself.
But they are Catholics, and as such, believe that the Roman Catholic Church has the fullness of the faith. How are they supposed to hold on through this crisis? I would say by taking the Benedict Option, which emphasizes prayer, fasting, devotions, and building up a small local community of Catholics who are truly committed to the faith, in a countercultural way. In my book, I introduce readers to some of these people. They’re not running away from the Catholic Church. In fact, they really want to be authentically Catholic. They know, however, that if they just live as run-of-the-mill Catholics today, in this post-Christian world, it will be much more difficult for the faith to survive into future generations.
It is a mystery why this or any Pope should be judging and discouraging people who seek this alternative — but faithful! — path within the Catholic Church. But here we are.
Why would lay Catholics seek to build small communities of faith and practice? It has something to do with the fact that the parish model has failed as a reliable method of building strong faithful communities. Part of that failure is within the community itself (as distinct from the priest and the parish administration) — that is, the parents who go to mass. A worship community that strongly disagrees on the teachings of the faith is divided against itself, and cannot form the next generation in the faith.
One Catholic man I met on my Benedict Option travels told me that his parish priest asked him once why the moms and dads and kids in his Ben Op group do their catechesis, Bible study, and the rest outside of the parish. The man said he had to be honest with the priest: he told the priest that the adults want their children to grow up Catholic, and they don’t trust that to happen in the parish. The man explained to me that that particular priest is middle of the road to progressive, and runs religious education in a no-hassles way — which is what most of the parents, nominal Catholics all, want.
Let me be clear: in this case, it wasn’t only the priest’s fault, but also the fault of the majority of parents in that parish community.
In 2014, Christian Smith, the Catholic sociologist of religion, wrote a devastating book called Young Catholic America, laying out his team’s findings on the beliefs and practices of Catholics aged 18 to 25 (who he calls “emerging adults”). From a Catholic moral theology blog, here are some takeaways from the book:
3. Parents are key to handing on the faith. Given this social dimension, it should not be a surprise that Smith insists that parents are one of the most important factors in affecting the faith of emerging adults. He writes, “the single most important measurable factor determining the religious and spiritual lives of teenagers and young adults is the religious faith, commitments, and practices of their parents.” The best condition is having both parents committed to raising their children in the faith. However, since mothers are usually committed to doing so, fathers’ commitment or lack of commitment is often the deciding factor. Smith writes,
Committed Catholic fathers are not a sufficient condition for producing children who will be committed Catholics down the road. However, in most cases, having a committed Catholic father seems to be a necessary condition. Having a doubting and uncommitted Catholic father appears in many cases to be a sufficient condition for a Catholic child to be an uncommitted and even an alienated Catholic as an adult.
4. Catholic schools and parishes appear to have little effect. Smith spends some time on parishes and Catholic primary and secondary schools. On the surface, emerging adults who went to church and attended Catholic schools knew more about the faith and were more likely to practice it. Yet, these differences seem to be more associated with the parents’ faith than the parish or school itself. In other words, it is the parents and their religious commitment behind their children going to church, attending Catholic schools, and continuing to believe. The most significant factor for these institutions that Smith found was that Catholic schools prevented young adults from totally abandoning their faith.
5. Emerging adults need more than religious parents. If schools and parishes are less significant than parental commitment, is it all up to the parents? Supportive parents are one of the three most important factors affecting the faith of emerging adults, but Smith insists there are two more. Emerging adults must also regularly engage in religious behaviors and practices, and emerging adults must internalize the beliefs and make them their own. While parents are practically necessary, they are not sufficient on their own. Emerging adults need to choose the faith and practice it themselves.
This is really hard to accomplish in a post-Christian culture! You can’t just go along to get along, and hope things work out. This is why Catholics (and all of us Christians) need the Benedict Option.
You can’t exactly blame the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965, for this, in the same way you can blame collectivization of Soviet agriculture for the catastrophic grain harvests. The revolutionary changes sweeping across the Western world in the 1960s would have wreaked havoc on Catholicism without the Council. But at best the Council did very little to halt the scattering.
Today, there’s a big gap between what American Catholics believe, and what the Catholic Church teaches. Everybody knows that. The institutional Church can’t force people to believe. The best it can do is present the moral and theological truth as best as it can, and work with families and Catholic schools to teach those truths and to develop ways to live those truths out (“Emerging adults must also regularly engage in religious behaviors and practices, and emerging adults must internalize the beliefs and make them their own”).
This is what I saw the Tipi Loschi, the Catholic community in San Benedetto del Tronto, doing. It’s so beautiful and inspiring! I encourage all Christians, not just Catholics, to make the pilgrimage to San Benedetto del Tronto and see how those faithful, orthodox, joyful Catholic laity have built and continue to build community. They are building the Catholic future. As Father Cassian of the Norcia monastery told me back in 2015, before I had met the Tipi Loschi, any Christians who want to make it through what’s coming needs to do some version of what they’re doing.
It’s serious. We are long past time for happy talk. Last September, in Rome, Archbishop Georg Gänswein — the private secretary of Benedict XVI — gave a stunning speech in which he endorsed the Benedict Option as a response to the crisis in the Catholic Church. An Italian journalist friend told me that I could be sure that every syllable of this speech was seen in advance and approved by Benedict. In this part of the speech, Mons. Gänswein contrasts Christians of today — who can’t bother to go to mass — with Christians of the fourth century, who suffered martyrdom rather than do without the Eucharist:
In the process of this darkening, the phenomenon of what in German is called the Volkskirche – a “popular church” to which everyone belonged, something which we were still born into, but that never existed in America as it did in Europe — has long since died. Does that sound too dramatic to you?
The number of people turning their back on the Church is dramatic. Even more dramatic, however, is another statistic: According to the most recent surveys, of the Catholics who have not yet left the Church in Germany, only 9.8 percent still meet on Sunday in their places of worship to celebrate the Blessed Eucharist together.
This brings to mind Pope Benedict’s very first journey after his election. On May 29, 2005, on the banks of the Adriatic Sea, he reminded the predominantly youthful audience that Sunday is a “weekly celebration of Easter”, thereby expressing the identity of the Christian community and the center of its life and mission. However, the theme of the Eucharistic Congress (“We cannot live without Sunday”) goes back to the year 304, when Emperor Diocletian forbade Christians under death penalty to possess Holy Scripture, to meet on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist, and to construct rooms for their meetings.
“In Abitene, a small village in present-day Tunisia, 49 Christians were taken by surprise one Sunday while they were celebrating the Eucharist, gathered in the house of Octavius Felix, thereby defying the imperial prohibitions. They were arrested and taken to Carthage to be interrogated by the Proconsul Anulinus.
Significant among other things is the answer a certain Emeritus gave to the Proconsul who asked him why on earth they had disobeyed the Emperor’s severe orders. He replied: “Sine dominico non possumus”: that is, we cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. We would lack the strength to face our daily problems and not to succumb.
After atrocious tortures, these 49 martyrs of Abitene were killed. Thus, they confirmed their faith with bloodshed. They died, but they were victorious: today we remember them in the glory of the Risen Christ.”
In other words, what we, as children of the so-called “popular church”, have come to know as the “Sunday obligation” is, in fact, the precious, unique characteristic of Christians. And it is much older than any Volkskirche. Therefore, it is truly an eschatological crisis that the Catholic Church has been in for a long time now, just as my mother and father reckoned they could perceive it in their day – with “horrors of devastation in holy places” – something perhaps every generation in church history recognized from a distance on its own horizon.
This is an apocalyptic crisis! More from the Gänswein speech:
Given Father Cassian’s testimony, I would like to tell you that Benedict XVI, since his resignation, has understood himself as an old monk who, after February 28, 2013, is committed above all to prayer for Mother Church and his successor, Pope Francis, and for the Petrine ministry founded by Christ himself.
From the monastery Mater Ecclesiae behind the Basilica of St. Peter, the old monk would therefore, considering Dreher’s work, likely point to a speech he gave as acting Pope on 12 September 2008 in the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, in front of the spiritual elite of France.
That was exactly ten years ago tomorrow, and I would therefore like to briefly present excerpts of this speech to you once again:
In the great cultural upheaval of the migration period of the Völkerwanderung and the emergence of new structures of state, the monasteries were the place where the treasures of the old culture survived and at the same time a new culture was slowly formed by them, said Benedict XVI at the time and asked:
“But how did it happen? What motivated men to come together to these places? What did they want? How did they live?
First and foremost, it must be frankly admitted straight away that it was not their intention to create a culture nor even to preserve a culture from the past. Their motivation was much more basic. Their goal was: Quaerere Deum. Amid the confusion of the times, in which nothing seemed permanent, they wanted to do the essential – to make an effort to find what was perennially valid and lasting, life itself. They were searching for God. They wanted to go from the inessential to the essential, to the only truly important and reliable thing there is…they were seeking the definitive behind the provisional…
Quaerere Deum – to seek God and to let oneself be found by him, that is today no less necessary than in former times. A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences. What gave Europe’s culture its foundation – the search for God and the readiness to listen to him – remains today the basis of any genuine culture.”
Mons. Gänswein ends the speech like this:
Even the satanic “Nine-Eleven” of the Universal Catholic Church can not weaken or destroy this truth, the origin of its foundation by the Risen Lord and Victor.
I must therefore honestly confess that I perceive this time of great crisis, which today is no longer hidden from anyone, above all as a time of Grace, because in the end it will not be any special effort that will free us, but only “the Truth”, as the Lord has assured us. It is in this hope that I look at Rod Dreher’s recent reports on the “purification of memory” which John Paul II entrusted to us, and so I also gratefully read his “Benedict Option” as a wonderful inspiration in many respects. In recent weeks, few things have given me so much comfort.
The Benedict Option is nothing more than an attempt to help Christians — Catholics and otherwise — see the God Who is there, despite this present darkness, and to navigate our pilgrimage together through the storm, to safe harbor. In the book, I don’t lay out a ten-point formula; following Pope Benedict’s advice, I exhort Christians to be “creative minorities,” taking the basic principles and diagnosis and building out local forms of resilient orthodox Christian community. These communities must be open to others, but they must have a strong reason for being, and a strong identity. Marco Sermarini of the Tipi Loschi told me that their doors are wide-open to all, but if you want to be part of the community, you have to accept its intentionally Catholic way of life.
I find it impossible to believe that Pope Francis, if he were to visit the Tipi Loschi, would describe them as a “sect” trying to avoid “contamination.” I wish he would stop listening to Spadaro and go see these Ben Op communities for himself. If those joyful, faithful, orthodox Catholics living on the Adriatic aren’t a model of healthy Christian community, what on earth is?
Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe the problem is not Spadaro whispering falsehoods into the Pope’s ear. Maybe it’s his way of thinking. Francis said on Sunday:
How many times do we define our identity in opposition to someone or something!
Well … yes, we do, because that is what we are supposed to do. To affirm Catholic teaching means that you are opposed to what contradicts it. Jesus himself, in Matthew 10: 34-39, defines Christian identity in opposition to lots of someones and somethings:
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set[a] a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.
To teach as if truth and obedient practice doesn’t matter, or is even hostile to the Gospel, is to scatter. Progressive Catholics, and the lukewarm of all dispositions, have been prescribing, either affirmatively or passively, this poison for more than half a century. For a Pope in A.D. 2019 to double down on it, and to spite Catholics who seek fidelity as pathological sectarians is, frankly, a bizarre example of living in unreality. It’s like Stalin’s 1930 op-ed in Pravda, in which he praised the forced collectivization of agriculture. Excerpt:
There is no need to prove that these successes are of supreme importance for the fate of our country, for the whole of the working class, which is the directing force of our country, and, lastly for the Party itself. To say nothing of the direct practical results, these successes are of immense value for the internal life of the Party itself, for the education of our Party. They imbue our Party with a spirit of cheerfulness and confidence in its strength. They arm the working class with confidence in the victory of our cause. They bring forward additional millions of reserves for our Party.
Hence the party’s task is to consolidate the successes achieved and to utilise them systematically for our further advancement.
But the successes have their seamy side, especially when they are attained with comparative “ease” — “unexpectedly” so to speak. Such successes sometimes induce a spirit of vanity and conceit: “We can achieve anything!”, “There is nothing we can’t do!” People not infrequently become intoxicated by such successes; they become dizzy with success…
Dizzy with success! The phrase was Stalinist code warning Party workers who had been sent into the agricultural areas to take farms from the peasants, and whose enthusiasm led them to massacre families, to back off a bit. The implication was that collectivization was going so well that they had lost their heads and gone too far. From Martin Amis’s nonfiction study of Stalinism, Koba The Dread:
Collectivization makes you wonder what the fifty years of the gulag would have been like if telescoped in time (to half a decade) and distended in space (to fill the entire country). Only it was worse, demographically worse. During Collectivization Stalin is reckoned to have killed about 4 million children. For the man himself, though, and for the man’s psychology, the most salient feature of Collectivization was the abysmal depth, and gigantic reach, of it failure. In his introductory administrative push, Stalin ruined the countryside for the rest of the century. It was here, too, that he lit out of all reality, and did so with full Bolshevik aggression. As the Party economist S.G. Strumilin put it: “Our task is not to study economics but to change it. We are bound by no laws.” This was the first stage in Stalin’s opaque — indeed barely graspable — attempt to confront the truth, to bring it into line, to humble it, to break it.
When something is not working, you stop doing it, and find something else. Stalin couldn’t stop, because he could never admit error. He too was dizzy with success! The countryside was being renewed.
Look, I get that the Pope doesn’t like the Benedict Option, or what he has been told is the Benedict Option. Fine — then what does he propose to arrest the ongoing collapse in Catholic belief, practice, and faith in institutional leadership? Perhaps the Holy Father is too dizzy with the success of progressive, postconciliar Catholicism. Raise the felt banner high!