The ‘Francis Option’ Fantasy
Papal biographer Austen Ivereigh is a true believer in Pope Francis’s progressive Catholic vision. As George Weigel was to John Paul II, so is Ivereigh to Francis, seeing the pope as the herald of a New Springtime of Evangelization. Here’s a lengthy piece from Ivereigh on Francis and evangelization, in which Ivereigh describes The Benedict Option as “neo-Donatist” and “neo-Jansenist” — slurs that are both theologically inaccurate, and fancy ways of saying, “Oh bother, that Dreher fuddy actually expects us to take sin seriously.”
Dreher has been criticized for his view of Benedictine monks as medieval preservers and conservators rather than rural evangelizers…
Failing, obviously, to have read this line in the introductory chapter of my book:
These monasteries kept faith and learning alive within their walls, evangelized barbarian peoples, and taught them how to pray, to read, to plant crops, and to build things.
Preservers, conservators, and rural evangelizers — all right there in my book. Which I doubt Ivereigh has even read. These people just make stuff up.
Anyway, here’s a clip:
Both Dreher and Francis agree — in line with Benedict XVI, and with the forecast in Romano Guardini’s 1950 The End of the Modern World — that Christendom is over and irrecoverable, and that it is futile and counter-productive to invest energy and resources in unwinnable political battles that only reinforce the idea of Christianity as a set of ethical precepts that the Church seeks to impose via the state. Francis sees the technology-driven forces of globalised postmodernity dissolving the bonds of belonging, sweeping away institutions and turning us into consuming individuals obsessed with gratification and increasingly divorced from our cultural and religious roots. In such a society, as he put it in Santiago de Chile in January 2018, ‘points of reference that people use to build themselves individually and socially are disappearing’, such that ‘the new meeting place today is the “cloud”, characterized by instability since everything evaporates and thus loses consistency’.
Yet where Dreher advocates a strategy of resistance and retreat into what he calls ‘stable communities of faith’, little islands ‘of sanctity and stability amid the high tide of liquid modernity’, Francis, drawing on the vision of Vatican II mediated through the Latin American pastoral experience of the people of God, calls for something far more radical: the rebirth of a new Christian culture from below through a communal experience of an encounter with the God of mercy. Where Dreher withdraws in order to gain strength from separation, Francis seeks to be revivified by a renewed encounter with Christ in his people. For Francis, the liquidity out there is a reason not to raise the drawbridge but to build bridges, launch life-rafts and rebuild from those who have lost most.
Yep, that’s me, advocating raising drawbridges and telling people to head for the hills. That’s plainly the message in this passage from The Benedict Option:
The Hyattsville Catholics are not part of a formal organization. Many are rooted in nearby St. Jerome Parish, but some go to other area parishes. Bible studies, prayers groups, and book clubs happen in people’s homes. But the community is also a practical help to its members, as they assist each other with child care and repair projects, help each other through illness, and meet all kinds of challenges together in ways that living in geographical community makes possible.
Living so close to “the imperial city,” as Currie calls Washington, means that most of his community members work in the nation’s capital. Their close-knit Catholic neighborhood gives them the nurturing they need to be strong witnesses to the faith in the secular city. “We’re not battening down the hatches, hunkering down, and keeping quiet about our faith,” says Currie. “We don’t do it in a belligerent way, but we are not ashamed of who we are.”
He believes the St. Jerome’s Parish community has been called to be a presence in the greater Washington area. The only way they can resist the pressures of worldliness and secularization is by living near each other and reinforcing their religious identity through life lived in common. Their thick community is a strong model of being in the world but not of it. Striking the balance between being an evangelical presence to the wider community while protecting what makes them distinctly and authentically Christian is difficult—but Currie believes that this is the Gospel’s calling.
“Ultimately I think Christians have to understand that yes, we have to be countercultural, but no, we don’t have to run away from the rest of society,” he says. “We have to be a sign of contradiction to the surrounding society, but at the same time we have to be engaged with that society, while still nurturing our own community so we can fully form our children.”
And raising drawbridges is the message from this passage in the final chapter of The Benedict Option:
The image of the church as an Ark floating atop tempestuous waters of destruction is one of great antiquity in the history of the Christian faith. This iconic concept of the church’s self-understanding must be recovered with vigor.
But there’s another biblically sound way to think about the waters that flood the earth, one that is just as important to the Benedict Option project as the Noah’s Ark story.
During the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews, God granted the Prophet Ezekiel a vision of the restored Holy City of Jerusalem. In the vision, a mysterious man leads the prophet into a rebuilt Temple. Ezekiel sees a stream of water issuing forth from the altar, flowing out of its openings and into the world outside. It deepens and widens the farther it spreads from the Temple, until it has become a river that no one can cross. Everywhere this water flows, abundant life follows.
The traditional Christian interpretation of Ezekiel’s vision holds that it was fulfilled on Pentecost, when God poured out the Holy Spirit on the gathered disciples, inaugurating a new era with the birth of the church. Through the church—the restored Temple—would flow the living waters of salvific grace.
The church, then, is both Ark and Wellspring—and Christians must live in both realities. God gave us the Ark of the church to keep us from drowning in the raging flood. But He also gave us the church as a place to drown our old selves symbolically in the water of baptism, and to grow in new life, nourished by the never-ending torrent of His grace. You cannot live the Benedict Option without seeing both visions simultaneously.
Et cetera. I heard about the Ivereigh piece from Catholic theologian Larry Chapp, who wrote a piece here explaining his and his wife’s launch of their Dorothy Day Catholic Worker farm. Chapp e-mailed to point out
this latest nonsense from Austen Ivereigh, in which he accuses you of advocating for a scorched earth retreat from modernity as opposed to the “Francis Option” that seeks only to build bridges and to build a new Christian culture from below by reminding people of God’s mercy. You cannot make this up. Are they this naive? Do they really think the issue is that people are alienated from the Church because they think it lacks mercy? That people are just waiting around for God to forgive them of their sins? Do they not know that it is the very concept of sin that has been rejected and thus the entire Christian narrative, root and branch, has been rejected? These people really do not get it. Or maybe they do. Maybe they know that nobody is waiting for mercy and all they want to do is approve of what is happening in the culture.
Larry has given me permission to publish here his longer critique of the Ivereigh/progressive Catholic mindset. To be clear, it’s obvious that the John Paul II “conservative” optimism was unwarranted. I do not posit Francis’s progressivism as opposed to JP2’s conservatism (and Benedict XVI, I think he was a tragic figure in a different way than JP2 was). I’m saying that the problem is so radical that conventional theological left-right thinking can’t properly address it. Francis’s vision, however, strikes me as total dissolution of Christianity in liquid modernity. Here’s Larry Chapp:
The British historian of economics, R.H. Tawney, once wrote that the most obvious facts are also the most easily forgotten. This quote, which is at the front of E.F. Schumacher’s classic “Small is Beautiful”, really hit home to me last night. I was watching a video on the life of Saint Benedict which is part of Bishop Robert Barron’s “Pivotal Players” video series. And about one third of the way in, Robert Barron comments on the fact that there are some people today who are calling for a return to Benedict’s model as a means of dealing with the post Christian nature of our culture. He does not mention you by name, but you can tell that you are lurking in the background of his comments. I leaned forward in my seat to make sure I caught every word (I know Robert Barron personally, and admire him, so his thoughts on this topic are important to me) and was most pleased when he endorsed the idea as, at least, one very plausible response to the problem of modernity. He said, point blank, that sometimes we have to “retreat” from the superficialities of modern life in order to restore our spiritual batteries, so to speak, in order to then go back out into the culture to evangelize. And what an evangelizer Bishop Barron is! So he can hardly be endorsing the Ben Op here as a flight from reality. He gets it.
But why did Robert Barron’s comments remind me of the Tawney quote? Because Barron’s comments are just so self-evidently true that one wonders how it is that so many people continue to misconstrue and mischaracterize the “Benedict Option” as an unchristian flight from a proper “engagement” with the world. I get this all the time too from people who do not understand our move to a Catholic Worker farm. I mean, Jesus himself had to retreat to a “desert place” in order to pray. And if Jesus needed to retreat, temporarily, from the world in order to pray how much more do we need to do so? The basic spiritual principle that is at work in the Ben Op is a principle that is shared by almost every religion in the world. The world of our “day to day” concerns can clutter the mind and soul in a way that obscures what is truly important. Therefore, precisely in order to function properly IN THAT DAY TO DAY WORLD, one needs to “go away to a desert place” in order to regroup and refill the reservoir. Heck, even on a purely secular level, we all need to go on vacations now and then just so we can come back to our everyday life renewed and reinvigorated.
So when I read people criticizing the Ben Op (such as Fr. Spadaro or Cardinal Cupich) and they are rejecting it on the grounds that it represents an unchristian refusal to “engage the world” I truly wonder how they can be so obtuse. I do not think for one second that it is simply because they have not read your book carefully. I think for some people who have criticized your book this might be true — they view it as a kind of right-wing Christian survivalism and doomsday prepping simply because they have not read the book and they then plug it into a ready made caricature of some kind of neo-Essene apocalyptic cult. But that is not the case for prelates and priests who should know better.
What do they mean, therefore, when they say that, unlike you, they prefer to “engage” the culture? On the face of it, this is just an impossible stance to understand. I mean, did St. Benedict fail to engage the culture?? Did the monasteries he founded, all of which were in some sense predicated upon the idea of a “retreat” from the world, fail to engage and change the culture? The answer to those two questions is one of Tawney’s “facts” that are so obvious that they are easily forgotten. For as Robert Barron points out, it was precisely the monasteries that saved the learning of classical antiquity, developed new technologies and techniques for agriculture, started the first hospitals and universities, initiated forms of scholarship and learning that were the foundations for modern science, and articulated a cosmology and worldview that made what we call “modern Europe” possible at all. So of course, it would be risible in the extreme to claim that what St. Benedict espoused was a wholesale rejection of the world and a retreat into a private spirituality of elitist enlightenment. Indeed, such a view would be beyond risible. It would be, rather, monumentally and spectacularly stupid.
But allow me to be even more blunt: it is simply disingenuous for any prelate or priest of high rank to claim that a desire to live a more Benedictine life in the midst of today’s world is an unchristian “flight” from “engagement” with the world. They do not mean this because it is impossible for a thinking Catholic to hold such a ridiculous view. For from the point of view of truly Catholic spiritual principles, to deny the value of such Benedictine ideals, is the theological equivalent of claiming that the earth if flat.
Therefore, the true motivations behind their words of criticism for the Ben Op must be sought elsewhere. I propose that the answer is that when they say they want to “engage” the world what they really mean is that they want the Church to “approve” of that world and to embrace it and to make the governing principles of modern culture the central governing principles of the Church as well. In short, I propose that what they are advocating is a wholesale reconfiguration of the Catholic faith into something that is altogether different from what has come before. What they are proposing is a hermeneutics of rupture with the Tradition that will recast the Church as a liberation movement that has close ideological affinities with the world of identity politics and secularist concepts of sexual freedom. The obsession among certain groups of European and North American Cardinals/bishops with issues centering on sexuality is very evident, so much so in fact that many African bishops at the Youth Synod commented on it with obvious disdain.
And if I am right about this (and I am, lol) then their criticism of the Ben Op has nothing whatsoever to do with your particular proposal, per se, and, in point of fact, goes far deeper than that. Because if I am right it means that their argument really is with St. Benedict himself. Indeed, their argument would also be with the image of Jesus presented to us by the Gospels themselves as a man of deep prayer and who espoused very strict views of human sexuality (no divorce and even lust in the heart is already adultery!). That is why they need a “new Jesus” of antinomian leanings whose only real enemies were the religious authorities and the whole apparatus of the Jewish cult, centered in the Temple. This is the Jesus of the liberal biblical exegetes, most of whom of course reject the “divine Jesus” of the Trinity as a late Hellenistic invention, which first obscures, and then deforms, the “real Jesus” who was really just a first century combination of Deepak Chopra, Harvey Milk and Che Guevara.
The logic that then flows from this is simple and we see it all of the time. First, you reduce Jesus to a radical moral reformer who opposed the religious authorities of his day in the name of the “marginalized”. Second, you identify a modern group whose cause you wish to champion. Third, you present this group as a member of that broad class of individuals known as the “marginalized”. Fourth, you therefore claim that Jesus would have been a champion of these groups as well since he was on the side of the marginalized. (And here you are banking on the fact that nobody actually reads the New Testament.) Finally, you tell any Christian who disagrees with you that THEY are the unchristian ones and that they are “going against Jesus”. Of course, it begs the question as to why the historical Jesus that they present (merely a man who died 2000 years ago) is someone I should give a crap about. But he — we are about the business of bravely reconstructing a new form of “Christianity”, so some version of Jesus has to be presented in order to justify what is, at its root, just one more boring secularist demolition of the sacred.
What all of this underscores is just how important the Ben Op is, precisely in its overtly Christian iteration. Once again, one of Tawney’s obvious facts that is so easy to forget is that the “Benedict Option” is first and foremost a call for lay Christians to live out, right where they are and the extent to which they are able, the evangelical counsels that Benedictine monks live out in the monasteries. And that, of course, is first and foremost a regimen of prayer and spiritual sacrifice for the sake of the world. I wonder, therefore, how many people read the title of your book Rod and utterly miss that most obvious fact which is, apparently, hiding in plain sight. Namely, that this is a book whose vision is grounded in the spiritual vision of St. Benedict!
And what was that vision? It is a radically Christological and priestly vision. Christ says that all he does and all he says and all he “possesses” is from the Father. He does nothing but the Father’s will. And yet, He and the Father are One. “He who sees me sees the Father”. In other words, the first hints of a radically deepened view of God are being articulated. A vision that is a “Oneness” constituted precisely through the relational and communal “Otherness” of Father, Son, and Spirit. Now is not the place to go into the nuances of Trinitarian theology. But my point is that what it is that the Jesus of the New Testament is claiming is that he has come to eliminate the barriers of sin and to inaugurate a new era of grace that will lift people up into that very same life of the Trinity. We too can share in the divine relations through adoption into Christ.
But that requires that we adopt a Christological form of existence — a form of life characterized as a radical pouring out of the self for the sake of others. To live as Christ lived is to live as a “man for others”. It is not merely a trite aphorism to say that “he who loses his life will find it” but the very pattern of life in Christ itself. There is NO OTHER PATH. This is the path and it is narrow. But it is just narrow enough to include everyone, paradoxically, whereas the wide path, the one our culture has adopted and which leads to perdition, is actually quite elitist – – only the best and the brightest are truly invited to ride that golden elevator. The rest are mere fodder and hapless slaves to the servile State.
Thus, as Thomas Merton pointed out long ago, his choice to join the monastery was precisely a “No” to that false path for the sake of being a witness to the true path in the hopes that those who are on the false path will come to the living water that is Christ as well. But the “No” aspect to this decision is necessary because it alone frees one up to leave the “old man” and to put on the Christological form of existence.
Ultimately, this is a priestly form of existence. In the great commission at the end of John’s Gospel Jesus says to his apostles “As the Father has sent me so now I send you”. He then breathes on them and sends the Spirit upon them, granting them the power to forgive sins. In other words, the very form of Christ’s “mission” from the Father is the same form that he now gifts to his apostles. That is the form and structure of their priestly mission. And it is a form not of their own making but one they must humbly “receive” as a gift. They are not, in other words, free to reinvent Christ and his Gospel. Their role is strictly that of the priestly intermediary: to bring the Divine life that they have been gifted to the world, to others.
And such is our share, as lay people, in the universal priesthood as well. Our role is to now turn the entire world into an oblation of praise for God. To turn the whole world into God’s Temple. That is what St. Benedict desired. He was not “escaping” from the world. He was retreating to a desert place in order to live a Christological form of life more radically and to then bring that life to others. But at its core it is not a prescriptive “agenda for action” or some kind of “stratagem” that was the product of a “Synod” or a “Pastoral life committee”. It is not a human creation at all. It is the opposite in fact. It is Elijah in his cave listening to the “still small voice” of the Lord. It is, in other words, a participation in Christ’s priestly praise for the Father. Our vocation is to adore God and to invite others to do the same, all the while caring for their material and spiritual needs by pouring out our lives on their behalf.
That, as far as I can tell, is the heart and soul of the Ben Op as well. This should not be hard for a Catholic or an Orthodox Christian to understand.