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Joseph Ratzinger’s Benedict Option

Reconsidering the power of Benedict XVI's retreat into contemplative seclusion

I was just finishing writing the speech I’m going to be delivering next week in my Italian book tour, and something occurred to me. I’m going to throw it out there to see what you all think. I could be way off. Still, I want to share it.

Benedict of Nursia was a student in Rome in the final years of the fifth century. Pope St. Gregory the Great, who wrote a biography of Benedict based on interviewing four men who had known him, tells us:

He was born in the province of Nursia, of honorable parentage, and brought up at Rome in the study of humanity. As much as he saw many by reason of such learning fall to dissolute and lewd life, he drew back his foot, which he had as it were now set forth into the world, lest, entering too far in acquaintance with it, he likewise might have fallen into that dangerous and godless gulf.

Therefore, giving over his book, and forsaking his father’s house and wealth, with a resolute mind only to serve God, he sought for some place, where he might attain to the desire of his holy purpose. In this way he departed, instructed with learned ignorance, and furnished with unlearned wisdom.

The man who would become St. Benedict withdrew from the city of Rome because it was so corrupt, and because he feared that if he stayed, he would lose his soul. He retreated to a cave in Subiaco, and adopted a life of prayer, fasting, and Scripture study. After three years, he came out into the world, and eventually became an abbot. He established monasteries, and wrote his Rule. Benedict died in 547, but the monastic movement he started spread like wildfire across western Europe in the following centuries. The monks prepared the West for the rebirth of civilization.

None of that would have happened had Benedict of Nursia not withdrawn from Rome to go into a cave in the forest and pray.

I was writing the final paragraph of my speech, and penned a line about St. Benedict’s “renunciation” of the world, and the destiny his family had planned for him. Suddenly it occurred to me that one can think of Benedict XVI’s abandonment of the papacy as a similar renunciation. The Washington Post today has a story about how “Pope Benedict, in seclusion, looms in the opposition to Pope Francis.” Excerpt:

Try as he might to stay out of the fray, Benedict has been used as a symbol of resistance for a segment of traditionalists who oppose elements of Francis’s reformist papacy and see Benedict’s vision of Catholicism as more aligned with theirs.

“He won’t stop the [Francis] revolution, but his presence reminds you — me, everyone — that another way is possible,” said Marcello Pera, a friend of Benedict and former president of the Italian Senate.

I think this is profoundly true. Benedict XVI has stayed out of the fray over Francis. This is the right thing for him to do. But as Pera points out, even a silent and secluded Benedict sends a message. Italian friends have told me that The Benedict Option has become for many in Italy a refuge from the Francis stuff. I find that discouraging, to be honest, because I did not write the book with an anti-Francis agenda in mind, and don’t want it to be taken as anti-Francis. Nevertheless, Father Antonio Spadaro, SJ, a major Francis mouthpiece, and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago have both publicly denounced the book and the idea as counter to Pope Francis’s vision, so what can I say? My book is certainly infused with the spirit of Ratzinger, who I think of as the second Benedict of the Benedict Option.

Years ago, when I was in college, I read Thomas Merton’s great autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. In it, Merton, who wrote it as a new Trappist monk, talked about the World War II years, and said that maybe the entire world was held together by the prayers of monks hidden away in monasteries. I recall being struck by that concept at the time — by the idea that in God’s mysterious economy, the prayers of holy men hidden far away from the battlefield might be more meaningful advancing the cause of righteousness than we can possibly know.

This is not a counsel of quietism, certainly, but it is a call for us Christians to remember that the battle is not merely on the material level, but also takes place on the spiritual plane.

Some of my more conservative Catholic friends are angry at Benedict XVI for renouncing the papacy. They believe that he opened the door to the chaos that has come with Pope Francis. I can understand their point. But tonight, the thought occurred to me that maybe God was and is doing something with Benedict that we can’t yet comprehend.

We know that the rot in the Catholic Church did not start with Francis, or with Benedict. We know that Benedict knew that “filth” — his word — infected the Church, and we also know that as pope, he was largely ineffective in fighting it. From the Post story:

“He never had the vocation to rule, to command,” said Vittorio Messori, a friend who met with Benedict last year. “He doesn’t know how to rule.”

Benedict also publicly said, in announcing his resignation, that he no longer had the strength to carry out the ministry of his Petrine office. It has been widely speculated that Benedict realized that he was effectively just a figurehead pope, that the corruption in the Roman curia had spread so widely that he was powerless to change the deep forces carrying the Catholic Church towards its present crisis. In fact, an Italian source who knows Benedict personally told me that this is exactly what happened.

Think of what Benedict of Nursia’s Christian friends in Rome must have thought when he told them that he was leaving the city to retreat to the countryside. They might have told him that he was wrong to abandon his post. Didn’t the Christian community in Rome during that chaotic and decadent time need strong believers to bolster it? Who was Benedict to light out for a cave in Subiaco, where he would do nothing but pray? What use was he to the struggle for holiness?

As we now know, Benedict of Nursia’s refusal of the world for a life of radical contemplation changed everything. Over time, the fruits of that withdrawal renewed western Europe through the monastic movement led by Benedict’s Rule.

St. Benedict was a young man when he withdrew, and only a layman. When he withdrew, Benedict XVI was an old man, and a pope. Nevertheless, is it possible that in his renunciation of the papacy and the world to take up a life of prayer, that Benedict XVI is laying the spiritual groundwork for the survival of Christianity in the near term, and its revival in the distance?

Yes, it is possible. It is possible for the same reason that Peter (John 18:10) defended Jesus with a knife when the Romans came to arrest him, but Jesus rejected fighting. Peter did not understand why Jesus wouldn’t stand and fight. It made no sense from a human point of view. But Jesus knew what he was doing. He knew that allowing the forces of evil to play out would ultimately defeat them. Could it be that Benedict XVI knew that it was impossible to defeat the forces of evil conspiring at the summit of the Church, so he chose instead to withdraw, and let them manifest? Might it be the case that the great battle upon the Catholic Church now is, as some Catholic friends of mine believe, a source of hope, because at long last the truth is uncovered, and the real nature of the long struggle is in the open, in a way it would not have been had a frail elderly Benedict held up the façade by his papacy?

Maybe. I could be wrong about this. It’s just that I’m thinking tonight about the mystery of his abdication in a different way, is all.

Ken Myers suggested to me the other day that I read from Part III, Chapter Two, of Pope Benedict’s Introduction To Christianity, first published in 1968, when he was just Father Ratzinger, a priest and theologian. It is a remarkable book — lucid and profound. In that section, Ratzinger writes about what it means to call the Church “holy,” given that the sins of its members are scarlet. Ratzinger does not downplay the corruption in the Church, but points out that this is a great mystery at the heart of the Christian faith. God himself took on flesh, mingling his all-holiness with our filth. Ratzinger writes:

He has drawn sin to himself, made it his lot, and so revealed what true “holiness” is: not separation, but union; not judgment, but redeeming love. Is the Church not simply the continuation of God’s deliberate plunge into human wretchedness; is she not simply the continuation of Jesus’ habit of sitting at the table with sinners, of his mingling with the misery of sin to the point where he actually seems to sink under its weight? is there not revealed in the unholy holiness of the Church, as opposed to man’s expectation of purity, God’s true holiness, which is love, love that does not keep its distance in a sort of aristocratic, untouchable purity but mixes with the dirt of the world, in order thus to overcome it? Can, therefore, the holiness of the Church be anything else but the bearing with one another that comes, of course, from the fact that all of us are borne up by Christ?


At bottom there is always hidden pride at work when criticism of the Church adopts that tone of rancorous bitterness which today is already beginning to become a fashionable habit. Unfortunately it is accompanied only too often by a spiritual emptiness in which the specific nature of the Church as a whole is no longer seen, in which she is only regarded as a political instrument whose organization is felt to be pitiable or brutal, as if the real function of the Church did not lie beyond organization, in the comfort of the Word and of the sacraments that she provides in good and bad days alike. Those who really believe do not attribute too much importance to the struggle for the reform of ecclesiastical structures. They live on what the Church always is; and if one wants to know what the Church really is one must go to them. For the Church is most present, not where organizing, reforming, and governing are going on, but in those who simply believe and receive from her the gift of faith that is life to them. Only someone who has experienced how, regardless of changes in her ministers and forms, the Church raises men up, gives them a home and a hope, a home that is hope — the path to eternal life — only someone who has experienced this knows what the Church is, both in days gone by and now.

If I had ever read that, I had forgotten it. I wish I had put it into The Benedict Option, because it really does express the spirit of what I’m trying to do with that book. Though I am no longer a Catholic, I unequivocally come down on the side of the small-o orthodox Catholics and their cause. But what I don’t do is join the “organizing, reforming, and governing” campaign of some conservative Catholics. The crisis upon Christianity in the West is far more serious than what an attempt to organize, reform, and govern the Church can address. Rather, I hope to inspire ordinary believers to be those who know and live the Church as bearer of the gift of faith that is life — and to establish (or revive) forms of living that out together in a way that can survive amid the catastrophe.

Benedictine monasticism arose in response to a particular crisis in the life of the Church. Centuries later, the Franciscans and the Dominicans emerged in response to a different but equally grave crisis. My hope is that the Benedict Option can provide the framework for whatever forms of Christian spirituality will emerge in response to the current crisis. If God does use my work in this way, then without question it will have been the fruit of the faith and example of Joseph Ratzinger, whose prayers now, in the last days of his sojourn on earth, no doubt hold us up in ways we cannot see.



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