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‘Opzione Benedetto’ Turning Up All Over

A real conversation -- an international one -- is underway
‘Opzione Benedetto’ Turning Up All Over

The Italian newspaper Il Foglio published a short article on the Benedict Option the other day. It’s US correspondent subsequently contacted me to ask for an interview for a follow-up peace. Our first international attention! Something about the Benedict Option really is striking a chord. People are starting to think about it and talk about it what it might mean for us.

Father Peter Funk, an actual Benedictine (in Chicago) has written about the BenOp lately too. Helpfully, Fr. Peter describes the BenOp as “some kind of strategic separation from the pervasive worldview” for the sake of building community around the virtues — I say “helpfully,” because this makes a fine distinction between “world” and “worldview.” This indicates that what we are really looking for is not retreating to a compound (necessarily), but the creation of structures — institutional, communal, and perhaps, yes, architectural — that enable us as Christian communities to keep our eyes on the prize, so to speak, and to help each other create the countercultural environment(s) in which it is easier to grow as faithful Christians in an anti-Christian society.

Fr. Peter says, perhaps surprisingly, that contemporary Benedictines are not much help in showing lay people how to live the Benedict Option. Excerpt:

Ever since I read the last page of After Virtue seven years ago, I’ve been trying to find ways of implementing MacIntyre’s ideas in our monastery. If anything seems clear, it is that Benedictine monasteries should somehow or other be at the forefront of such a movement as the Benedict Option, if only because we should understand more directly what is involved in strategic withdrawal from the world. Part of the difficulty of getting real, live Benedictines directly involved goes along with Joseph Bottum’s illuminating critique of the intersection of religion and sociology in An Anxious Age, “the problem of the usefulness of useless religion.” That is to say, if someone comes to the monastery primarily because he seeks to do something culturally useful like erecting survival cells for the coming dark ages, he may well not last. People come to monasteries to seek God alone. We can’t live our life in the monastery for the worldly benefits, but that doesn’t mean that we lack insights on what it might take to exercise the Benedict Option “in the world,” whatever that turns out to be. My hope in this series of posts is to accomplish two things: 1) to begin to lay a theoretical groundwork for a Benedict Option (others will need to supply the practical bases) rooted in MacIntyre’s insights, and 2) to show why these insights are necessary for actual Benedictine communities (and, I hope, for liturgical music as well).

In my experience, there are two other problems with turning to contemporary Benedictines for illumination on the Benedict Option. The first is that many modern Benedictines are, for better or worse (usually better for short-term society, sometimes worse for the long-term good of the monks), tied into the System through participation in education. I have tremendous respect for my fellow Benedictines who teach and administer schools, reliably of the very highest quality. There is a lot to be learned from their engagement (see last year’s documentary, The Rule, about St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, for a great example). However, institutional education necessarily entangles a community with one of the things that BenOppers are supposed to be fleeing.


In his follow-up post, Fr. Peter explores further why real live Benedictines are flawed models for the laity to look to for inspiration: they too have been shaped by modernity, and have fallen away from certain aspects of the Rule of St. Benedict. Excerpt:

What I am suggesting is that in Benedictine life, we experience the same sorts of disconnects and discontinuities that MacIntyre began to feel in his early career as a Marxist. We seem to think nothing of importing a foreign concept into what we would otherwise like to think is a coherent worldview. How can we be sure we aren’t sawing off the branch we’re sitting on when we do this? In any case, what seemed to be an obvious, uncontroversial part of the program for monks until maybe fifty or a hundred years ago (Michel Foucault is helpful here), seems hideously impossible to us today. What has changed, exactly? How did we lose this thread? Surely we didn’t drop the practice of excommunication and corporal punishment from a sustained engagement in our own tradition of monasticism–this came about rather because modern monks became different sorts of persons. And there’s no easy way to know whether this was a good thing overall or not. Yet surely if anyone has a stake in calling into question pervasive cultural norms, it would be men and women whose whole stated purpose is to flee just those norms, so as to live the gospel radically.

I suggested yesterday that modern Benedictines have been slow to take up the challenge issued by MacIntyre over thirty years ago to be a witness to what is now being called The Benedict Option. Here I propose the main reason: like the rest of the Western world, Benedictine monasticism has undergone a series of disasters that has caused a rupture in our tradition, a tradition that had been robust throughout the founding of Western Christendom.

The disasters that Benedictines have suffered in the modern historical period are not the disasters that the Christian laity have suffered, but they run in tandem. The point is:

The sustained, lived, wisdom tradition of monastic life has largely been disrupted in the West, and every time a new community springs up (like our own in Chicago), it does so without the direct benefits of that ongoing tradition. This connection needs to be painstakingly reestablished. I believe it can be done. But there are difficulties to this process. The biggest danger, I think, is that we monks are apt to be unaware of just how much of the past tradition we are lacking and too quick to assume that just following the Rule (or, as I pointed out above, deceiving ourselves about the tendency to ignore large parts of the Rule!), we have somehow resurrected “Benedictine” monasticism. How does one go about making this recovery? Alasdair MacIntyre’s whole mature program of philosophy provides the key, I believe. So do other thinkers, and so, of course, do the saints. There is no cause for despair here; but there probably is ample need for heroic self-denial, especially in the way of self-criticism. But this is supposed to be a part of the whole monastic project.

He is writing as a monk, to other monks; we in the laity are not monks, nor are we called to be. Nevertheless, Fr. Peter’s point about the need for “heroic self-denial” applies equally to us, if we are to become the living countercultural, pro-Gospel force that we must be.

And in his third post, Fr. Peter, as prior of an urban monastery, ponders the nature of living out a monastic calling to be very much in the world — Chicago! — but not of it. Excerpt:

We thought we knew then why God called us to the city. The city was the great urban desert, a place of alienation, crime, and so on. Well, this sounded alright until we moved into an actual city and lived with real people in a real neighborhood and so on. We couldn’t really know what sort of mission we would encounter until we put down roots here. And part of our ongoing work is listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to discern what His mission is for us.

So we’ve been discerning the community’s goal all along. In conclusion, let me make a connection with Alasdair MacIntyre’s ideas about traditions. One of his key insights is that tradition is not, as commonly held, a fixed, immobile set of practices and formulas. Rather, it is an extended inquiry by a group of persons committed to one another, and it is carried out in arguments, disputations, corrections, abridgments, extensions, and whatever other means available in rational debate. This doesn’t mean that everything is up for grabs all the time, either. There do have to be common commitments to certain base-level principles.

He goes on to say that the Rule of St. Benedict, and submitting to the authority of the abbot of the monastery of which they are a congregation, and, for that matter, simply being Catholic, gave them a degree of stability regarding their own monastery’s practice than would have been there otherwise. Because tradition is an organic thing, growing outward but also firmly rooted, it enables them to modify their practices as conditions require:

All that said, this kind of change was possible only because we had the more stable foundation of Church teaching and discipline. The Benedictine Rule added another layer of authoritative agreement. Not that we can’t make prudential decisions about how to interpret the Rule–but in discussions, whatever the Rule does say tends to carry greater weight than someone’s opinion, or a minority practice in, say, the Eastern monastic tradition.

The good news for the Benedict Option: if you are quite sure what the goal is at this point, that might well be just fine. But in order to discern the goal, certain things will be necessary.

I love that final point. Fr. Peter is saying that we should not be surprised if we BenOppers aren’t yet clear on what we are shooting for. This is something relatively new, and a response to cultural conditions that have never quite been faced by Christians in the past. What, for example, does it mean to maintain community standards when every member of the community has access, via the Internet, to a steady stream of propaganda undermining, and outright denying, the validity of those standards? In the past week or two, I’ve had conversations with several men, clergy and lay, who say that the struggle with pornography within our culture is perhaps the greatest spiritual battle going on right now, because of how it devastates the ability of men (and women) to form healthy images of themselves and others, and to become capable of loving sexual relationships; because of the fierce power of the images; because of its ubiquity via the Internet; and because indulgence in hardcore porn has become just a normal rite of passage for American youth. With the Internet, the barbarians are always going to be at the gates, treating it like a revolving door for raids on the community. And yet, few people can afford to cut themselves off entirely from the Internet, especially because it also is filled with resources that BenOppers need to live out their mission. What do we do? These are the kinds of questions that we will have to discern.

A Catholic reader who asks to remain anonymous offers some further questions:

I’ve been reading your blog for some months now and I’ve greatly appreciated the work you’ve been doing – most especially, your efforts to give form and impetus to the Benedict Option. I believe that this extraordinarily important for Christians to be thinking about. We are quickly sliding into the position of a religious minority – and it is only in communities like the Benedict Option that I think we can be a ‘creative minority’, as Pope Benedict called it.

At any rate, because you’ve asked your readers for some feedback, I thought I would offer some comments on the matter. I hope they are comprehensible. I too am thinking through these issues, so my thoughts may be scattered.

I think it might be of benefit to consider whether the BenOp is primarily a matter of praxis or of ideology (in a non-pejorative sense). Of course these cannot be wholly separated, but determining which one ‘leads’ matters a great deal for how the BenOp looks, and speaks about itself. As of right now, I think a lot of your writing places the greater emphasis on ideology. That is not to suggest that you have not written about practices (communal prayer does come up regularly). But, the communal subject of your BenOp seems to be constituted by ideology.

What do I mean? You regularly write about the BenOp being for ‘orthodox Christians’ or ‘traditional Christians’ – but it is unclear what makes the Christians ‘orthodox’ or ‘traditional’ other than a common opposition to SSM (one can’t even really expand this to common sexual morality, insofar as many evangelical Christians give great latitude to contraception and divorce, the Orthodox allow for both in oeconomia, while official Catholic teaching on these matters is quite clear). What it looks like to an outside observer is that who you have in mind here is really just the old Religious Right (with the addition of the Orthodox) – even as you make clear that the BenOp is precisely to ‘strategically withdraw’ from the political battlefield of the culture war. (I might not be describing your project to your satisfaction here. Let me be clear: I do not consider the BenOp to be an exercise in sticking heads in the sand. It is an acknowledgment that our ability to pass on our faith is threatened in/by contemporary Western culture; and therefore, we must develop and foster the structures that enable us to strengthen it and pass it on to our children and others).

Perhaps that is precisely your intention, it does create a ‘big tent’ vision of the BenOp – connecting Catholics, Orthodox, and evangelicals. However, is a conservative stance in sexual politics adequate to your purposes? Is it able to bind us together in the days to come?

In my estimation, it is not. As you have said, the need for the BenOp stems not from SSM, but from the epochal challenges of modernity itself – in consumerism, individualism, utilitarianism, etc. SSM is, at most, a symptom of modernity, not the illness itself.

What is required, therefore, is not another political party, but habits which enable us to resist the dehumanizing tendencies of modernity and pass along the faith. The liturgy – formed long before modernity – then comes to take center stage in the BenOp. As many reports from your model BenOp communities makes clear, the liturgy of the hours has a special role to play in all of this. And of course, this is exactly as St. Benedict would have it (full disclosure: my BA and Masters was done under the Benedictines and my wife is a Benedictine Oblate). Habits other than the liturgy will be important as I see it – for instance, Scripture study, family prayer, asceticism – but the liturgy structures the rest.

Evangelicals, it seems to me, do not entirely fit with this BenOp vision. Certainly, Evangelical prayer life and devotion to Scripture has much to commend for itself. But they lack an ordo, and often deliberately embrace all but the sexual mores of modernity (and as studies are showing, young evangelicals share those too). That isn’t to suggest there’s something magical about the liturgy. It is only to say that it can give the needed heart to communal life – if it is embraced and celebrated with devotion. Evangelicals, I think, will need to consider whether their form of worship doesn’t owe more to benefit concerts than the ancient church. (Catholics too will need to consider whether their particular celebrations are really worthy of their pedigree – sadly, most don’t seem to be).

What the shift to praxis means for high liturgical, but liberal, Protestants and their relationship with the BenOp, I’m not sure. Perhaps that is something to explore in your thinking. Again, it seems as if the only metric of liberal/traditional that matters in your writing is whether the community has accepted contemporary sexual morality or not. But, what of the ‘deeper’ elements of modernity? Does resistance here matter for nothing if you are compromised on sex while resistance to modern sexual morality covers the sins of compromise everywhere else? Again, just something to think about.

Finally, you must think about BenOp communities’ practical dealings with sin – especially those sins that are symbolic of the division between the BenOp and the culture at large. How do BenOp Christians deal with sexual sin? How do they deal with e.g. homosexuals in their midst (either the children of members or people actually drawn to the beauty of BenOp communities)? I think this makes or breaks the BenOp – are they for the sick or do they demand only the healthy join up?

These are great questions, and I thank the reader for sending them. I would ask him, and all of you, to keep in mind that I am very far from a definitive statement on what the Benedict Option is; in fact, as Fr. Peter avers, we are working this out now, theoretically and, in some cases (his), concretely.

When I say “orthodox Christians” — the lowercase o is deliberate — I mean, broadly, Christians who recognize religious authority outside of themselves, and to be precise, Christians who believe Truth is something to be discovered, not created on the basis of “what feels right for me.” When I was a Catholic, I often had the experience of discovering in conversation that it was easier to talk through matters of theology and morality with conservative (“orthodox”) Protestants than it was with fellow Catholics. Why? Because even though we didn’t share the same bases of moral authority — we did share the Bible, but Catholics, of course, have the magisterial teachings of the Roman church — we both agreed that our search for truth required submission to external authority. My discussions with fellow Catholics who described themselves as progressive rarely went anywhere, because we had no shared basis to settle our arguments. I had one liberal Catholic friend whom I loved (we’ve since lost touch), but with whom any discussion of Catholicism was pointless, precisely because it did not matter to him what the Church taught about anything, or what the Bible said. His conscience was supreme. I believed, and do believe, that that approach can only ever result in worship of Self.

So much of the BenOp to this point has been focused on and around sexual matters, even though, as the reader notes, sex is only a part of the reason for the BenOp. The real reason for the BenOp is a response to modernity itself, of which sexual ideology and behavior are but one manifestation. There are reasons for the predominance of sexuality in the discussion so far (a predominance that I don’t at all expect to exist in the book I’m writing).

First, since the Sexual Revolution, sex and sexual autonomy has been at the center of our public life. Don’t believe me? In 2003, Tom Edsall wrote in The Atlantic about how the “morality gap” was at the center of the divide in US politics. His point was that pollsters had learned in the previous decade that you could accurately predict whether an American was a GOP voter or Democratic voter based on a handful of questions about sex and sexuality. Even for theologically disinterested people, sex offers a condensed symbol of how one thinks and feels about a constellation of issues. It’s not that hard to figure out why.

People who hold to the older view of sex and its purposes will to some degree resist the modern project of deifying the desiring Self. To be sure, their resistance is badly incomplete, as is their understanding of the sources of the modern Self, but they at least are inclined toward opposing, however feebly, the March of Progress. People who hold to the modern view see the unrestricted, or nearly unrestricted, exercise of one’s sexual agency to be a core value, and indeed intrinsic to the idea of what it means to be a person. The triumph of gay rights, and the ongoing propaganda exercise to make Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner into a goddess who among us walks, can only have happened in a culture that has placed sexual identity and sexual expressiveness at its collective telos. Christians who are orthodox in their belief must reject this. If you reject this, chances are you reject other things about modernity, though it’s also probably true that you don’t yet grasp how radical you must become, in ways that have nothing to do with sexuality, in order to hold on to Christianity in the face of the anti-Christian culture.

For most people, the first point of contact between modernity and anti-modernity is on issues of sex and sexuality. This is by no means the only point of contact, but it is the first and most important one. Nobody in the government, in activist groups, or in big business is coming after churches, individual Christians, and Christian business owners because those Christians object to neoliberal economics, technology, individualism, or any other aspect of modern life. It was the events in Indiana, around the RFRA and homosexuality, that revealed to many Christians how much political and philosophical ground we had lost — and what our future in this country is likely to be.

So, to answer the reader’s point, to affirm to the normative Scriptural and historical Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to be the most rebellious against the contemporary order. I believe that most Christians who will not submit to the Bible’s clear instructions on sex cannot be counted on to submit to any other part of it. I say that from personal experience as a young Christian who thought he could have it both ways, and tried to live that, but realized it was fraudulent. But the individual and communal Christian resistance to modernity can by no means be limited to sexuality.

I completely agree that we don’t need a new political party, but we do need new habits. Indeed, this insight is one of the principles at the center of the Benedict Option. This is something all lay Christians must realize, but I have more hope for Evangelicals than the reader does, mostly because of the amazing work of the young Reformed theologian James K.A. Smith, who talks in his great books Desiring the Kingdom and its sequel Imagining the Kingdom about the importance of his fellow Protestants rediscovering the value of “cultural liturgies.” I don’t know how widespread Jamie’s influence among Protestants will ultimately be — and I encourage Catholics and Orthodox to read his work too — but I do believe that Evangelical believers and congregations that survive the years and decades to come will to some meaningful degree have acted on what they’ve learned from Jamie.

Finally, I agree that BenOp communities, in whatever form or forms they might take, must develop a healthy way of dealing with sexual brokenness. I heard my priest once describe the way he would receive into the life of our parish people who are living lives that do not conform with Orthodox teaching on the proper use of the sexual gift. He said that he would welcome them as the church welcomes everybody, but he would tell them that they need to take the medicine offered by the church for their own healing, as every single communicant must. There is no way to be healed except through struggle towards accepting God’s grace. This is true for everyone. Our priest was using the church as “field hospital” metaphor even before Pope Francis said it. He’s right. The problem is that too many contemporary churches don’t actually want to heal, nor do too many contemporary Christians want healing, only affirmation.

I’ll stop there for now. I have to tell you how encouraging it is to me to see suddenly so many people, and so many different people, exploring what the Benedict Option is, and might be. This is part of our collective discernment.




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