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Does Pope Francis Oppose The Benedict Option?

Father Spadaro says so -- but on the Ben Op, he doesn't know what he's talking about

Well, this is something. Last night at the University of Notre Dame, the Jesuit priest Antonio Spadaro, a close adviser of Pope Francis, explicitly denounced the Benedict Option, calling it a “Masada complex” that does not comport with the vision of Francis.

Here’s the video of the entire lecture. Start at about the 1:12 part, and watch him criticize the Ben Op:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTqY3FSDADI]

Money quote:

“The so-called Benedict Option, as Rod Dreher describes the withdrawal of the Church into enclaves, would be an error, just as it would be an error to be nostalgic for bygone times by preparing harsh responses today.”

This is entirely dishonest. The most charitable spin on it is that the man has clearly not read my book. As I clearly explain in the text, I call for a “strategic withdrawal,” which is to say, withdrawing for the sake of strengthening our roots and our witness, so that when we go out into the world, as we must, we will do so as real Christians. Excerpts from The Benedict Option:

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.

Over and over in the book I make this distinction: that to be fully and authentically Christian in the world, we must draw sharper lines between ourselves and the world. I am no more arguing for retreating into quietist enclaves than the British high command withdrew its forces from Dunkirk beach for the sake of hiving away in merry old England and waiting the war out. I have made this point in the book, in public lectures, and on this blog, again and again. I am eager to accept criticism of my book — I certainly don’t have the answers — but critics ought to focus on what I’ve actually written than what they imagine I’ve written. But then, Father Spadaro’s understanding of American politics is so crackpot — even Commonweal, a liberal Catholic journal that fully backs Pope Francis, called his infamous essay on the subject “a mishmash of wild and erroneous claims” — that I believe it is beyond his moral and intellectual strength to be honest on matters like this.

Nevertheless, I have a few remarks to make in response.

Earlier in the address (1:05), Spadaro denounces those politicians and others who are exploiting “fear of chaos.” They are “exaggerating disorder” and putting forth “worrying scenarios that bear no relation to reality.”

Let me remind Father Spadaro of a few inconvenient truths that counter his Candide Catholicism.

1. Catholicism — like Christianity in general — is flat on its back in Europe. True, there are inspiring pockets of faith (I just spent some time with a few in Paris). And true, Poland is a beacon of hope in a continent grown cold from militant secularism — but for how long? Still, the overall picture for the Church in Europe is grim. In personal conversations I had in Paris recently with both believers and non-believers, I found no one who thought the future was bright for Europe.

2. All of Europe is in demographic collapse Take Portugal, for example:

Last year he created a commission dedicated to coming up with proposals to reverse the country’s dwindling birthrate. Led by Professor Joaquim Azevedo from the Catholic University of Portugal, a recent report by the commission warned that failure to reverse the demographic crisis could leave Portugal “unsustainable in terms of economic growth, social security and the welfare state.”

“We are losing our population, as we know. These matters are crystal clear,” said Azevedo. “ It is a reality. Facts are facts and that is what is happening.”

Ad hoc political solutions at a national level are failing. Italy has tried to overcome its bleak demographic outlook with initiatives ranging from pension cuts to a baby bonus, but the statistics are not on their side.

A couple of years ago, I spoke with a political scientist who studied the issue for the EU, which is desperately trying to come up with a way to boost birthrates. He concluded that absent a religious revival, it simply was not going to happen. He said the EU officials were not happy with this. In the central Asian nation of Georgia, which is Orthodox Christian, it now appears that the birthrate among married Georgians went up in response to a campaign by Patriarch Ilia. 

3. Europe is being overwhelmed by migration. Which is being encouraged by the Pope and many Catholic bishops, note well. A closely related problem: Europeans are struggling to deal with problems successfully integrating Muslims.

4. In the United States, Catholicism is declining faster than any other church. “And perhaps more troubling for the church, for every one Catholic convert, more than six Catholics leave the church.”

5. In terms of catechesis and Catholic identity, the US Catholic Church is facing a catastrophe. Here are excerpts from a Commonweal story about sociologist Christian Smith’s book concerning Catholic youth:

Here’s the bad news for Commonweal readers, and we may as well get right to it: Just over half the young people raised by parents who describe themselves as “liberal” Catholics stop going to Mass entirely once they become “emerging adults”—a new demographic category that means either prolonged adolescence or delayed adulthood, defined here in Young Catholic America as ages eighteen to twenty-three.

But now, let’s put that sad trend in perspective: The picture isn’t all that much better for the children of “traditional” Catholics. Although only a quarter of those young adults say they’ve stopped going to Mass entirely, only 17 percent say they’re going every week, and in general, their allegiance to church membership and participation seems nearly as faded as the kids of so-called feckless liberals.

The fact is: In this discouraging book, the future looks bad for just about every flavor of Catholic. For those who remember Commonweal’s series on “Raising Catholic Kids” last November, the worry expressed by those dedicated, well-meaning parents seems here to be fully justified. You may hear about pockets of enthusiastically “orthodox” young adults out there somewhere, but as my old mentor in the market-research business used to say, the plural of the word “anecdote” is not “data.” Smith (a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame) and his co-authors have the data, and it tells us that the majority of Catholic “emergers” are, by our historical standards, not what we are used to thinking of as practicing Catholics at all.

That “Raising Catholic Kids” series had this excruciatingly sad account from Sidney Callahan. Excerpt:

In 1967, my husband Dan and I, along with our five sons and one daughter (all born between 1955 and ’65), could be found each Sunday at Mass. Everyone was baptized, the three oldest confirmed. I had been teaching in the CCD program for seven years. We were a full-court-press Catholic family, members of the Christian Family Movement (observe, judge, act), Catholic Worker enthusiasts, and eager advocates of Vatican II reforms. Dan was an editor of Commonweal and we both wrote for and participated in exciting Catholic intellectual circles. Forty-six years later, I sit alone in the same pew on Sundays, and have been doing so for decades. I remain a grateful Catholic convert, while everyone else in the family is long gone from the church.

Got that? She is the only member of her family still in the Church. 

Christian Smith’s broader work on the religious beliefs and identities of younger Americans — not only Catholics — reveals trends that ought to be extremely worrying to any serious Christian, not least the Roman pontiff. Check out this 2009 interview Smith gave to Christianity Today. Excerpt:

… the center of gravity among emerging adults is definitely MTD. Most emerging adults view religion as training in becoming a good person. And they think they are basically good people. To not be a good person, you have to be a horrible person. Therefore, everything’s fine.

I have done a lot of traveling in the US and abroad doing Benedict Option research and speaking. I repeatedly hear the same message, no matter where I am: young adults today who still identify as Christian know little to nothing about the Christian faith, either in terms of content or in terms of how to practice it in daily life. To the extent they have any faith at all, it usually turns out to be entirely emotional. I often return to a discussion I observed among older (conservative) Catholics and younger (conservative) Catholic academics. The older ones were still operating under the impression that the young ones had basic Catholic formation, however lacking. The younger profs told them that this is completely unrealistic, that the undergraduates they were seeing on their campus in most cases knew nothing.

So: when I hear professional church bureaucrats like Father Spadaro telling the world to relax, everything is just fine, that the concerns of Christians like me “bear no relation to reality,” it makes me furious. It’s an attempt to anesthetize the faithful. It’s a self-serving lie, and it’s a lie that is going to cost a lot of people their souls.

Spadaro said that in Francis’s vision, “the duty of Christianity in Europe is one of service.” OK, fine. I would have thought that the duty was evangelization and formation, but service is certainly part of the Christian’s duties to the world. But as I say in The Benedict Option, “we cannot give the world what we do not have.” And the one thing that many, many Catholics (and other self-identified Christians) in Europe and North America do not have is a living orthodox faith.

In 2016, the Pope said, of the Apostles:

“This is the witness – not only with words but also with everyday life – the  testimony that every Sunday should go out of our churches in order to enter throughout the whole week into our homes, our offices, our schools, our gathering places and entertainment venues, our hospitals, prisons, and homes for the elderly, into places crowded with immigrants, on the outskirts of the city. We must carry this witness every week: Christ is with us; Jesus is ascended to heaven; He is with us; Christ is alive!”

Amen to that! (Note well: a “Masada complex” Christian would not say that.) But you cannot send people out to feed the world with empty bread baskets. You cannot send soldiers into battle without training and armor. The Benedict Option is not a “Masada complex,” but rather an attempt to take on a more radical strategy of forming serious orthodox Christians — morally, intellectually, and spiritually — precisely so we can go out and give the true faith to the world. Father Spadaro lives in Italy. If he wants to see a real Benedict Option community, he should drive across the peninsula from Rome and visit the Tipi Loschi, in San Benedetto del Tronto. There is no Masada complex among those people — only robust, joyful, orthodox Catholicism. They are not supposed to exist — but they do!

The Father Spadaros of the world are content to manage decline in a spirit of appeasement. They bring to mind this quote a friend sent me from a 1986 essay by the Polish intellectual Leszek Kolakowski:

Therefore Nietzsche did not become the explicit orthodoxy of our age. The explicit orthodoxy still consists of patching up. We try to assert our modernity but escape from its effects by various intellectual devices, in order to convince ourselves that meaning can be restored or recovered apart from the traditional religious legacy of mankind and in spite of the destruction brought about by modernity. Some versions of liberal pop-theology contribute to this work. So do some varieties of Marxism. Nobody can foresee for how long and to what extent this work of appeasement may prove successful. But the previously mentioned intellectuals’ awakening to the dangers of secularity does not seem to be a promising avenue for getting out of our present predicament, not because such reflections are false, but because we may suspect they are born of an inconsistent, manipulative spirit.

There is something alarmingly desperate in intellectuals who have no religious attachment, faith or loyalty proper and who insist on the irreplaceable educational and moral role of religion in our world and deplore its fragility, to which they themselves eminently bear witness. I do not blame them either for being irreligious or for asserting the crucial value of religious experience; I simply cannot persuade myself that their work might produce changes they believe desirable, because to spread faith, faith is needed and not an intellectual assertion of the social utility of faith. And the modern reflection on the place of the sacred in human life does not want to be manipulative in the sense of Machiavelli or of the seventeenth-century libertines who admitted that while piety was necessary for the simpletons, skeptical incredulity suited the enlightened. Therefore such an approach, however understandable, not only leaves us where we were before but is itself a product of the same modernity it tries to restrict, and it expresses modernity’s melancholic dissatisfaction with itself.

I wrote The Benedict Option for Christians who prefer to see the world as it really is, and not to reconcile themselves to our eclipse or surrender, nor to trust the feckless leadership of our religious institutions to guide us out of the dark wood in which we find ourselves. Father Spadaro and his kind are pied pipers. To have him mischaracterize and denounce my Benedict Option ideas is an honor. It is certainly clarifying.

The problem is not that Christians are not enough in the world. The problem is that the world is too much in them. Catholic leaders that wish to turn the Catholic Church into a Romanized version of Mainline Protestantism are not helping to turn the tide. And they are not the future.

UPDATE: Reader Nate J., spot on:

I find myself having difficulty discussing the breakdown of Christianity in my own part of the world with the older generations. Mostly, I don’t think they intend to be misleading or deliberately obtuse, turning a blind eye to problems they know exist; most are simply oblivious.

They don’t visit Reddit, or use Facebook or Twitter. They don’t get their information from the same places as the millennial generation and do not interact with the world the same way. It’s so hard to get it into their heads how actively hostile the world is to the Christian message.

Compounding the problem is that these older church leaders remain largely unchallenged by any new blood entering, so they retain their positions of leadership by default. It’s a nasty, self-feeding cycle whereby the blind continue to lead the blind. They imagine a time when there was a Christian consensus in the western world. For them, the world just needs to be tweaked a bit and – presto! – we’re back to the way things were. They don’t get that people enter adulthood with their brains almost hardwired in a fundamentally different way.

This is probably most evident in the modern sexual ethic, which is why stuffy, prudish, social conservatives like me tend to get “so worked up about it.” Sex, reproduction, and family formation have become radically disentangled to the point where these three fundamentally related (and interdependent) concepts can be viewed entirely discreetly. Meanwhile, the global neoliberal elite cannot understand the issue correctly either (in some ways, perhaps they are just as oblivious as the typical octogenarian church bishop or elder), thinking that problems of collapsing demographics can be solved by sprinkling a little more economic incentive over it, so steeped in their progressive worldview that they have forgotten that reproduction was never an economic decision to begin with (and, thus, relatively immune to the classic laws of supply and demand and all that).

Both the secular and Christian church leadership miss the point that cultural issues cannot be solved primarily by political means. The Benedict Option matters precisely because we need to send a new generation of leaders out into the world who understand this – who put at least as much effort into their local communities and churches as they do into their political ambitions.

UPDATE.2.: Reader Heidi:

We went to a Jesuit church away from home this past weekend for Mass. During the service a special prayer was offered for Fr. Martin, the much maligned Jesuit, who is essentially trying to change church doctrine and cloaking it in “dialog” and “understanding”. Specifically it was asked that we pray that he not suffer anymore “persecution” at the hands of the uninformed. This same church had an LGBTQ+ small group that met each week to discuss the running of the parish with a focus on inclusivity, a Lesbian Women’s group and a Gay Men’s group. Also advertised in the Sunday bulletin was a Gay Getaway trip planned for the spring. That the priest would also be going on. This is clearly a…shift. In the same direction that Protestantism flew with alacrity and we can see where that got *them*. So, this criticism of Spadaro’s is no surprise to me. What can we expect from that specific faction? They don’t seem to have a strong enough attachment to retaining the foundational teachings of the religion they are tasked with representing, but, instead, are willing to go where the wind will blow them in order to stay “relevant.” Hundreds of years of thinking about these issues be damned. Your observation that the world is too much in Christianity is exactly correct and now, as a Catholic, I’m watching the Mother Church go the way of the Episcopalians. It may be too soon to wave goodbye but I’m not certain of that…perhaps I should begin my studies of the Ausbund now.

Reader PatC:

As a college student, I’ve seen where the energy coming out of Christian groups is coming from, and it was kind of shocking to me. Korean-Americans, or students from Korea and China, in what I believe to be an Evangelical church, are the ones who actually go up to people, talk to them about faith and spirituality and are willing to put their principles out in the open. I went to one of their meetings when invited (I am Catholic, but I figured it would be nice to at least meet new people), and what I saw was actually quite similar to what the Benedict Option speaks of.

It was a community of people who talk about their faith, the theological reasons for it (I won’t bore you with the differences of opinion between this group and Catholicism, but the conversations were actually quite enlightening), and how to arm themselves when speaking to skeptics about why their faith was important to them.

I made quite a few friends in that group, but I have to say that I was ashamed in some ways, as this is something that the Catholic student group should be doing themselves. The Catholic group on campus, when I’ve gone to their meetings, talks incessantly about how we can make ourselves more acceptable to the overriding secular culture on campus, but does nothing to build a community of faith.

The idea of MTD for western youth, as you describe, really kind of runs rampant, but it is less an honest belief about the world rather than a defense against the world. Catholic students will default to say things about that in an effort to avoid scrutiny. What they are increasingly finding, however, is that it is not enough anymore. Any talk of issues of sexual ethics or salvation are scary not just to mainstream secularists but to Catholic students as well, and as we saw with those Senate hearings, its not going to get any better.

I don’t know this for sure, but I believe that the environments for Christians in North East Asia has sort of forced them to live in their own communities and build from there; western Christians might find that the day they need to do this will come quicker than they would expect.

The Catholic college students you describe remind me of some of the older Catholics I met in France: desperate to convince the unbelieving world that they’re really good people, and can be trusted and relied on.

UPDATE.3: I changed the title of this blog a bit because in truth, I don’t know if Pope Francis opposes the Benedict Option. I only know that Fr. Spadaro does, and I don’t have confidence that he actually read the book. If I were actually calling on Catholics and other Christians to hide away in compounds and turn their back to the world, then I could say yes, Pope Francis really does oppose the Ben Op. But I don’t say that. It is possible that he would agree with it, or at least some of it, if he knew what it was. Maybe not, but again, I don’t trust Father Spadaro’s judgment, and after all, it was he who opposes the Ben Op to Francis, not Francis.



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