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The Donatist Option

My response to the Benedict Option review in La Civiltà Cattolica

In the new issue of La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit priest named Andreas Gonçalves Lind publishes a lengthy critique of The Benedict Option. At this point, I don’t respond to most critiques of the Benedict Option, but this one is a big deal. The venerable Jesuit magazine, based in Rome carries a lot of weight in the Catholic elite world, especially under this Jesuit pope. Its editorial director, Father Antonio Spadaro, is a close collaborator of Pope Francis, and last year condemned the Benedict Option in a speech at Notre Dame. Though the review today is negative, I am grateful that my thesis is being considered seriously at the highest levels of the Catholic Church.

Here is a link to the Italian version that appeared today.  I was given an English language draft provided to journalists. I will be quoting from it below. If you want to read the entire thing, but can’t read Italian, cut and paste it into Google Translate.

The gist of Fr. Lind’s complaint is that the Ben Op advocates for a latter-day Donatism, the fourth-century heresy that proclaimed strict moral rigorism, and denied the validity of sacraments administered by priests who had not adequately withstood Roman persecution. The Donatists denied that even a repentant priest was able to administer valid sacraments. The Church ruled that repentance was sufficient, and besides, the validity of sacraments did not depend on the spiritual condition of a particular priest.

Fr. Lind’s abstract of his essay is as follows:

The recent publication of a book titled The Benedict Option in the United States has sparked off much debate. The book refers to St. Benedict of Nursia and intends to illustrate a strategy for Christians in a “post-Christian” age. This article aims to contribute to this debate and, in particular, points out that this “option” brings the risk of an exclusive focus on moral rigidity, doctrinal purity and the reestablishment of a parallel society rather than on the construction of unity and communion within the Church and with all people of goodwill.

Here’s the favorable part of Fr. Lind’s essay:

Dreher has the merit of looking at questions of Christian life within the challenge of growing secularization. His attempt to create a non-individualistic, communitarian Christian life in the present world is also laudable. As is praiseworthy the desire to give Christian witness. Dreher’s “option” is a kind of re-adaptation of Benedict’s rule and charism for our times.


Even though the Benedict option might be acceptable within contemporary American society, it does seem to be founded on an oversimplified and questionable narrative of the Benedictine charism. According to Dreher, “Benedict Option politics begins with recognition that Western society is post-Christian.” He grounds this option in our contemporary context, not only by interpreting contemporary Western societies as the beginning of a “post-Christian Dark era,” but also by asserting St. Benedict’s rule as a response to paganism.

Well, not quite. The Roman Empire had been officially Christian for nearly two centuries when it collapsed in the West. The barbarians who overthrew the imperial government were Christians too, of a sort (Arians, therefore heretics — but not pagans). Benedict’s was a response not to paganism, but to the chaos that resulted from the fall of Roman order. And as I point out in the book, St. Benedict did not set out to “make Rome great again” or anything like it. He only wanted to live in resilient, vowed Christian community as an alternative to the vice and chaos outside. From The Benedict Option:

It all grew from the mustard seed of faith planted by a faithful young Italian who wanted nothing more than to seek and to serve God in a community of faith constructed to withstand the chaos and decadence all around them. Benedict’s example gives us hope today, because it reveals what a small cohort of believers who respond creatively to the challenges of their own time and place can accomplish by channeling the grace that flows through them from their radical openness to God, and embodying that grace in a distinct way of life.

I’ll add this part from the book, from a conversation it records with Father Cassian, at that time the prior of the Norcia monastery:

Though the monks here have rejected the world, “there’s not just a no; there’s a yes too,” Father Cassian says. “It’s both that we reject what is not life-giving, and that we build something new. And we spend a lot of time in the rebuilding, and people see that too, which is why people flock to the monastery. We have so much involvement with guests and pilgrims that it’s exhausting. But that is what we do. We are rebuilding. That’s the yes that people have to hear about.”

Rebuilding what? I asked.

“To use Pope Benedict’s phrase, which he repeated many times, the Western world today lives as though God does not exist,” he says. “I think that’s true. Fragmentation, fear, disorientation, drifting—those are widely diffused characteristics of our society.”

Yes, I thought, this is exactly right. When we lost our Christian religion in modernity, we lost the thing that bound ourselves together and to our neighbors and anchored us in both the eternal and the temporal orders. We are adrift in liquid modernity, with no direction home.

The point of the book is to acknowledge our own condition of radical fragmentation and rootlessness — which Pope Benedict XVI spoke of many times — and to investigate the Benedictine charism and tradition to see what we lay Christians in the 21st century seeking to overcome that condition can learn from it. Lo, guess who else believes that we are in a very, very bad state in this regard. Reports Austen Ivereigh on the Pope’s address last night in Chile:

As I’ve often pointed out, Francis is, if not gloomy, certainly apocalyptic about these times. He believes contemporary society increasingly faces a life-or-death choice.

He sees the technology-driven forces of globalized postmodernity dissolving the bonds of belonging, sweeping away institutions and turning us into consuming individuals obsessed with gratification and increasingly divorced from cultural and religious roots.

In such a society, as he put it in Santiago, “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.”

Back to Fr. Lind’s paper. He writes:

If contemporary Christians can learn from and adapt the Benedictine rule to present times, it might also be said that emphasizing the reality of persecution could be a risk for Christians; a risk that may be accompanied by the feeling that our “small” group is the real Church and better than the others. To be concise: It is the risk of arrogance linked to an ecclesial sin against unity and communion.

Well, sure, you might say that, and that is certainly something to be watched out for. But the gist of The Benedict Option book is not so much persecution (though that is certainly cited as something to come), but the grinding-down of religious vitality and belief by everyday life in liquid modernity. I wonder if this Catholic family is really all that worried about the potential danger Fr. Lind cites.

Here is the core of Fr. Lind’s objection:

Dreher, obviously without falling into heresy, seems to echo Donatus: “If today’s churches are to survive the new Dark Age, they must stop ‘being normal.’ We will need to commit ourselves more deeply to our faith, and we will need to do that in ways that seem odd to contemporary eyes. By rediscovering the past, recovering liturgical worship and asceticism, centering our lives on the church community, and tightening church discipline, we will, by God’s grace, again become the peculiar people we should always have been. The fruits of this focus on Christian formation will result not only in stronger Christians but in a new evangelism as the salt recovers its savor.”

Wanting to be linked to the early Church of persecuted martyrs, Donatists did not accept a different way to live and practice the faith. Even in a new historical context, wherein persecution could be over, they felt their persecution was a confirmation that they were the good and true Christians.

In so doing, those schismatic Christians constituted a small party of the “pure ones.” By opposing integer to profanus as the main difference between belonging or not to the Church, Donatists tended to admit only irreproachable members.

Here’s the problem — and it’s a problem that has recurred in the rhetoric of this pope. Are there rigid, bitter, extreme Catholics? Absolutely. But Francis and his supporters have a terrible and profoundly unjust habit of denouncing as “rigid” priests and laymen who simply believe the Catholic faith, and want to live it out as it is authoritatively proclaimed — and, in some cases, in its older liturgical forms.

It has been said that Francis’s experience in Argentina with hardcore conservative priests made him reflexively hostile towards anything that resembles tradition. Maybe so. I don’t know. But let me quote my post from last year referring to Fr. Spadaro’s criticism of the Benedict Option:

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 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 TodayExcerpt:

… 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.

Yet Fr. Lind is worried about the “rigid” Catholics who want to practice orthodox Catholicism, and raise their children to be believing, faithful Catholics. What a time we live in!

Fr. Lind cites St. Augustine against the Donatists:

While the Benedict option of Dreher wants to build communities wherein discipline is “tightened” in order to secure a supposed true and healthier Christianity, Augustine’s writings that address Donatism also underline other aspects like patience with respect to sinners and the value of preserving communion.

Augustine notices the arrogance of those who want to separate good people from bad people, the “just” from the “unjust,” before the opportune time. In this context, he asks for “humility,” “patience” and “tolerance.” Humility appears as a fundamental Christian virtue, without which unity and communion are not possible within the Mystical Body of Christ. The bishop of Hippo relies to a greater extent on Cyprian’s authority and he shows how this martyr tried to accept different opinions in order to maintain the Church’s unity.[1

The Benedict option does not automatically imply the arrogance that Augustine perceived in Donatist attitudes. However, its appeal for a “tightened Church discipline” resounds with Donatist moral rigidity. Moreover, the will to build small communities with “strong Christians” could erase the importance of Christian virtues like humility, patience and tolerance – emphasized in Augustine’s writings – calling into question the communion among believers and the formation of peaceful relationships in the world.

This is an elementary mistake by Fr. Lind. He is confusing the Donatist belief that the Church should be strictly a fellowship of the pure with the bog-standard basic Catholic Christian belief that we should seek to be holy. All sinners are welcome in the Church, because the Church has within it no one who is without sin. The Christian life is a pilgrimage toward growing in Christlikeness. We all stumble, but that’s what confession and forgiveness are for. One gets the impression that Christians like Fr. Lind don’t care about holiness. Surely that is not true, but I genuinely struggle to comprehend what they think the Church, and life with Christ, is for.

I’m thinking at the moment about a Catholic friend who is in what you might call a lay Ben Op school and faith life community. He said that some of the parish priests in his diocese look down on them, even though its members are all faithful attendees at mass. My friend told me that when his priest challenged him about it, he responded that the group felt compelled to gather so they and their children can learn and practice the fullness of the faith, which they were not getting in their parishes and diocesan schools.

That priest felt that the community’s existence was a judgment on him and the Catholic bureaucracy’s way of running itself (managing the decline, pretty much). And you know what: that priest was right! But the parents of that community are responsible for passing the faith on to their children, not for that priest’s feelings.

More Fr. Lind:

Another characteristic of Donatist attitudes mentioned by Yves Congar concerns hostility toward secular institutions. Donatists tended to refuse to collaborate with the authorities of the Empire who, for them, represented pagan powers. In their theological point of view, the purity of Christian practice implied the refusal to participate, collaborate or be engaged with pagans in their non-Christian institutions.

In this sense, Donatists were actually a “parallel polis.” On the contrary, Catholics like Augustine remained linked to some imperial institutions and were forced to consider Donatists as schismatic Christians.

This emphasis on purity, as a precaution regarding non-contamination with whatever is outside the Christian milieu, is related to the interpretation Donatists gave to the theological concept of “Catholicism.” According to them, “catholic” was supposed to mean sacramental perfection and fullness. In this sense, Donatists considered that real Catholicism was restricted to their local and small church, in Northern Africa.

Following the theology of Optatus, Augustine proposed another interpretation of “Catholicism,” emphasizing universality as unity of the entire Church as Christ’s Mystical Body. Augustine insisted that local Churches spread all over the world should be in communion in order to accomplish the biblical prophecies regarding the efficacy of announcing Christ’s resurrection.

All in all, Augustine’s argument tried to show that Donatists, even if they were more virtuous than all other faithful Christians, could never have the exclusivity of the true Church. Augustine wants to show that, in his context, isolation from other Christians and from society in general was not a good sign.

Although Dreher does not want the isolation of Christian communities, his Benedict option requires “separation” from secular political powers and institutions, up to the point of developing our lives as far as possible within Christian institutions in which Christian entrepreneurs hire workers predominantly from their own churches. Furthermore, the emphasis on the negative aspects of technology and the internet is intelligible in accordance with the warning not to be contaminated by pagan culture. In so doing, this option could “close off” Christian communities.

This is a flagrant misrepresentation of my work. The idea of the “parallel polis” is introduced like this in The Benedict Option:

[Czech dissident Vaclav] Benda’s distinct contribution to the dissident movement was the idea of a “parallel polis” — a separate but porous society existing alongside the official Communist order. Says Flagg Taylor, an American political philosopher and expert on Czech dissident movements, “ Benda’s point was that dissidents couldn’t simply protest the Communist government, but had to support positive engagement with the world.”

At serious risk to himself and his family (he and his wife had six children), Benda rejected ghettoization. He saw no possibility for collaboration with the Communists, but he also rejected quietism, considering it a failure to display proper Christian concern for justice, charity, and bearing evangelical witness to Christ in the public square. For Benda, Havel’s injunction to “live in truth” could only mean one thing: to live as a Christian in community.

Benda did not advocate retreat to a Christian ghetto. He insisted that the parallel polis must understand itself as fighting for “the preservation or the renewal of the national community in the widest sense of the word — along with the defense of all the values, institutions, and material conditions to which the existence of such a community is bound.”

Fr. Lind would have his readers believe that I’m telling Catholics and other Christians to withdraw from the world to avoid contamination. In fact, in context of the book’s narrative, the “parallel polis” would come about chiefly when Christians are not permitted to be Christian in the public square. In the book, I talk about Christians patronizing Christian businesses as a way to protect those business owners when their livelihoods are threatened by law or custom.

Maybe this doesn’t make sense to Father Lind, who teaches at the Jesuit University of Namur, in Belgium (where, by the way, the Catholic faith is flat on its back, with barely a pulse). I don’t know what the situation is like with regard to Church and State in Belgium. Here in the US, though, we are well into a time when Christian colleges and institutions will face severe penalties if they don’t compromise their teachings and internal practices to conform to LGBT dogma and gender ideology. We are seeing some Christian businesses destroyed. As I write in The Benedict Option, and as Fr. Lind ignores in his review essay:

Public school teachers, college professors, doctors, and lawyers will all face tremendous pressure to capitulate to this ideology as a condition of employment. So will psychologists, social workers, and all in the helping professions; and of course, florists, photographers, backers, and all businesses that are subject to public accommodation laws.

As I make clear in the book, this is not a matter of idle speculation. I interviewed a number of law professors and professionals within these fields. They see what’s coming, even if Father Lind does not.

There’s a lot more to his piece, but I’ll close with this:

In doing so, the Benedict option bears the weight of a pessimistic outlook regarding contemporary societies. Although religious liberty should be affirmed to let Christians practice their faith, Dreher does not seem to want to show the importance of true dialogue, springing from that human dignity in which all liberties are grounded. Even if the internet could be “the most radical, disruptive, and transformative technology” that a Christian must avoid and limit, especially regarding children, Dreher’s option does not propose a way to live in and evangelize this new “place.”

Well, he’s got that right: I do have a pessimistic outlook regarding contemporary societies. How could any small-o orthodox Christian who pays attention not be pessimistic? Heck, even Pope Francis is, in the word of his biographer, “apocalyptic”! Of course Dreher wants to talk to others — The Benedict Option explicitly calls for open collaboration among Christians and others (I mention Jews in particular) who share our countercultural stance towards the world, if not our theological convictions — but I have no interest in the failed assimilationist ideas of the modern Jesuits. Those might have seemed reasonable in 1968, but we know what the fruits of that approach have been: collapse.

I have confidence that Catholics who want their faith to survive this particular apocalypse, and live on in their children, and their children’s children, will join me and other Christians of goodwill in trying to forge a new path, out of the ruins of contemporary Christianity. It will come as a shock to many, but there are pre-1965 traditions within the Catholic Church that actually have something to say to Catholics today — and to all Christians. That’s the main message of The Benedict Option. My own approach is no doubt flawed, and I welcome correction. But I prefer to try something serious to resist over pious strategies of capitulation.



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