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What I Learned About The Ben Op In Paris

Reflections on a one-week pilgrimage among Parisian Christians

Hello from an American Airlines flight over the Atlantic Ocean. I am bone-tired after a busy, busy, busy ten days in Paris promoting the French translation of The Benedict Option. I was staying in a kind of hostel run by a French Catholic missionary religious order, and couldn’t connect to wifi there. After Wednesday or thereabouts, I simply had no opportunity to go to Starbucks over on the Boulevard St-Michel and connect. This is why you’ve seen no Paris Diary posts from me since midweek. Sorry about that.

I have a lot to share with you. My mind is scattered from having done and learned so much, so I imagine I will be updating this post after I land in the US, and things come back to my memory. But it’s important that I share as much of this as I can recall now.

For me, the most important theme that emerged from multiple conversations over the week was the generational divide between French Catholics of the Millennial Generation and their elders. (N.B., France is overwhelmingly Catholic; and nearly all of my conversations were with Catholics.) I first sensed this on Sunday, listening to the esteemed philosopher Jean-Luc Marion (age 71) speaking at a Catholic missions congress, and I encountered it repeatedly over the course of the week. Generally speaking, the older French Catholics have a strong tendency towards integration, to maintaining a certain respectability in the public square. Marion, for example, has a new book out in which he says Catholics can still offer something special to France, and calls on unbelieving French secularists (the large majority) to recognize that Catholics in fact support many of the humanistic ideas they themselves support, and can be their allies.

The younger Cathos (common French slang) have none of the anxiety that their elders do about fitting in. At least I picked up none of it. They know who they are and what they believe, and they aren’t worried about impressing non-believers. They’re not angry, and it’s not that they seek to offend non-believers, but that they don’t seem to have about them an air of anxiety about their place and status in French society.

To put it in more American terms, you aren’t going to hear these Millennial Cathos talking about being “winsome,” and whether or not finding new ways of being winsome will make them acceptable in the French public square. They seem to have internalized the fact that they really are exiles in this country — and are at peace with it. French Catholic culture has already passed through what their American co-generationalists of all Christian confessions are only now going through, and have concluded that it’s more important to build a truly Catholic subculture within French society than drive themselves crazy attempting to keep a seat at the post-Christian world’s table.

These are not Christians who have headed for the hills. In fact, all those I met seem highly engaged in public life. But if I’m reading the situation correctly — and I welcome correction if I am not! — they are doing so as Catholics who assume that they are outsiders in French society. The Benedict Option — le pari bénédictin — makes sense to them in ways that it simply doesn’t to many older Catholics who feel that they could still play a meaningful role in French public life.

Here’s what’s so interesting about it: they are not despairing! In fact, they struck me as hopeful and vigorous, as if the absence of expectations for gaining power and relevance had freed them to live more authentically Christian lives. It’s like a man who is sure of himself can walk into a room of people in suits, even though he is wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and not feel intimidated. In The Benedict Option, Federica Sermarini told me that the community life of the Tipi Loschi, far from making their children ill at ease in the “outside” world, actually makes it easier for the community’s children to navigate it successfully, because they know who they are. I sensed this same confidence among the young Catholics I met in Paris this week. My guess is that if you are in your twenties or thirties and still go to church and identify as a Catholic, you are a man or woman who really cares about your faith. The lukewarm have already left.

I’ve spoken before about the amazing prophecy that Father Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, made in 1969, about the agonizing trial ahead for the Catholic Church. Here’s an excerpt:

Let us go a step farther. From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members. Undoubtedly it will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion. Along-side this, the full-time ministry of the priesthood will be indispensable as formerly. But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world. In faith and prayer she will again recognize the sacraments as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship.

The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain — to the renewal of the nineteenth century. But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.

I saw very clearly this insight being made incarnate among young Catholic Christians in Paris this week. It made me hopeful, and confirmed an insight I’ve had that European Christians have a lot to teach us Americans, because they have already gone through the trial that is intensifying for us.

It is often hard for an American to get a solid read on the situation in France, because our political and religious cultures are so different. An American professor living and teaching in France helped me with this question.

“The thing that’s really important to understand is that in our country, we talk about freedom of religion, meaning that the government is restrained from stepping in and telling us how to live out our faith,” he said. “In France, they think of freedom from religion, meaning that the state is supposed to protect people from too much religious influence. French people have internalized that mindset.

“My wife is not a religious person, but she was seriously offended when a restaurant on our street went halal,” he continued. “She felt it was an attack on French identity.”

“Whereas in America, we would have just shrugged our shoulders,” I replied.

“Yes,” he said. “But she said that getting bacon on her hamburger was part of what it means to be French. It really bothered her. This goes deep in France.”

I passed that thesis along in the days that followed to various French natives, and they all agreed quite strongly that the American professor was correct. This helped me understand a remark I’d heard earlier in the week that puzzled me. Over lunch, an intelligent and genial older Catholic professor mildly criticized Catholic young people who had gone to the Paris missions congress that week as “militants.” Sensing that my dining companion — a dear man, let me emphasize — had misunderstood the meaning of the word in English, I told him that “militants” had a negative connotation. Yes, he said, I know that. So, what I thought would have encouraged him as a Catholic — seeing a bunch of young French Catholics enthusiastic about their faith — in fact put him off. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because the vibrant faith of the young threatened to upset the settled order by making the unbelieving majority think they had something to fear from Christians.

This is more complicated than merely a case of internalized dhimmitude, as it sometimes feels like. As someone else explained on an after-dinner walk, in France, the social mentality holds that all rights come from the state. To consider oneself apart from the state, even in the rather limited sense that comes naturally to Americans, is more difficult for the French. It entails a sense of exile that is more profound than Americans can readily imagine. This helped me to understand why, in large part, the French react strongly to the word “community” when used in the Benedict Option. To them, this is pressing hard up against a taboo.

Still, I can’t help wondering what kind of progressive enervation of their faith French Catholics endure for the sake of respecting this taboo? It’s one thing to live within a legal framework that imposes a very strict privatization of religious belief. It’s quite another to accept in one’s heart that this is just and right. I’m not sure how one would do that for long without coming to believe that holding one’s religion is a sign that something is wrong with one.

Along those lines, it was unsettling to me to grasp that laïcité, the French concept of secularism, is rapidly becoming the standard in the US. Liberal elites since at least the Sixties have understood “freedom of religion” in a freedom from religion sense (and, to be honest, a freedom from Christianity sense). The evolution of gay rights has been a disaster for religion liberty in that the gay rights movement has been able to seize the most powerful narrative in postwar American life — the civil rights movement — claim it as its own, and tar traditional religion with the stink of old-time white supremacy. Whatever happens in law, the culture is already moving powerfully in this way. Even if the Supreme Court establishes a more generous interpretation of religious liberty’s bounds versus gay rights claims, the court of public opinion’s verdict is increasingly unsparing. In a way, I think the sense of paralysis that older French Catholics feel might be explained by having conditioned themselves to suppress religious feeling, for the sake of the Republic. We are already at the point where people who should know better — journalists, who are supposed to have a strong appreciation for the First Amendment — believe that “religious liberty” is not a fundamental right, but a partisan cause.  This is a bad sign.

The hope in all this, however, is that among those who haven’t been co-opted or intimidated by militant secularism will survive, and will be looking for ways to resist effectively.

At a public forum last night at the American Cathedral in Paris (Episcopal), Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry pointed out that French Catholics were surprised by how many of them there were during the 2012 anti-gay marriage demonstrations,  and hoped to regain at least some political power. François Fillon was their candidate in the 2017 presidential election first round, but was eliminated amid accusations of personal financial corruption. I am told that Fillon’s collapse has led to some despair among lots of French Catholics. PEG’s view was that it was always foolish for Catholics to think that gaining political influence is the way to strengthen the Church. In any case, it seems to me that any Christian in France (or the US) who depends on politics alone, or even politics primarily, to secure a future for the church is deluded.

That leaves the Benedict Option, a grassroots, organic, localist effort. I put this point to an older Catholic, who told me no, it’s been tried already. The previous Cardinal Archbishop of Paris came up with a plan for parishes, but it went nowhere. That doesn’t surprise me one bit, but I am not talking about a plan coming from the institutional church. I’m talking about creative initiatives from the laity, in full conformity with church teaching. It’s not reasonable to expect the overburdened and exhausted institutional church to solve these problems.

On Tuesday night, I spoke at Mardi de Limite (Limite Tuesday), an informal gathering sponsored by Limite magazine, a sort of crunchy-con, Catholic-ish review. It was the best public event I had in terms of passion, I think. Limite is the flagship magazine of a new conservative generation, one more interested in society and culture than in formal politics, and one that is more ecologically engaged than typical right-wingers, and more skeptical of free-market dominance. In short, it’s a magazine for young French Red Tories (see here for more). It’s not a Catholic magazine per se, but lots of the editors, writers, and readers are Catholic — and they were a joy to talk to. Basically, if Patrick Deneen, Michael Brendan Dougherty, Ross Douthat, Leah Libresco Sargeant, and their circle were to found a magazine, it would be Limite. You can imagine why a bunch of us hung out in the room until very late in the evening talking, talking, talking. If you are living in Paris and wondering where the smart, fun, engaged young conservative (and conservative Catholics) are, go to the next Mardi de Limite. (I even met the French Leah Libresco Sargeant there, and will be putting them in touch.)

It’s hard to convey how excited the Mardi de Limite made me about the future of the Ben Op in France. Again and again, I say unto you: these people are sharp, faithful, realistic, and happy. The renewal has to start somewhere — and based on what I saw, the circle of Limite, with its Wendell Berry-ish Gallic conservatism, is one place to look for it.

On Wednesday I took the train with friends out to the far suburbs of Paris, near Versailles, for lunch with Christophe Geffroy, editor of the Catholic magazine La Nef, and his family. Christophe is a strong exception to the general sense of lassitude I encountered in older Catholics. He’s 58, but thinks and talks like the younger Cathos. It turns out that he wrote an extremely positive review of my book, one that I haven’t seen yet (it hasn’t been published), but that my editor at Artège was sent a copy of on the day we were to visit. M. and Mme. Geffroy were extraordinarily gracious hosts. Indeed, I don’t think I have ever had a lunch as delicious and as enjoyable as the one they served. Consummately French, it was. We began with an apéritif of Champagne, then for a starter had a dill-heavy potato salad in a next of cured salmon, along with a white wine, I think of the Loire Valley. Then we had a magnificent Alsatian beef stew, accompanied by a Riesling of Alsace. I tweeted about it later:


Then came the cheese course, and a St-Émilion (Bordeaux), followed by a fruit tart. And believe me, the conversation around the table was just as delicious and filling. I was so grateful to have been treated with such hospitality by this faithful Catholic family, and also to find new friends and allies in our common struggle.

Another wonderful Christian I shared a table with was François Esperet, a former gendarme who now works in the Paris mayor’s office, and who is a poet. His photo from our meeting over coffee is above. He was a faithful Catholic for many years, and is the father of a big family. François, in his police work, regularly mixed with the dregs of Parisian life — and he came to love them. I asked him why; he said that there is a certain honesty and nakedness with them that can be refreshing. After discovering the Jesus Prayer on the advice of a Catholic monk, he eventually converted to Orthodoxy in 2016, but told Yrieix Denis in his Limite interview that he feels more Catholic as an Orthodox. I know the feeling.

François told Yrieix:

Q: You once said that the media show prohibits us from having authentic feelings. How do we do today cultivate true feelings?

A: How do you recover your health? We have to stop poisoning ourselves. It is therefore necessary to first disconnect from all media, all of the inputs which call forth the worst in our minds, souls and hearts. I once realized that the days of the year when I am the best writer, the best husband, the best father, the best friend, the best neighbor, are those where, for some reason or another I did not let myself be informed (by media) of anything. To deprive ourselves of media — everyone is afraid of it, and yet no one has ever died of it. In order to cultivate true feelings, false feelings sown like tares and wheat must be plucked out. And these false feelings do not emanate only from what the bad media is, as opposed to the good. Let’s not waste too much time separating the right media from the bad, like good drugs from the bad. Let’s be free of it entirely, and all the rest will be given to us.

To be in the company of François is to be in the presence of a man both serene and on fire. This must be what it was like to be with Dostoevsky. He is not afraid of anything. For me, it wasn’t that I learned anything in particular from his words, but only that I saw for a short time what it is like not to be afraid of anything but God. That is valuable. That is precious, in fact. Here is a photo Limite ran of his chest. It’s the Andrei Rublev icon of the Holy Trinity:

I spoke that Wednesday night at a multifaith panel in a parish near the Arc de Triomphe, and had the pleasure of meeting Father Matthieu Rougé, who has a reputation as one of the most dynamic priests in Paris. He was my host and interlocutor. After the late evening, some of the gang went out for a beer, but I was so bone-tired that I decided to go back to my place. I had been doing lots and lots of walking. I love to walk, and Paris is a superb walking city. But I had been very, very foolish, and the blisters on my feet were epic. When I made it back to my room (having taken a cab part of the way, because I couldn’t handle the pain anymore), I removed the bandage I had put on my right foot the night before and saw — well, let’s just say I’ve never seen that deeply below the skin. Fearing infection, I squirted the thing with Purell. How I managed not to let out a scream, I don’t know. Middle age, man, middle age.

The next morning I had one of the best interviews of the trip: with Thomas Renaud, a journalist from Aleteia. We sat in a hotel lobby next to a TV with the sound off. Thomas’s back was to the TV, so he couldn’t see what was on the screen. He asked excellent, philosophically rich questions, but behind him, on the screen, was one filthy hip-hop video after another. It was as if the barbarians’ rapaciousness were being broadcast straight to us — a jarring experience.

Lunch at Breizh Café in the Marais with Hubert Darbon, the book’s interpreter. We destroyed some galettes and two bottles of dry Breton cider. Later in the day, I met my friend James Brown of Schiller International University for a guided tour of an exhibit at the Institut du Monde Arabe, of artifacts from the Christian East. It was a fantastic exhibit, and I encourage you to go if you’re visiting Paris while it’s on. There were all kinds of things from the early centuries of the church. It startled and delighted me to observe how much of these things from the early church we have preserved in Orthodox Christianity to this day. I had always been told that as an Orthodox Christian, but when you go look at images and artifacts from the first centuries of the faith, and see that we’ve kept them largely intact in the Orthodox Church, it’s — well, it takes your breath away.

James and I had a long dinner afterward at Le Petit Pontoise, and had a conversation that I wished could have lasted all night. He’s an expatriated American, married to a French woman, and a faithful Catholic. Reflecting on how much I enjoyed that conversation and our walk afterward, I can only thank God that He has blessed me so richly in my friends.

At various points on this trip I made time for shopping for Julie and the kids. I’m headed home with five kinds of Mariage Frères tea for Nora (that’s her favorite) as well as some clothes I bought her for her birthday next week. For everybody, I’m bringing back six pounds — yes, six pounds — of French butter; 11 jars of confiture, including some homemade; two massive crocks of fresh Maille mustard straight from the tap of the little shop near the Madeleine, where Thomas Jefferson bought his mustard as US ambassador to France; and a grab bag of creams and unguents from the French pharmacie, fulfilling a list sent by Julie. French pharmacies have all kinds of things that you can’t get in the US, which is a thing women know. I had hoped to buy some cheese, some chestnut cream, and some bread, but there was no time, and no room in my bags in any case.

On Friday morning, we took a taxi out to a studio of KTO, the Catholic channel, where I taped an interview about faith with Cyril Lepeigneux, a TV host who will broadcast it in Lent next year. We took the metro back to Montparnasse, and had lunch at a favorite neighborhood Alsatian place, Le Bec Rouge. Choucrote garni (sauerkraut with sausages) was my lunch, and I smeared it with Dijon mustard:


That afternoon, thanks to my friend Fred Gion, I met philosopher Alain Finkielkraut for coffee in a cafe near the Luxembourg Gardens. “Finkie,” as the French call him, is perhaps France’s leading public intellectual, and an old friend of Fred’s.  I expected him to be fierce, but in fact he was very gentle and inquisitive. He is not a religious believer, but is an admirer of Pope Benedict XVI. It is true that he is deeply despairing about the future of France and of Europe. He said the age of religion is over.  Houellebecq’s diagnosis of the sickness unto death of French society without God is correct. Finkielkraut has been clear in his writing and broadcasting about the dire state of his own country’s affairs. We talked about the depressing political situation in the US, and about campus life. Someone briefed me in advance that Finkie’s newest book, an exchange of letters with an ideological opponent, consists mostly of him making arguments, and her not answering the arguments, but scolding him for being wicked for believing the things he does.

I asked Finkielkraut where he found his hope. He doesn’t have any. Honestly, it was hard to hear that from a man so cultured and gentle, a man whose work (at least what I’ve read in translation) I admire for its lucidity and courage. But there it is: no hope.

I told him that the fate of the French, and of the West, is not yet sealed. I told him about discovering my faith with a theophany in the Chartres cathedral at age 17. Maybe this kind of thing will happen to the French, in some way that we cannot yet anticipate?

No, he said, it won’t. The French have accepted atheism as a fact. Faith won’t return. Finkielkraut wasn’t saying this combatively, but rather with heavy resignation.

What’s interesting is that I heard the same thing from at least one prominent believing Christian who is around Finkie’s age (mid-60s). When I repeated that to one of my Millennial Catholic friends who supports the Ben Op, he said that this is why it is up to his generation to take up the fight. The older ones are tired and lack the imagination to resist. It’s not that the Millennials are deceived about conditions, but rather that they aren’t ready to roll over yet. This is the Benedictine spirit, for sure — in fact, it’s also the spirit of Gen. de Gaulle, who fled to London to continue the fight rather than stay in France and surrender in the face of the German onslaught. De Gaulle knew the battle could not be won straightforwardly. It required strategic retreat, patience, and vision. That, and faith, real faith.

I tell you this, though: I would rather have Finkielkraut’s grim realism than the happy-clappy denial of US Christian old-school culture warriors, those who have no idea what we’re up against.

On Friday night, I concluded the tour with a big roundtable at the American Cathedral with Catholics and Protestant scholars. My old friend PEG was there, as I mentioned. Afterward, I talked with one of the attendees about education. He told me that his cousin (or friend, I can’t recall) teaches at a public school in France. One of the girls in her class — a 13 year old, I think — sent a photo of herself nude to her boyfriend, who passed it around to all his friends. Now the girl requires protection, because all the boys in the school want to rape her. This is normal in that school.

The barbarians are here, people, and trying to pretend it’s not happening to preserve some false ideal, to “shore up the imperium,” as MacIntyre put it, is not going to do us any good.

We had one more long, lovely dinner, this one hosted by Schiller, then under a full moon, I shared a cab back across the river with Prof. Bernard Cottret, an eminent French Calvinist historian. I stayed up till one a.m. packing, and barely made it up this morning in time to catch a cab for the airport. Estelle Drouard, Hubert Darbon, and Yrieix Denis accompanied me. We motored across the Seine, and there, in the magnificent morning sunlight, was the Cathedral of Notre Dame. What a city. What a country. What a civilization. God bless and keep France and her people.

It’s worth fighting for. We have to fight intelligently, though. The most important fights are not going to happen in the public square, but in our churches, in our schools, in our families, and in our hearts.

I’ll close with this. Last Sunday, Frederic, Yrieix and I sat at a café outside St. Sulpice and talked about how important it is to establish networks of Ben Op-minded Christian in different countries and across continents. We need to be in touch with each other. We need to share friendship and ideas for how to be creative minorities in a post-Christian world. We need to have conferences, workshops, and even summer schools. Now is the time to do this, while there is still time. My friends in France are going to start working on this from their end. I need to start doing something on this end. We need Christian philanthropists with resources and vision to be part of the conversation … and part of the resistance.

Leaving my friends at the airport this morning, I had a light heart. It was hard to say goodbye, because in just one intense week, I had come to love them. But I went home with so much hope and confidence in the future. This I found in France, where Christian hope is supposed to have died. But there it was, among a band of brothers and sisters keeping the faith in the world capital of the Enlightenment. Hey, you never know…

UPDATE: Today my interview with Eugénie Bastié of Le Figaro appeared. If you read French, check it out.



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