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How Benedictine is the ‘Benedict Option’?

BY Dom Cuthbert Elliott

Actual Benedictines do not flee from diversity; rather they undertake the asceticism of the Rule in order to be conformed to Christ in whom their various life-experiences ultimately find meaning.

In the bookshop at Le Barroux, a traditionalist French monastery, there is a section entitled La Crise—The Crisis. The books in this category describe the liturgical, doctrinal, and pastoral challenges that the Catholic Church has faced since the Second Vatican Council. Since the 1960s, these books contend, Catholics have lost a sense of the sacred along with respect for legitimate authority and a sufficient understanding of the faith. The Church’s members have bought into the materialism and consumerism of modern life and thereby exchanged the quest for redemption through suffering for a life of distraction and mediocrity. The result is a crisis fueled by the predominant secular ideology of the West and exacerbated by the Catholic Church’s misguided eagerness to embrace it.

If the monks of Le Barroux were to sell The Benedict Option, they would no doubt display it under the title of La Crise. Rod Dreher’s recent work is meant to serve as a wake-up call for the average lay Christian who may or may not be aware of Christianity’s current peril. For Mr. Dreher, the essence of the crisis is the moral decay of Western (specifically American) culture and the apparent failure of Christians to address or resist it. The 2009 Obergefell decision to redefine marriage was a watershed moment in which the United States completed its transition from Christian liberal democracy to secular autocracy. The results for Christians have been disastrous: the loss of free speech and free exercise of religion, the desertion of many young Christians from the Faith, and the transformation of traditional Christianity into a diluted version better known as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. American Christians, Mr. Dreher fears, have become little more than relativists confident of salvation, reluctant to challenge the status quo, and content to amuse themselves to death. They are now Christians in name only.

The majority of Mr. Dreher’s book—11 out of its 14 chapters—is dedicated not to proving this thesis but to proposing different models of resistance to Christianity’s downward spiral. His primary inspiration is the Benedictine monastery of Norcia, an American foundation in central Italy that follows the 6th century Rule of St. Benedict with radical fidelity to its traditional norms. During his visits to Norcia, Mr. Dreher was struck by the qualities that define Benedictine life: order, prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community, hospitality, and balance. He came to believe that these same virtues were necessary for every Christian community that wished to survive the corrosive flood of ‘liquid modernity.’ Benedict Option communities would be those that embraced metaphorical or literal separation from the surrounding secular culture in order to form a vibrant Christian culture of their own. They would seek to recast their engagement with politics, worship, education, family, employment, sex, and technology in a radically Christian way, thereby contributing to the renewal of Western culture by restoring the centrality of God’s presence in their own lives.

Much of what Mr. Dreher advocates is good common sense, the kind that Christians can never hear too often. He urges them to make sacrifices to promote family life, to practice moderation and vigilance in watching television or surfing the internet, and to prepare for professional martyrdom in careers on the forefront of the culture wars. In so doing, he draws attention to the unseen influence that modern culture can exert upon Christians and the normative role it can play in guiding their moral choices towards vicious ends. As he correctly warns, the forces of secularism, when left unchecked, can undermine the Christian witness from within and strip it of its life-giving potential for all concerned. For this reason, Mr. Dreher is right to characterize secularism as the gravest threat to the Church’s evangelical mission in the Western world.

Nevertheless, there are a few problems with Mr. Dreher’s work that need to be addressed by anyone wishing to respond to the challenge that the current crisis presents. Firstly, there is the danger of reducing the Christian faith to an instrumental good oriented to preserving a certain cultural settlement. Although Mr. Dreher is careful to acknowledge the priority of worshipping Christ as the ultimate Christian end, he cannot avoid the fact that what inspired him to write The Benedict Option was his desire to revive classical Christian culture. Following Western tradition, Dreher sees the root of culture in the cult: what the cult collectively worships as a community is the basis of that community’s culture. Secular culture may worship many things—the self, material being, technology—but it does not worship the Christian God. Thus, a Christian culture is only possible to the extent that Christ is the focal point of communal life. The renewal of a distinctly Christian culture along these lines seems to be the objective of Mr. Dreher’s work. As a result, there is a tension running throughout his narrative in which the focus on Christ seems to have become the means of restoring Western culture rather than the other way around. In the process, the Rule of St. Benedict becomes a means of transforming culture in lieu of its original purpose of disposing monks and nuns to everlasting union with Jesus Christ. This is a confusion of the Rule’s primary purpose with its accidental effects.

Secondly, there is the related question of what it means to be a Benedictine, and what the dynamic of monastic life really entails. Monastic communities are complex organisms; their diverse members achieve a fragile unity not through uniformity of backgrounds and ideas but through humble submission to the will of Jesus Christ as manifested to them by their way of life. Consequently, monastic communities are not gatherings of the likeminded that can serve as traditionalist footholds in broader society but ecclesiolae—churches in miniature that embody the diversity that enriches and challenges the life of the Church more broadly. While Mr. Dreher’s monastic interlocutors at Norcia express an awareness of this dynamic, it is not clear that Mr. Dreher does; he consistently positions Benedict Option communities as alternatives to social and cultural norms rather than as cross-sections of the society needing conversion. For this reason, his imagined communities sound more like safe-spaces for millennials seeking shelter from unpalatable contradiction and challenge. Actual Benedictines do not flee from diversity; rather they undertake the asceticism of the Rule in order to be conformed to Christ in whom their various life-experiences ultimately find meaning.

Thirdly, Mr. Dreher stresses the evils of modernity with little consideration of its possible goods. While it might be his belief that there are no good aspects of modern culture, this is a conclusion that would need rigorous argument (not to mention a new post-Christian anthropology). It has been the continuous experience of the Church that there is something good, true, and beautiful in every culture because of the inherent goodness of man, whom God has created in His image and likeness. For this reason, the Church has adopted whatever she can from contemporary cultures in order to illumine the Faith and evangelize the uninitiated. It is concerning that The Benedict Option makes no mention of the need for legitimate acculturation, nor of the direct evangelization that it would support. Instead, Mr. Dreher argues that Christianity in the West can only be saved by shoring up intentional communities of theologically orthodox Christians who have taken steps to separate themselves from society. As life-giving as it may be for some, this strategy seems to come at the expense of Christ’s final commandment: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’ (Mt 28:19-20). No true solution to Christian woes can ignore this basic command of charity.

Fourthly, and in a similar vein, Mr. Dreher urges a complete withdrawal from political life, with the one exception of lobbying for religious freedom. This tactic reduces Christians to a pressure group seeking benefits for itself at the expense of other special interests. While the goal of religious liberty is admirable and necessary, Mr. Dreher’s method of pursuing it echoes the worst features of democratic life and its the tendency to collapse the Church with its multiplicity of vocations into a single political pressure group. In part, his sentiments reflect a failure to distinguish between the political role of the Church as a formal institution and that of individual lay Christians. According to Catholic social doctrine, the Church is meant to serve as a resource in public life but not as a pressure group; it presents and clarifies moral truths to inform the consciences of the electorate and civic leaders only. This is a very different vocation from that of the laity, who are called by virtue of the natural and divine law to participate in civic life in a manner commensurate with their gifts for the promotion of justice and charity. Any strategy for reforming Christian life needs to respect these basic roles and requirements for lay Christians and their clergy.

Finally, Mr. Dreher has chosen to address his book to observant Christians from all three branches of Christianity—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox—without any attention to their differences. This has the effect of weakening his overall argument by ignoring an important cause of the current crisis. As is evident from the Gospel of John (17:20-23), divisions within Christianity have formed an open wound in the Mystical Body of Christ and undermined the ability of all Christians to bear witness to the Truth. Until Christians can present society with a shared understanding of faith, morality, teaching authority, and the sacraments, the secular world may remain unmoved and unimpressed. A revival of Christian culture on a broader scale is unlikely without there being attention to the scandal of disunity among Christians. Mr. Dreher needs to address how Benedict Option communities can withdraw from broader social engagement while still practicing constructive forms of ecumenical dialogue and apologetics.

The Benedict Option is neither groundbreaking in its diagnosis of the crisis facing Christians nor wholly satisfactory in the suggestions for reform that it proposes. Nevertheless, its title alone has already succeeded in prompting broader discussion among Christians about their future in the West and the avenues of reform that they might pursue. For this reason, Mr. Dreher’s work is a serviceable introduction for Christians new to the culture wars or needing a gateway to other literature on the subject. It also offers what theoretical treatments do not: ripped-from-the-headlines examples of attempts to revivify Christian culture. Readers in need of this kind of inspiration would profit from this text, so long as they were alerted to its limitations.

Dom Cuthbert Elliott is a Benedictine monk of Saint Louis Abbey and Headmaster of Saint Louis Priory School. Father Cuthbert was clothed as a monk of Saint Louis Abbey in August 2006 and joined Saint Louis Priory School in 2008, serving as an instructor in Theology and the Classics. His First Profession in the monastic community was in September 2007, and his Solemn Profession took place in September 2010. From 2010 to 2015, he resided in England, where he earned a master’s degree in Theology from the University of Oxford and a Baccalaureate of Sacred Theology from Blackfriars Studium in Oxford.

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