The “Benedict Option”: What is the role for Christians in society today?

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24 January 2018

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option was recently published in the United States and has caused much debate.[1] Its title refers to St. Benedict of Nursia (circa 480-547), and it has been defined as “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”[2] It tries to posit a way for faithful Christians and their communities to not only preserve their religious principles and customs but also flourish within a more secularized society. The publication is worth a closer look.

Ray Oliver “Rod” Dreher is a U.S. Christian in his 50s and a journalist with The American Conservative. His writings appear in the National Review and The Wall Street Journal among various other magazines and newspapers. Dreher seems to suggest in The Benedict Option that Christians, within “local” and “small” communities, should be prepared to live in a post-Christian society, operating as a “parallel polis” capable of “pursuing virtue” and being a “counter-cultural” force in a world that vehemently rejects Christianity.

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.

Inspired by Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981), Dreher bases the Benedict option on a narrative that interprets past history and our present time. The parallel is made between the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire and our supposedly post-Christian era. According to Dreher, by founding his monastic order, St. Benedict was “responding” to the “collapse of Roman civilization.” This response consisted in reestablishing small communities of virtuous men wherein civilization would be preserved to flourish in posterity.[3]

In this sense, through a nuanced style, Dreher argues that Christians in the West should “separate” themselves from the “official order” while not completely withdrawing from society. The point is not to build a “gated community.” Dreher insists rather on building “common practices” and “institutions” which are able to “reverse” the “isolation” that ordinary faithful Christians seem to feel today.[4]

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.”[5] 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.[6]

 

The risk of the ‘small group

Nevertheless, besides the fact that St. Benedict did not found an order in the strict meaning of the term, and despite the original elements of his rule, the father of Western monasticism was within a tradition previously in place. Coenobitic monasticism appeared and flourished during Christian imperial times just after the persecution of the early Church was over. It was not mainly a response to the fall of the Roman Empire during the dark barbarian ages.

In fact, as Pachomius and Basil had done before, St. Benedict was not for the most part operating in a reactive way, as a response against the uncultured pagans who were destroying the Empire.[7] He was acting in continuity with the so-called tradition of white martyrdom. The coenobitic monks were seeking a way to offer their lives to God in a subsequent and different historical context vis-à-vis the early Church of martyrs.

“Benedict option Christians” tend to see an analogy between the Dark Ages after the Roman period and our society. It is difficult to remain indifferent to the apocalyptic tone of Dreher’s way of positing his thesis. The “dark ages” of our time, the inevitability of becoming “poorer” and “more marginalized,” the need to learn from the opponents of the Czech communist subjugation, the employment of terms like “antipolitical politics” or “parallel polis,” the prediction of losing “careers tomorrow” due to subtle “persecution,” the emphasis on the harms of technology, the internet and libertine sexual practice…: all these statements are made from within the narrative of a persecuted Church, similar to what had happened to the first martyrs.

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.

 

The Donatist temptation and Augustine’s reaction

This was precisely the temptation of the Donatist heresy. “Donatism” was a religious movement that appeared in Africa in 311 from the ideas of Bishop Donatus. It emerged from a period of persecution. Donatus severely criticized some bishops who had not resisted the Diocletian persecutions and had delivered sacred books to the authorities. The Donatists maintained that the sacraments administered by those bishops were not valid. This position presupposed that the sacraments were not efficacious in themselves, but that their validity depended on the dignity of those administering them.

As theologian Yves Congar noted, the Donatists emphasized the act of martyrdom, tended toward moral rigidity and purity, and manifested strong hostility against secular authorities and institutions.[8]

Donatists also highlighted an aspect of the Church – persecution – that was, in their understanding, an important criterion to corroborate their belonging to the real Church of Christ. In fact, they were proud to feel themselves persecuted. They felt themselves linked to the Church of the martyrs. We must say that this feeling was absolutely justified by the violent opposition that the imperial authorities inflicted on them.[9]

In opposition to their sacramental theology, Augustine mentioned Cyprian – the great martyr praised by the schismatics – in order to show that martyrdom and persecution in general are only profitable when it is demanded by grace and lived in unity with the Church. According to Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, unity, charity and humility are intrinsically connected. Because of this, a schismatic falls into an ecclesial sin by breaking with unity (and consequently with charity and humility).[10] For Augustine, it seems that the great sin of the schismatics is pride or arrogance: the feeling that someone is right against all others, and by so doing, destroying communion.

On the one hand, Augustine offers a more finely tuned theology than the Donatists, showing them that persecution alone might not attest to their allegiance to the Church of Christ. To seek unity, charity and humility are indispensable. On the other hand, Augustine seems to find a coherent way to praise the martyrdom of the early Church, simultaneously adapting Church practices and customs to the new historical era.

At the end of this controversy, the Church chose to reinstate the traditors, after some penitence, instead of casting them off.[11]

 

When rigidity comes at the price of unity and peace

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.”[12]

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.

 

The clear response from Augustine

To their moral rigidity and emphasis on asceticism, Augustine responded in ways that are useful to recover for today. The bishop of Hippo articulated two distinctions that the Donatists were unable to make. First, he distinguished between the present historical Church and the future eschatological one. The pure Church, constituted only by irreproachable men, is real at the end of times in the ecclesia qualis futura est. Now, in present times, God is patient and allows different types of men and women to participate in the ecclesia talis nunc est. The present Church is a pro mixta societas, a mixed society of good and bad people. A Church consists of better off and worse off (or those not-so-virtuous) believers.[13]

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.[14]

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.

 

Emphasis on ‘purity’ and hostility toward secular institutions

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.[15] 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.[16]

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.[17] 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.

For that matter, Dreher’s defense of religious liberty serves to secure the possibility of the existence and implementation of Benedict option institutions. Dreher does not show himself interested in establishing a true dialogue with those of different cultural backgrounds, diverse religions and other ways of life. It is even difficult to see how collaboration with people from different options is possible.

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,[18] Dreher’s option does not propose a way to live in and evangelize this new “place.”

Looking at the Donatist controversy, it seems clear that the option taken by Augustine in particular, and the Catholic Church in general, was not to make a difference between being a good citizen and being a good Christian. Of course, as Christians we must be prudent in the collaboration within and with secular institutions and persons. We can use Dreher’s metaphor: Christians should not “burn incense to Caesar.”[19] However, finding ways that “do not compromise” our Christian consciences through the Benedict option has the danger of blocking healthy development and social commitment with people of goodwill. Care for popular religious devotions and a posture of open dialogue outside the Church seem to at least justify some other options than those of Dreher.

 

What about social injustices?

Additionally, the Benedict option could also be in danger of “establishing” (or “reestablishing”) strong Christian communities and practices to the detriment of organized social care. Obviously, Christian practices and institutions should not be reduced to health care NGOs. This statement does not mean, though, that Christian practices and institutions can be indifferent to the poor and more marginalized people in Western societies and indeed all over the world.

According to Yves Congar, the Donatists were not very concerned about social injustices.[20] Dreher’s book seems to find ways in which to preserve, enliven and engage Christian practices, but it is not easy to see how these practices take into account the “preferential option for the poor.”

In the context of growing globalization, faithful Christians could opt for the extension of their relationships with other communities, even outside their own churches, in order to gather synergy for the construction of peace and justice. That might also be a way to live, practice and witness to Christian virtues and the true faith.

 

The importance of humility and mercy

Dreher states that “the Benedict Option ultimately has to be a matter of love.”[21] No one within Christian tradition could disagree with this statement. In any case, the Benedict option is not immune to those risks inherent in moral firmness and countercultural forces. The main threat of these attitudes concerns the lack of communion, unity and peace within the Church and with the society we are living in.

For Pope Francis, mercy is “the message of Jesus,” “it is the Lord’s strongest message.”[22] While Augustine disapproved of the rigidity expressed by the Donatists to the damage of the Church’s unity, Pope Francis seems to strive for and to endeavor toward more merciful practices with regard to the wounds and difficulties experienced by contemporary men and women. This spiritual attitude cannot be reduced to a political strategy. It is biblically and theologically grounded.

Replying to Peter’s question about how many times the disciple should forgive, Jesus says, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times” (Matt 18:22). After saying this, Jesus tells the parable of the “ruthless servant” who, after having received the forgiveness of his master, is incapable of forgiving his neighbor. At the end, he is condemned by his master (Matt 18:23-35).

For the pope, “this parable contains a profound teaching for all of us. Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father, it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who his true children are.”[23] Maybe, in striving for the reestablishment of “small” communities whose members are “strong” Christians operating as a kind of “parallel society,” this criterion is set aside. In front of God and the world, Christians must be credible in witnessing to God’s merciful nature by making this experience possible within Christian institutions and beyond.

Without any doubt, secularism is a great challenge for Christian communities. Pope Francis is responding to contemporary secularization in a humble posture, with a dialogue followed by gestures of kindness and greater understanding regarding all people. Such is a truly evangelical option for Christians today.

 


[1] Cf. Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, New York, Sentinel, 2017.

[2] Cf. Rothman, “Rod Dreher’s monastic vision,” in The New Yorker (Rothman, “Rod Dreher’s monastic vision,” in The New Yorker (www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/01/rod-drehers-monastic-vision), May 1, 2017.

[3] Cf. R. Dreher, The Benedict Option…, cit. 2-4; 16-18.

[4] Cf. Dreher, op. cit., pp. 88-96.

[5] Cf. Dreher, op. cit., pp. 12-13.

[6] It might be said that Alasdair MacIntyre’s appeal to a “new, but different, Saint Benedict” is made in the context of the contrast between two moral traditions: the liberal and the Aristotelian. While he is trying to show the intelligibility and the possibility of the second, he proposes St. Benedict’s example. In this sense, MacIntyre’s perspective presumes the possibility of virtuous non-Christian men and communities. In addition, MacIntyre is aware of the dangers concerning the parallel between our era and the fall of the Roman Empire. In fact, he also recognizes that the parallel between the Dark pagan ages after the fall of the Roman Empire and our contemporary Western society tend to be too reductionist: “It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and, among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages.” (A. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd edition, Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press, 2007, p. 263).

[7] Cf. M. Dunn, The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages, Oxford, Blackwell, 2003.

[8] Cf. Y. Congar, “Introduction générale aux traités anti-donatistes de Saint Augustin,” in Œuvres de Saint Augustin. Traités anti-donatistes. Vol. I, trad. G. Finaert (Bibliothèque augustinienne 28), Desclée de Brouwer: Paris 1963, pp. 29-30.

[9] Cf. Ibid., pp. 17, 45.

[10] Cf. Augustinus Hipponensis, De Baptismo contra Donatistas, II, 4-6.

[11] This confirms Pope Francis’ vision regarding Church history: “There are two ways of thinking which recur throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement” (Amoris Laetitia, 296). For more on the Donatist controversy see J. L. Narvaja, “Sant’Agostino a proposito della tradizione e dello sviluppo del dogma,” in Civ. Catt. 2017 I 390-400.

[12] Dreher, op. cit., pp. 101-102.

[13] Cf. Congar, op. cit., pp. 62-64, 95-96.

[14] Cf. De Baptismo IV, 12-13; VI, 2, 7, 35.

[15] Cf. Congar, op. cit., pp. 77-78.

[16] Cf. De Baptismo I, 4.

[17] Cf. Dreher, op. cit., pp. 176-194.

[18] Cf. Ibid., pp. 218-236.

[19] Ibid., pp. 179-180.

[20] Cf. Y. Congar, op. cit., p. 35.

[21] Cf. R. Dreher, op. cit., p. 237.

[22] Cf. Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy: A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli, trans. Oonagh Stransky, New York, Penguin Random House, 2016, p. ix.

[23] Id., Misericordiae Vultus. Bull of Indiction of the Jubilee of Mercy, April 11, 2015, n. 9.