Getting “The Benedict Option” Right

Detail of St. Benedict of Nursia Prays with His Monks,
by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (Il Sodoma), (Early 16th c.).

If you haven’t heard of the “Benedict Option,” or even (especially) if you have heard of it, it really needs explaining for it to be a real option. In December 2013, Rod Dreher, a writer for The American Conservative magazine, wrote an essay entitled Benedict Option: A medieval model inspires Christian communities today. Since then, there has been a “fluttering” of responses, both for it, and against it, but mostly against it, and all from “our side.” And all, more or less, presenting an inaccurate perspective of what it is. “The Benedict Option” is meant to be a response to the current state of a world turned upside down, dismissive of its Creator, and of the most basic truths that keep us alive, and even flourishing. To put it more bluntly, the Benedict Option is one of Christ’s Church’s way of expressing normal human society’s response to the “Left’s” (attempted and ongoing) takeover of Western Culture.

The idea comes from a closing line from Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, written in 1981, and a perennial mainstay on moral philosophy bookshelves (now in its Third Edition, 2007). There is no space here to give due praise to MacIntyre’s book, but the closing line, as it were, is our (or Dreher’s) jumping off point. The line—after the volume’s comparative journey through moral history, highlighting the faults of modern and ancient moral philosophy where virtue was misrepresented or left out—concludes that, in our dilemma, we are now “waiting for another (St.) Benedict.” The point—our jumping off point—is that St. Benedict retreated (as in a spiritual retreat, not as “defeated”) from the world to be closer to God, to pray for the world. Monasticism is misunderstood in the same way that, now, “The Benedict Option” is being misunderstood. But, I suppose I’m getting ahead of myself…

In Mr. Dreher’s essay, he makes two adjacent quotes that give us the thesis of “The Benedict Option.” I am quoting from the annual Thomas Merton Lecture at Columbia University, recently delivered by Russell Hittinger, who “summed up (St.) Benedict’s lesson to the Dark Ages like this: ‘How to live life as a whole: Not a life of worldly success, so much as one of human success.’” Following that is a quote by Alasdair MacIntyre, who says the monks are relevant to our time “because they show that it is possible to construct ‘new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained’ in a Dark Age—including, perhaps, an age like our own.” Knowing what is meant by this combined foundational premise, and how it pushes us off into an inchoate movement, I also know that taking it “as is” and, perhaps, out of context, can leave one with a misleading (some say “absurd”) notion of exodus into undeveloped (rural) territory to build “new communities.” (Envision here settlers of the American West “popping up” storefront towns along the westward movement trail.) This is not what Dreher meant, but this is what is being taken up in the “fluttering” of rhetoric, as I said, some for it, some against it, both, for the most part, unaware of the true viability of “The Benedict Option” as it applies to our times and our cultural crisis.

The general argument against “The Benedict Option” is twofold. Either it is said to be absurd to consider an isolationist position, and, particularly absurd as an “exodus” from the world; and, on the other hand, it is seen as being proposed as an alternative to the aggressive, rhetorical confrontation of faith and culture in the public square. To first dispel this argument, as I alluded to above, is to say that no one is promoting this option as an “exodus” nor isolationist concept of its viability. Secondly, it is not being promoted as an abandonment of the public square rhetoric that is necessary to confront the overturning of objective moral judgment in favor of relative morality. On this point, there is, however, a consensus that—on various moral fronts—we, the proponents of objective truth, have lost these battles, if not a consensus, then merely by pointing to the obvious legislative facts: from Roe vs. Wade, to the most recent Supreme Court decision on redefining marriage. Consensus or not, there is a valid basis for the proposition that the natural law argument was a losing argument, even as it is valid and true on this basis. The reason it was a losing argument was that it was misunderstood by our opponents, on the one hand, and simply denied as relevant to “modern” society, on the other. It is a valid and, possibly the only, argument, but, in its raw form, it is a philosophical argument being used in a cultural setting. This brief writing is not the place, nor is it my purpose, to go into natural law, but it is worth noting the cultural response to it, which was best exposed in an article in Crisis Magazine, entitled: The Left vs. Human Nature. The response to the natural law argument is basically “that it doesn’t apply to me.” In the Crisis Magazine article, the quote is that “gender is a social construct,” that every person has a “right” to choose what gender he or she wants to be. We have basically been in a dodgeball match, with every angle of natural law argument thrown at them. So, they simply step out of the way with irrational statements.

Hence, enter the “Benedict Option.” Having lost these cultural battles does not mean we have lost the cultural war. In this context, the Benedict Option is not a retreat from defeat, not even a protectionist concept. It, along with new forms of argument in the public square, is a new offensive. The sputtering of rhetoric, for and against it notwithstanding, certain excerpts—prior to its formal naming and since—might give us some insight into its viability. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in the 2013 Erasmus Address on the Judeo-Christian population being creative minorities in the world, quotes Jeremiah (29); and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger comments in his 2004 lecture on “Christian Roots.” Writing to the Israelites in exile to Babylon, Jeremiah advises them to: “Build houses to dwell in, plant gardens, and eat their fruit. … There you must increase in number. … Promote the welfare of the city … pray for it to the Lord, for upon its welfare depends your own.” From Ratzinger, “Christian believers should look on themselves as a creative minority, and help (society) reclaim what is best in its heritage, and to, therefore, place itself at the service of humanity.” Most recently, without referring to the Benedict Option, George Weigel, writing for the Ethics and Public Policy Center in “The Church and the ‘New Normal,’” says that “an alternative cultural foundation … and a new cadre of citizen-leaders, capable of articulating the moral truths on which the American democratic experiment rests, (has) to be raised up—and the prime candidate for doing all that (is) the Catholic Church. … So the Church must learn, fast, how to play good defense, defending the right of our people and our institutions to be themselves. The long-term answer to the New Normal … is the reconversion of the United States to right reason, moral truth, and a biblical way of seeing the world.”

These quotes together—and even Weigel’s alone—express both movements of our side of the cultural front. The assertive voice speaking into the public square must continue, albeit, with new forms of rhetoric articulating objective truth in a more cohesive way; along with the passive defense of our people being allowed “to be themselves.” Hence, in the latter, we can posit the Benedict Option. As Fr. Dwight Longenecker says, in writing about the B-Option, maybe it “is time to hunker down.” It just may be time for us—in conjunction with our rhetorical warriors—to gather ourselves and our children around and within the ramparts of truth, to properly articulate what it means to be human to our children—both shielding them and arming them with truth. The Benedict Option is about getting back to the basic unit of human society—which is the family—to spend time together, to live, pray, and play together. And in the midst of family life, we should have conversations about the Truth and how society—the “New Normal”— is rejecting Truth. The two movements overlap when we, and our children, go forth from our fortresses and speak truth in our conversation with the world—at recess, on college campuses, over a cup of coffee, or in the workplace. The New Normal will be there, speaking its un-truth—its denial of human nature. It will be easy to engage: easy because it will be open and asserting itself. But it will also difficult because it will take courage to step into the conversations to speak truth to our respective circles of humanity.

The Benedict Option, therefore, if we get it right, is, not a withdrawal in an isolationist way. Rather, it is a withdrawal to regroup and refortify, to engage ourselves so that we can engage the world. It is a parallel movement that flows into the high-level rhetoric that must continue at all levels. The first and foremost level, however, is with our children. In refortification, at home, in our parishes, and neighborhoods, we must put our arms around them, tell them the world has it wrong, even as we tell them they are destined to go out into that world. It is not a coincidence that this begins to sound a lot like the words and teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not a coincidence that it was the Catholic monastic movement in the Dark Ages that refortified Western Civilization. Jesus tells us, “In the world you will have trouble, but have courage. I have conquered the world” (cf. John 16:33). And, at the same time, he tells us to “go (into the world) and make disciples” (cf. Matthew 28:19). Before it was the “Benedict Option,” it was the “Jesus Option.”

When Pilate asked the age-old question, “What is truth?” he was speaking face-to-face with Truth himself. The world continues to ask that same question, in particular face-to-face with the Church, the one who has been given the mission of Truth. When arrogance speaks to truth, the first response should be silence, as Jesus was silent in response to Pilate’s question. But from that silence emerges a new front, a new articulation, “a new cadre of citizen-leaders capable of articulating moral truths,” as Mr. Weigel says, “… and the prime candidate for this is the Catholic Church.” But first, a moment of silence as we gather our young behind our ramparts, comforting them with the blanket of truth. Then, from this silence, we must send out our warriors, even from our households, our passive men, women, and children, to show the world what it means to be human by showing them what it means to be Christian. This is the “Benedict Option,” and if we get it right, the tide will turn, and culture will be renewed.

In closing, let us pray:

O God, who, through the grace of adoption,
chose us to be children of light, grant, we pray,
that we may not be wrapped in the darkness of error
but always be seen to stand in the bright light of truth.

Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

(Collect from the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Deacon Peter Trahan, MATh About Deacon Peter Trahan, MATh

Ordained in 2008 to the Archdiocese of Miami; MA Theology from The Augustine Institute, Denver, CO; Master Catechist with the Archdiocese and Coordinator of Adult Faith Formation at St. Bonaventure Parish. Member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.


  1. Avatar Mark Niehaus says:

    Love your articles. I print many of them out. How difficult would it be to put a printer friendly version out there without all the graphics? Thank you.

    • HPR Site Admin HPR Site Admin says:

      Hi, Mark,

      I’d like to contact you privately to ask a few more questions about what you see and what you’d like to see. People have many different expectations when printing, so your feedback is appreciated! Can I use the email you commented with?


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  2. Avatar Carl Lister says:

    Putting everything in the context of us/them, war, Warriors, truth etc. is one of the reasons the culture war was lost. People respond to love, mercy and example. We need to do what our Holy Pope continues to encourage us to do. Accept others where they are and lovingly shepard them.

    • Avatar Dave Jamieson says:

      To the contrary, the Left has gained considerable ground in the culture war precisely because Truth has not been defended vigorously enough. Pope Francis with his muddled pronouncements and with his frankly ill-disguised attacks on the very defenders of Tradition and Truth is unilaterally disarming the Church. His vision of accommodation and acquiescence plays right into the hands of the culture of death.

  3. Dr. William C. Zehringer Dr. William C. Zehringer says:

    On occasion, even our patently confused contemporaries seem able to instruct us with
    their wintry wit. I have had, in my career, intimate commerce with the frenetic academic
    world, a floating island located somewhere near Swift’s Laputa. I can do no better, after
    reading the above well-pondered thoughts, than to call to mind a zany British satiric
    comedy of a few years ago, which was set in an insane asylum. In one memorable scene,
    the wife of that institution’s director rushes into his office and proceeds to blurt out that “This
    whole place is nothing but a nut house!”
    Would that those among us who have the task of governing our most august and venerable establishments, whether they oversee university campuses, political life, the business world,
    or the artistic community, might acquire that degree of humility. Hasten the day

    Sincerely, Dr. William C. Zehringer.

  4. Avatar Rev. John R. Evans says:

    “Keep aloof from worldly ways, but receive the guest as Christ.” RB
    Raise up, o Lord, in Your Church, the Spirit wherewith our holy Father St. Benedict was animated, that filled with the Same, we may love what he loved, and practice what he taught through Christ our Lord. Amen!

  5. Thank you all for your comments and for reading my article, but most of all thank you for reading HPR. It is a noble source for the pastoral work that we have been called to. HPR shepherds the shepherds and those who travel with the flock along the way.

    In the Light of Christ, The Good Shepherd,
    Dcn. Peter

  6. Avatar J. E. Sigler says:

    I also very much enjoy your articles, Deacon. I have for some years thought that there needs to be a resurgence of beguine communities—for many reasons, not just those you mention—but your article reminded me of that. I wonder what your thoughts are on the feasibility of restoring beguinages to our tradition?