The Benedict Option for a “Monastic” Church

Abstract

Rod Dreher proposes what he calls the “Benedict Option,” by which he means a return to a monastic paradigm for Christian life, opting for the City of God in contrast to the City of Man. This world isn’t our home. It’s the desert through which we travel in the great Pasch or exodus to the bosom of the Father, our true Promised Land. Many of my readers will be familiar with his proposal. Some think his reference is to a view of the Church forecast by Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) in a 1969 radio interview, wherein he imagined a future Church devoid of social or political influence, having shed most her institutional apparatus, becoming a much smaller and holier communion of those willing to live in self-denial and social marginalization. In fact, though, Dreher is referring to St. Benedict of Norcia, the father of Western monasticism, who retreated to the caves in the countryside to flee the world’s collapse and to preserve an interior life of faith that survives and deepens insofar as what the world thinks or wants or chooses is no longer our own concern.

The two ideas are pretty similar.

 

What is the Monastic Paradigm?

Dreher isn’t actually saying that all Christians will have to be monks in the future, but that the monastic paradigm will have to become, as it had once been for the Church in both East and West, the paradigm upon which the whole of Christian life is modeled. We should keep in mind, here, that many population centers throughout Europe grew up around monasteries. People chose to settle around them because of the value they placed upon the spiritual guidance the monks provided. This idea appears almost instinctual in the Judeo-Christian tradition, appearing even in Judaism at the time of Christ, when lay communities arose in connection to the Essenes, who were, as far as I can tell, monks. Monasticism is the “natural” reference point, it seems, for any culture with God as its center and purpose.

According to the monastic paradigm, the world isn’t our home. Rather, the world is the desert through which we travel in the great Pasch or exodus from Death to Life, from Self to God, from that which passes away to that which endures unendingly in the bosom of the Father, our true Promised Land. The monastic paradigm thus means opting for what St. Augustine had called the City of God, in contrast to the City of Man.

Ratzinger had held, in 1969, that the Church of political and social action (which many contemporary observers believe to be the dominant and essential aspect of the Church) was already a dead thing and, thus, couldn’t form the basis of the Church of the future. Ratzinger’s critique of this Church of political and social action can only remind an attentive historical observer of the attempt made by Julian the Apostate to render Christianity irrelevant by engaging in social action without an evangelical mandate and in the absence of any vertical horizon of hope. Interestingly, Julian had poured enormous amounts of money into that project, only to see it crumble in abysmal failure. Yet, as Ratzinger observed even in the late 1960s, a new Julian travesty of the Church was being advanced internally, by ecclesiastics whose true loyalties had become catastrophically misplaced. In time, as a result of these efforts, there would arise, with all the appearances of legitimacy, a socially-acceptable alternative to the living Church — a kind of “anti-Church,” as many would say appears today, intertwined with the authentic Church like tares among the wheat (Mt 13:24–30). In the end, however, as this anti-Church gained social acceptance and worked increasingly for goals at first ancillary, and finally antithetical, to those of the Kingdom of God, the true Church would be forced to the margins, where it would have little to do, any longer, with the surrounding culture.

A Reversal of Course or a Tactical Retreat?

Ratzinger’s vision was pretty apocalyptic, when you think about it.

But let’s try to understand it. Returning to the monastic paradigm with its flight from the world would involve a stark reversal of course, at the practical level, on many of the postures assumed by the Catholic Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Keep in mind that I’m not writing this essay as an opponent of the Council or as a member of any traditionalist group within the Church. I think that the Ressourcement and the Aggiornamento were generally positive developments.

But there’s no question that, objectively speaking, the Church isn’t stronger today than it was before the Council, that we’re not in a better social position than we were then, that we’re not holier than we used to be.

Now, I’m not saying things were just as should have been until Vatican II undermined it all. The first to abandon the Church’s tradition, to throw off her moral teachings and embrace the false wisdom and values of the world, were Catholics who’d been formed and catechized prior to the Second Vatican Council. The problems, clearly, were already there.

But, if prior to the Council the Church had taken an oppositional approach to the world, since then we have sought a rapprochement with the world. It seems apparent that neither of these two strategies has been successful in strengthening the Church or making us holier. In fact, recent surveys show that today’s Catholics who attend Mass not only “regularly” but according to the Church’s stated disciplinary norms (a minority of self-identifying Catholics to begin with) overwhelmingly hold secular rather than Catholic views about nearly everything, and live just like everyone else in all ways other than their inexplicable attachment to Sunday Mass.

Neither opposition to the world nor rapprochement with it has worked. The “culture war,” in other words, is real, and it seems we’ve lost, for now, in part because, for the past sixty years, we’ve largely refused to acknowledge it was taking place. We can argue about this point, but even if we think we can still win the culture war in the near term, prudence would dictate that we prepare for defeat even as we fight for victory.

Dreher is, in this sense, a practical man and a realist with a supernatural perspective. He acknowledges that the Church transcends whole civilizations — even Western civilization. The Benedict Option, then, is for times like these, whether the end of a civilization is upon us or only very truly possible. A return to a more monastic paradigm for Christian life, with a different set of priorities and a different posture toward the world, preserves the seeds by which the garden is to be replanted when the spring arrives. If the day is to come when our civilization falls, it’ll be the monastic paradigm that preserves Christianity in its ashes, and allows the Church to rise again and build anew under the bright shadow of the Cross of Christ.

So, what would this preparation look like? According to St. Benedict, we should live as if “in a perpetual Lent” (Rule 49.1) and turn our attention away from most of the doing and acting we associate with life in our decaying culture. We should focus, instead, on being — on a more contemplative existence — and significantly reduce our extra-ecclesial involvement. Political causes? Social causes? Economic justice? Environmentalism? International relations? Practically speaking, whatever pressing questions arise in these areas, we should remember that they arise in the context of a world that’s passing away, and that the only thing of ultimate value at stake in any of these questions is the state and fate of the human soul. Nothing else of it will last nor any other loss be permanent.

Christianity’s Fundamental Option

Here’s what’s at stake in the Benedict Option. If what we think most about in life are the problems of this world, they’ll tend to become our ultimate concern and the filter through which we see reality. We’ll thereby lose the divine perspective that comes through faith, while adopting a worldly one. This observation explains a lot about what’s happened to the Catholic mind and heart in Western society over the past fifty-plus years.

St. Paul, of course, provides direction here. He explains that he and the world had chosen to part ways — to break ties in a radical and unalterable way. To make this point, he appeals to the image of crucifixion. “The world,” he declares, “has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Gal 6:14). To understand what Paul means here, we need to remember that the penalty of crucifixion was a form of annihilation by which all traces of a person’s existence were purged from history. The crucifixion of Christ is an attempt to re-write history as if Christ had never been. So is the suppression of the Church of Christ by a Julian anti-Church. Thus, our choice is a stark one, for Paul: to have a new world and a new history with Christ, or to have the old world without him. We can’t have both. Paul’s missionary activity has to be understood in this context — and that context is very much like our own.

Today we think that the Church has constantly to be engaged in some positive social action or external work, because God loves the world. We don’t realize that we’re univocating here between the world as creation and the world as the dominion of death, where these uses are actually equivocal in the Bible. That’s a fatal mistake. In our confusion, the agenda for our social action is set at the lowest common denominator — the concerns of the fallen world; so those aspects of Christianity that the world doesn’t accept, like chastity, for example, or our beliefs about God, are first bracketed and finally opposed.

If we want to understand how a Catholic politician could purport, without censure, to be acting in accord with the Faith by promoting contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage, while seeking to curtail the liberty of Christians to act in accord with Church teaching on these matters, we have our explanation.

When we confuse the City of God with the City of Man and believe Christians have more in common with the world than not, we assimilate to the world. But, when, recognizing that the world opposes Christ, we choose him anyway, at any cost, we assimilate to heaven. St. Paul, St. Benedict, St. Francis, and all the great reformers understood that either the Church will conquer the world or the other way around. This is what the Benedict Option means — that the only path to victory runs through paradox: the Church must reexamine its priorities and let God purify us of our worldly ambition and taste for the acclaim of men.

Richard H. Bulzacchelli, STD About Richard H. Bulzacchelli, STD

Richard H. Bulzacchelli, STD, is Lecturer in Theology / Associate at Catholic Studies Academy (catholicstudiesacademy.com) and a Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.

Comments

  1. Tom McGuire says:

    Richard Bulzacchelli how do you understand the line in “Our Father”, “ty will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? The followers of St Benedict were very much not running from the world, but pointing to and acting to bring about on earth, heaven–the Kingdom of God. Hotels, hospitals, libraries, agriculture and many other forms of human service are rooted in Benedictine Monasteries. Benedict is considered the Father of European Civilization.

    Catholic Social Teaching is a constitutive part of Catholic doctrine. Are you suggesting this is not ture?

    What is your response to Matthew 25: 31-46? How can that not require some effort to serve the poor and be part of the creation of systems that do not oppress but move God’s will for what is on earth to be what is in heave–the Kingdom of God?

    • Richard H. Bulzacchelli, S.T.D. says:

      The question is not whether we are required to make efforts to serve the poor but rather, how the Church conceptualizes its relationship to a world that is hostile to Christ. If the Church becomes so unwelcome in the re-secularized world that it can no longer do the good it has traditionally done through her institutions without effectively denying Christ in the process, then those projects will have to be suspended. When, for example, Catholic colleges graduate fewer Catholics than they admit, fewer Christians than they admit, and fewer believers in the God of the Bible than they admit, this is a sign that something essential to the service of the salvation of souls has taken second-place to the project of the institution itself and the secular goods that it serves. Something has gone terribly wrong.

      Keep in mind, too, that many of Christ’s mandates are given to persons not institutions, and accepting the imperative does not equate to institutional action.

      Finally, to answer your question regarding the meaning of the line in the Lord’s prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” I would say that this line speaks to two points: 1) the conversion of hearts, and 2) the restoration of the cosmos. The two are related, in that one addresses the dominion of sin and the other the dominion of death, which results from the advent of sin in the world. It is thus a call for the eschatological realization of the promise of salvation. Does it carry implications for conduct? Certainly. But does it address “systems of oppression”? Probably not. That reading is pretty anachronistic, arising only much, much later–really following upon Marx’s dialectical materialism, which then became a general idea of power dynamics in Neo-Marxist thought in the twentieth century.

      • Placing the crisis in the Church and in the world today in the context of Augustine’s two cities is appropriate and illuminating – I believe your concern is true, and is leading you toward thoughts I share with you. Your response above helped me focus as well on the “Martha and Mary” account in Luke – especially this that you wrote, “something essential … has taken second place,” and “Something has gone terribly wrong.” Jesus said to the very busy and terribly distracted sister:
        “”Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
        It is crucial to the identity of the Church that we first of all KNOW that “one thing is needful,” lest we become lost in serving, It is crucial not only that we know the fact of the truth of this, but that we know Him who is Truth, so that our serving may be in Him who is True.

  2. Bernadette. Fakoory says:

    Clearly, we are all call by God to re-examine our consciences. As God called Adam and asked him why he was hiding and who told Adam that he was naked. God is indeed stripping us of our worldly garments, ornaments and external appendages that have kept us back from making any real effort in working on our interior lives.

    For many years, since back in the early,fourth and fifth sixth centuries there have been monastic developments. Many works have come to us through the monks, through the early fathers of the Church through the saints. Still, the Catholic Church in particular , the priestly class was separated from the laity and for most part did not effectively communicate to the laity the real substance of faith in Jesus Christ and the work of reconciliation and redemption.

    You did mention from St.Benedict’s rule49.1, that maybe we are meant to live meditating perpetually on the crucifixion and death of Christ. I believe you make a good point in saying so. Since I believe the true test of time that the Lord was speaking about concerns the psychological development of humanity. The true awakening of humanity To its self experience in relation with a God and without God. A true test to how we have made progress or failed to make real progress in authentically becoming true male and female images created by God.

    Thank you
    Bernadette

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