Can the Benedict Option Save Catholic Preppers?
Would you agree that the demoralization of society has produced a base (even gross) society around us today?
Worse, do you agree that the secularists attack principles of faith in every public square?
Something must be done! right? Circle the wagons and offer a place for flourishing!
Some see a cultural doomsday imminent and a dark ages afoot. Especially when discussing raising children for a future generation, the desire to have a decent space in society is a problem waiting for a solution.
One solution making waves these days is the so-called Benedict Option.
An opening note: The Benedict Option takes it’s name from the rule of St. Benedict and not Pope Benedict XVI.
The short answer: a Catholic’s spiritual bug-out bag needs certain things: a rosary, the Sacraments, the Virtues, and the Blessed Mother. None of those are in the Benedict Option. Amazed? Read on…
The Benedict Option Is a Proposed Plan for Survival
I recently finished The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher (full disclosure, I was given the review copy for free by a friend connected to the project). One of the sources of controversy that has surrounded the book is the question: “What exactly is the Benedict Option?” At its core, Dreher sees the Benedict Option as a plan for Christians (Orthodox, Evangelical, and Catholic) to survive the coming secular Dark Ages, modeled on the Rule of St. Benedict. The core of this survival plan is to build intentional Christian communities that follow a general rule of life patterned on the book, The Benedict Option.
In Dreher’s Words, The Benedict Option is the Church in Everyday Practices
Relaying a friend describing the Benedict Option, Dreher says: “People are like, ‘This Benedict Option thing, it’s just being Christian, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes! You’ve figured out the koan!’ … ‘But people won’t do it unless you call it something different. It’s just the church being what the church is supposed to be, but if you give it a name, that makes people care” Likewise, in the concluding paragraph Dreher describes it:
If Christians today don’t stand on the rock of sacred order as revealed in our holy tradition – ways of thinking, speaking and acting that incarnate the Christian in culture and pass it on from generation to generation – we will have nothing to stand on at all. If we don’t take on every day practices that keep that sacred order present to ourselves, our families, and our communities, we are going to lose it. And if we lose it, we are at a great risk of losing sight of the One to whom everything in that sacred order, like a divine treasure map, points.
And this is where the problems begin…
But is the Benedict Option just a new name for what the Church has always done? I think not. While there is much in the book that is unobjectionable, albeit elementary: the importance of praying together as a family, classical education, practicing asceticism, and liturgy, the Benedict Option does not content itself with the timeless practice of the Church. To the extent that Dreher suggests those sorts of laudable practices, he is suggesting doing what the Church has always done. Yet there is enough wrong in his suggestions that it would be inaccurate to say that the Benedict Option is simply a new name for the constant practice of the Church.
The Criticisms From Others So Far Are Numerous
There are many areas of the book that people have taken issue with for prudential reasons:
- cultural engagement vs. separation (sometimes called engagement vs. insularity);
- the utility of the political sphere;
- sending children to public school; and,
- the pessimism that the day is already lost.
I won’t touch on those objections or responses here.
The Three Things Catholics Should Take Note of in the Benedict Option
I want to bring up three concerns that are not merely prudential, but are essential for Catholics:
- Some Errors in the Concept — Dreher falls into the same modern errors he intends to condemn;
- Misguided Ecumenism, meaning that he works with the idea of a broadly orthodox ecumenical Christianity which is incompatible with Catholicism;
- Particularly of concern is that the book has NO mention of the Blessed Mother – an error even by Orthodox standards where Mary is essential to Christian life; and,
- Missing the Target: he suggests that the Benedict Option is the definitive cure to modern ills while missing the true cures.
On the Ills of Modern Times, Dreher Makes its own Mistakes
Dreher Gets Nominalism Mixed Up With the Result of Nominalism
Dreher writes The Benedict Option as a sort of response to the ills of modernity, tracing an intellectual history that purports to show where we went wrong and how we got here, as well as offering a corrective to the prevailing beliefs. He begins his history with the rise of nominalism. Describing nominalism, Dreher says: “This idea implies that objects have no intrinsic meaning, only the meaning assigned to them, and therefore no meaningful existence outside the mind. A table is just wood and nails arranged in a certain way until we give it meaning by naming it ‘table,’” and “In nominalism, the meaning of objects and actions in the material world depends entirely on what man assigns it.” While what Dreher describes is certainly problematic, it is not in fact nominalism, but rather a result of it that developed later. Dr. Joshua Hochschild, writing about nominalism, clarifies :
Instead of having common terms signifying forms or natures of things, Ockham insisted that they signify the things themselves. “Man” does not signify the humanity of individual human beings; it signifies the individual human beings themselves.
In effecting this revision of the semantics of terms, Ockham eliminated the need for even talking about natures or forms. This is the crux of Ockham’s nominalism, which while it cannot be adequately described as a denial of the existence of universals, can be described as a denial of the existence of forms or natures.
It is worth pausing here and reading Hochschild’s entire article, but he makes the point that “we cannot draw a straight line from nominalism to relativism; Ockham did not do away with objective reality, but in doing away with one part of objective reality—forms—he did away with a fundamental principle of explanation for objective reality.”
While this discrepancy may seem unimportant, it serves as the foundation of Dreher’s history about the rise of modernity. Getting this point wrong threatens to undermine the project from the very outset, because as St. Thomas says, quoting Aristotle: “A small mistake in the beginning is a big one in the end.” If nominalism is truly about the denial of forms or natures, then properly understood, it is actually a common (and arguably essential) part of Protestantism, one of the traditions Dreher thinks can be saved from the ravages of modernity.
The Head and Heart Dichotomy is one of the footraps Dreher Can’t Resist
Despite purporting that the Benedict Option would solve many of the issues found in modern Christianity, Dreher often finds himself falling into the same modern traps he decries. The anthropology described in The Benedict Option is fundamentally opposed to the traditional Christian view. Throughout the book, he presents a dichotomy between the “head” and the “heart.” In one section criticizing a merely intellectual faith, Dreher describes a difficult time in his life when a Priest counseled him pray the Jesus Prayer for an hour a day. He remarks: “After I was spiritually healed, my priest explained his reasoning for directing me to give myself over to that simple meditative prayer: ‘I had to get you out of your head.’”
This anthropology is very common today, pitting the head against the heart, calling for the need to not just “know” the faith but to truly believe; it is also thoroughly modern. Setting the intellect in opposition to the “heart” falls into the same modern mistake that Descartes makes, merely on the other side. It radically separates the intellect from the rest of the human, siding in this case with the “heart” instead of the mind like Descartes did. In the ancient world, the heart was the seat of knowledge and the will. In the traditional Christian conception, the will is to be subordinated to the intellect so that it may be ordered rightly.
To suggest that there is a fundamental dichotomy between the heart and the intellect, and that the heart must win out is radically modern and un-Christian. You will not find St. Thomas suggesting that we just “get out of our head.”
Dreher Complains of Dry Intellectual Faith
Another common refrain in the book is against an empty intellectual faith. In multiple places, Dreher argues that a merely intellectual faith, having knowledge about Christianity, is not enough. The problem with this is twofold. First, the traditional Christian conception of knowledge is that it involves participation. To truly know something is to be united to it, to participate with it, and ultimately be changed by it. By only speaking about knowledge as if it is disconnected, rote datum about something, Dreher embraces a modern epistemology.
The second problem is more practical: Where are all these Christians with deep knowledge of the faith who don’t truly believe? I know hypocritical Christians and I certainly know Christians who fail to live up to what they know is right, but I have yet to meet a Christian who truly knows the faith, but does not truly believe. Archbishop Fulton Sheen clarified this well when he used to say that he never met anyone that hated the Catholic Church, but he met a lot of people that hated what they thought the Catholic Church taught. Obviously, salvation does not simply come from Faith but from a life rightly formed by Charity, yet that isn’t the critique that Dreher makes. Instead, he settles on a critique of type of Christian who may not even exist.
Maybe this pandemic is common elsewhere, but it seems to me that at a time when so many Christians are completely ignorant of their faith, a point Dreher underscores in his book, wasting time decrying all those empty religious people who know a lot about Christianity but aren’t truly Christian misses the mark.
Not Everyone Is Called to be a Monk in a Monastery
But Even Monks Know Community is Based on Obedience, Not Sexual Love
In a chapter on sexuality, Dreher, quoting Wendell Berry approvingly, says: “Sexual love is the heart of community life.” This struck me as prima facie false, a thoroughly modern take incompatible with the Gospels, the teachings of the Fathers, and the teaching of the Church, but I am not a vowed religious. Maybe, as a married man, I was missing an essential part of what it means to live in a religious community, so I asked a friend who is a vowed religious, a conventual Franciscan who oversees formation for the postulants of his order. I asked him if “sexual love is the heart of community life” and his response was simply: “No, obedience is.”
My friend’s observation is echoed in the rule of St. Benedict, which spends an entire chapter on obedience. Chapter 5 exalts obedience:
“The first degree of humility is obedience without delay.
This is the virtue of those
who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ;
who, because of the holy service they have professed,
and the fear of hell,
and the glory of life everlasting,
as soon as anything has been ordered by the Superior,
receive it as a divine command
and cannot suffer any delay in executing it.
‘Narrow is the way that leads to life’ (Matt. 7:14),
not living according to their own choice
nor obeying their own desires and pleasures
but walking by another’s judgment and command,
they dwell in monasteries and desire to have an Abbot over them.”
Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 5.
This contrast between Dreher’s assertion of sexual love versus obedience is also not sensible in other communities we admire as models. I would be curious to hear how sexual love was at the heart of the Holy Family – does the absence of it because all were chaste mean they had no community? Would Pope Pius XII say that sexual love is at the center of his community life? Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est makes clear that God’s love is both eros and agape, yet he never makes the mistake reducing eros to sexual love. Given the traditional teaching, through Aristotle and Cicero, Augustine and Aquinas, that friendship, not sexual love, is the highest human relationship, it is difficult for me to see how The Benedict Option is a return to the tradition or the Church simply being what it is. Dreher’s assertion is a novelty, and misguided.
Misguided Ecumenism: Many Catholic Concepts are Glossed Over or Missing
Is it an attempt to appeal to the least common denominator?
Dreher works from a broad Christianity, which he often refers to as “small-o orthodox” or “small-c catholic.” His conception of Christianity is not unlike C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Dreher attempts to give a reading of Christianity that is compatible with the three main traditions as he sees them: Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic. The issue is that while Dreher speaks as if there could be a model of Christian life that is broadly ecumenical, this can never be the case for a Catholic. Dreher’s Benedict Option Christianity is surprisingly light on references to the Sacraments, the Communion of Saints, and Mariology, which is odd given that he is Eastern Orthodox.
The few times the Sacraments are mentioned, they are mentioned in passing and though the Saints are mentioned, they function as mere examples or instructors, never as living mediators of the Divine Life. I was especially disappointed with the complete lack of any Mariology in the book. While I presume it was to make the premise more palatable for Protestants who would find such a thing unsavory bordering on idolatrous, what better opportunity to engage the Evangelicals who are working to develop a Protestant Mariology?
A False (possibly Heretical) View of Meriting Grace and Misunderstanding Asceticism
Dreher doesn’t merely leave out elements that are essential for Catholics, he strays into views Catholics consider heretical. In his subsection on Asceticism, which is otherwise good, he says the following: “The life prescribed by the Rule [of St. Benedict] is thoroughly ascetic. Monks fast regularly, live simply, refuse comfort, and abide by the strict rules of the monastery. This is not a matter of earning spiritual merit. Rather, the monk knows the human heart and how its passions must be reined in through disciplined living” (emphasis mine). The problem with such a statement should be obvious on its face, given that the Benedictines he is describing, the Monks living in Norcia, Italy, would say their ascetic practices do earn them spiritual merit. After all, merit is derived from the latin meritum or earning. For a Catholic, good actions such as living an ascetical life earn merit and to deny that sets one outside the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy. The Church takes such a claim so seriously that the Œcumenical Council of Trent proclaimed:
If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life,-if so be, however, that he depart in grace,-and also an increase of glory; let him be anathema.
In short, the Church solemnly anathematizes the view that Dreher offers as being broadly compatible with Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Catholicism.
Dreher on Sex (Again)
Likewise, in the section on sexual ethics, Dreher says: “Even making the traditional teaching on sexual integrity an optional matter – either explicitly or implicitly, by not talking about it, or by turning a blind eye – is a mistake. It is impossible to bracket out Christianity’s clear instruction on how to live a life of sexual integrity and separating it from the rest of the Christian life. It’s hypocritical,” and I could not agree more with Dreher on this point. Elsewhere, he says, again quoting a friend, that we must “Start by getting serious about living as Christians…Accept that there can be no middle ground.” What Catholic could disagree with such statements? Yet they serve to underscore precisely the problem with Dreher’s broad, ecumenical Benedict Option Christianity, namely that he belongs to an ecclesial body that allows both divorce and remarriage and artificial contraception.
I agree with Dreher that we cannot make the traditional teaching on sexual integrity optional. Likewise, I agree that we cannot bracket the clear instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ on how to live a life of sexual integrity, which is why it is mind boggling to me that he belongs to a body that blesses adulterous unions and allows adulterers to receive the body of our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. Our Lord’s words are clear: “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. And he saith to them: Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if the wife shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.” The constant, inviolate Tradition of the Church has also condemned artificial contraception, including St. John Chrysostom, the author of Divine Liturgy that Dreher attends on Sundays.
Now at this point, two objections spring to mind that bear responding to: First, why should I expect Dreher to hold a Catholic view when he is not only not Catholic, but publicly left the Catholic Church to join the Eastern Orthodox church? In short, I don’t. I do not expect Dreher to hold the Catholic view on merit, divorce and remarriage, or contraception. However, he cannot then claim that the Benedict Option is compatible with Catholicism. These issues are not ones that Catholics may disagree on.
The Misguided Ecumenism Renders Benedict Option Incompatible with Catholics
These issues above demonstrate why such a broad, supposedly orthodox Christianity is ultimately incompatible with Catholicism. The Catholic Church does not see herself as one tradition among many, nor does she see herself as a single instantiation of some sort of basic Christianity. As the Catholic Encyclopedia clearly puts it: “The Church alone dispenses the sacraments. It alone makes known the light of revealed truth. Outside the Church these gifts cannot be obtained. From all this there is but one conclusion: Union with the Church is not merely one out of various means by which salvation may be obtained: it is the only means.” There can be no Mere Christianity without denying the claims of the Catholic Church. The Benedict Option may work for Eastern Orthodox or Protestant Christians, but it is incompatible with the Catholic faith.
Dreher’s Refusal to Bracket Non-negotiables in the Benedict Option Makes It Incompatible With Itself
The second objection is that while the Orthodox Church in America does allow for divorce and remarriage as well as contraception, Dreher may not personally support either position. Given how Dreher has written about both topics in the past, one could make the case that he is personally against both. Yet, such a stance is fundamentally contrary to the very concept of the Benedict Option. If it is about building intentional communities of Christians who share the same views on essentials like sexual morality, how can Dreher be personally opposed to such positions? How can one be a part of a community that does not agree on issues Dreher himself says cannot be bracketed? Moreover, if, as I observed above, the Rule of St. Benedict demands obedience in the community, such issues cannot have obedience from Catholics unless defined in a manner consistent with Catholic faith.
Monasticism is Not Essential to Catholic Life
Finally, Dreher suggests that the Benedict Option is the essential cure to the issues facing Christianity. While he speaks highly about it throughout the book, he finally explicitly says: “The Benedict Option is vital to the life of the local church today.” Now even if the Benedict Option was a perfect representation of the faith and offered an ideal way for Christians to live, it would still simply be a prudentially good idea — not an essential and necessary aspect.
The Rule of St Benedict is a charism for those who are called to it, but it is certainly not what every Christian is called to. Similarly, as good as the Rule of St. Benedict is, I don’t think anyone would say that it is vital to the life of the local church today. If the Benedict Option were perfect, it would still not be vital to the life of the local church today; it would be one option among many of how to live as Christians.
We Cannot Live without the Divine Life
The Benedict Option, however is not perfect and is silent on those areas that are vital to the local church today. As I mentioned before, the Sacraments are mostly absent. There is the occasional reference to baptism or communion, but the rest are strikingly missing. How can anyone suppose we will build committed, repentant Christian communities without any reference to Sacramental Confession? Where is Confirmation or Extreme Unction?
It is not the Benedict Option that is vital to the life of the local church today but the Sacraments, by which we share in the Divine Life. The dismantling of Christianity in the West and the grave problems facing the Church will only be combatted by renewed appreciation of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist and access to the Sacraments. The Sacraments are not an optional belief that is additional to the basic Christianity portrayed in The Benedict Option. They are essential to the spiritual flourishing of Christians.
A Catholic Way of Life Cannot Be Devoid of the Blessed Mother
Devotion to the Blessed Virgin is also vital to the life of the local church today and it is also conspicuously absent from The Benedict Option. It isn’t that Dreher touches on it lightly, it is that our Blessed Mother is completely missing from the book. What greater tool do we have to fight for the continued existence of Christianity in the West than the Holy Rosary, that great weapon which saved the West at Lepanto and was enjoined to us by the Blessed Virgin Mary herself at Fatima as necessary and vital to the Church today?
Our Lady did not ask us to build intentional communities at Fatima, nor did she call us to small groups and book clubs at Akita. I am not aware of anywhere where she suggested that the Benedict Option is vital to the local church today. She does call us to pray the Rosary, receive the sacraments, practice penance, and deepen our devotion to her son through her mediation. As Fr. Hardon points out:
We may say there are two “scandals” in Catholic Christianity. The first is the scandal of the cross; to believe that God actually became man so He might be able to suffer and die for us on Calvary. The other scandal is that He wants us, in humility, to reach Him through the intercession of His Mother. To believe these two truths and act on them is to have discovered a great treasure.
Again, while it may seem unfair to expect a non-Catholic to put such importance on the Holy Rosary, Dreher did purport to write something compatible with Catholicism. He could have appealed to the deep Eastern Tradition surrounding our Blessed Mother which he currently belongs to as the East is certainly not lacking in Marian devotion. He could have engaged Protestants attempting to find a way to integrate Marian devotion into their own practice. To remain silent, however, on the means by which salvation came into the world, is a grave omission, especially from the Orthodox view where the Theotokos is essential, even to Divine Liturgy.
Missing the Mark: The Virtues and Sacraments are Not Mentioned
The Rule of St. Benedict did not spell out the Sacraments and Virtues because those were preconditions of Catholic Faith
These errors of omission are most obvious when Dreher makes statements like: “The Benedictines had no secret teaching. They had what they still have: the Rule, which shows how to order one’s life to be as receptive as possible to God’s grace, both individually and in community.” Such a statement profoundly misses what the Rule of St. Benedict is. It is a rule of life that presupposes a foundation on Catholicism: the Sacraments, the liturgy, the virtues, and the Saints. The Rule of St. Benedict doesn’t need to catechize on the Sacraments or the virtues because it presupposes that the community understands these goods and needs a way to develop them; it doesn’t need to convince its members that the Saints are an integral part of daily life. It is working from a fundamentally Christian ethos. That is not our current situation.
Dreher Seems Unaware of Catholic Ethnic Traditions
Dreher spends the whole book arguing that we are suffering from a collective amnesia when it comes to the traditions of the Church. But he never really mentions the scaffolding of ethnic traditions that Manos pointed out in What Really Killed the Catholic Church in America. Those traditions (such as the Easter Basket food blessing on Holy Saturday) were the solution created by generations of Catholics making survival solutions for the ages. And yet, we threw those away. In the vaccuum, Dreher is filling the void with novelty wrapped up in Benedict paper. We can’t presuppose a deep understanding of the Sacraments or how the theological and cardinal virtues look in our everyday lives, and so to be silent on them is to miss the actual cure to our spiritual malaise.
At Least Dreher could have Presented the Virtues
For a book that purports to take up the charge of After Virtue, one would think that the virtues would be an integral part of the work. Their absence serves to underscore just how much the Benedict Option misses the actual cures to the ravages of modernity. The book is trying to work from a broad Christian standpoint, yet leaves out an essential part of the Christian life that Christians across traditions can share. They are also an important point of connection to the world. To the extent that we can encourage the development of the cardinal virtues like prudence and fortitude, we have a point of contact to call those outside the Church to flourishing that may lead to conversion.
Catholics Have a Better Solution in the “Boethius Option”
Rather than being called to the Benedict Option, I suggest that Catholics are called to the Boethian Option. St. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was the last Roman, the bridge between antiquity and the middle ages. His works such as his commentaries on Porphyry, The Consolation of Philosophy, and his translations of Aristotle from Greek to Latin were incredibly influential in Medieval thought.
St. Boethius didn’t look for a panacea to fix Rome and he didn’t look to escape the crumbling empire. He simply did what Catholics did, using his position to write works that became the basis of the works of every great medieval thinker that came after him. He was martyred in 525 by the Arian King Theodoric, for holding to Trinitarian orthodoxy. We may be facing a new dark age and the dissolution of any meaningful Christian culture in the West. We should face it as Boethius did, doing everything we can to preserve Catholic thought for future generations by relying on the traditions handed down by the Fathers of the Church.
Catholics Should Beware the Benedict Option
Is The Benedict Option simply a recipe for living like the Church in the modern age? I don’t see how it can be with the modernism, omissions, and error it contains. As I said before, much of the book makes good suggestions that are not particularly deep. Dreher can call families to pray together, to educate the young, to build communities of like-minded believers, and to practice asceticism, but anything past that gets mired in the broad Benedict Option Christianity.
If Catholics are looking for ways to live an authentically Catholic life, works like Life is Worth Living and Way to Happiness by Fulton Sheen are eminently more valuable as are the spiritual works of Fr. John Hardon.
While I can’t speak to the value of such a work for Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, I must ask the question: Does it make sense to take advice on how to live an authentically Catholic life from someone who publicly left the Catholic faith?
This article, Can the Benedict Option Save Catholic Preppers? is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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