Explaining the Benedict Option


Welcome to the first edition of The Benedict Post.  Each week I’ll bring you news and commentary from around the Catholic world.  A brief note on format: Each week I’ll start with some commentary of my own on a particular topic.  Then I’ll have some links and quotes on the more pressing issues of the week, followed by categories of more general topics with lots of links.  If you’re not interested in one issue, skip it and go to the next.  I hope that by reading the Post each week you’ll learn more about your faith and discover new voices that explain Catholicism in a way that resonates.

Links are in blue font.  If one’s not working or you have a question about a link or the Post in general, please email me at thebenedictpost@gmail.com.

The Benedict Option Explained

Some background: “St. Benedict found himself in a world of decay and difficulty. The Roman Empire had collapsed and Barbarians were wreaking havoc throughout Europe. In response, he chose to establish small cultural centers that would profoundly impact the culture when the Zeitgeist proved to be receptive. He did not know the exact changes it would bring at the time, but slowly and deliberately, by living holy lives, the culture was changed.”  Fr. Grunow delves a little more into how St. Benedict shaped the culture.

That provides our inspiration for what the Benedict Option is today.  It is most prominently championed by lapsed Catholic and current Eastern Orthodox adherent Rod Dreher, drawing inspiration from Alasdair MacIntyre.  Alan Jacobs has a good phrasing in his most recent comment on the strategy: “Rod has written of the BenOp as a “strategic withdrawal.”  And while I have argued that it’s better to speak of “strategic attentiveness,” in reality those are two sides of a coin: since attention is finite, one cannot increase attentiveness to one object without withdrawing it from another.”

Jacobs explains what this strategic attentiveness requires: “To think in this way — to think seriously in this way — is to commit oneself to slow and incremental change, to what W. H. Auden in one of his poems calls “local understanding.”  It is also to acknowledge that the order and value you crave will not be handed to you by your environment; rather, you must build it ad hoc, improvising as you go with like-minded people, as you can find them.”

Those who have been reading Dreher and understand the proposal get it.  But some don’t.  Here’s John Zmirak with some gripes: “The concept’s nebulousness, I’ve come to realize, is not a bug but a feature.  It allows Dreher an almost infinite freedom to imply whatever he wishes, without committing himself to a single logical or testable assertion from which he cannot backtrack when it’s contested.”

Of course, the proposal is not a testable scientific theory, but goes to the heart of Christianity – how do we make disciples of all nations?  It would be nice if apologetics were a “testable assertion” but after 2,000 years I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Zmirak in the end shows he’s missed the last 60 years of Catholicism: “But who are these clueless Christians who spend all their time stuffing envelopes for Ted Cruz, and pay no attention as their children grow up to become meth addicts and porn stars? Do they even exist?”  Yes, they do exist.  How did once dominant Protestant churches in America approach the brink of extinction in a few decades?  How have both strong Catholic identity and church attendance dropped nearly in half over the past 40 years?  It’s because regardless of the adjective you want to use (“clueless” would not be mine), Christian parents are unsuccessfully passing the Faith onto their children, and others are not converting in numbers large enough to counterbalance the loss.  These statistics tell the story.

I think a lot of this criticism comes from the unwillingness to admit defeat.  Of course I don’t mean defeat in the sense of a long-term finality – in that sense we know the war has already been won for us.  But regarding this battle – the sensibilities of modern Americans.  The public’s view will change down the road, yet I think for the foreseeable future, the tide of public opinion is unfavorable to orthodox, traditional Catholicism, though there are some who refuse to see it.

This is not to say that the general public is as antagonistic toward the Church as the Media or Academia or the Beltway.  But no one can deny how deeply the modernist mindset truly runs among average Americans on any range of issues from marriage to sexual morality to education to worship.  To that extent the proposal is not about withdrawing or retreating.  It is about how to change our interaction with the world, how to change our focus.

The Benedict Option focuses, among other things, on our liturgical traditions, internal morality, and care for the family.  If our liturgy is mysterious and beautiful, it points to the Lord.  If our family is healthy and faithful, it points to the Lord.  If our morality is consistent, reasonable, and lived faithfully, it points to the Lord.  To insist on these things does not mean explicitly engaging the world, but the world must be engaged to accomplish them nonetheless.

The strategy is a refocusing.  It is a change in priorities similar to Benedict XVI’s pontificate – shoring up our borders (Anglicans and SSPX) while restoring our liturgical traditions and enforcing ethical restrictions (on priests and bishops in his case).  Cardinal Dulles, whose textbook History of Apologetics I recently finished reading, describes Catholic apologetics in the latter half of the 20th century as focused on convincing non-Catholics (mainly Protestants) to become Catholic by persuasive argument.  The Benedict Option suggests a more subtle strategy than argumentation.  Let’s refine and polish our Catholicism first.  If you build it, they will come.

For more discussion of the Benedict Option itself, here’s Dreher doing an “omnibus.”  As he says, “if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing that you like.”  Now that you know what it is, each week we’ll have a section of the Post dedicated to pieces that support living out this strategy.

Living the Benedict Option

Reviving education is key: “To recover Christian culture, Dawson called on Christians to rise up and break the secularist’s control of education. Education of our youth, he argued, is crucial, because it is the ‘process by which the new members of a community are initiated into its way of life and thought from the simplest elements of behavior or manners up to the highest tradition of spiritual wisdom.’”

Steve Skojec explains why our current ecumenism fails: “Ecumenism and interfaith dialogue make us feel good, but they do not necessarily do good.  Like parents afraid to discipline their children for fear they will be rejected, those who refuse the solemn duty to share their faith and its requirements with others think they’re being so much nicer to people by not telling them that they need to change. But in so doing, they fail to express the authentic love of souls that Christ exemplified, not only on the cross, but also when He offered “hard sayings” and did not back down when some turned away from them….

“Even the apostles didn’t always like it.  But as Peter said when Jesus pressed him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” (Jn. 6:69)

“Love does not mean unconditional acceptance.  It means desiring the good of another, even when they themselves have turned away from it. It means telling someone that they’re doing something that is hurting them, even when they don’t want to hear it. It means dying for the faith rather than compromising it….

“The problem with our current approach to ecumenism and interfaith dialogue is that they amount to religious indifferentism, leaving us complacent in the idea that others are fine where they are, and can get to heaven through natural virtue and partial truth, but without conversion. Such thinking is tragically wrong, and inevitably stifles the zeal for souls that leads to evangelization.”

Father Z: We need hard identity Catholicism.

The Pope

As you may have heard, Pope Francis received an awful “gift”: a depiction of Christ nailed to a hammer and sickle.  Vatican spokesman Fr. Lombardi gave a baffling explanation.  Skojec proposes an opportunity for the Pope, though I doubt he’ll take it.  John Allen’s counsel on the hysteria.  In the end, the Pope left the “gift” in Bolivia, rather than taking it with him.

More on the Pope’s trip: Mary was at the heart of the Pope’s message in Ecuador.  Francis challenged the “tyranny of mammon” in Bolivia.  More of the Pope’s comments on “capitalism” from the Herald.  The comments are not without some irony as Francis used an outpost of capitalism as his dressing room in Bolivia.

John Allen discussed the Pope’s conceptual plan of a “patria grande” or “great homeland” in Latin and South America: “He thinks Latin America, together, can and should be a counter-weight to some of the corrosive economic forces he sees at work in the world.  The South, in other words, has much to teach the long-dominant North…For all intents and purposes, what Bergoglio seemed to have in mind was a sort of EU for Latin America, an interlinked system of trade and political accords that would allow the continent to position itself as a serious counterpart to both the major Western powers and other global protagonists such as Russia and China….In a nutshell, the pope believes that to do greater justice to the poor, the entire architecture of the global economic system has to be rethought.”

Many traditional American Catholics see the world very differently from Pope Francis.  What are we to do?  David Warren has a good suggestion:

“Reading this week something on the extraordinary history of Paraguay, I began to get a clearer view of where Bergoglio was coming from, long before he became pope….He will inevitably be a creature of his time and place, as the pope is so obviously, as political thinker, a product of Peronist Argentina.  He cannot help that, yet must constantly remember it.  I am myself such a product, of different time and place.  Even when I oppose a current “trend,” I am in some sense captured by it, and even my English language puts blinkers on me. We should indeed struggle to free ourselves from temporal narrowness and parochialism, but we are human and cannot break entirely free.

“Joseph Ratzinger was very German, G.K. Chesterton very English. A friend writes this morning of reading the former’s Introduction to Christianity, and the latter’s Everlasting Man, back to back. He was struck how, from such different backgrounds, the two men came to essentially the same “grand philosophy of history.”  The question is whether Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, from his inevitably Argentine perspective, and using the tools at his command, also leads us to the common universal.

“There is a great deal of truth in much of the pope’s “critique of capitalism,” and from what I can make out a great deal of confusion, too, leading to falsehood. (For instance, to blame the capitalists for creating material poverty is to get it precisely backwards; they have created instead an empty and spiritually eviscerating wealth.) What I found in my own recent tour of his environmental encyclical, for instance, was a cat’s cradle through which are woven many golden strands. My instinct is to take the gold and burn the rest away, less because it is wrong, than because it is not useful; that engaging too carefully with the wool only complicates the tangle.

“In the meanwhile, go to Mass, and cultivate the key Catholic Christian relationship, which was never with the pope of the moment, but will always be with Jesus Christ.”

Cuban hopes for the September papal visit.

Father Hunwicke on the “Spirit of Pope Francis” and the next pontificate.

How Francis’s papacy is forgetting John Paul’s.

Benedict XVI is not dead.  “One of the finest speeches Benedict XVI ever delivered was about sacred music.  It is a small masterpiece, in which Benedict recalls his first encounter with Mozart in the liturgy….Ah, the good old days, traditionalists may sigh.  But perhaps you’ve noticed that I haven’t referred to ‘Pope Benedict.’  That is because he gave the speech last Saturday.”

Western Decay

The Western thought police: “We once thought our Constitution would protect us. In this post-Fourth of July season, we are now learning that it won’t…We will soon enough find that not only will we be unable to avoid these things, but that we will not even be able in public to doubt their validity.”

Religion and the Republic.

Jeff Mirus on marriage, law, politics, and the death of the West.

George Weigel: Understanding metaphysics and accepting The Way Things Are is a necessary precondition to addressing politics and civilization.

Summorum Pontificum Turns Eight

This week we celebrated the eighth anniversary of Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, and it’s worth reading the document again.

Peter Kwasniewski’s reflection on the anniversary: “In fact, it is not difficult to see a certain pattern among those who discover the traditional Latin Mass and begin to attend it regularly.  As a Catholic becomes more educated in both the Roman liturgy and the spiritual life, he or she comes to find the Novus Ordo less satisfactory.  One notices more and more its thin rationalism, its openings for egoism, its heavy-handed didacticism, its lack of tranquility, its surprising distance from the interior world of the great spiritual masters….

“Tragically, as with storm-tossed ships too far from shore to find a safe harbor, there are many Catholics who cannot discover our liturgical heritage because it is simply not readily available to them.  They will do what they can with the poverty of prayer forms they are offered, but it will be like poor children who cannot flourish on a meager diet, or who can do so only by special divine intervention and favor, outside of the ordinary course of things.”

Ten reasons to attend the Tridentine Mass.  As Francis adopts a live-and-let-live attitude towards the Tridentine Mass, progress is made despite setbacks elsewhere.

Marriage and the Obergefell Decision

Ed Whelan on the Obergefell aftermath:Obergefell ought to be a powerful reminder that the future of the Court is very much at stake in the 2016 presidential election. The four oldest justices — Ginsburg, Scalia, Kennedy, and Breyer — will be 83, 80, 80, and 78 when the next president takes office. That president will likely have the opportunity to establish a clear ideological majority on the Court.”

Is it past time for the Church’s teaching moment on marriage?

The United States isn’t the only country struggling with the marriage issue.  Ireland faces a different but related problem.

Ten things to remember if you’re worried about persecution.

Father Schall reflects on court-imposed “liberty.”

How do you leave the Catholic Church?

“I recently talked to someone I know who told me that she’d ‘left’ the Catholic Church. She’s now attending one of those smorgasbord mega-congregations where they serve you Jesus-as-you-like-him.  I felt as if I was listening to a person who’d told me that they had decided to give up eating balanced meals and ingest nothing [but] cotton candy and donuts….

“I’ve been out there in make-it-up-as you-go-land, and frankly, I don’t see the point.  As in, I don’t see the point in even bothering to get out of bed and go to church if all you hope to find is a reflection of your own self.”

Culturally Catholic

Being nice and being good in Tom Sawyer.

Good and evil: an interview on the past, present, and future of Catholic novels.

Bewilderment in Fairyland.

The crisis of contemporary sacred art and the need to commission it.

Feast of the Week: St. Bonaventure, bishop and doctor.

Movie Review: Minions.

Book Review: From the Kippah to the Cross.

Another book review: From the Trenches to the Shire.  How did Lewis and Tolkien defend the old West?

How can I Catholic homeschool for free?

Leila Marie Lawler on The Miracle Worker and understanding children: “Annie can help Helen because she has struggled with her own shortcomings — physical and moral — and the struggle has made her virtuous and wise, well beyond her years….This lesson is one which every mother and father must internalize in order to do a good job raising children, because the whole task can be summed up as introducing the child, hopefully gradually and with firmness and affection, to the reality of the world outside them and the self-control to deal with it….

“What the story teaches us is that each child is unique and incomparable, with a spirit all his own, however buried under whatever we might characterize as handicaps; and that the whole adventure requires our own moral growth.

Father Bartunek discusses relics.  Reminds me of this quote from Evelyn Waugh’s Helena: “Helena listened and in her mind saw, clear as all else on that brilliant timeless morning, what was in store.  She saw the sanctuaries of Christendom become a fairground, stalls hung with beads and medals, substances yet unknown pressed into sacred emblems; heard a chatter of haggling in tongues yet unspoken.  She saw the treasuries of the church filled with forgeries and impostures.  She saw Christians fighting and stealing to get possession of trash.  She saw all this, considered it, and said: ‘It’s a stiff price’; and then: ‘Show me the cross.’”


California legislature withdraws physician-assisted suicide bill.

The Obama administration proposed a new rule for religious employers opposed to birth control.

Facing bankruptcy, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee seeks the Supreme Court’s input on whether money in its cemetery care trust is protected from creditors.

Foreign Affairs: Youssef Fakhouri has a message to the West about persecuted Christians.

Chinese bishop installed, ten years after ordination, as the government finally relents.

Best of the Rest

Homily of the Week: Cardinal Burke.

What does the prayer really say? Be lenses of God’s light.

Wanted: Apostolic Bishops

Edward Pentin and Thomas Stark: Understanding Cardinal Kasper

Why agreeing on a common date for Easter is so complex.

Concerns continue for the Irish national seminary at Maynooth.

Cardinal Marx takes a cautionary approach to the Synod.

A preview of the Orthodox council scheduled for 2016.

Just for Fun

From the Onion: Francis the Grillmaster.

The fantastic faces of Pope Francis.