Option, Option, Who’s Got the Option?



A lot of Catholics online are talking about the “Benedict Option”, a concept being promoted by the Orthodox writer Rod Dreher. Largely driven by a sense of disenfranchisement due to recent developments on the national political scene and further galvanized by the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, the Benedict Option is a call for Catholics and like-minded traditional Christians to focus their energies on community building. Some of the more radical Benedict Option promoters have also called for a sort of withdrawal from political action, and also call for Christian organizations to preemptively stop asking for tax-exempt status, for schools to stop accepting federal funding, and for priests and ministers to stop acting as state witnesses for weddings.

Responses to this idea have been mixed. Some takes that I’ve liked have been Tom Hoopes on what he calls the “Francis Option” and Chad C. Pecknold on the “Dominican Option.” There’s also been a backlash from those Catholics who are deeply invested in conservative politics. Some see the Benedict Option as a surrender in the “culture war”, others see it as an outright betrayal. I think that’s a rather hysterical response, but your view is that the only viable tool is politics, it’s understandable that you’d be upset if it’s spurned.

The thing is, the Benedict Option—at least as described by Dreher—has already been around for quite some time. The circle of writers gathered around the journal Communio have been calling Catholics for decades to embrace culture and community as a priority over politics. Writers such as Stratford Caldecott, Michael O’Brien, David Schindler, and Allan Carlson were writing about this in the 80s and 90s, even as other Catholics such as Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Fr. Richard Neuhaus were urging the construction of a powerful political coalition to advance Christian principles. In my own opinion, I think the former group was and is much more correct than the latter, but both were prompted by a dismayed reaction to where the cultural winds were blowing. I know many people who throw in their lot with Novak, Weigel, and Neuhaus and I respect them—and I know that they too would insist that their priority is culture and community. But the answers I see coming from that direction always end up putting politics on a higher level than anything else.

In 1996 Allan Carlson gave an address at the North American College at the Vatican on what he called the “Family Way.” He concluded with a number of points:

Allow me to close with several examples of what you could do to advance the Family Way.

First, look back to the early 20th century example of France, and organize the business leaders in your parishes to study the principles of Catholic social teaching, regarding the dignity of labor, the just wage, and the sanctity of the family.

Second, focus the “buying power” of your parish on local, family-based suppliers. Encourage parish families as well to use their consumer sovereignty to sustain local businesses.

Third, promote micro-enterprises among your flock. Using indirect structures, some parishes have even created a small pool of capital to start up family businesses.

Fourth, encourage home education. Guide traditional parish schools to serve Catholic home educators as a resource center, as a place for some common classes, and as a site for improving the teaching skills of parents.

Fifth, create parish food cooperatives. This may be easier in small towns and rural regions, but is possible in cities as well. In the “megacities” of the developing world, seventy-five percent of food is still raised in home gardens and small poultry operations found in the cities themselves. Family gardens can be maintained in our cities, as well. The parish can also link “farm families” with “city families” in the direct sale of fresh produce and meats from the countryside, to the benefit of both.

Sixth, some priests may dedicate themselves to specific rural ministries, and the restoration of the distinctive rural life. Under the inspired leadership of Father Luigi Ligutti, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference once did vital work in this area. I believe there is a new hunger among the Catholic laity, particularly young adults, for spiritual and practical guidance here, embodied in several new journals, notably CAELUM ET TERRA.

And seventh, help renew the rule of St. Benedict in our time and place. Borrowing words from M. Francis Mannion, in the journal COMMUNIO, create “particular communities of exemplary Christian existence” which “teach us how to live authentically.” Renewal of the traditional monastic model–brotherhoods and sisterhoods–will be part of this. At a more controversial level, our time calls as well for modified application of the monastic rule to small communities of families: a life of shared residence, work, charity, and worship, resting on vows of obedience, poverty, and marriage. Again, I believe there is a great hunger for this now in America, and several Catholic communities of this sort have recently taken form. A largely Protestant, yet highly sacramental community of this kind also grows in Massachusetts.

Failing society-wide renewal, more will surely follow, as families confront the mounting crisis of our age, with lives conducted in faithfulness to the natural order and to the divine commands, holding to the promise of salvation.

What he outlines here is very similar to what people are calling the Benedict Option, including the emphasis on agrarian or rural community. The same year this address was given, I left home and spent the next three years living in a lay community based on the Benedictine rule. It was a valuable experience, and I’m glad I did it. But I also saw how it wasn’t for everybody—part of the reason I gravitate toward what Hoopes and Pecknold wrote in their pieces linked above.

My worries about the Benedict Option as being promoted by Rod Dreher are these: I worry that many of the people getting involved in promoting it may be merely disillusioned Catholics who put all their eggs, so to speak, in the basket of politics and are now embracing the Benedict Option as a sort of “stick it to the man” approach. I’m also worried this will just be another thing for Catholics to chin-stroke about online rather than actually get involved in their community. In the past, I’ve not been all that impressed with Dreher’s sense of direction, which seems to be dictated largely by aesthetics. I agree with much of his aesthetic vision, so I’m sympathetic. But aesthetics aren’t a firm foundation for community. Relationship is.

My last worry is my biggest one: that the Benedict Option just becomes another way of justifying isolating oneself from all those other bad people in the world, to preserve our just and pure group. That’s a recipe for stagnation. If you really want to live the faith, we should be getting involved in the local community even as we also build Christian fellowship with the like-minded. In conclusion, here’s something Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote which sums up the approach beautifully:

Culture is a loosely-knit word. Originally it mean the cultivation of the soil, as mentioned in Genesis: to make nature’s wilderness humanly habitable, to put the imprint of man upon it. During certain cultural epochs this enterprise may have succeeded to a degree; let us remember the Georgics by Virgil. But what can be done amid this want of culture wrought by the machine. I suppose one can try to build islands of humanity, and in this project Christians could and should be leading; such actions may have a contagious effect on others and stimulate an asceticism which renounces the excessive goods of consumerism, simply to become more human. In the Eastern bloc countries, where life is almost exclusively dictated by bureaucracy, such islands of freedom are immediately recognized and sought. “When everything is blocked off,” I was told by a dear friend who lives in Erfut, “one must try to live in the interstices.” Apparently the Christians of the Apocalypse, though they did not bear the sign of the beast, had discovered or created such spaces. From islands like this, true culture, Christian culture, may spread across the earth. Many people are athirst for it.

Amen, Fr. Balthasar.

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