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.

Soul Gardening



Note: I originally wrote this last year ago but didn’t have a place to put it. Now I have this blog, so here it goes. With a picture of some of the hops we grew last year!

This weekend I found a number of apples on our tree had become infested with codling moth larvae. I picked them all and discarded them—if left on the tree, the moths will reproduce and increase the infestation next year.

When we first moved into our house a few years ago, the old. neglected apple tree had sparse foliage and was covered with small, wormy fruit. The following year I began fertilizing the tree and culling apples, setting moth traps, spraying it with neem oil, and watering it regularly. We had enough apples to make cider at the end of the year. The next year the apples were bigger, and we made a large batch of apple butter.

In the front yard, we initially placed a few vegetable beds. They were overshadowed by the hedge and pollinators didn’t arrive in large enough numbers to do much of anything. The next year my wife planted wild-flowers alongside the vegetables, drawing in more pollinators. Last year I cut down the old shrubbery and uprooted it, and we had a tree removal service rip out the hedge. A fence was installed and I built three more beds where we planted corn, beans, peppers, and squash.

This year there’s more life in the yard than ever before. A pair of thrushes have made a nest in the eaves. Songbirds of varying kinds arrive to eat seeds and catch bugs. The useful insects like ladybugs have proliferated. But the work continues: almost every weekend we spend a couple of hours tending the trees, weeding, planting, fertilizing. And we can’t control catastrophes like the winter hard freeze that killed most of our winter harvest. Setbacks show up without warning.

All this has made me much more appreciative of the agricultural metaphors that are so often used in scripture. Jesus uses these terms talking about vine and branch, seed and harvest, the preparation of soil… it was easy for me to see this as more of a static image of the Church before. We have the right disposition, the faith grows. Problem solved. But as Christ’s audience no doubt knew at the time, the metaphors he’s giving imply years of hard work, setbacks and disasters, and constant work before real fruitfulness is in evidence. Cultivating faith can never come with a “quick fix”. And even a well-tended garden can be damaged overnight in ways that take a long time to recover from.

It’s tempting to be impatient and demand results right away. Oftentimes this is what happens within parishes by gung-ho volunteers or among people involved in other Catholic endeavors. But that’s not how it happens. Like the garden, you’re going to see a bud here, a flower there—along with not a few plants that wither and die. People will offer you supposed miracle products to speed up the process. But slow diligence will be the only way of making things pay off, and of creating a healthy, diverse ecosystem.


“…we Christians do combat, not against, but in favor of laughter.”



It seems incongruous to speak of Mardi gras in a theological meditation, because it is at best only indirectly a time in the Church year. But are we not somewhat schizophrenic in this regard? On the one hand, we are only too ready to say that it is precisely in Catholic countries that Mardi gras is most at home; on the other hand, we nevertheless ignore it both spiritually and theologically. Is it, then, one of those things that as Christians we cannot condone, but as humans we cannot deny? In that case we should ask: just how human is Christianity? Granted, Mardi gras is heathen in origin: fertility cult and exorcism merge in it. But it was the Church that had to step in and speak the exorcism that banned the demons who do violence to men and destroy their happiness. Then, after the exorcism, something unexpected, something new appeared—a merrymaking that it wholly exorcises. Mardi gras is to Ash Wednesday a time of laughter before the time of penance, a time of lighthearted self-irony, whose laughter speaks a truth that may well be closely akin to that of the Lenten preacher. Thus Mardi gras, when it has been exorcised, reminds us of the words of the Old Testament preacher: “…a time to weep, and a time to laugh”. For Christians, too, it is not always a time for penance. There is likewise a time for laughter. Yes, Christian exorcism has routed the masked demons and replaced them by the laughter that has been exorcised. All of us know how far removed from this ideal our present Mardi gras often is; how frequently it is mammon and its henchmen that reign there. That is why we Christians do combat, not against, but in favor of laughter. To struggle against demons and to laugh with those who laugh—these are inseparably united. The Christian has no need to be schizophrenic: Christian Faith is truly human.

—Joseph Ratzinger, from the book Co-Workers of the Truth