Flat White

The Benedict option revisited

9 March 2018

1:13 PM

9 March 2018

1:13 PM

Given a year has passed since the New York publication of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, in March 2017, and the sparking of a drawn-out controversy over it within the Anglo-Atlantic world, there is surely nothing more to say about Dreher’s TBO.

On the contrary, given the Americo-centric focus of the debate, I reckon there’s still much to glean from The Benedict Option phenomenon and some of it, however improbable it might seem, is of direct relevance to Australia.

The Benedict Option is one of those books upon which many people, both here and abroad, have passed judgement but without troubling to read it.

Others, perhaps dipping distastefully into the work, may have found that the briskness of the argument confirmed their lurking suspicions and sharply broke off the encounter.

For still others, their intellectual programming would have rendered the language of TBO impossible to compute.

Happily, in contrast, the number especially of Americans who have read and appreciated The Benedict Option, even if with reservations or hot disagreements, is great indeed and the public debate it has stimulated in the USA is, from an Australian perspective, remarkable.

This signifies that even if, as Dreher avers, America is a “post-Christian nation,” its public culture is still infused with religious themes and debates to a degree that suggests Australia could be, in fact, a pre-Christian nation.

One of the comprehension difficulties with which Dreher has had to contend in giving birth to this book, whose very cover radiates disturbing subliminal messages, is that his audience inhabits a thought-world suffused with the conviction that active participation in the affairs of public life is not only the mark of true secular citizenship but also of authentic Christian social engagement.  This is a phenomenon especially marked in Anglo-Saxon countries and is very much part of their Protestant heritage.

Catholics living in this “Anglosphere” have harmonized themselves to the vibe – although this habituation has been guided by, among others, two striking influences within their own church: one long-term; another proximate.

The one is what might be termed ‘Jesuitism’: a form of Catholic activism, birthed in response to the Reformation – with the founding in 1540 of the Society of Jesus – that assumed something of the individualism and social dynamism often associated with Protestantism.  The other is the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965 that, whether intending it or not, succeeded in representing ‘Jesuitism,’ at least to its English-speaking flock, as the superior Catholic style.

This sounds like an arcane, churchy point.  But it is connected in a visceral way with certain negative, particularly Catholic, reactions to The Benedict Option.


Take the case of Antonio Spadaro SJ.  He’s reputed to be a close adviser to Pope Francis SJ and is the editor of Civiltà Cattolica, the highly influential international Jesuit journal and de facto backup media office for the Francis pontificate.

During an address last October at the Jesuit-inspired Georgetown University in Washington DC, Spadaro took a swipe at Dreher and The Benedict Option:

The so-called Benedict Option, as Rod Dreher describes the withdrawal of the Church into enclaves, would be an error, just as it would be an error to be nostalgic for bygone times by preparing harsh responses today.

My immediate reaction to this was: he hasn’t read it. But, equally, the post-Vatican II update on his original Jesuit mindset would likely have rendered TBO difficult to fathom.  A shot in the dark – and a cheap one at that – seems to have been the best Spadaro could muster. Quite possibly, the Jesuit pontiff, on whose behalf Spadaro was evidently speaking at Georgetown, would have been just as puzzled by Dreher’s book.

The fact is that in The Benedict Option Dreher does not recommend that the Catholic Church (or more widely the Christian denominations) withdraw “into enclaves”. What he does advise is for Christians to take a cold, hard look at themselves.  They need to examine, he argues, how they participate in society, with a view to checking whether they really do belong to God in Jesus Christ or to the surrounding culture.

Dreher does not decree that Christians should abandon their chosen political parties, their chosen professions, or their chosen local communities and social networks.  He does not demand that they pull their kids out of school, switch off the TV, give up Facebook, throw away their mobile phones, circle the wagons, head for the hills, or even flee to a monastery.

What he does say is that Christians might have to change (possibly in big ways) if, upon self-scrutiny, they find that they do belong more to the spirit of the age than to Christ – and, in some cases, perhaps in many cases, that might call for taking some or other of these drastic-seeming measures.

So the message of TBO is not ‘flight’ but ‘toughen up’. And the toughening-up process might call for possible withdrawals from “the world” ranging all the way from controlling screen-time to joining a monastic community.  It all depends on how far Christians find themselves to have been compromised and by how much they want to make a difference.

I’m not going to bore into readers here with pointed quotations from The Benedict Option. There are too many. In my copy, I’ve marked some 30 paragraphs worthy of a full quote. I think it’s better to read the book for yourselves, if you’ve not already, and to savour your own collection of quotes – or to fling it down in disgust.

What engaged me particularly with The Benedict Option was that it hinges on the insights of a great moral philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, and his famous After Virtue.

Dreher, like MacIntyre, but expressing himself with a journalistic punch uncommon among philosophers, believes that Western society has reached the end of the road: the “culture war” is over and the Christians have lost.  Now’s the time for a “strategic withdrawal”, to ride out social disintegration, to gather up the fragments, and to prepare.

Still, I do like the composed way in which MacIntyre himself essayed the position and I will quote him at length because it explains elegantly Dreher’s inspiration:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are.  A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.  What they set themselves to achieve instead – often not recognising fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.  If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached a turning point.  What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages that are already upon us.  And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope.  This time however the barbarians are not waiting behind the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.  And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.

Perhaps understandably, Dreher is a little too conscious of the “lack of consciousness” to which MacIntyre refers. The Benedict Option is thus marked by a certain amount of “shouting” to which in public discussion subsequently Dreher has confessed.

There is no doubt about it; Dreher is a zealous culture warrior as his preternaturally intensive blogging for The American Conservative – where he’s a senior editor – astonishingly attests.

Culture wars, like any other, generate their fog and misconceptions about what battling writers mean easily arise. Dreher and The Benedict Option are no exception. The smoke of ideological battle is not, however, impenetrable and, in this case at least, is immediately dispersed by actually reading the book from cover to cover.

It’s possible that in Australia those who will appreciate fully Dreher’s thesis will be few in number at first.  For all that, among those who do “get it,” The Benedict Option is, rather than a revelation, a happy reinforcement. For what we might call the ‘normative form’ in the range of possible Benedict options – a reformed Benedictine monastic community – has been planted here already: a light on a hill and a true light at that.

Perhaps in a country that has, unlike America, never pretended to be a “godly nation,” there might be fewer ingrained religious impediments in Oz to taking a “Benedict option.”

Anyway, time will tell.

In the meantime, The Benedict Option has blasted free from the gravitational pull of the English-speaking world and its complacent cultural liberalism with a recently launched and well-received French edition and with translations into German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Czech, Slovak and Korean in the pipeline.

Draw your own conclusions.

The Benedict Option: a strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation; by Rod Dreher; Sentinel – Penguin Random House, New York, 2017

Gary Scarrabelotti blogs at Scarra Blog.

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