The Benedict Option: Not for the Faint of Heart

Benedict Option

In the months after 9/11, some commentators noted that the tragedy brought America out of the false sense of peace it had enjoyed since the end of the Cold War. With the fall of the Soviet Union, many Americans had come to believe that the era of opposing hostile forces had ended, and consequently, our focus had shifted to issues such as social security lock-boxes and stains on certain dresses. But on that fateful day in September, America was reminded in a most tragic way that the world was still a serious – and dangerous – place.

A similar false sense of peace descended upon the Catholic Church about 50 years ago. After Vatican II, many Catholics believed that the Church was now acceptable to the world, and that the Church should work together with the world for the common good. Some still cling to this fantasy. However, as our culture rides the slip-and-slide to paganism, many Catholics and other tradition-minded Christians are starting to recognize the signs of the times and are asking themselves, “What is the proper response to the rapid decline of civilization – and rapid increase in anti-Christian bigotry – that we see all around us?” One idea that is gaining more and more traction is the “Benedict Option.”

The Benedict Option was originated by former Catholic and now Eastern Orthodox writer Rod Dreher (who should, by the way, come back to the Catholic Church). It is an idea that takes St. Benedict and his way of life as a model for how to respond to a decaying, and hostile, culture. Anxious about the state of affairs in the West, Dreher proposes that we must establish communities that will preserve the faith in the coming Dark Ages, just as the founder of Western monasticism established his monastery among the cultural ruins of a dying civilization.

I am personally quite attracted to this concept. By homeschooling, having a large family, seeking out a solid parish, and trying to avoid the rot that is pop-culture, I (and others who have made similar choices) already live the Benedict Option in ways both large and small.

Every Move You Make, I’ll Be Watching You

There is, however, a significant long-term challenge to the Benedict Option: the infeasibility of living counter-culturally in an intolerant, all-powerful Surveillance State.

If there is one underlying impulse in today’s growing paganism, it is control. It is simply not sufficient anymore to tolerate sin; we are now required to endorse and support it. Do otherwise and you’re labeled a bigot undeserving of the same rights as other citizens. We have already seen people lose their jobs for deviating from today’s group-think, and religious communities forced by government mandate to reject their own beliefs; it doesn’t stretch the imagination much to see future, more serious, consequences to non-conformity. Our society is on a path to becoming as controlling as many Muslim-run countries, which allow no dissent from their cultural norms. Although Christian communities have heroically survived in some of those countries, by and large they are tiny minorities that haven’t grown or had any influence for centuries. St. Benedict is a model of success in resisting a decaying culture, but there are many historical examples of failure in attempting to do so.

Not only does our culture insist on conformity, it now has the power to enforce such conformity with ruthless efficiency. With the rise of the Surveillance State, it is impossible to keep your beliefs and opinions private. Any past expression of support for beliefs that are no longer fashionable can be easily found and used against a person. Did you show your support for traditional marriage on Facebook? Refer to Caitlyn Bruce Jenner as “he” on Twitter? This is already grounds for dismissal in some industries. In the near future, perhaps it will mean that you aren’t qualified to raise your children anymore, citizen. And don’t think shunning social media sites makes you free from surveillance – the very fact that you are reading this counter-cultural article is being logged, and can be accessed by government officials if necessary.

Flabby Catholicism

The creeping lockstep conformity being applied to our culture – as well as the means to enforce it – exposes an “in-house” problem with any implementation of the Benedict Option: we simply aren’t strong enough to practice it. As a generation that has mostly faced, at worst, nothing but “soft persecution” in the midst of material plenty, we have grown flabby. We live in a Church of felt banners, insipid homilies, and tolerance for sin. One of the primary traditional means to strengthen our spiritual life – mortification – is no longer practiced; in fact, it is ridiculed as a relic of a bygone era. For most of us, just the basic fasting the Church requires on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday is considered a high hurdle. Is this really the generation that can joyfully endure a true persecution, in which our jobs, our freedom, even our children are on the line?

Many have been warning that persecution is coming. How many articles on this site alone have predicted it? But what are we doing about it now? Are we mortifying ourselves now? Are we praying now? Or are we just cruising Facebook with a bag of chips liking everyone’s predictions of a future persecution? Perhaps we should take the advice of our first pontiff, found in the biblical passage from which this site takes its name:

Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. (1 Peter 5:8-10)

Wise Words From Our First Holy Father

The First Letter of St. Peter, our first Papal encyclical, can help us to prepare for a possibly dark future. Written by the chief apostle to Christians facing increasing persecution, 1 Peter oscillates between soberness in the face of suffering, and the “unutterable and exalted joy” (1 Peter 1:8) found in being a disciple of Christ. The whole letter is marvelous; here are a few excerpts to whet your appetite:

Therefore gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct (1 Peter 1:13-15)

For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:19-21)

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.  (1 Peter 4:12-13)

In a time of deep cultural decline, Catholics are obligated to preserve the Faith in any way they can, and this includes creating communities to pass on our spiritual inheritance, as the Benedict Option recommends. However, we must not kid ourselves and think that doing so will be easy; it will take using spiritual muscles that have atrophied from neglect and laziness. If we are to take seriously our charge to pass on the Faith to future generations, we need to begin training now for the dark times that we may soon be facing.

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