Throughout much of this spring, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option has made the rounds in both the secular and Catholic press. The response has been overwhelmingly positive from most sources, even including the traditional Catholic press.
The positive feedback seems to come from what is truly good in the book. In The Benedict Option, Dreher condemns the triumph of the secular totalitarian therapeutic super state that feeds on the carnage wrought in families around the world by sexual revolution. In response, Rod Dreher argues for a strengthening of local Christian communities centered around classical Christian education, traditional liturgical worship, and even a return of tradecraft and the small economy. However, there are a number of flaws in The Benedict Option that make it ultimately uncatholic and even dangerous.
Dreher’s Benedict Option ultimately comes from his epiphany that the culture wars have been lost and “serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America.” As a result, “orthodox Christians” need to develop creative, communal solutions” that will enable Christians to endure the flood of postmodernity or what Dreher also calls rootless “liquid modernity.” This flood is evidenced by the fact the Millennials (and now the emerging Post-Millennials) who have developed the “mushy pseudo religion” called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” which holds that people should be good and seek happiness and self-fulfillment in life, are abandoning traditional Christianity in droves.
However, as stronger evidence, Dreher further points to a series of legal defeats that Christians have endured in the second decade of the 21st century.
Dreher profiles Christians who have allegedly thrown in the towel in the fight for the public sphere such as Kansas state representative Lance Kinzer who in 2014 tried to expand religious liberty protection. Kinzer’s bill failed in the Kansas Senate, causing Kinzer to lose faith in “social conservative-Big Business coalition” and prompting him to return to practicing law and spending time with his family and at his Protestant church. Kinzer’s story, however, is just symptom of a bigger, nationwide series of events beginning with the failure of the 2015 Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act in which Republican politicians “would not take a stand, even a mild one, for religious liberty.” The final nail in the coffin was the Oberfell decision the same year, which Dreher calls the “Waterloo of religious conservatism” and the triumph of the sexual revolution in which Christians lost the public square. In response, Dreher proposes retreat.
As he has done in the past with works like Crunchy Cons, Dreher attempts to carve out a separate niche for quirky conservatives outside of the flow of mainstream conservatives, calling for a “hands on localism” of “intentional communities” of conservative Christians living, working, praying and studying together. Dreher rightly notes that the disorder in American politics derives from “disorder within the American soul” and dedicates much of The Benedict Option to emphasizing the importance of prayer, contemplation, and asceticism. Thus on the surface The Benedict Option sounds remarkably like Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.
Dreher further presents a number of communities that for him embody at least some facet of the Benedict Option.
In addition to the Benedictines of Norcia, Dreher mentions the Italian Tipi Loschi community, narrating a majestic description of Tipi Loschi founder Marco Sermarini: “As a boy, Marco’s ninety-one-year-old grandfather helped his own father harvest olives from these trees. Marco was raised doing the same, and now he and his own children collect olives yearly and press their oil for the family’s use.” This beautiful image of the rhythms of agriculture extending over centuries within the same family is tremendously appealing and entire consonant with a Catholic worldview. On the shores of the New World, Dreher gives the example of Elk County, Pennsylvania, a deeply Catholic and conservative place in which Sam McDonald, the head of the parochial school system is seeking to revive classical schooling. McDonald’s classical curriculum is a revival of the tradition of Catholic education that existed before Vatican II, which prepared, educated and catechized Catholics for workforce (where they would actually make money!).
McDonald tells Dreher, “I’m going to have a classical academy that builds die-setters. That’s where we’re headed,’ he says. ‘If you go back fifty years, the Catholic kids around here were all taught by nuns. There were all die-setters who learned Latin and who could do trigonometry like nobody’s business.”
This vision of an eminently practical but thorough classical education is the goal of most traditional Catholic parents.
Dreher further argues for micro economies in which Christians support one another financially in sections of the book entitled “Buy Christian, Even if it costs More” and “Build Christian Employment Networks”. However, outside of a positive affirmation of a new just (and actually deeply Catholic) vision of subsidiarity economics, there is much wrong with The Benedict Option.
The fundamental flaw of Dreher’s argument is that he chickens out, wanting to surrender the public sphere to pagans and deflate the strength of the Church. Dreher’s Benedict Option, in a nutshell, is the belief that Christians should stop “wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles” and should rather “work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.” Drawing from cold war era anti-Communists such as Václav Benda, Dreher argues for a “parallel polis” apart from secular culture in which Christians can practice their faith in peace safe from the clutches of secular and neopagan culture. Indeed, like many liberal Catholics, Dreher seems to approve of the loss of Christianity’s influence in the public sphere. C
Citing the Southern Baptist Russell Moore’s book Onward, Dreher argues that “by losing its cultural respectability, the church is freer to be radically faithful.” This argument, in some form, has been presented by Neo Thomists like Jacques Maritain and neoconservatives like Georgia Weigel and carries with it a defeatist and unCatholic mentality. It is almost as if Dreher is an agent provocateur, telling the Church militant to lay down their arms. While he is right to point out how the Republican Party has repeatedly betrayed Christians, he belittles the idea that religious leaders told Christians that “strengthening the levees of law and politics would keep the flood of secularism at bay.”
Dreher uses the clever image of “conservative Christian political activists” being like “White Russian exiles, drinking tea from samovars in their Paris drawing rooms, plotting the restoration of the monarchy.” However, such an image is very revealing because it is not as though Communism was inevitable in Russia; rather it was because of the weakness and even complicity of the West that the Soviet Union was able to triumph.
Moreover, in his argument for a “new” traditional Christianity, Dreher expresses admiration for some medieval aesthetics and theology, but also repeats the tired canard that “Medieval Europe was plagued by a Church that was “spectacularly corrupt” and the violent exercise of power—at times by the church itself—seemed to rule the world” (25). This is code for denouncing the reign of Christ the King and the power of the Catholic Church over the state, something to which Dreher and most of his fans are deathly allergic. Furthermore, outside of providing a “an unintentional political witness” to the secular world, there is nothing about evangelization in The Benedict Option (or as Pope Francis would say, “Proselytism is solemn nonsense”).
Additionally, Dreher’s own Gen-X’s “Radical Orthodoxy” is little different from the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism of which he accuses millennials.
Dreher conflates Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy as all being “traditions” that are part of the three “main branches” of “historic Christianity” (1). This fuzzy ecclesiology is held by neither orthodox Catholics nor conservative protestants or members of the Eastern orthodox church.
Yet, at times, Dreher, who seems to believe that the Benedict Options may turn America around, talks tough saying that Christians much wage “wartime” politics in a new phase of the “culture war,” warning parents, “If we want our children to survive, we must act.” But all of this tough talk is undermined by Dreher’s surrender of the public sphere as well as his goofy sentimentality and his coddling of sins of the flesh.
As a supporter of gay civil unions but not gay marriage (Dreher is personal friends with the neoconservative gay activist Andrew Sullivan whom he mentions in The Benedict Option), Dreher takes a decidedly libertarian approach in The Benedict Option to LGBTQ issues. Dreher does respond the problem of “florists, bakers, and photographers” being drug “through the courts by gay plaintiffs” (175) and the phenomenon of employees of major corporations being “frogmarched through ‘diversity and inclusion’ training” to support gay marriage (181). However, Dreher’s response is remarkably (or perhaps expectedly) weak-kneed. Dreher is deeply sympathetic toward the anger of “gay activists” who are burdened by “the cultural memory of rejection and hatred by the church” (213). Dreher also seems to believe in innate “gay” identity as something positive, speaking of “[our] gay brothers and sisters in Christ” and “gay Christians” who even though they reject traditional teaching “must still be treated with love, because they too are imagebearers of Christ. Love wins, though not in the way the LGBT movement says. But it still wins. Christians don’t dare forget it” (214). These words, which could just as well be said by Fr.
James Martin SJ, Pope Francis, or any number of recently appointed cardinals, are extremely ambiguous, dangerous, and not all consistent with the traditional Catholic treatment of sodomy.
Using the example of David Hall, a Christian who refused to watch LGBT diversity training for his job in Illinois, Dreher encourages his reader to give in a little to the sodomy lobby. Dreher suggests that his reader should turn tail, simultaneously “maintaining a Christian witness” and “avoiding religious conflict wherever possible” as “an act of love.” Citing the words and example of an anonymous “HR facilitator,” Dreher encourages Christians to “to lead with compassion and empathy, erring on the side of nonjudgment,”developing “friendships with LGBT colleagues” who know that this good Benedict Option Christian “doesn’t wish to demonize them.” Dreher’s advice is contrary to our Lord’s, Who commands, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). He seems to give the LGBT movement exactly what they want: gradual compromise and surrender.
Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option ends on a very curious note. After telling the story of the Monks of Norcia’s escape from the August 2016 earthquake as an apropos symbol of Dreher’s Benedict Option, Rod Dreher quotes from Our Lady’s solemn Manificat “ Fiat. Fiat,” which Dreher, with a “shout out” to his secular readers, translates with the jingle from the Beatles’s 1970 hit “Let it Be”: “ Let it be. Let it be.” Finally, assuming the role of postmodern prophet of Radical Orthodoxy, Dreher gives the stamp of the Holy Ghost to the Benedict Option, eerily announcing, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” This ending encapsulates everything good, bad, and quite frankly a little bit disturbing about The Benedict Option. Like most in the school of Radical Orthodoxy, Rod Dreher thinks that he is a true disciple of Jesus Christ and someone who adheres to a traditional form of Christianity, which has only slightly been airbrushed of any nasty politically incorrect accoutrements from the premodern era. Dreher wants to assure his non-Christian audience that the newly minted “traditional” Christianity that he is peddling is in no way threatening to the newly-established secular order.
Christians must promise to be very nice and friendly to the new regime so that their children are not ripped out of their arms and sent to public school to be indoctrinated in the LGBT agenda. However, without the support of strong Christian political agenda in the public sphere, Christians are sitting ducks.
The monks of Norcia, whom Dreher sees as embodying his vision of the Benedict Option, do not seem to have the sentimental and optimistic view of Dreher. Dreher quotes Fr. Cassian of Norcia: “Those who don’t do some form of what you’re talking about, they’re not going to make it through what’s coming.” Fr. Cassian is right, and Rod Dreher is half right. We do need to build intentional communities. This belief that politics should be rooted in the family and local communities is older than Aristotle’s Politics and is at the heart of Catholic social teaching from the time of its modern inception with Rerum Novarum.
But we also need the purity of Catholic teaching, not the muddied waters of Rod Dreher’s ecumenical Radical Orthodoxy. Finally, and again, contra Rod Dreher, we also need strong Christian leaders in the public sphere like St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Joan of Arc, and Charlemagne who will protect the “little platoons of civilization” found in every authentically Catholic home.