The Benedictine Option

Making Catholic hospitals and schools widely available again in a society in desperate need of both is how Catholics can once again become a cultural force.

Rod Dreher has suggested something he calls “The Benedict Option” as a response to the decline in religious faith and practice — and in the face of the increasing hostility toward them — in contemporary culture. The question he believes Christians must ask themselves in our current setting is, “What must the church do in order to live and witness faithfully as a minority in a culture in which we were once the majority?”

“As we try to determine which forms of community, which institutions and which ways of life can answer that question,” writes Dreher, “we should draw on the wisdom of St. Benedict and his Rule. We should innovate ways to adapt it to forms of non-monastic living in the world.” Among the Benedictine principles he believes should help inform this recovery-of-the-old-in-the-new way of life he is suggesting would be things like order, prayer and work, community, stability, balance, and hospitality.

Dreher has insisted repeatedly that he is not advocating a strategy of “retreat” or “disengagement” with the world. Rather, the term “Benedict Option” symbolizes what he describes as “a historically-conscious, antimodernist return to roots, an undertaking that occurs with the awareness that Christians have to cultivate a sense of separation, of living as … ‘resident aliens’ in a ‘Christian colony,’ in order to be faithful to our calling.”

C. S. Lewis once described something similar in Mere Christianity when he called upon Christians to realize that they live in “Enemy-occupied territory.” “Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.” The “Enemy,” however, as Lewis makes clear by capitalizing the title, is in his view the Devil, not primarily the culture-at-large, nor (God help us) our non-Christian neighbors.

The story of salvation history is the story of a fallen people in a fallen world to whom a Savior has come to redeem both them and through them all of creation. We are called to be instruments of God’s grace and a leaven in society, not enemies of our neighbors and instruments of their condemnation.

The Question and a Suggestion

A question that has bedeviled Christians from the very beginning is how to be in the world but not of it. So too, how to distinguish “the world” as the very good thing God created for us from “the world” that we have “subjected to vanity” and in whose pattern St. Paul warns us we are not to be conformed? How can Christians serve as a leaven in society without merely becoming one with it — without becoming salt that has lost its flavor, worth nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot?

Dreher’s answer is that we must pay greater attention to forming Christians prepared to live out Christianity in this alien cultural territory, and doing that requires embedding them within communities and institutions dedicated to that sort of formation. “The Benedict Option,” he says, “is about forming communities that teach us and help us to live in such a way that our entire lives are witnesses to the transforming power of the Gospel.”

I have no problem with any of this — in fact I’m rather a fan, in much the same way I’ve always been a fan of monasticism ever since I discovered the great Catholic tradition in college. So I have no criticisms to offer — although I would sound a warning gleaned from the history of monasticism about “intentional communities,” including (perhaps especially) “religious” ones that, while preserving their own autonomy, do not remain firmly tethered to the Church and the authority of the successors of the apostles, the bishops. The history of monasticism suggests that, without an anchor to something firm, most of these institutions lose their way rather quickly. It is not without reason that there is an old historian’s dictum that says: “The history of monasticism is the history of the reform of monasticism.” The monastic life looks pleasant enough, and it was never meant to be overly burdensome, like the life of the anchorites in the desert. But as professor of mine once remarked about the Benedictine Rule: “No, it’s not hard — unless you actually do it.”

So I have no criticisms — really — but I do have a suggestion, one gleaned from the history of monasticism.

If those proposing “the Benedict Option” are not advocating a “retreat” or “disengagement from” the culture, as I take them at their word they are not, then perhaps they might take another bit of guidance from medieval Benedictine practice about how as an institution (and not merely as individuals) a group can serve as a powerful leaven in society.

If we look back at history, two things that characterized monasteries changed European society perhaps more than any others: monasteries were centers of learning and centers of hospitality.

If you wanted to learn to read and write in early medieval culture after the final dissolution of the Roman Empire, there was only one place to do so: you had to go to a monastery. This is why the person who records things and sends out letters was often called a “clerk” because the people who could do such things were usually “clerics.” Charlemagne couldn’t read or write. In his day, you didn’t have to know how to do these things to wield power. And very few people cared about “culture” and “learning” for long spans of time during the Middle Ages — only money and power and staying alive — which is precisely why these centuries were so violent and barbaric for so long, just as the world is becoming once again and for similar reasons. Who preserved the great classics of ancient Greece and Rome during these dark centuries until the culture-at-large finally gained interest once more? Who kept learning alive? The monasteries.

Why did they do this? Because literacy was essential for reading the Scriptures and chanting the daily office. They didn’t keep literacy and learning alive because they wanted to prepare clerks for service with counts, dukes, and kings, although this was often enough a beneficial side effect. They spread literacy far and wide because they wanted as many people as possible to read and study the Word of God. St. Benedict instructed them to “put nothing before the work of God,” and by this he meant their daily prayer when they chanted the psalms; but by extension, he also meant they should not let their daily “busy-ness” cause them to forget what their central focus should be: living out the Rule — a rule of life crafted intentionally to keep the members of the community in accord with the rule of Christian faith and charity. The lesson here is: Serve God first — keep His law — and then beneficial results will follow. If you imagine that you can get the benefits without that commitment, then I’ll tell you what I tell all my wonderfully naive college students who think the same thing: You’re not only being foolish, you’re simply not living in the real world.

The second practice that made monasteries especially crucial to the cultural development of the West is that they were required by the Benedictine Rule to receive guests and to show them hospitality. It is from this word, and indeed from this practice, that have come modern hospitals. Well into the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth, if a “hospital” was available to you, it would have been operated by a religious order, usually of sisters. Hospitals, as we know them now, were not created by Enlightenment philosophes — Voltaire did not deign to care for people dying of malaria; they were created and run — with all the day-to-day dreariness and messiness of dealing with sick, suffering people this entails — by the humble members of religious orders. When I was young, nurses still used to wear interesting caps that indicated the religious origin of their nursing order.

First Proposal

From these historical observations follow my two modest proposals for cultural reform, which I distinguish from the “Benedict Option” by calling them the “Benedictine Option.” I fear that the Church has scattered and diffused her energies too widely. Instead of a “retreat” from society, however, I recommend something like a strategic re-grouping involving a renewed focus on the two areas in which the Church has traditionally been strong: education and health care.

Lest we forget, when Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum, the first of the modern social justice encyclicals, and Aeterni Patris, the progenitor of the great twentieth century Thomistic revival, he could trust that these educational programs might have a chance at succeeding and changing the culture because, at the time, the Catholic Church had one of the most impressive educational infrastructures in the world, with well-staffed schools at every level from elementary through high school, college, and university. What has happened in the intervening years to that great patrimony bequeathed us? It has been given over to waste and decay, and the bits that remain have in many cases lost their spirit and nerve.

History is offering us an opportunity we must not miss. Imagine a bishop going into the poorest part of his diocese and saying: “I can’t change government policies, nor am I able to dictate what laws should be passed even among Catholic legislators. I can’t change the culture; I can’t stop the technocratic, consumerist juggernaut that has left many of you behind. But here is one thing I can do. I will educate your children. I pledge to you that I will make sure your children have a safe place to go to school and that they will learn to read, write, and do arithmetic and develop the virtues that will give them a chance at a happy, flourishing human life. That I can do and that I will do.”

Then he’d have to go out and raise the money it would take to make that a reality by pledging every Catholic, especially those blessed by God with greater resources, to tithe to make that vision a reality. But then he’d also have to promise them that the money they tithed over to him would be used for good schools that would teach solid skills and instill the basic virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, faith, hope, and love. And the extent to which he was faithful to that promise would be the extent to which more resources would flow. No one wants to give money to a Catholic charity that supports Planned Parenthood or ACORN or bureaucrats flying around the country to attend conferences in expensive big-city hotels.

Given the history I’ve described, it should be clear that such educational initiatives needn’t be reserved simply to bishops. Indeed, such educational reforms have rarely been initiated solely by bishops. If Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, Fathers of Holy Cross, and yes, the Benedictines want as desperately to serve the poor as they often say, then perhaps they might begin by re-dedicating themselves to staffing top-quality high schools for the poor, not expensive “prep schools” and universities for the rich.

The opportunities for evangelization in such schools merely by introducing students to the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition and by having them in proximity to a sincere Catholic community of prayer would be incalculable. None of this would work, however, if the schools were second-rate, expensive, or lacked a distinctive moral and spiritual character. To be a leaven, you can’t be just like the rest of the lump.

Thus do I really need to add that if a “Catholic” university is judging itself by how well it prepares its students for service to their corporate bosses, this would simply be the modern equivalent of a medieval monastery training its young scribes to read and write for no other purpose than to write effective diplomatic documents for the feudal nobility. Training young “clerks” for this purpose would simply have made them part of the vast medieval feudal war machine of noble struggling against noble, with the lives of the peasants often enough becoming tragic “collateral damage.”

By the time of Cardinals Mazarin and Richelieu, many clerics had become little more than slaves to earthly princes, hardly servants of the Gospel at all. And the young Catholic “clerks” we train today at our most “prestigious” Catholic universities: What lord are they being trained to serve?

Second Proposal

Now to my second modest proposal: hospitals. Someone has to deal with the crisis in primary care in this country. Go into any hospital emergency room, and you’ll see the immense challenges we face. Trying to handle primary care in modern hospital emergency rooms set up for trauma care is perhaps the most expensive way of doing primary care.

People often say that running a modern hospital with all its expensive equipment would be too expensive for a religious order. Fine, then don’t run a modern hospital with all its expensive equipment. Take a cue from Mother Theresa. Run a simple facility where people are cared for — truly cared for, not just pumped with drugs — by new groups of religious sisters who have decided that this is a better way of serving the poor than by lecturing to college students in expensive university auditoriums about the social injustices of capitalism.

The people who would come to these Catholic schools and hospitals would be asked to abide by the values and principles of the institution. Want an abortion? You’re free to go down the street, but the sign and cross on the wall makes clear: “We don’t and won’t do that here.” Want an education that says abortion is okay? This is a Catholic school. We accept non-Catholics, of course, just as we accept non-Catholics in our hospitals: because our faith doesn’t allow us to turn anyone away. But that same faith demands that we refuse to do abortions or teach young people that doing them is anything other than morally abhorrent. If you want a school that teaches such things are okay, then there’s a public school right down the road. No one forces people into Catholics schools and hospitals. It’s a choice, not a right.

Making Catholic hospitals and schools widely available again in a society in desperate need of both is how Catholics can once again become a cultural force. We don’t “retreat”; we “re-group” and re-focus on the two things that traditionally Catholics did well to serve as a leaven in society.

It could be done. Not without sacrifice. Not without a new slew of religious vocations. Not without prayer. But the Church has accomplished these goals often before in history when the situation was a lot grimmer and the prospects a lot dimmer than they are now.

Literacy can be spread; wilderness can be transformed into a garden; the poor can be fed; and the sick can be cared for and consoled in their suffering. The history of monasticism teaches us that amazing things can be accomplished over just a generation or two by even a small number of individuals dedicated to living out something very like “the Benedictine Option.”

About Dr. Randall B. Smith 20 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-2012 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.