The poet T.S. Eliot predicted that, after the disintegration of Western society, civilization would be conserved and restored by a new monastic movement. He was referring to the events at the end of the fifth century, when Benedict of Nursia abandoned the decaying Roman Empire and established small communities of men and women dedicated to prayer, work and study.
In Benedict’s day, the once-great Roman Empire had collapsed into chaos. Through economic disaster, famine, plague, moral decadence and political corruption, the society was enervated and vulnerable. Barbarians invaded from the north and east, sensing lucrative spoils to be had.
In the face of the moral and social disintegration, Benedict established core communities of intentional disciples, and the seed of his life and work eventually blossomed into the strength and glory of Christian Europe.
Eastern-Orthodox journalist Rod Dreher has been writing for some time about the collapse of Christianity in the West and has been predicting and calling for what he calls the “Benedict Option.” He envisions a grassroots movement that echoes the witness of St. Benedict. Dreher writes:
“In our time, the Benedict Option does not offer a formula (at least not yet), but it does call for a radical shift in perspective among Christians, one in which we see ourselves as living in the ruins (though very comfortable ones!) of Christian civilization and tasked with preserving the living faith through the coming Dark Ages.”
This radical shift in Catholicism has been spoken of by others. Most famously, Pope Benedict XVI predicted:
“From today’s crisis will emerge a Church that has lost a great deal. … It will become small and will have to start pretty much all over again. It will no longer have use of the structures it built in its years of prosperity. The reduction in the number of faithful will lead to it losing an important part of its social privileges. It will start off with small groups and movements and a minority that will make faith central to experience again. It will be a more spiritual Church and will not claim a political mandate flirting with the right one minute and the left the next. It will be poor and will become the Church of the destitute.”
Others have noticed the end of “casual Catholicism” and the necessary rise of “committed Catholicism.” Important books on the New Evangelization, like Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples, call for a new kind of mission for existing Catholics.
The Benedict Option requires a radical shift away from the easygoing, open-ended, cafeteria Catholicism prevalent in much of suburban America to an intentionally informed and aware Catholicism. All will be welcome, but they will be welcomed to join what will be more like an elite fighting force than a religiously themed country club.
If Dreher is right, then the Benedict Option will not be imposed from the hierarchy. Instead, it will emerge from below. Such a movement would be strongly traditional, while at the same time living out many of the principles of the Second Vatican Council.
A “Benedict Option” would undermine clericalism in a positive and creative way. There would be natural renewal of worship, religious education and service based on the needs of the local community rather than top-down “good ideas” by diocesan bureaucrats.
What might a “Benedict Option” parish look like? The pastor and people would decide priorities based on the immediate needs of the parish members. As hostility grows from those outside the Church, relationships of trust would be developed within the family and parish. If an aggressive secular agenda is promoted in public schools, the parish school and religious-education program will become a main priority. As classical education disappears, the parish school will become a repository for the ancient learning. As such, a “Benedict Option” parish would see itself as countering, rather than accommodating, the surrounding culture. Such a community would be distinctive and clear in its purposes and principles — even odd. Members might be distrusted by those outside the community — including other Catholics who have compromised with the prevailing culture.
Is the Benedict Option the way of the future? I believe it is already here. Even now, we are seeing a separation evolving in the Catholic Church in the United States. Large numbers of Catholics are already more American than Catholic. They see no problem with divorced and remarried couples coming to Communion, and they accept same-sex “marriage” and want the Church to “get with the times” over many other issues.
Parishes go with their pastor’s guidance along the path of accommodating and accepting the current cultural trends.
Meanwhile, other pastors lead congregations that are uncompromising and clear in their Catholicism. No longer loyal to geographical parishes, Catholics are voting with their feet, and “Benedict Option” parishes are emerging — not aware that they are part of a growing movement.
These parishes of intentional disciples are part of another trend identified by George Weigel in his book Evangelical Catholicism. He recognizes that such people and parishes are vibrant in their commitment to the fullness of the Catholic faith. They are made up of well catechized and committed Catholics who are alert to the signs of the times and ready to live out their faith in the midst of impending crisis. Weigel sees this development as a positive surge of faith and renewal in the Church.
And I agree.
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