The “Benedict Option” is one way for Christians to respond to the apparent victory of secularism in the culture war. I want to propose something else — the “Francis Option,” as laid out in Laudato Si (Care for Our Common Home), and referring to the patron saint of ecology.
But I don’t want to give short shrift to the Benedict Option — named for the saint but appropriate for the recent Pope Benedict, too, as Father Dwight Longenecker points out. As Pope Benedict XVI put it, “When darkness seemed to be spreading over Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, St. Benedict brought the light of dawn to shine upon this continent.”
Rod Dreher coined the term “Benedict Option” to describe ways a new strategic retreat from the culture wars — which we have lost — can guard the light of faith in smaller communities, tending the flame while the storm rages outside.
The approach Dreher describes is precisely what gave me my faith.
I was very much in the world and of it when I happened upon the St. Ignatius Institute, a Great Books program at a larger university in San Francisco. Like catacomb Christians, we met in the basement of the campus’ oldest building to plan our studies of the “forbidden things” the university itself would no longer teach — the great enduring truths of Western civilization.
The same approach is giving my children their faith.
Using a Great Books-based home-school curriculum, we have tended the light of learning and faith in the quiet of our home. We have been pleased with the results: children with a prayer life, two daughters devoted to missionary work and a son who has started a website to promote the faith.
Which brings us to Laudato Si. St. Benedict makes an appearance in the document, but Pope Francis isn’t interested in how Benedict fled the world; he is interested in how he encountered the world through prayer and work — and how St. Francis did the same thing more intentionally.
What’s the difference between Francis and Benedict? Benedict was cloistered; Francis was a mendicant — he lived outside the walls of the city, but returned to beg.
St. Benedict preserved the light of Christ by building a shelter for it to grow into a roaring fire and inviting people to gather around its warmth; St. Francis preserved the light by kindling small flames everywhere.
The world encountered St. Benedict’s monastic wisdom through schools, commerce, books and preaching; the world encountered St. Francis when he put his jarringly authentic Christianity side-by-side with the world’s illusory Christian duplicity: He became a living icon of Christ. People who wouldn't otherwise meet Christ met Francis and Clare and companions, and learned what Jesus would have them (and us) learn: Trust Rome, reject the commercialism of the day; respect the priesthood; reach out to Islam; care for all creatures; serve the poor.
“The poverty and austerity of St. Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism,” writes Pope Francis in Laudato Sí, “but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled” (11).
People seeing Francis saw an uncompromising, joyful freedom. They learned from him that the life of faith wasn’t easy, but that it wasn’t drudgery either. They learned that Christianity was strong and vital and real — and they couldn’t have learned that any other way than by seeing a friar smiling as he fasted and helping the poor not as a philanthropist, but as a brother.
When the world looks at Catholics today, they often don’t have that experience. They see culture warriors or whiners.
Francis was not a culture warrior. He didn’t see creation as “a problem to be solved,” as Pope Francis put it — and he didn’t see culture that way either. Others were building places to preserve culture against attacks (a work the Church always needs); he decided to be powerless before others. He was only concerned with being one with Christ in his beliefs, actions and decisions.
He also wasn’t a whiner. He refused to complain about priests, even when his rights were being trampled on. He didn’t complain that the Church was being too Catholic or not Catholic enough, or that the Pope’s priorities were wrong, or that bishops and priests had become corrupt or lazy.
As the late, great Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete once said, and I’ve quoted it before: “If tomorrow it was revealed that the pope had a harem, that all the cardinals had made money on Enron stock and were involved in Internet porno, then the situation of the Church today would be similar to the situation of the Church in the late 12th century … when Francis of Assisi first kissed a leper.”
I think this approach is suited to our times for a couple of reasons: First, because the power of modern secularism is vastly overrated. It is a decadent system with no interior consistency that has deliberately sterilized itself. It causes enormous unhappiness and anxiety. It is defensive and noisy like a hyena, not strong and silent like a lion.
Second, the Francis Option makes sense because the world has a hunger for authentic Christian witness, not an aversion to it. The world embraces figures such as Mother Teresa, John Paul II and Pope Francis. Imagine what would happen if you and I were more like them.
As Pope Francis put it in 2013: “It’s not so much about speaking, but rather speaking with our whole lives: living consistently, the very consistency of our lives! This consistency means living Christianity as an encounter with Jesus that brings me to others, not just as a social label. … Witness is what counts!”
That’s the Francis Option. Yes, guard the truths of the faith. But let the world meet Jesus. Let them meet you.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.