If you have read Rod Dreher's blog recently two things are apparent. Firstly, the Benedict Option is the only real option for traditional Christians to keep the faith in an increasingly hostile environment. And second, Dreher hates Pope Francis. Dreher has repeatedly lambasted Francis, calling him a "crackpot," linking him with Trump for his vulgarity and disdain for institutions , and claiming, incredibly, that he may be responsible for the "fall" of the Catholic Church. For Dreher, the only link between points one and two, is that Francis is one of the more visible symptoms indicating the necessity of the Benedict Option.
Dreher has this all wrong. The Benedict Option is only viable insofar as its proponents are able to learn from Pope Francis. Dreher has been unable to the do this and as a result he has not been able to present an account of the Benedict Option that avoids the mistakes of previous Christian elites.
The primary problem with Dreher’s account of the Benedict Option is its limited historical scope. While several recent events lie behind the idea,—including the Indiana RFRA and the Obergefell—Dreher presents his account as a new strategy in the ongoing culture war that has consumed the religious right for at least 35 years. Dreher fails to contextualize the Benedict Option strategy in terms of the history of secularism: he has failed to explain how proponents of the Benedict Option will avoid the mistakes made by their predecessors, mistakes that ultimately resulted in the modern ethos decried by Dreher.
An Accounting for Modernity
Two of the most important accounts of secularism are Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation. Both texts offer needed lessons concerning the Benedict Option and both explain why, its proponents must learn from Pope Francis.
One key factor that Taylor identifies behind modern secularism is the plethora of reform movements beginning with Hildebrand and the Fourth Lateran Council, and continuing through the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Taylor notes that the irony of these reform movements, these efforts to make the world over in the image of the Gospel, “is that it turned into something quite different; in another rather different sense, the ‘world’ won after all” (p. 158). Reform movements, according to Taylor, involve “a drive to make over the whole society to higher standards” (p. 63).
James K. A. Smith explains,
“Together these commitments begin to propel a kind of perfectionism about society that wouldn’t have been imagined earlier. Any gap between the ideal and the real is going to be less and less tolerated, either because more is going to be expected of society in terms of general sanctification, or because less is going to be expected and self-transcendence will be simply eclipsed. If people aren’t meeting the bar, you can either focus on helping people reach higher or you can lower the bar. This is why Reform unleashes both Puritanism and the ’60s (How (Not) to Be Secular, pp. 36-37).
The Benedict Option is another reform movement, another attempt to hold society to the higher standards of the Gospel, even if it is strategically focused in a narrow scope. Taylor argues that these movements have lead to the modern “buffered” self, the self that treats the world (including his or her body) as inert material to be made over to the self’s preferred ideals. One commentator notes, “[T]the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging... and of giving its own autonomous order to its life.” This is precisely the attitude that Dreher laments.
If Taylor is right, reform movements are inherently dialectical, in the Hegelian sense, since the attempt by powerful religious leaders to remake the world in the image of Gospel, contains the seeds of its own destruction. Inherent within the very idea of a reform movement, is a notion of the self as autonomous and disengaged, a self which, through the exercise of its will, remakes the world in its own image. Taylor (p. 158) notes, “Perhaps the contradiction lay in the very idea of a disciplined imposition of the Kingdom of God. The temptation of power was all too strong, as Dostoevsky saw in the legend of the Grand Inquisitor. Here lay the corruption.”
The Grand Inquisitor Returns
From the vantage point of history, not only is the Benedict Option another attempt at reform, but also the Grand Inquisitor is still the central figure behind current debates. What I suggest is that underlying the anger of Dreher and others directed at Pope Francis is a demand that he be the Grand Inquisitor. Accordingly, Finnis and Grisez have made a public appeal to the pope to condemn today’s heretics. But the widespread assumption that the role of religious leaders is primarily inquisitorial is not shared by Pope Francis.
Francis refuses to be the Grand Inquisitor; this attitude underlies his much ridiculed rhetorical question: “Who am I to judge?” Instead of the Judge, the Doctor of the Law, or the Grand Inquisitor, Francis’s paradigm of the ideal Christian is the Good Samaritan. This ideal shifts the gaze of reformer inwardly, from the world that needs to be remade in the image of the ideal, to the reformer himself. The paradigm of the Good Samaritan demands that every Christian look inwardly, asking if one has been a Neighbor to those encountered in daily life and especially to those in dire need. Francis, following the tradition, links this with the notion mercy, which has become the theme of his pontificate, calling mercy “what is most essential and definitive.”
Pope Francis is no heretic, as even Grisez and Finnis acknowledge - nor can his notion of mercy be divorced from truth - but he has received the ire of critics for refusing to condemn everything from misreadings of Amoris Laetitia to the religion of Islam. Thus the first lesson that Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option can learn from Pope Francis is that the reformist paradigm is not the only way to view the role of religion within modernity. And if Charles Taylor is correct, the figure of the Good Samaritan offers a better model of the Christian life that avoids the paradoxical commitment to power and autonomy characteristic of the Grand Inquisitor. As such Francis’s vision of Christian life is sustainable, but Dreher’s is a repetition of the past.
Second, and more briefly, Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, provides a related insight concerning the factors responsible for the rise of secularism and modernity. A major subtext of his account concerns the hypocrisy of medieval elites, who justified massive inequalities - both financial and political - while professing a commitment to the Gospel. The contradiction of the equality of the Gospel and feudal hierarchy finally became too much to bare.
This links with a second way in which Dreher and other proponents of Benedict Option must learn from Pope Francis. Francis has repeatedly expressed his solidarity with various movements of people who are struggling against injustice, especially expressing solidarity with workers and the poor. For Dreher this is an after thought. He has recently noted that a “big lacuna in my Benedict Option book is political economy,” nor is this a new insight but it has not prevented Dreher from discussing the Benedict Option at length.
But for Francis it is not possible to discuss Christian life practically without recognizing the plight of the world’s poor and marginalized. And if Brad Gregory is correct, one reason why medieval Christendom fractured is because the elite failed to acknowledge the injustice that they were responsible for and thus failed to mitigate the tensions that finally boiled over during the Reformation. Dreher recommends that BenOpers put their children in “authentic Christian school[s],” disregarding the fact that such schools often come with a hefty price tag rendering them unimaginable for many. What should people do who can’t afford the Benedict Option? If Gregory is right, proponents of the Benedict Option are repeating the mistakes of past Christians, preaching justice and mercy, but leaving this as a mere afterthought that does not affect their vision of Christian life. As Gregory has shown, this is no way to build a sustainable Christian social order.
What Dreher can Learn from Francis
What Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option must learn from Pope Francis is, first and foremost, that orthodoxy is pointless unless it contributes to a life of charity and mercy. As Taylor has argued, reformist efforts to promote (or enforce) orthodox beliefs can backfire – Francis provides an alternative to the reformist model, not by denying orthodoxy but by emphasizing solidarity and mercy. Where Dreher has seen the Benedict Option as a means of distinguishing orthodox believers from liberal Christians and secular society, more generally, Francis maintains that Christians must primarily be distinguished by acts of mercy. In practice this means building communities that are not isolated from the rest of society but which are instead linked through bonds of solidarity even to people with radically different beliefs. The best examples of this are the Catholic Worker Movement and L’Arche communities.
Secondly, questions regarding political economy, especially questions about distributive justice, inequality, and workers’ rights are not secondary matters that can be debated after the essential elements of Christian life have already been sorted out. Instead, Francis, like Brad Gregory, suggests that solidarity with the poor is the sine qua non of authentic Christian community. Thus Francis challenges proponents of the Benedict Option, and the Church more generally to give up the dangerous fantasy of the Grand Inquisitor whose power will remake the world in the image of our ideals and instead to build bonds of charity and mercy in the manner of the Good Samaritan.