Three Tough Questions to Ask Yourself Before Signing on to the Benedict Option

By John Zmirak Published on March 17, 2017

Rod Dreher’s new book The Benedict Option is inspiring a serious conversation among Christians about how we are to relate to a culture that is more and more hostile to Christianity. I have spent most of my life inside a Benedict Option — or at least as close as 99 percent of the population is likely to get to it. That’s why I am skeptical about its usefulness for the vast majority of Christians.

First my credentials:

At age 14, when I realized that the teachers at my Catholic school were peddling leftist heresy, I started hitching a ride to an “alternative” Catholic program — a series of M.A. classes offered in Catholic Studies by Fr. John Hardon. I sought out more faithful churches than the one I had grown up in. And after college began to attend the most doctrinally conservative and reverent parishes available. Almost every one of my friends was a fellow activist in Catholic circles, many of them to the theological “right” of Pope John Paul II. More than half were seminarians, aspiring to the priesthood.

I taught for five years at an intensely Catholic college of 75 students and 7 professors, whose graduates tried to live near each other and keep up the intensely religious and intellectual atmosphere which they’d had as undergraduates.

I moved in circles where people would only date through Catholic meet-up sites, would attend religious talks and extra services several times a month. When they felt neurotic they would only consult Catholic therapists — those whom fellow subculture Catholics had vetted as doctrinally “solid” and “sound.” (Never mind that their credentials were shaky, and practices flaky.) Most of my jobs came through subculture connections. In turn I obliged by helping find jobs and throwing freelance work wherever possible only to fellow subculture members, based mostly on their financial need, and not their talents.

The separatist impulse (with the exception of those called to real monasticism) doesn’t solve our problems. It opens itself up to new ones.

So I’ve “been there,” and I have done that. This is not a memoir, so I won’t recount my experiences — for some of that see “The Shame of the Catholic Subculture.” (For a Protestant equivalent, see Liberty McArtor’s poignant critique of the evangelical subculture where she grew up.)  But based on almost 40 years of pursuing this approach, and watching hundreds of others try it too, I have some sobering questions which I hope that every Christian will pose to himself and answer candidly before traveling down the same yellow brick road that I did.  Of course, I’m not suggesting that Rod Dreher advocates all the dysfunctions I describe below. I am saying that the separatist impulse (with the exception of those called to real monasticism) doesn’t solve our problems. It opens itself up to new ones.

(1) Why does this really appeal to you?

Ask yourself this seriously, in the context of searching prayer. We’re not just talking about making friends who share your faith, or taking part in church-related activities. There would be no need to write a book or start a movement to encourage people to do that. Nor is this just a matter of limiting exposure to social media, finding solid churches and decent schools for your kids, or starting up homeshool groups. That’s already happening.

No, insofar as it anything new at all, the Benedict Option is a refocus of energy and allegiance further inward, into your self-selected community of people who think and pray as you do.

Are you afraid that you will let your guard down, and start abandoning your beliefs and moral virtues, if you don’t flee the temptation of friends outside the clan of like-minded believers?

So why are you doing that? Is it because you feel shaken by the constant hostile questioning that comes from our secular culture? Do you just want to rest a while, and not to have answer objections or defend your faith all the time? Or are you afraid that you will let your guard down, and start abandoning your beliefs and moral virtues, gradually but inexorably, if you don’t flee the temptation of friends and other involvements outside the clan of like-minded believers? Will you use this as a reason to “check out” of fulfilling ordinary civic duties, like voting and advocating for morally crucial causes? Rod Dreher suggested as much in Newsweek in 2015, though under fire he later backtracked

Some backers of the Benedict Option appear to have given up on America as a project. Two of the thinkers whom author Rod Dreher frequently cites with approval are Patrick Deneen and Michael Hanby, each of whom argues — mistakenly, as Michael Novak has shown here at The Stream — that the truest reading of the U.S. Constitution is the one given by liberal Supreme Court justices like Anthony Kennedy in Casey v. Planned Parenthood. The U.S., they say, was founded on anti-Christian Enlightenment principles. As a result every attack on religious freedom and the family was inevitable, and in fact Constitutional. Our system is irredeemable on this view, so we must hunker down and wait for its collapse.

The U.S., they say, was founded on anti-Christian Enlightenment principles. Our system is irredeemable, and we must hunker down and wait for its collapse.

Then from the ruins we can rebuild — what exactly? Some officially Christian state? If so, in what form? Which church would dominate it? How tolerant would that church be of competitors? Many of the Catholics I knew inside the subculture were nostalgic for the Inquisition in some form or other.

One of the groups that offers a separatist community, the Society of St. Pius X in St. Mary’s, Kansas, officially endorses the state persecution of “heretics,” whenever prudence allows it.

Scholar Thomas Pink offered a rationale for this position, which was published in First Things. Pink claimed that the Church at Vatican II denied the State the right to imprison any baptized Christians (i.e., Protestants) for heresy or disobedience — but that the Church reserves the right to imprison them itself. Imagine the Monty Python “church police” sketch come hideously to life.

Speaking from direct personal experience, you do not want to be part of a subculture, organization, or social circle led by people who fantasize about using violence to persecute those who disagree with them. For every grimly consistent thinker who was convinced of this position by the arguments, you will find five bullies who just like the idea of persecution, and are happy to find a doctrine that seems to justify it. Such people tend to gravitate to leadership positions, which they gleefully abuse.

(2) Do you think you’re escaping the sinfulness of the world?

If so, you’re fooling yourself. The Enemy can enter your charmed circle, too. The obvious dangers are pharisaism, self-righteousness and groupthink. You could begin to mistake the boundaries of your subculture with the invisible Church, the City of God. (I know that I did.)

The people here are no better than anywhere else: the same percentage of sociopaths, liars, cheats, and loafers as in the general population. In fact, there might be more.

But you face far subtler dangers. You are likely to let your guard down around other people who share your worldview. You may even come to believe (on a sub-conscious level — this is too silly for you to believe consciously) that original sin does not apply inside these circles. You’ll assume that you can trust people, and feel that you ought to like them — maybe even force yourself to — simply because they checked off the right doctrinal boxes. Allow this to happen, and you’re setting yourself up for deep and bitter disillusionment.

If you’re not careful to keep your faith separate from such fantasies, it might suffer profoundly when reality finally hits you: The people here are likely no better than anywhere else. There may be a similar percentage of sociopaths, liars, cheats, and loafers as in the general population. In fact, there might be more such predators — wolves drawn by the prospect of trusting, well-meaning sheep.

Make sure your children know that. Some of the worst sexual predators in the clergy have preyed on the kids of separatist parents, who were so relieved to find a “faithful” priest amidst all the liberals that they completely let their guard down. Children have been molested by pastors who gave every evidence of intense, even mystical faith.

A worldwide Catholic quasi-separatist movement, the Legionaries of Christ, was actually founded by a priest later convicted by the Church of molesting children. One of the worst recent offenders was Fr. Carlos Urrutigoity, who promised to found a separatist “Catholic city” in rural Pennsylvania. He was later defrocked for routinely sleeping in bed with teenage boys, after a $400,000 legal settlement paid to one victim he abused. I met many of those who followed Fr. Urrutigoity in his movement; dozens are still in denial, still blame the victims and defend his innocence — some defend even his practice of sleeping in bed with boys. (Several did so to my face.) Some of these tragic dupes have moved on to start or join other Benedict Option projects.  

(3) Will you be tempted to cite a “higher cause” to shirk your duties?

Back when I was throwing freelance work to “needy” people in my subculture, I told myself I was serving a higher good than simple efficiency. When the work came in shoddy or even dishonestly done, I didn’t look too closely, or fixed the errors myself. It was more important to serve “the cause” than to get the best work done for my employer. I’m still embarrassed by that, by the warm fuzzy feeling I got from cronyism, from indulging in corruption.

Other temptations arise in such cozy circles. I learned of a high-ranking priest in a traditional Catholic order who was hearing from fathers of large families eager to live near one of his parishes, in isolated areas. They told him they’d have to quit their jobs, and had no prospects of new ones. And he told them to do it, that being part of a “true Catholic community” was more important than money. God would surely provide.

That is what the leaders of the Children’s Crusade told their youthful recruits. They all ended up as slaves to Muslim masters, or at the bottom of the sea.

Was theirs a leap of faith, or a serious sin against prudence? Was it any more well-advised than sending your savings to some “Prosperity Gospel” preacher, in the hope that God would reward you?

Parents don’t have the luxury of quixotic leaps in the dark. There’s a reason that St. Benedict never recruited married couples, that monastic movements were always restricted to men and women responsible only for themselves. For those whose vocation from God is raising families, a much saner Christian option is to support and make use of solid institutions, without making them fetishes, or pretending that some imagined goal of “community” absolves you from the rules and limits of our still-fallen world. For such a sensible plan I suggest instead pro-life hero Austin Ruse’s well-considered “Escriva Option.”

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