The Benedict Option comes to Ireland (Interview with Rod Dreher)

(January 2019)

On January 21, the American writer Rod Dreher spoke at Dublin’s Newman Church about his recent book, The Benedict Option.

Like its author, this book is rapidly growing in popularity and influence, with the New York Times columnist David Brooks describing it as the “most important religious book of the decade.”

In it, Dreher describes the need for committed Christians of various denominations to form communities which will allow them to lead Christian lives in the midst of a culture in which their beliefs are increasingly coming under attack.

A native of Louisiana, Dreher has worked for a host of leading publications in the United States. Though The Benedict Option is mostly inspired by recent developments in his own country, it also focuses on communities in Europe who are making special efforts to grow in faith together at a time when the light of Christianity is fading throughout the West.

Since the book came out, it has been published in nine languages, and has proved especially popular with European Catholics (in spite of the fact that its author is an Eastern Orthodox Christian).

What is the Benedict Option? And what is it that has attracted such attention?

In one sense, there is no Benedict Option. Dreher does not provide a specific set of guidelines which should be implemented by each Christian community seeking to live this lifestyle out.

Saint Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism, provides the inspiration for Dreher today, just as he attracted the attention of sixth century Christians appalled by the degradations and desolation of a post-imperial Rome.

Yet each country and culture has its own distinctive features and challenges which Christians have to navigate. As a result, no one model can be applied everywhere.

Homeschooling, for instance, forms part of the Benedict Option-approach for Dreher’s own family and for many like-minded parents in the US. But he recognises that this is not always possible for every family or in every country.

“My idea is that the Benedict Option is not a rigid rule – it’s not like the Rule of Saint Benedict,” Dreher explained, while sitting in his hotel in Dublin. “[But] I lay out some principles there that I hope Christians, wherever they are, can take in and work out among themselves faithful to their local conditions, to build something resilient for themselves.” The best example which he says he has encountered is the Tipi Loschi, a Catholic community on the east coast of Italy.

The group was formed when some young men and women – all of them committed Catholics – began to come together regularly for social fellowship and religious formation. As couples wed and children were born, the community grew, and it now encompasses a school named after GK Chesterton: a school which follows a classical curriculum.

It is important to note that there is no geographic segregation here. Members of this community live in their own homes in the surrounding area, and work normal jobs. They haven’t left the secular world. They are not monks or nuns and they do not aspire to be.

They do however make a special effort to engage in the sorts of activities which better educate themselves in their own faith and which foster a community spirit to help them to withstand the pressures to conform with a consumerist culture which differs so sharply from Christianity.

Dreher sharply disputes the notion that he is advocating that Christians should retreat from society or become insular in their outlook.

But in the midst of civilisational decline, he believes that it is imperative that Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox believers take it upon themselves to create communities which can survive and outlast the coming flood.

Look at the evidence around us, he argues in the book.

Europe has become almost completely secularised. In examining the data collected by the Notre Dame sociologist Professor Christian Smith, Dreher believes that America is not far behind.

Though the US is still relatively speaking a bastion of religious belief, all the indicators are that Americans are rapidly following the example of Europeans in abandoning Christianity.

Believers there are increasingly finding themselves more marginalised in public life, and the growth of the religiously unaffiliated – the nones – in the last few years has been remarkable.

Somewhere between a fifth and a third of Americans now fall into this category, and the number is higher among younger Americans. Liberal Protestant denominations have collapsed. Though the Catholic share of the population has held steady, it is only done so because of large-scale Hispanic immigration in recent decades: had they not come, the decline of American Catholicism would appear stark indeed.

“No honest person can look at the statistics that we have today for religious belief; the falling away of religious belief; the rank ignorance of so many people, especially the young, of what the Church actually teaches. It’s a catastrophe,” Dreher said.

Yet America still appears to be a Christian nation, at least compared to the continent of Europe and its empty churches. The fact that American Christianity still appears outwardly vibrant has made Christians there less receptive to his somewhat gloomy outlook.

In Europe too, the author has noted a certain paradox. Older Christians are often more sceptical about his arguments, but younger European Christians – and especially younger Catholics – are embracing it.

“I believe that older Catholics, my age and older, we still want to believe that there’s room for us in the system, that if we just tweak something about the way we approach the Faith, then the world will love us, this post-Christian world, the establishment will love us,” he said.

“These young Catholics in Europe; they don’t have that illusion at all, and they still want to be Catholic. If you want to be a good middle-class conformist, you can’t be authentically Catholic. They’d rather be Catholic first. They still want to have a successful career and all that, but they want to be Catholic first.” 

What should these young Catholics do in a cultural environment which frowns upon them, and a political environment in which conservative Christians in Ireland and elsewhere feel more out of place than ever before?

Seeking an answer to this question, Dreher points to the example set by the late Václav Benda, the Catholic dissident in Communist Czechoslovakia.

Living in Prague in the 1970s, Benda knew that the Marxist regime was for the time being unalterable, but he did not despair or withdraw into isolation from those like him. He believed that Christians had to live some sort of public life and this involved setting up a “parallel polis” where Christians would come together and resist authoritarianism in the only ways they could.

“He talked about inventing something called the parallel polis, the parallel city, in which people who were shut out from official channels nevertheless informally got together, not necessarily to be political, but just to re-learn the art of community,” Dreher explained. “He believed that just coming together to share a meal was in fact a political act because it countered the atomisation that the Communist authorities depended on for control.”

Nor was Benda’s approach limited to private acts of resistance with his friends. The Benda’s family home was situated close to the headquarters of the secret police, and victims of interrogation often went there immediately after being released, confident that they would receive a warm welcome.

Benda (who was for imprisoned for four years for this resistance) and his wife devoted particular attention to the education of their children: reading to them for several hours every evening and discussing the topics which they had been exposed to in the state-run schools which worked so hard (and so successfully) to stamp out Christian belief.

The legacy of Communist rule in this region has been a lasting one: the Czech Republic is now one of the most atheistic countries in the world.

Remarkably though, when Dreher visited Benda’s widow and extended family in Prague recently, he found that all five of the Benda children and all of the grandchildren remain practicing Catholics. A faith which was strong enough to survive the ravages of Communism is also proving itself strong enough to survive the materialistic culture created by Western capitalism.

The pleasure which Dreher took in relaying this story of Catholic fortitude might strike some as being noteworthy, for he himself left the Catholic Church more than a decade ago. Yet his concern for – and love of – the Church remains obvious.

From a Methodist background originally, Rod converted to Catholicism in the early 1990s, and embraced his religion in its entirety, becoming a traditionalist and socially conservative Catholic.

In 2001, he embarked upon a lengthy journalistic assignment which continues to this day, and which has cost him dearly. He began to report on the scandal of clerical child sexual abuse.

Though a priest friend warned him that he would uncover unspeakable horror should he go down this road, Dreher felt a responsibility to do so. As a journalist, he needed to seek the truth. As a Catholic, he wanted to help expose the sins of those who had disgraced their ministry. As a young father, he felt a great responsibility to protect children.

But nothing prepared him for what was to come, and like many an Irish Catholic, seeing what priests had done and what bishops had enabled, would eventually shatter his faith in the Church entirely.

A particular moment stands out. In around 2002, several priests had come to Dreher to inform him that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had sexually abused seminarians.

When it appeared likely that Dreher would report on the allegations, strong pressure was exerted on the editor to kill the story. More importantly, the same pressure appeared to have been applied elsewhere and to the same ends: nobody would go on the record and expose the predator cardinal, who continued in office for another sixteen years.

Seeing what was being done to protect the guilty at the expense of the innocent was traumatic for Dreher.

“Knowing that man was guilty and yet seeing him on national TV week in, week out, talking about how ‘Oh the scandal is so terrible, we’re going to get to the bottom of it, we’re going to clean the Church up,’ knowing he was a lying hypocrite, that was like acid on me as a faithful Catholic,” Dreher explained. “Over the next few years, just watching what the bishops said in public and knowing what they were doing in private and had done in private…”

Eventually, he could take no more, and had to seek refuge elsewhere.

“Losing my Catholic faith was the most painful thing in my life, without question. And I buried my sister. I buried my father. And neither of those cases were as painful as losing my faith, because I didn’t think it was possible, and it was so much a part of my identity.

“In his mercy, God preserved my faith in Jesus Christ, and I became an Eastern Orthodox Christian, not because I thought the Orthodox Church was free of sin – I don’t believe that any church is free of sin – but because as a Catholic, I knew that the Orthodox Church had real sacraments.”

His experience with the Catholic hierarchy has clearly left scars, but Dreher is not bitter. Though he is not optimistic that the sexual abuse crisis will be ended soon, his optimism about the long-term future of Catholicism has increased thanks to his experiences of encountering young Catholics – especially in Europe – who are not merely reading The Benedict Option but living it as well.

A special highlight since the book’s publication occurred in Rome not long ago, when Archbishop Georg Gänswein – the personal secretary of the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – gave a talk which Dreher attended.

The confidante and aide of one of Dreher’s great heroes praised The Benedict Option as “prophetic” and encouraged Catholics to read it: unsurprising given the importance which the Pope Emeritus always placed on Christians acting as “creative minorities” within secular cultures, of which Ireland is just one.

Though his prognosis of the current situation in the West is a stark one, his outlook remains optimistic, and Dreher intends to continue to explore these issues in the coming years.

It is likely that many more Catholics will come to know his work as he does so, and he is clear in his belief that the solutions prescribed within The Benedict Option provide hope for the Church, and for the universal Christian church as well.

“I’ve regained my love for the Catholic Church … not feeling responsible for the bishops anymore … [and] that’s why these Benedictine monks are at the centre of my book. And I want to use the rest of the time God gives me to build bridges between Catholics and Orthodox, and among Protestants too, because we’re really in this together.”