The Benedict Option

Monte Cassino

Monte Cassino, the monastery founded by St. Benedict

I have been trying for the past several months to write an article on what I call (with no illusions that I’m the first to do so) “fortress Catholicism.” It hasn’t been easy going. Let me begin by stating that I don’t think fortress Catholicism — by which I mean trying to keep the outside world, including the mainstream Church, from influencing one’s family, even when the cost is very high — is a good response to the current situation in the Church and in the world. Rather, we should focus on what Rod Dreher calls the “Benedict Option.” Yes, I know that some of my fellow Catholics regard Dreher as a traitor; I don’t, but even if I did, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t right about some things — or a lot of things. One can be dead wrong about the fact that Catholicism is the true religion established by Our Lord and still be right about how Catholics (as well as other traditional Christians) ought to respond to the modern crisis.

In that regard, I would like to call attention to an article in Catholic World Report by James Kalb (Dreher highlights it here) entitled “Rebuilding Catholic Society.” It is worth quoting at length:

The single most important practical goal of the Church is for Christians to thrive as Christians. The primary way that comes about, of course, is for them to love God and neighbor and live accordingly, and for their pastors to show them how to do so by word, sacrament, and example. There is more to it than that, though. We don’t become good simply by deciding to do so, and even the best words, sacraments, and examples are not enough for most of us. We respond to our total environment, and most of us need all the help we can get.

So we are likely to do better in a setting that is as Catholic as possible. That is especially so in times like the present, when secular society is comprehensively organized and pervasively anti-Catholic. Evil communications corrupt good manners. If Catholics go home from Mass and spend the rest of their time awash in pop culture and studying or working in settings that trivialize religious concerns and enforce perverse conceptions of right and wrong, the strong will no doubt survive. Not all of us are strong, though, and sink-or-swim cannot be the right approach for the Church to take toward her members.

In addition to the Church as a divine institution, we need a Catholic social world that includes the Church as an institution but also extends to the ordinary affairs of life. In a previous column I called that world “Christendom,” and emphasized that when it’s not established as a matter of law we still need it as a system of habits, institutions, and attachments to which we are loyal and by which we can more readily live a Catholic life.

The Church must engage the world while remaining in some sense unworldly, so Christendom—the social world in which Catholics carry on their lives as Catholics—is an in-between sort of affair. It is far from watertight, since it accepts secular arrangements such as markets, modern science, and legitimate government authority. Further, it reflects the imperfections of Catholics. Even saints are not perfect, and the Church includes people who are far from saintly. The leaven of the Kingdom doesn’t work instantaneously among those who have begun to accept it, so the Church must maintain a place for those who are not specially holy or even specially serious.

Now our current Pope, in continuity with his predecessors going back to at least Leo XIII, has a great love for young people in the Church. And it is young people who have the greatest potential, but are also the most malleable, and unfortunately the most easily corrupted. So it is reasonable to say our youth need their environments to be as Catholic as possible, and that by giving them such a setting we show a love and concern for their well-being that echoes that of Pope Francis and his predecessors.

One such setting is what Lord Baden-Powell called “scouting.” Other terms for the same concept might include “exploring,” “rovering,” “the outdoor life,” etc. Having some experience in that setting, I would like to consider how the “Benedict Option” might apply to youth associations falling under the umbrella of “exploring.” In the interest of full disclosure (if it’s not entirely clear from previous posts in this blog!), I am currently a leader with a group in the Federation of North-American Explorers (FNE), which is a member association of the Guides and Scouts of Europe (UIGSE-FSE). In addition, I have very little actual experience with other youth organizations so my comments must necessarily be limited to published materials that are freely available. I won’t be discussing programs, but rather identities.

Procession at summer camp with the Most Blessed Sacrament

Procession at summer camp with the Most Blessed Sacrament

How might our young people’s Catholic identity be preserved in a youth association? As Kalb writes, in a setting as Catholic as possible. Ideally, that means an association with a Catholic identity. Next might be a Catholic unit in an association with a specifically Christian identity, followed by a similar unit in a secular association. Last would be a mixed unit — I don’t think it matters much whether the mixed unit is part of a specifically Christian association or a secular one. Others might disagree but I think the pressures on our young people would be the same in either circumstance, and a fallen-away Catholic is fallen away whether he is secularized or joins another ecclesial community.

The question remains, for an association that doesn’t have a Catholic identity, is having a Catholic unit within that association enough? Even if the association has a specifically Christian identity, we still have many of the issues raised in a paper to which I linked earlier:

These so-called “unique” associations encourage the boy to observe and practice his religious duties, but it is obvious that in such a situation the possibilities of practicing [exploring] as a valuable support to religious formation and to personal life of faith are considerably reduced. As a matter of fact, the pedagogical, organizational, training support from the whole association is missing; any initiative is left to the boy’s capacities and his good will (however he is left quite alone in the comprehension of supernatural) and to the leader’s capacities for education of faith (he often acts without any serious support from his association).

It goes without saying that if the above applies to an association with a specifically Christian identity, then a fortiori it also applies to an association without such an identity. But there is another issue here as well. Mainstream “exploring” is represented in this country by a “unique” association (as described in the paper to which I linked) and as part of their law a boy must promise to be “reverent.” Reverence is fine and good, we want our Explorers to be reverent when they assist as Mass, for example, but as defined by this association it includes respect for the religious beliefs of others.

Let me be clear — I do not think there is an issue with having respect for traditional religious beliefs. Even where we disagree, as Catholics do with evangelical Protestants, we can have respect that another person holds fast to what he has been taught, even if we profess that what he was taught is wrong. But if an organization refuses to say what it means by “God,” then any sort of religious belief is permissible, including those that are not worthy of our respect (even if we respect the people who hold them). For example, can one have respect for the religious beliefs of someone who says that God is a rock or a stream? I encourage everyone to read this article and grapple with the questions raised by it. Personally, I’m reminded of an appearance by Dr. Jack Kevorkian on 60 Minutes (or perhaps another TV newsmagazine) many years ago in which he averred that his “god” was J. S. Bach! How can one respect the religious beliefs of a person who tries to define “God” in such a way? I am quite certain that Bach himself, a devout Lutheran with a Catholic sensibility, wouldn’t respect them.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Baden-Powell, and Cardinal Bourne of Westminster

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Baden-Powell, and Cardinal Bourne of Westminster

Coming back to the ideal, which I proposed was to be a part of a Catholic youth association. This isn’t always possible for various reasons. In this country — in the entire English-speaking world, in fact — these associations aren’t common. The FNE is one such association but has adopted a model of organic growth in order to protect its Catholic identity and its unique pedagogy. That has put some people off. It really must be said, however, that many people who expressed an interest in FNE lost interest as time went on, or perhaps wanted something other than what we could offer them. That should be expected — and we shouldn’t be disappointed when it happens; our way is not the only way, and certainly part of the problem with mainstream “exploring” is that it tries to be all things to all people. If the ideal isn’t available, then maybe something other than the ideal is still workable for your family. But the questions still remain — and have to be answered in one way or another.

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