In 2016, when the book The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher was published, it raised a great
debate between conservatives and liberal Catholics in the United States. Following the example of
Benedict, the author sees the only chance of living the Gospel in well identified communities. The
starting point for such reflection has been given by the reading of a statement made by Ratzinger a
few years ago. In fact, Rod Dreher states: «Everything began in 1969, when the theologian Joseph
Ratzinger thus spoke: “Starting from the present crisis, a Church that will have lost a lot will
emerge. It will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. It will
start again from small groups, from movements and from a minority who will put faith and prayer
at the center of the experience and will experiment with the sacraments again as divine service and
not as a problem related to the liturgical structure. It seems certain to me that the Church will
endure difficult times. Its real crisis has just began, and it now has to deal with great upheavals.
But I am also sure of what will remain in the end: not the Church of the political cult, but that of
Twelve years later, in 1981, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote: « A crucial turning
point in that earlier history occurred when willing men and women turned away from the task of
supporting the Roman imperium. They stopped identifying with the maintenance of that imperium
and the continuation of its civil and moral community. What they set themselves to achieve instead
– often not recognizing fully what they were doing – was the construction of new forms of
community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might
survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my interpretation of our moral situation is
correct, we shall conclude that we also reached a turning point. What matters, in this phase, is the
construction of local communities amongst which the social, intellectual, and moral life can be
preserved through the coming ages of darkness (…) Nevertheless, this time, the barbarians are not
waiting beyond our borders: they have already been governing us for a long time. It is our lack of
knowledge of this fact which creates part of our difficulty. We are not waiting for Godot, but for
another Saint Benedict, undoubtedly a very different one».
Accused of escaping from the real world, he notices that the Benedict Option does not stem
from fear, but from Christ’s love for mankind: we love God and we know we need a community
and rules to fully serve him.
He has been accused of creating a Christian ghetto, but he clearly answers that such critics
are incorrect as this criticism comes from people who did not read the book. It is true that Christians
are called to evangelize, to be the salt of the Earth. But today this salt has become insipid. If we
have to be in the world according to Christ’s will, we must move from the world to more profound
prayer, live within the community and understand the Bible. We have been assimilated to the
world: people do not see differences between a Christian and a non-Christian. Take as an example
the monastery of the Benedictines in Norcia: they offer spiritual assistance to all of those many
people who ask for it. However, if their doors were always open, they could not spend most of their
time in prayer and fasting and be separate from the rest of the world. They could not, therefore, help
anyone. The same applies to us lay people. It is wrong to set up an alternative between complete
separation and complete assimilation. We must be in the world without being in the world.
Interviewed by Il Foglio, he was asked: “You write that if Christians do not develop a
nonconformist way of life, they condemn their children to assimilation. What makes you so sure
about this? “” I look around, and everywhere in my country, there is usually little difference
between Christians and others. Social sciences also say the same thing: Christianity is collapsing
amongst younger generations, and young people who continue to define themselves as Christians
believe in things that are not orthodox. When I speak with professors from Catholic and Protestant
universities, they tell me that their students know almost nothing about Christianity. This is
certainly the fault of poor catechesis, but it is today’s undiscovered Christian culture which is as
much to blame. We have no guarantee that building up small Christian communities will save the
faith of younger generations, but what else can we do? ”
“You point out that your proposal is addressed to orthodox Christians, with a lowercase “o”,
that is, all Christians: Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox who keep the tradition of the apostolic
Church intact, with regard to liturgy, theology, and doctrine. However, there is also liberal
Christianity. Are these not the days of the liberation of liberal Christianity, especially in the
Catholic world? You write about an upcoming Dark Age, but today there is a lot of optimism about
an open and renewed Church based on liberal standards. Is this not the future of Christianity? “” No,
because a tree can only bear fruit if it has deep roots. Liberal Christianity is a modern phenomenon,
which has set itself free from the roots of the past”.
What characterizes orthodoxy with the lowercase “o” is the recognition that there is a truth
above us. Instead, liberal Christianity thinks we can arrange things as we like to meet our daily
needs. We do not have to believe in Tradition or the Bible if they conflict with what we desire in the
present. But in the United States the most prosperous Catholic communities are those who are loyal
to tradition: they are capable of challenging their own priests. Often, as conservative Christians, we
complain about how catechism is taught and about what is said during the homilies. Instead, we
should realize that nowadays we have great catechism within the Catholic Church, and that we can
easily get a lot of good books and create a library that Saint Thomas would have dreamt about.
Let’s stop complaining and claiming that it should be the institutional Church that saves us. Let’s
take action ourselves first. Let’s deepen the Tradition, and we will find everything we need.
Without forgetting works of mercy, without which we risk falling into intellectualism”.
The heart of a new evangelization can only be reached through charismatic faith communities,
walking on a path of holiness. With regard to the Ratzinger’s text, I believe that we can be more
optimistic: there is no need to wait for the Church to be overwhelmed to gather in small
communities. We just need to understand that is all about a religious war, which we fight by helping
everyone to recognize their sectarianism and to those who want to be called “Christians”, this can
only be achieved within charismatic primary communion. This can be done starting from now, not
to defend ourselves, but to help Jesus in saving the world.
Regarding Rod Dreher, I think his idea has a very important foundation, which coincides
with mine. However, he does not seem to be aware that everyone lives in “primary belonging” and
that his communities can be a Christian variant. Knowing that they all live linked by a bond that
leads them to sacrifice, to follow a frivolous moral, to have a dogma, etc., one can understand that
the living Christian communities can be numerous, simple, suitable for anyone.
According to Dreher’s interpretation of the Christian community, with its new “monastery”
walls, I think only some American conservatives will follow him. There is a lack of reflexivity
which should take into account that we all live in a “primary belonging” community. Therefore, the
real problem is to create primary membership on the paths of holiness, that can be disseminated
throughout the world, within civilization. The faithful can then feel part of one heart and one soul,
even though they live very different situations in life.
Living in primary belonging helps one face every obstacle. It crosses mountains and deserts,
and it can perfectly flourish in the middle of the spiritual desert of the secularized world. The
important thing is to understand the strength of the primary group, to understand how to propose a
path of holiness effectively to many people, and then to understand how to carry on a charismatic
communion without letting go of institutional responsibilities.
As proposed, the Benedict Option triggers the reaction of our liberals and our progressives.
However, if they could realize that they are also a closed group, they could understand that only the
primary charismatic groups unite everyone with great cohesion and great openness, through the love
for mankind. A path of holiness is based on the perennial truths of the Gospel and, therefore, it
cannot flourish amongst progressive Christians who only think of meeting everyone by dispersing
the truth that saves, till the bitter end of inclusiveness.
The aspiration of progressives to love each person, and to meet real problems, is correct and
compatible with a path of holiness. Mother Theresa of Calcutta has founded a path of holiness,
where evangelical truth and loving charity perfectly match. This can also happen in every path of
holiness amongst lay people of all kinds and in the simplest forms. By realizing that the paths of
holiness can have very different cultural characteristics, and also different Christian sensitivities,
then everyone is free to choose (though, often one finds oneself drawn to people who have a
primary bond in their lives, as everyone needs. It can be a Christian group, but it is often an
ideological, social, professional group). For centuries, it has been possible to think of a charismatic
primary belonging only in religious orders, which are very distinct, and have a recognized
institutional structure. Then the charismatic realities of the twentieth century have shown that a path
of holiness can be pursued with brothers in the midst of the world, among celibate and married
people, among people immersed in day-to- day problems. However, many still think that they are
isolated realities, which do not concern most Christians. In fact, one cannot say one lives a as
Christian if one does not follow a path of holiness. In order to follow Christ and live in primary
communion, the world needs at least a few Christians.
And this does not create divisions or conflicts within the Church, because it is union in
Christ, open to all (not in the sense that everyone can share even if they do not completely follow
Christ, but in the sense that united in Christ we learn to love every person we meet effectively, and
respect their affiliations).
The fact of having linked for centuries the paths of holiness to religious vows, and to
convents has really led to believing that there are two Christianities, that of the commandments and
that of the precepts. This has emptied the Western world of the Gospel, which has become all
“Christian.” This makes us think that a path of holiness is not for all the baptized, that it is difficult,
that it is for an elite, that it is heroic, and that it requires many renunciations. Let me recall what has
been said above: if one understands how everyone has a primary belonging, one can find that being
a Christian is for all the baptized, it is easier and more beautiful than all other kinds of life.
Following the example of the sacred family, there is nothing God has created that should be
despised. Jesus himself was accused of eating and drinking excessively because he did not take the
vow of Nazirite nor live an ascetic life in the footsteps of John the Baptist.
However, I think that if we do not understand the fact that everyone has a primary belonging
for which we are ready for any sacrifice, it will never be understood that the Gospel can only be
lived in charismatic primary communion by all those who want to be called Christians without
problems of misery or sins. With regard to the Benedict’s Option, I think the propagation of
secularism should not frighten us nor invite us to close ourselves in new monastic communities.
Instead, we shall try to deepen the Gospel’s beauty and simplicity when the Gospel is experienced in
charismatic primary communion, which responds to the deep need of the imprisoned human heart.
It is the discovery of a living Gospel, for centuries relegated to beautiful and meritorious but special
affiliations, with a specific vocation, ignoring the universal vocation to holiness. Today in the texts
of the Magisterium there is the call.