The Second Benedict Option

St. Benedict is trending.  Kind of hard to believe that in our 140-character social media world a 6th century monk would be of much interest. But, maybe if you survive 1600 years, you inevitably come back into fashion, and now seems to be one of those moments for St. Benedict.

My first clue was back on Valentine’s Day when New York Times columnist David Brooks made a reference to St. Benedict.  In a column entitled “How Should One Resist the Trump Administration?” Brooks wrote:

It could be that the primary threat

[from the Trump Administration] is stagnation and corruption. In this scenario, the Trump administration doesn’t create an authoritarian regime, but national politics turns into a vicious muck of tweet and countertweet, scandal and pseudoscandal, partisan attack and counterattack.

If that’s the threat, St. Benedict is the model for resistance. Benedict was a young Umbrian man who was sent to study in Rome after the fall of the empire. Disgusted by the corruption all around, he fled to the wilderness and founded monastic communities across Europe. If Rome was going to sink into barbarism, then Benedictines could lead healthy lives and construct new forms of community far from the decaying center.

If we are in a Benedict moment, the smart thing to do is to ignore the degradation in Washington and make your contribution at the state and local levels.  Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute notices that some of the interns in her think tank are thinking along Benedictine lines. In years past they were angling for career tracks that would land them in Washington, but now they are angling to go back to the places they came from.

I found Brooks’ reference a little surprising.  Among the New York Times readers, I suspect that knowledge of Catholicism, even among its many Catholic readers, doesn’t typically extend to 6th century Italian saints or Benedictine monastic communities.  Despite being less than 500 years old, the Jesuits tend to get better press and draw the attention of Hollywood.

But Benedict is hot, in part due to new book by Rod Dreher called The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation that came out this month.  I have not read the book, but Brooks, a friend of Dreher, offers a mini-review and commentary in an eponymous column, “The Benedict Option.”  Brooks calls the book “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”

Dreher offers a critique of the modern Western culture and his proposed response, primarily but not exclusively for Christians.  Brooks describes Dreher’s thesis as follows:

Rod says it’s futile to keep fighting the culture war, because it’s over. Instead believers should follow the model of the sixth-century monk St. Benedict, who set up separate religious communities as the Roman empire collapsed around them.

The heroes of Rod’s book are almost all monks. Christians should withdraw inward to deepen, purify and preserve their faith, he says. They should secede from mainstream culture, pull their children from public school, put down roots in separate communities.

Brooks’ initial “Benedictine possibility” was made in response to our polarized political life, while Dreher’s Benedict Option focuses more broadly on our cultural life.  Both suggest that St. Benedict would encourage those who are disaffected to retreat from political life or the cultural world into small, self-sustaining communities.

I do think this may be a possible Benedictine moment in our culture, but not for the reasons Brooks and Dreher hypothesize.

The Benedictine option can be critiqued from a variety of perspectives.  First, and probably most obvious, few people can or want to set themselves apart from their society, culture, families and homes. Even the monks that are my heroes are not interested in that.  The monks of Saint John’s Abbey are among the most worldly men I know and have been deeply immersed in the world throughout their long history, even as they have chosen to live in community in central Minnesota.  I wonder if Benedict himself, with his emphasis on work in addition to prayer, would encourage such segregation in the modern, post-agricultural era.

Second, setting a community apart for the sake of some utopian dream has a long and failed history.  From New Lanark in Scotland to Brook Farm in Massachusetts to New Harmony in Indiana, history is filled with communities brought down by the all-too-human frailties of their residents.  Even my favorite Benedictine monks would acknowledge that every human weakness is found within monastic walls. Escaping human society is well-nigh impossible unless you are the fictional Robinson Crusoe.

These brief critiques and others, however, should not suggest that St. Benedict does not have much to offer modern society, both in response to Brooks’ political concerns or Dreher’s cultural ones.  Over its 1600 year history, Benedictine teachings have been adapted to changing times and applied more widely than to monastic life, a point that does not seem to be acknowledged by Brooks or Dreher.

I would suggest that there is a Second Benedictine option that might be a more practical and powerful response to the challenges we face.  The Second Benedictine option is simply (or not so simply) to live a Benedictine life within the many communities – personal, professional, religious, geographic – we all occupy.

The Rule of St. Benedict does not offer a definitive description of a Benedictine life but offers guidance for how to live well within any community.  Benedictine Values are described on the website of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, with textual references to The Rule:

Benedictine Values

Awareness of God

To look for God not in the abstract but in the ordinary events of every day.
“We believe that the divine presence is everywhere.” R. B. 19

Community Living

To become who we are by our relationships with others.
“Let all things be common to all.” R. B. 33

Dignity of Work

To appreciate the dignity of work in God’s creation.
“…they live by the labor of their hands.” R. B. 48


To offer warmth, acceptance, and joy in welcoming others.
“Let all…be received as Christ.” R. B. 53


To work toward a just order in our immediate environment and in the larger society.
“…that in all things God may be glorified” R. B. 57


To hear keenly and sensitively the voices of persons and all created beings.
“Listen … with the ear of your heart.” R. B. Prologue


To be content with living simply and finding balance in work, prayer, and leisure.
“All things are to be done with moderation.” R. B. 48


To strive for peace on all levels: with self, others, and God. R. B. Prologue

Respect for Persons

To respect each person regardless of class, background, or professional skill.
“No one is to pursue what is judged best for oneself, but instead, what is better for someone else.” R. B. 72


To cultivate rootedness and a shared sense of mission.
“To stand firm in one’s promises.” R. B. 58


To appreciate and to care lovingly for all the goods of this place.
“Regard all utensils as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar.” R. B. 31

Community living, hospitality, listening and respect for others seem particularly germane to the challenges raised by Brooks and Dreher, and all these values can be lived out in virtually any community.  The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University offer one example of how Benedictine values can shape a community, both during a four-year undergraduate experience and for a lifetime afterwards.

While our community is certainly not free from the foibles, weaknesses and sins inherent in any human endeavor, we do offer a realistic, lived example of Benedictine wisdom.  I’d welcome David Brooks or Rod Dreher to come visit us (I’ll cover the hospitality costs) to see how a Second Benedictine Option might provide the practical basis for a more civil political and cultural life for all of us.

By |March 21st, 2017|Categories: History|4 Comments

Francis Effect Redux?

Photo: jeophotos via Flickr

Photo: jeophotos via Flickr

Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States was striking not so much for its impact among Catholics, for whom Francis is the leader of their Church, but for its impact among non-Catholics, who were widely moved by both the Pope’s pastoral message and his humble style.

The media widely and enthusiastically covered his visit and his message but with the public’s short attention span in a 24-hour news cycle, during an election year one would think that the Pope might fade from view. Yet while he has returned to Rome, Pope Francis surprisingly continues to occupy media interest, including in the rarified media space of The New York Times.

I have found a recent series of stories featuring Pope Francis and the Church to be fascinating and possibly unprecedented, at least for many years, maybe since Vatican II.

First, a couple weeks ago New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a column entitled, “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” It focused on the recent Bishop’s Synod on the Family, and in particular on the debate within the Catholic Church about whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive communion without having their first marriage annulled.  This column provoked a surprisingly powerful response, not least among professional theologians.

On October 26th, on the website Daily Theology, over a hundred leading theologians from universities all across North America, including Notre Dame, Boston College, Villanova and Georgetown, signed a letter critical of Douthat’s column.  The brief letter said:

To the editor of the New York Times

On Sunday, October 18, the Times published Ross Douthat’s piece “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is. Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused. This is not what we expect of the New York Times.

The letter got widespread coverage in the press and Douthat responded in another column in the Times with, “Letter to the Catholic Academy,” in which he explains his objectives to “My dear professors!”:

I hope we can agree that current controversies in Roman Catholicism cry out for explanation. And not only for Catholics: The world is fascinated – as it should be – by Pope Francis’ efforts to reshape our church. But the main parties in the church’s controversies have incentives to downplay the stakes. Conservative Catholics don’t want to concede that disruptive change is even possible. Liberal Catholics don’t want to admit that the pope might be leading the church into a crisis.

So in my columns, I’ve tried to cut through those obfuscations toward what seems like basic truth. There really is a high-stakes division, at the highest levels of the church…

While the controversy over divorce and communion is certainly deeply meaningful for the many divorced and remarried Catholics and even for their Catholic family and friends, it is very much an “inside baseball” kind of controversy, with the theological subtleties confusing to non-theologians and probably boring to non-Catholics. Why would the wider world care about these controversies in the Roman Catholic Church?  Why does the establishment’s most prestigious print media outlet devote precious column inches to such minutia?

Certainly much of the interest comes back to Pope Francis, whom the world finds compelling and fascinating. He is more accessible and engaging than the scholarly Benedict, with the personal warmth of John Paul, while delivering a generous, human and inclusive Gospel message.  But there is also a surprising interest in Francis’ “efforts to reshape our church,” as Douthat notes.  Some non-trivial part of the non-Catholic world seems to have a stake in matters that would seem far removed from their lives.  Maybe these internal controversies matter because the wider public, finding this Pope’s compassionate message especially compelling, want or need his moral authority to extend to the Church hierarchy as a ratification of Francis’ Gospel message.

Regardless of the exact nature of the interest, the Catholic Church and its leader, in some small way, are influencing the moral conversation in the world. On the one hand, that’s not surprising for an institution that has shaped morality profoundly for more than two millennia.  On the other hand, it’s very surprising in a secular 21st century where at least overt religious interest and practice are on the wane in the West and the same Catholic Church continues to suffer from a self-inflicted moral crises around sexual abuse.  For the Church to have regained some moral authority so soon after the widespread and deserved public shaming over clergy sexual abuse is surely surprising to even its most supportive followers and is an obvious tribute to the personal appeal of Pope Francis, whose influence may be only beginning.

Interesting times indeed.

By |November 10th, 2015|Categories: History|0 Comments

The Francis Effect

Photo: jeophotos via Flickr

Photo: jeophotos via Flickr

I had the pleasure and thrill to be in Washington DC representing Saint John’s University during the Pope’s visit. It was certainly a singular privilege and honor to be with Abbot John to present an Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to the Library of Congress in honor of Pope Francis’s first visit to America. That event at the Capitol will be unforgettable, yet what was equally memorable was the atmosphere in Washington during our two day visit.

There was something about the Pope’s presence that affected people in the city and made my visit strikingly different than any previous trip to Washington.

Midwesterners often comment on their interactions with easterners when they travel to the Atlantic seaboard for work or pleasure. In my experience, the comments are mostly about Bostonians and New Yorkers, but Washingtonians are not immune from these mildly critical characterizations. The general observation is that metropolitan areas in the middle Atlantic and northeastern states feel significantly less friendly than Midwestern cities, even the biggest Midwest city of Chicago.

One must, of course, be careful about generalizations, but having lived for close to a decade in the Boston area, I find these observation to be largely on target. While personally friendly and engaging in more intimate settings, my experience with easterners in public is that they tend to be cool, focused on their own business and, while not overtly rude, certainly not particularly friendly and more than capable of looking out for their own interests.

It was against this backdrop that my two days in Washington DC were so striking.

Three experiences:

  1. Abbot John, Rob Culligan and I got up early on Wednesday to go to the White House where President Obama was welcoming the Pope. There were thousands of people waiting to be admitted to the South Lawn of the White House. Despite long lines, not terribly well run security, and a long, crowded wait once you got to the South Lawn, I did not witness a single tense or unpleasant encounter. In fact, people were offering each other advice about the fastest way to get through security. I also heard more than one person tell their neighbor in the crowd, “I’m not even Catholic, but I love this Pope.” The atmosphere was festive, and it was both an historic and gorgeous day, so maybe the aura of civility was not such a surprise, but there were a lot of people operating in very close quarters.
  2. The gorgeous weather and significant traffic made it very conducive to walking during my two days in Washington. In my various forays around the city I was amazed to have strangers on the street greet me and even occasionally offer unsolicited help with directions when I would pause at an intersection and appear perplexed. In my experience, you rarely get unsolicited greetings in big metro areas on the East Coast. People have their guards up against unwanted solicitations or panhandlers and therefore typically even avoid eye contact. But the social rules seemed noticeably different to me during those two days. Certainly not everyone greeted me as I passed them, but it felt a lot more like Minneapolis (or even Collegeville!) than I had ever experienced before in Washington (or Boston or New York), with two exceptions noted below.
  3. On Thursday morning, as Abbot John and I walked toward the Library of Congress, an African-American woman driving some kind of delivery van stopped in the middle of the block and rolled down her window. She called out to Abbot John, who was looking clerical in his robe and Abbot’s Cross, “Did you see the Pope yesterday?” Abbot John explained that we have been on the lawn of the White House and saw the Pope from afar. Undeterred, she asked enthusiastically, “What did he say?” Abbot John quickly gave her a very abridged version of the Pope’s comments about compassion and love, as drivers were waiting behind her in the street, though without honking or showing any overt signs of impatience. After the brief recounting, she exclaimed, “Thanks. That is great. Have a wonderful day!” Not your typical Washington exchange.

I had experienced similar social interactions in East Coast areas twice before.

When I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, residents in the area were extremely friendly and engaging when the Red Sox were making a playoff run in 1986 and ultimately made it to the World Series (where they famously lost to the Mets). Everyone felt like your aunt or your brother-in-law as they delighted in the Sox’s success. Camaraderie around a sports team’s success is not uncommon, but it noticeably took the chill off social relations in Beantown for a few weeks that fall.

I was in New York City a couple months after 9/11. The city felt different than I had ever experienced it before or since. The best way to describe the experience is that people were being gentle, even tender with on another. New Yorkers (and we) were still suffering together.

Though the interactions were similar, the cause and tenor were different. In Boston it was a kind of superficial fun – we were all sports fans together. In New York it was a somber wake, as we mourned. In Washington the feeling was delight, joy and hope. People seemed surprised to be so moved by this Pope. In an era of political, racial, religious, or economic divides, we seem to be delighted by the unabashed goodness and sincerity of this man, especially so because maybe we were not sure we could still feel this way.

These are, of course, only my observations – anecdotes, as it were. I have no illusions that the Pope’s visit will permanently change social interactions in Washington (or New York or Philadelphia), and it is much easier to talk about the Gospel message than to put it into public policy, where real resources and inevitable trade offs are required.

But for a couple days we seemed to be able to put aside our differences and celebrate a message of hope and compassion. If we were able to do so for a couple of days, that suggests we may also be able to do it for a longer period.

By |September 28th, 2015|Categories: History|0 Comments