Running Out of Options

O stand, stand at the window
   As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
   With your crooked heart.
—W.H. Auden, “As I Walked Out One Evening”

The publication of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option by Penguin Random House in 2017 launched a slew of options. There was the Dominican, Franciscan, Ignatian, and Salesian Options (my favorite was the Walker Percy Option). The debate about these options occupied the Catholic commentariat for a while, but the furor around these options slackened during the Trump years. A recent article titled “The Salazar Option” brought back memories of this proliferation. The shift is stark: from an array of saints and scholars to a petty dictator forgotten outside of fascist circles. This article is not in isolation, as many conservative Catholics have shifted from programs based on saints and religious orders to a variety of integralist, fascist, and neo-colonizing options.

Despite the incongruity, there are connections between the Benedict Option and the Salazar Option. To see these connections is to identify a constitutive flaw in those early debates while also recalling important insights from the various options. My goal here is to figure out how we can have the insight while excising the flaw. We need, in a sense, to begin again with those conversations to take seriously the diminishment of Western Christianity, and to articulate a vision forward for a small Church open to going out into the world to invite our neighbors into the Church.

The BenOp conversations were centered on the question of how the Church relates to the world and how we are to live as Catholics in these Christ-forgetting times. This conversation was and is essential, the defining theological question of our time. However, the conversations were short-circuited by a vision of Church-world relations based in a Schmittian friend-enemy binary. The rejection of this binary has been at the heart of Francis’s papacy as he articulates an ecclesiology of open doors which might very well be the Benedict we are all waiting for.

What To Do About Those Barbarians?

I am not proposing a genealogical descent from Benedict to Salazar to yet again pan Rod Dreher. His book is an important one for Christian life in the Western world. Dreher recognized that the diminishment of Christianity necessitates a change in our ecclesial understanding one still resisted in far too many dioceses even as parishes and schools crumble and close. The Benedict Option, and various other options, were written in response to the rapid secularization of the Western world. This secularization led some conservative Christians to see themselves as powerless in the face of the secular left.

The culture war was lost; the “empire” of Christendom is fallen. All that could be done was to foster intentional communities amidst the ruination. This was the state of the Church in 2017. And yet by 2018, Christians, especially Catholics, quickly shifted their intellectual projects from the Benedict Option to integralism. The Benedict Option was premised on having lost the Culture Wars. The integralist option was premised on the idea that we could so thoroughly win the Culture Wars that, according to Sohrab Ahmari, we could enjoy “the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” The Benedict Option saw the Roman Empire as fallen; the integralists thought the Imperium could be restored.

How did this shift from “it is all lost” to “it can all be won” take place? And how do we get from bolstering our local communities, parishes, and schools to seizing the reins of power? To see this, we must understand the core flaw of the Benedict Option. This defect regards those who are outside the Church (or perceived as being outside). In Dreher’s metaphor those “outside” are barbarians who, like the barbarians of the late Roman Empire, have brought ruin to the Imperium. If we take barbarian as our guiding metaphor for others, we must then determine what to do with said barbarians. In Dreher’s metaphor, the barbarians are winning (or have won), so we retreat strategically, sustaining the light of the faith and laying seeds for a new civilization. This, as Dreher has rightly insisted, is not defeatism but a realism that allows a robust approach to our actual situation.

But that is not the only option when faced by barbarians. Sure, if one thinks that one has no chance of victory, one might take this route. But what if you can fight back and win? One only speaks of the spoils of victory and the transformation of the public square because victory is possible. Barbarians—in this case secular liberals, leftists, and many Christians—are not the type with whom you can reach compromise. While Ahmari is not as extreme as the pro-Salazar right, he too thinks that we cannot hole up and survive. If we take that route, we should expect what Christophe Roach calls the “branch Davidian treatment.” We must fight to survive and then to conquer.

As Wittgenstein argued, language can be bewitching. We are captured by the pictures of the world that our metaphors shape. To think of others as the barbarians is to imagine them as enemies, and one fights enemies. Too many have been captured by this image. Unsurprisingly, Carl Schmitt’s popularity is rising on the right. For Schmitt, “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.” If we posit the people around as barbarians—enemies to our group of unambiguously Christian friends—then we have the following options: you have lost the war, so you survive and thrive in the “monastery”; or you can still win, so you fight and conquer. In 2016, the answer was the former. In 2018, the answer shifted to the latter.

The move from the Benedict Option to the Salazar Option was possible because the BenOp metaphor was wrapped up in the idea of enemies. When that metaphor was mixed with the possibility of a victory, many Catholics started pondering integralist options. But of course integralism is impossible. A tiny minority is not going to convince the majority to place the state at the service of the Catholic Church and reorder the public square and people’s private lives. How could this happen? Only some form of force could bring it about. If you support Salazar, you overthrow the government’s elected officials, subvert its juridical structure, and alter its elections. Others might gradually take the reins of the administrative state and the judicial branch in order to execute your vision. In any case, you impose your ideology because the people you are imposing it on are barbarians.

Such arguments have a grim history alongside the language of barbarians. In the 1500s, Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda argued that the Indigenous peoples of the New World were barbarians and, consequently, it was right to impose Christian civilization upon them. For Sepúlveda, this imposition set the conditions for the possibility of evangelizing by means of conquest and forced labor. Sepúlveda’s vision has made a comeback amidst a small but growing neo-colonial movement on the right.

Helen Andrews argued on Sepúlveda’s behalf in First Things, defending the need for forced labor, celebrating the invasion of Mexico, and lamenting proposals to allow for the liberty of the Indigenous. Andrews’s support of forced labor is grounded in her neo-colonializing advocacy. For her, Bartolome de las Casas’s advocacy for peaceful evangelizing is galling and naïve. In the face of barbarians, force is the only answer. Andrews is not alone in supporting such a vision. Declan O’Leary sees the death of children as an unfortunate but necessary step in bringing First Nations Peoples to the faith.

The catalyst for this shift from retreat to reconquest is not particularly surprising: Trump won. The Salazar, integralist, or neo-colonizing options share the goal of acquisition of real power through the seizure of government to impose the conditions for Christendom. Trump showed this could be pulled off. For a certain conservative Christian, Trump demonstrated showed that what seemed impossible was quite possible. He was either Cyrus restoring the Church or the first Catholic president, noted for his go-for-the-jugular manner.” In either case, victory by coercion was possible and so should be sought. We had met the enemy and could now conquer them.

A Disrupted Conversation

Whether we are dealing with integralists, fascists, or neo-colonizers, the point is the same: the enemy must be met with force. The genetic flaw of the Benedict Option was that it thought of those outside the Church according to the un-Christian hermeneutic of friend-enemy. Why then would I hope for a new and different Benedict Option? Why pine for the many articles and proposals that popped up in 2017? Because they took the situation of the Church in the West seriously. Separate from whether the arguments of integralists are right (they are not), they are fantastical. They play at political and theological thought because they do not follow the lead of Gaudium et Spes and “scrutinize the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel.” We cannot ignore the integralists and there have been several thoughtful responses to them (see here and here). Nevertheless, we need to get back to serious discussions about how to live the faith in community while evangelizing our neighbors in this Christ-forgetting world.

For much of the history of Christianity in the West, the Church was able to be a primary shaper of culture and society. This was both a good and bad thing. The integralists—as well as some fascists and neo-colonizers—seek to reestablish this socio-cultural supremacy now. In this, they misread the signs of the times and interpret them according to late scholasticism instead of the Gospel.

In contrast, many Catholics on the left seem all too willing to be shaped by the world. The Benedict Option, and other similar options, recognized that we can no longer shape the world and that it is not good to be shaped by the world. We need to create countercultures working within the broader culture. We do in fact—as Dreher’s subtitle indicates—need strategies for Christians in a post-Christian world. We are a remnant and need to act like a saving one, fostering our community life of prayer and service. This is the path to avoid fading into the world, that path towards acting as leaven, salt, and light.

The rapid secularization of the West necessitates changed ecclesial practices and modes of evangelization combined with a deep commitment to orthodoxy. There is little left of cultural Catholicism and the Church is no longer able to sway political communities in the way it has in the past. Not long ago, it was common to question the secularization thesis which held that developed societies inevitably see declines in religiosity. The thesis seemed stymied by continued practice in Europe, deepened concern with religious questions, and the persistence of religious practice in the United States. Each of these counterarguments seems tenuous now. European religious practice is finding new lows, philosopher William Desmond describes the intellectual world as in an ever-deepening default atheism, and the only growth in American religion is among the “Nones.” The secularization thesis looks sturdier than ever.

A core premise of the Benedict option is that there just are not all that many of us. The “us” here being practicing Catholics. In West Philadelphia, where I live, there are more closed Catholic parishes than currently open ones. My beloved parish, St. Francis de Sales, has a dynamic and diverse congregation in a half-crumbling half-sublime building. We sent 3000 men to serve in World War II, we have about 300 families now. Leah Libresco Sargeant’s book on the Benedict Option was aptly subtitled “A guide to gathering two or three together in his name.” We need to face the reality that the Church is a diminishing thing.

Catholic thought is meant to perceive the signs of the times, judge them according to the deposit of faith, and act in light of them. The proponents of various options in 2017 did this. Integralists, in contrast, failed to see the world around them, misjudged good Catholic practice, and provided either no path for action or troubling fascist or neo-colonialist options. To misjudge our diminishment lets the diminishment accelerate. The gates of hell will never prevail against the Church (which is growing in most parts of the world), but that does not mean that churches in the West will not disappear. The archdiocese of Philadelphia can end up a titular see just like the original Philadelphia.

Catholics need to get busy living the faith or get busy dying. The integralist interregnum in Catholic thought, along with the Trump years themselves, interrupted a conversation that needed to happen while worsening the moral standing of Christians. Too many of the conversations we have around the Church and society avoid stark realities. It is 2021; we need to start thinking about and living out the options of our faith if we are to be a saving remnant.

Let Us Begin Again

Near the end of his life, St. Francis of Assisi told his confreres, “Let us begin again, for until now we have done nothing.” We ought to begin again too. The debates swirling around the Benedict option in 2017 held a core insight regarding the decline in faith and the need to respond with invigorated intentional communities of Christian life. But this was corroded by its un-Christian view of those outside the faith. To begin again, we need to unite the former insight with a different perception of those outside the faith.

Paul tells the Colossians, “Walk in wisdom towards them that are without, redeeming the time” (4:5). This passage gets too little attention. It needs to be thought of alongside Paul’s admonition: “Do not conform to the world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). The Benedict option was too caught up in not conforming because of the way it saw those who are without. It was unable to walk in wisdom towards them. When we do not hold together these to Pauline admonitions, we end up unintentionally mirroring the world.

Aren’t we all living in the BenOp world, conforming to a world riven by partisan isolation and ideological sorting? At the heart of many integralist’s arguments is that liberalism is coercive, so we coerce right back. To unite Paul’s admonition to not conform to the world we are supposed to walk towards is to live in imitatio Christi. The frequent failure of the Church has been in its imitatio mundi whether in colonialists’ enterprises or 1970s “accommodationism.”

How then are we to think of “them who are without”? Well for starters, we are supposed to love them, especially our enemies. When we love our enemy, they cease to be an enemy for us—they become our neighbor. They may still conceive of themselves as our enemy, but the Sermon on the Mount makes it as axiomatic that the world does not determine our modes of valuation. We will suffer because of the disjunction that makes our enemies our friends, but Christ declares that we are blessed when we so suffer. We are not conformed to the world; rather, by love, we transform the relationship. The “barbarians” become our neighbors, our friends, and our brothers and sisters. If the ones outside are barbarians or enemies, then we isolate from them or fight them. But if they are our neighbors and our friends, then we go to them and we welcome them in. In loving them, we may find that they were not our enemies after all.

If we need to look for new Benedict Options, Pope Francis is a good guide. He sees the deep un-Christianity of friend-enemy binaries and the need to restore the biblical language of neighbor, friend, and brother. In Fratelli Tutti he writes “Amid the fray of conflicting interests, where victory consists in eliminating one’s opponents, how is it possible to raise our sights to recognize our neighbors or to help those who have fallen along the way?” Here there is no language of the spoils of victory, forced labor, or going for the jugular. We are not trying to eliminate or avoid our opponents; we are trying see them as neighbors. We are to help them along the way to God.

To go out to my neighbors or to welcome them in requires open doors that let us go out and allow them to come in. In so doing, we find that our neighbors are actually our brothers and sisters. This is a key to Francis’s maternal and paternal images of the Church. Francis teaches that “The Church is a home with open doors, because she is a mother.” We lock our doors when we believe that others around us are a threat. To leave our doors open is to treat those around us as neighbors and friends. The Church, as mother, welcomes not only her children within but also her children without.

Our neighbors and friends who are lapsed Christian, or not Christian at all, are revealed by the practice of love to be our brothers and sisters through the maternal image of Church. We conquer or wall off enemies; we open our doors to our siblings. Just as the Church is our mother, so too it is the house of our Father. In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis writes, “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open.” The Church is the house of the Father of all those who already know and believe this and those who do not yet know and believe this.

Here, as elsewhere, Francis insists on ideas forming realities; the home of our Father must be open literally. “One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door.” If the old Benedict Option is shaped by the image of cloister and wall, the new Benedict Option is shaped by the language of doors and bridges. We ought not be foolhardy but one concrete way of living this out is opening our church doors every day, hang a sign up, tell people they can come in.

Francis again and again returns to this image of the open door, most recently at a general audience: “When I see a small church . . . with closed doors, this is a bad sign. Churches should always have their doors open because this is the sign of what a church is: always open.” To whom are these doors open? “To the Gentiles.” Here Francis richly continues the papacy of Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict’s Court of the Gentiles initiative was meant to create a space of encounter, a space at the threshold between world and Church where those within dialogue with those without. Both Benedict’s Court of the Gentiles and Pope Francis’s ecclesiology of open doors see beyond friend-enemy binaries to the deeper truths of neighbor, friend, and brother.

The core commonality of these papal proposals with the Benedict Option is the recognition of how many have walked out of the doors of the Church. What is needed is the promotion of something worth walking back to. The Benedict Option rightly contended that many of our Catholic institutions are uninspiring, marked by practices—especially liturgical—that attract no one. Too many of our Catholic schools barely teach theology, barely promote religious practice, and barely demonstrate that the good life is a life of corporal mercy. We need to live out alternative practices of community.

This means the reformation of our communities and their practices of prayer, family, and work. It necessitates a deepened commitment to the wholeness of Church teaching. It means a new commitment to the centrality of Christ and Church for salvation and human flourishing. Too many suffer from the false understanding of Vatican II, especially Gaudium et Spes, that sees a dissolving of the Church-world distinction. This distinction is an essential aspect of the life of the pilgrim city until the fulfillment of all things. But this distinction is neither sharp nor clear. The pilgrim city is mixed in with the earthly city and this is a good thing. The Benedict Option too often sees this Church-world distinction as a wall without openings. We should see a more porous border that knows the distinction but sees it not as a wall but as a threshold. To speak of open doors is to speak of a building, of a determinate people called by God. The People of God is not shaped by exclusion because its life is a missionary one. We are sent out to call others in.

I can imagine someone saying that I am being naïve, blinkered to the harsh realities around us. The realities are harsh out there. Participation in the faith, in the life of the sacraments, in the commitments of our creed, and in the living out of the Gospel is the greatest good in the world. The Church’s decline in the West is a tragedy. And the secular left often does threaten religious practice. Issues around the Little Sisters of the Poor or Philadelphia Catholic Charities are important. But they are exaggerated and weaponized. This weaponization treats others as our enemies, and so it makes them our enemy. To dwell in this binary helps the binary to become true.

Further, the friend-enemy binary misdiagnoses the real situation regarding religion, which is sometimes marked by antipathy but usually by apathy. W.H. Auden is right about our modern life. We often live “Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endures /A silence that is neither for nor against her faith.” To think the other is your enemy can be exciting. It elevates the stakes of one’s life, but it is generally inaccurate. The crisis of our faith is the stagnation of restless hearts or the misdirection of restless hearts towards endless acquisition and away from God.

Our muted and misdirected restlessness is the entry point for evangelization. We walk to those who are outside in order to bring what we have to them. We bring what we have in order to invite them within. What we have is our restlessness for God and our confidence that rest is found through the Church. This means we cannot fall into the trap of thinking that the world is the teacher and the Church the pupil. No, the whole Church is ecclesia docens called to teach the world so that those on the outside may find themselves unexpectedly changing the zip code to the civitas peregrinus. But we must be there to do the inviting, our doors must be open for them to enter, and we must have a community to invite them into.

On the Way Together

The goal in all this is to help people along the way to Christ. This is the heart of Francis’s vision of accompaniment which not about fellowship merely for fellowship. Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium, “Spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God . . . to accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father.” To open our doors in a new Benedict Option without seeking to open the hearts of neighbors to God is to fall into the danger of being a spiritual museum. The goal is to call people to the pilgrimage which avoids self-referentiality if and only if it is a pilgrimage to the Father.

What I have written here, inspired by the Holy Father, is only a sketch of what another, doubtless very different, Benedict Option would look like. It is a vision of a Church oriented always to God and to neighbor and—despite the ineptitude and corruption that so often mars our Church—it is a vision that is alive in parishes, schools, and initiatives. I think here of the institute I am blessed to be a part of, the Collegium Institute. In the heart of the University of Pennsylvania, a secular university founded to avoid the theological, we offer the Catholic humanities to students.

Our doors are open and more often than not, it is non-Catholics who pass through them looking for something more than pre-professional formation. This is only one example and there are more such as the McGrath Institute at the University of Notre Dame, Lumen Christi, the Jesuit Volunteers, or in parishes, soup kitchens, and schools unknown to most but dear to the Father. Whatever this new option, or whatever comes after the options, will look like it will require the intentional community, robust prayer, and deep orthodoxy that Dreher and others advocate for. It will also take seeing those outside as our brothers and sisters, opening our communities to each and to all, and developing forms of life marked by evangelism, service, and justice. It means shifting to models of life that no longer imagine enemies, barbarians, and those who “need” to be colonized. Rather, it will see neighbor, friend, and brother and sister. Such a shift will mean getting beyond the friend-enemy binary so that we can see that the faith’s triumph can only come about when our we love those who are just outside our open doors.

Featured Image: Still from the film "North by Northwest," Cary Grant airplane chase, 1959, PD.


Terence Sweeney

Terence Sweeney is Assistant Teaching Professor in the Honors Program and Humanities Department at Villanova University. His work centers on Augustine but extends to medieval thought, philosophical theology, and political theory.

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