Rather than the Benedict Option, the Francis Option

The American Scene

French Catholics are outraged at new sex education curricula in French public schools. I think the outrage is largely misplaced, but I wrote a post (in French) arguing to my fellow French Catholics that they should realize they’re a (tiny) minority now and they shouldn’t be surprised when the majority enacts public school curricula that disagree with their worldview. My advice to French Catholics, in a nutshell, is to, instead of agitating for more Christian-compatible curricula, take their kids out of public school and build true Catholic schools that are a sign of contradiction against the prevailing culture, rather than carbon copies of public schools, as most French Catholic schools are at present.

That got me to wondering if I wasn’t advocating a version of what’s been called “The Benedict Option” as a Christian response to the secularization of the West. The Benedict Option, named for Saint Benedict, encourages a retreat from secular life to build alternative societies. The explicit analogy is that the West is undergoing a similar decline as the Roman Empire did; by retreating from the decline, this narrative goes, the monks saved all that could be saved of Western civilization and eventually restored it. In general, I tend to be highly critical of the Benedict Option. I don’t think the West is as far-gone as “Benedict-ers” seem to think, and I also think Christians have a duty to serve the world and be in the world. (By the way, you should read this excellent and largely sympathetic story by Rod Dreher on the Benedict Option as it’s currently being practiced.)

But if I’m advocating retreating from public schools rather than trying to improve them, aren’t I backing the Benedict Option?

I don’t think so. But I do think we shouldn’t dismiss the Benedict Option out of hand. I think we should take the best of it, but rather think of a Francis Option, rather than a Benedict Option.

Obviously talking in these terms is attractive because it allows a parallel not just between two of the greatest monastic founders in history but also our two living Popes, with Benedict generally being thought of as sympathetic to the Benedict Option and Francis having a very different pastoral view.

Indeed, while our scribes scrutinize every of Francis’ words for doctrinal innovation, it seems they’re missing the big picture of his pastoral emphasis. The by now common refrain we hear from Francis is of a Church that goes out “on the streets”, “to the peripheries” (a favorite expression of his), a Church that “goes out of itself.”

I want to linger on that last expression because it exemplifies what I think a “Francis Option” would learn from the Benedict Option. Sorry for the semantic gymnastics, but if you want a Church that “goes out of itself”, you need an “itself” for the Church to go “out” “of”.

In other words, yes, I think the Church should try to build these “alternative societies,” but always in a concern of going out of them, of ministering, of serving the world. This is consonant with what I’ve called “the fundamental Christian dynamic”: first, you realize you’re a sinner; then, you realize that God loves you anyway; and then, this love propels you to love your fellow men equally sinful and equally loved. The fundamental Christian dynamic involves this indwelling with God (the dwelling of God among us being one of the dominant Biblical themes) as equal with service to others. It is the meaning of the Ite Missa est.

We need both halves. I do think we need to build alternative structures to the prevailing culture (before we are forced to?) so that the Church can be a body, but these structures need to also be put at the service of the prevailing society. Similarly, the Franciscan order is conventual, but it is also resolutely ordered towards service to the society around them.

If we want to think of a mode for Catholic engagement in 21st century postmodern culture, the Francis Option might be a good frame. I’ve been very influenced in my thoughts on this general topic by the following lectures by Tim Keller and Jonathan Sacks (yes, non-Catholics—not coincidentally, I think).

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