It might seem odd to ask how Rod Dreher’s book The Benedict Option relates to the Catholic Church’s teachings on what it means to be a member of the laity. After all, the book is directed at Christian laypersons, proposing a plan of life for laypersons in a post-Christian society and discussing issues such as family and employment that are not typically thought of as the most pressing issues Catholic clergy face.
However, The Benedict Option does not explicitly engage with the understanding of the laity articulated at Vatican II and in subsequent teachings. That’s partly understandable, as Dreher is neither Roman Catholic nor writing for an exclusively Catholic audience. Furthermore, Dreher likely did not want to get bogged down in close readings of Church documents, as he is writing for a popular audience and focuses on action more than on history or theory. Catholic readers, however, must approach the Benedict Option with the Church’s teachings on the laity in mind and try to understand if and how Dreher’s proposals fit with this body of teaching.
Much of Vatican II’s teaching on the laity can be found in Apostolicam Actuositatem. The Council Fathers first emphasize that “the church can never be without the lay apostolate.” This is because the Church’s primary function is to proclaim to the world the message of Christ, and the laity have “countless opportunities” to do this, as they live in that very world. Indeed, the apostolate of the laity is exercised when “they endeavor to have the Gospel spirit permeate and improve the temporal order… The characteristic of the lay state being a life led in the midst of the world and of secular affairs.”
Pope St. John Paul II reiterates these teachings in Christifideles laici, where he says that “the secular world” is where the laity “receive their call from God” and so “the ‘world’ thus becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation.”
Much of the discussion around the Benedict Option implies that Dreher is calling for Christians to abandon the secular world, and sometimes his language bears that interpretation out; early on he speaks of building an ark so that Christians can survive societal upheaval in sheltered isolation. This vivid image, taken in conjunction with Dreher’s comments that orthodox Christians will have to live “somewhat cut off from mainstream society,” could easily imply an absolute rejection of the temporal secular order, counter to the apostolate of the laity.
However, immediately after speaking of an ark, he says “we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.” Dreher does not so much reject the teaching that the laity live out their Christian vocations in the temporal order as he does reject a particular temporal order, which he believes is so aggressively secular that faith will be hidden (as opposed to a healthy secularism that simply provides public space for people of differing faiths to operate publicly as members of those faiths), and he says that Christians must strengthen their communities in response to it. Clearly, he is speaking of shaping a temporal order so that it is Christified, and this is consonant with the Church’s teachings on the laity working in secular society.
The problem is that if this Christified temporal order only exists parallel to mainstream society, instead of entering into it and shaping it, the laity will be only partially fulfilling their apostolate to have the Gospel spirit permeate and improve the temporal order. Generally speaking, the laity are not called to be parallel to mainstream society. While individual laypersons may need such an environment in which to best flourish as Catholics or find that they are called to build such an environment, the laity as a whole must go beyond shaping a parallel temporal order and influence the mainstream temporal order as best they can. Dreher suggests that the temporal order Benedict Option Christians establish will eventually overcome the aggressively secular temporal order due to the secular order’s failure, but the Church’s teaching pushes Catholics to go beyond the most insular interpretations of the Benedict Option by entering into that aggressively secular order instead of just waiting for it to fall and then filling in the void.
Dreher understands the Benedict Option as being a response to a time of crisis, and the Church has much to say on the role of the laity in such times. The Council Fathers teach that the apostolate of the laity is needed most urgently when “new questions are being put and when grave errors aiming at undermining religion.” The laity are to “take on their distinctive task this renewal of the temporal order.”
John Paul speaks very forcefully about this. He says, “The lay faithful are never to relinquish their participation in ‘public life.’” Similarly bold is Cardinal Francis Arinze. In The Layperson’s Distinctive Role, he says that “if secularism, or the attempt to elbow God out of private and public life, is to be fought to a finish, then the involvement of convinced laypeople is indispensable.” Indeed, the laity should have special knowledge and expertise in matters that the clergy (and even the Pope) might not, such as in politics, law, medicine, science, education, and so on. The Pope might say that teachers need to be witnesses to Christ in the classroom, but it is the teachers who know best how to do that. As Cardinal Arinze says, “There are arenas where clerics are not called to function,” and it is in these arenas that the laity must work, in order to present a complete image of the Church to the world and so that God is not elbowed out of these arenas.
Dreher says, however, that the so-called “culture wars” have been lost, and that it is futile for Christians to continue to argue certain positions publicly, though they might continue to hold them. This seems to directly contradict the Church’s explicit teaching on lay activity in times of crisis. He says, for example, that federal politics are a lost cause, but that Christians should remain involved in local politics. He does not cede the political arena as a whole; indeed, he explicitly says that Christians cannot “afford to vacate the public square entirely.” Winning political battles, however, will not save anything, and so Christians should not put their trust in princes. For him, it is better to focus on achievable goals and to help the members of the community order their lives together, brick by brick. Dreher is not calling for complete quietism in times of crisis– after all, he’s still writing publicly to respond to a specific situation– but for strategic use of resources.
He also argues that it might be prudent for Christians to find jobs in the trades, rather than in other professions where adherence to certain social theories might be demanded. This, though it may initially appear to be ceding whole professional arenas to secularism, is more a matter of being able to keep one’s conscience clear, to be discerned on the individual level. If a lawyer can avoid burning incense to Caesar and is able to navigate the practice of law in accordance with his faith, there is no need the find a new career that will allow him to keep a clear conscience. Other people, however, may discern that a change of career is best for them. Dreher is not, therefore, so much ceding these professions to secularism as he is alerting individual Christians to their options and emphasizing the benefits of what might be less glamorous work.
And yet, this still seems to fall short of what the Church emphasizes so urgently: that the laity must respond visibly to crises. Even though Dreher is right to tell us not to put all our hope in political triumphs and to emphasize the various options available to the laity, he does little to reinforce Cardinal Arinze’s exhortation that the laity may not allow God to be elbowed out of public life; indeed, the Benedict Option, if a significant enough number of lay Christians were to discern that they cannot continue in their professions with a clear conscience, could end up enabling this exclusion, contrary to the Church’s call. Therefore, the Church’s teachings on the laity rein in the more extreme interpretations of the Benedict Option. Dreher tries to minimize the influence of these interpretations, but it is still essential for Catholics to keep in mind what the Church has long taught about participation in public life, that it is essential for Catholic laypersons to participate in public life to counteract anti-Christian beliefs.
Along these lines, a common criticism of the Benedict Option is that it seems to ignore evangelization. John O’Brien, S.J., for example, describes how Dreher “seems oblivious to Pope Francis’s call to go to the peripheries.” And indeed, when Dreher talks about peripheries, it tends to be in the context of Benedict Option Christians going there to find a place where they can live their faith without fear of interference. Dreher does not ignore evangelization altogether; he discusses evangelizing “with goodness and beauty” instead of with apologetics, quoting Pope Benedict XVI as saying that the saints are the “greatest apologetic for our faith,” and the very point of the Benedict Option is to make saints. Therefore, the idea seems to be that if the Benedict Option works to make holy men and women, evangelization will follow naturally, and so the more immediate question is how to make people holy.
It is also helpful to understand the Benedict Option in the context of John Paul’s statement:
Without doubt a mending of Christian fabric of society is urgently needed in all parts of the world. But for his to come about what is needed is to first remake the Christian fabric of the ecclesial community itself present in these communities.
Dreher is focused on how the laity can carry out that first step. The Benedict Option cannot be an end in itself, but must only be a first step and must be followed by moving outside the community, lest the community become a self-referential closed circle, to use Pope Benedict XVI’s image. Even Dreher’s image of an ark suggests that the Benedict Option is not the ultimate expression of Christian life, but only a temporary measure. As noted, some individual Catholics may need some shelter in which to flourish as Catholics, and John Paul acknowledges that there must be room for the communities to be remade. While Dreher says relatively little about charity work and evangelization, it seems to be something he takes for granted that Christians will do.
However, the obvious peril is that Benedict Option communities become obsessed with their own purity and therefore ostracize the sinners to whom Christians should be ministering. The danger is that the communities become so focused on the “perfect” Christian life that an outsider on the peripheries may see no way of entering that community or of being welcomed into it. What happens, for example, when a marriage breaks down? Will the community which wants to protect the institution of marriage still be able to support a broken family who clearly seem to be on the margins of the ideal Christian life or will this be considered a challenge to the ark’s survival that must be thrown overboard?
To avoid these traps, Catholics interested in the Benedict Option must remember Pope Francis’ call to go the margins, which does not have to be incompatible with the Benedict Option, but can balance its more insular elements. They must remember John Paul’s teaching that the remaking of the Christian fabric of the ecclesial community, which Dreher seeks to do, is only a first step and not an end in itself. It is only an ark.
Overall, the Benedict Option is, in broad terms, consonant with Catholic teachings on the laity. However, it is very easy to understand Dreher as calling for a withdrawal and idleness that the Church specifically rejects. It is easy to stop at the Benedict Option, thus falling short of what the Church actually calls for. Catholic readers need to understand the Benedict Option in the context of what the Church already teaches. Her teachings on the laity provide a balance to the more insular interpretations of what Dreher calls for. When one knows that the Church expects the laity to be in but not of the world, one has an easier time recognizing where Dreher is saying the same thing, instead of calling for a complete abandonment of the secular order.
While the Benedict Option may be a way of remaking ecclesial communities, as John Paul calls for, the body of the Church’s teachings on the laity implicitly exhorts laypersons to go beyond the Benedict Option’s mandate. This need not occur immediately; laypersons may need to prepare to do so, but it must happen. Christ gave His commission to go to all nations well before there was a Christian fabric to any of those nations in which the Apostles could operate. After that commission, the Apostles still waited in prayer for Pentecost to proclaim the Good News. Once they had had completed that time of prayer, they left their room. The Church will not return into that room, but does allow some of her members a little longer in retreat before they must leave.
Patrick Malone has a BA (Honors) in English literature and is a columnist at Catholic Stand, where he writes on faith, arts, and culture.