St Augustine might have had doubts about the Benedict Option

Saint Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne, 1650

What are we to make of the Benedict Option proposed by Rod Dreher? Some years ago I wrote a book which examined, among other things, a similar idea from an American academic called Hugo Tristam Englehardt, who advocated the foundation of what he called “moral exclaves”. I was not convinced by Englehardt, whose books I have read, and I am not convinced by what I read of Dreher now.

I have not read Dreher’s book, but he has summarised his thesis in various places, including here. The idea is not a total withdrawal, but rather a “strategic retreat” from the world, a sort of reculer pour mieux sauter, a withdrawal in order to regroup: “Take one step back to prepare ourselves to take three steps forward.” But even that seems unlikely to have appealed to, say, St Augustine, who provides us with an excellent counter-argument in The City of God (Book XIX, chapter 17):

This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in the manners, laws, and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognising that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace. It therefore is so far from rescinding and abolishing these diversities, that it even preserves and adopts them, so long only as no hindrance to the worship of the one supreme and true God is thus introduced. Even the heavenly city, therefore, while in its state of pilgrimage, avails itself of the peace of earth, and, so far as it can without injuring faith and godliness, desires and maintains a common agreement among men….

No hint of moral exclaves or strategic retreat from the world here! And don’t forget, Augustine was writing in the aftermath of the sack of Rome in 410.

The Scriptural case for “moral exclaves” could be based on 2 Corinthians 6:17 – “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord” (which is quoted in the Harrison Ford film, Witness, set in an Amish community). But there are numerous other scriptural tags which say exactly the opposite: for example, the city built on a hilltop, and what Jesus says about his disciples being a light for the world (Matthew 5: 13-16). Moreover, in the world and not of it was clearly the way of Jesus Christ: how else can you understand the Incarnation?

The Benedict Option draws its inspiration from Saint Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. But in the Rule of Saint Benedict, the monastery wall was never meant to be an impermeable barrier, nor has it been in practice in the history of the order. Monks have always received guests, and have from the start been missionaries.

Flight from the world is not a Catholic thing, simply because we believe that the world is a good place, created by God, and that human reason is intrinsically valuable. Indeed love of Creation and trust in human reason both help us on our way to salvation in Christ.

Both Englehardt and Dreher are former Catholics who have joined the Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy has a long history of distrust in the world and distrust in human reason. Catholics, however, should fear neither. Augustine and Aquinas certainly didn’t.

The Church and the world co-exist, and this is for the benefit of the world, but for the benefit of the Church as well. A Church which took the Benedict Option – the practicalities of which are far from clear, as Dreher’s recent Catholic Herald interview shows – would soon cease to be a coherent Church. For the Church of Christ, while counter-cultural, should not be confused with a protest group.