Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” (BenOp) is not novel, and the somewhat anticipated book-turned-bestseller regurgitating what Dreher has said on the BenOp over at his American Conservative web-log further confirms this truth. Ostensibly drawn from the closing section of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, the BenOp has been castigated as being everything from class-based posturing to heartless retreatism. Given the confusion circulating in both the positive and negative receptions of the book, it’s clear that Dreher has not penned a manual for Christian action so much as a hastily gathered collection of negative observations on contemporary American society coupled with broad, but ill-defined, calls for Christians to form intentional communities to preserve Western civilization. While Dreher is often generally correct in many of his negative assessments, the Eastern Catholic theologian and blogger Adam DeVille is uncomfortable with Dreher “fixat[ing] on same-sex marriage and gender issues to an unhealthy and unhelpful degree.” DeVille also joins a number of other critics in castigating Dreher for being tone-deaf to economic realities. Unlike Dreher, who lives comfortably off of popularizing derivative ideas, most Christians cannot afford to uproot and move to a paradisiacal Nowhere while planning their next oyster-and-wine vacation abroad.
Whatever one makes of these (and other) criticisms, the more constructive aspects of Dreher’s book sound remarkably similar to what the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), the traditional priestly fraternity founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, has been doing for nearly five decades. As noted, Dreher is calling for the establishment of serious and intentional Christian communities—which is exactly what the Society has been doing for decades. Locales such as Phoenix, Arizona, Post Falls, Idaho, and—perhaps most famously—St. Marys, Kansas are home to churches and educational institutions run by the SSPX which seek to preserve the Latin Catholic Church’s traditional doctrinal, theological, and liturgical patrimony. By being champions of the anti-liberal doctrines promulgated by the likes of Popes Pius IX (Syllabus Errorum), Leo XIII (Immortale Dei), and St. Pius X (E Supremi), the Society has never shied away from confronting the errors of liberalism, both within the Church and larger society. In relying on the time-honored wisdom of the Church, Archbishop Lefebvre and his fraternity foresaw the implosion of morals brought on by the banishment of Christ the King from public life and the persecutions that would befall Christians at the hands of secularists and Islamists alike. Rather than despair, Lefebvre and his spiritual children opted to fight. Despite repeated and unjustified sanctions by officials in Rome, not to mention an unyielding smear campaign kept up by liberal and so-called “conservative” Catholic writers, the SSPX continues to grow. Last fall, in rural Virginia, the Society opened a brand new seminary to house the influx of vocations pouring in—something which no Catholic diocese in America has been able to boast of in decades.
Beyond the aforementioned SSPX “strongholds,” the organization maintains a chain of chapels and schools across the United States (and, on a grander scale, around the world) that continue to thrive and expand by being serious and intentional Christian communities. More than serving as “Mass centers” for those tired of the banality of the Novus Ordo Missae, these foundations seek to instill true Catholic values in their attendees—values which the faithful are then expected to take out into the world with them. While the heart of the Society will always be the traditional Mass and full understanding of the sacramental priesthood, it is a heart that pumps the unadulterated Faith to an ever-expanding number of Catholics burnt-out on the false promises of liberalism. Even if some who regularly attend Society chapels may wish to maintain problematic fidelity to certain liberal outgrowths, there can be no denying that the message and mission of the SSPX points to an authentic horizon beyond liberalism, one where Christ the King reigns supreme and the final end of man is not earthly satisfaction but rather eternal beatitude with God.
Perhaps one reason Dreher omits discussing the SSPX in detail and acknowledging at length that it has long carried out the very thing he is proposing is because of the unfortunate (and ironic) anti-Catholic bias that Dreher still clings to. Dreher may have toned down the anti-Catholic polemics he became known for after defecting to Eastern Orthodoxy some years ago, but he rarely misses an opportunity to openly discuss some Catholic scandal or another while sidestepping those which exist within his own communion. The irony of this lies in the fact that Dreher depends so havily on Catholic thinkers, institutions, and publications for his ideas, audience, and—well—paycheck. It is doubtful that the BenOp book would have generated as much attention as it has had Catholic outlets such as First Things not given Dreher several forums to air his thoughts and generate hype. And it is hype that Dreher seems to want more than anything else given how proud he was that a secular, liberal outlet like the New York Times chose to place his book high on their Nonfiction Bestsellers List.
Another reason is that the SSPX is perhaps “too hot” for Dreher, a writer who claims to critique contemporary liberal culture while remaining deeply embedded within it. His primary forum, The American Conservative, is, more often than not, a paleoconservative outlet of mixed value that still clings to American democratic principles (“rightly understood”) as the solution to our collective malaise. Where Dreher wishes to curry favor with media elites who will draw attention to his book or give him free airtime, the SSPX is concerned with the highest law of the Church, namely the salvation of souls. While Dreher pays lipservice to monasticism, asceticism, and prayer, the Society’s priests, with few belongings, zigzag the country weekly in an attempt to meet the expanding demand for—you guessed it—serious and intentional Christianity, the sort sustained by the Church’s sacraments and sound catechesis. That should be the sort of serious and intentional Christianity Dreher wants, not the secularized and part-time Christianity found throughout large swathes of both American Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Given how good the SSPX has been about anticipating and fulfilling Dreher’s serious and intentional vision decades before he ever proposed it, perhaps the Society has grounds to sue him for copyright infringement.
In closing, I have every expectation that the buzz Dreher has generated by the BenOp will steadily fade as the conversation around it grows dull and Dreher moves onto another money-making project to pay for those sumptuous meals he photographs for his web-log. The SSPX, along with a handful of other serious and intentional Catholic institutions and orders, will carry on the work “to restore all things in Christ” without seeking to profit from sloganeering. At the same time, the situation in America will grow even more dire. Few of those celebrating the relative reprieve offered by the ascendency of Donald Trump to the Oval Office will do anything to build-up fresh bulwarks against liberalism, and certainly nothing short of a spiritual revolution will defeat the culture of relativism, hedonism, and death that reigns over men in the place of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Truly, only God can save us.