Recently, over at that great forum of learned and calm disputation known as Facebook, my friend Conor Dugan posted a link to his recent review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option for Catholic World Report. Although I disagree with some of Dugan’s comments on the book, I am not interested in critiquing it. In response to Dugan’s post, Dreher himself wrote the following: “I do not mind at all constructive criticism, or any kind of criticism, as long as it challenges what I actually wrote in the book. But so many of these reviews don’t even do that. It’s bizarre. I wonder why that is?” This prompted me to write the following reply (to which I expect no answer to):
Because, in all fairness, much of what you wrote is derivative and seems divorced from the intellectual moorings you wanted it to have. Also keep in mind that no matter how much time goes on, people won’t forget the manner in which you left the Catholic Church; besmirched the Catholic Church for years in your writings; and yet repair to Catholicism whenever you need to add some heft to your positions (heft which you apparently cannot find from the Orthodox).
As I have noted elsewhere, people have been doing what you are now marketing for years—decades even. It’s not new. It doesn’t require a catchy title. And unlike what you are proposing, these folks—particularly traditional Catholic communities such as the one found in St. Mary’s, Kansas — aren’t backing down or retreating from the world. They are working — to quote St. Pius X’s motto—”to restore all things in Christ.” There is very little of that restorationist spirit in your book.
Please understand that I am saying this in all honesty and charity. While I would agree that some criticisms of your book have been uncharitable, I think in your understandable desire to defend yourself, you are overlooking some of the “meta” issues surrounding your work.
Although an argument could be made that Dreher’s confessional leanings should not affect the reception of his work, the truth of the matter is that he does strike a lot of people, particularly Catholics, as an opportunist who leans heavily on the Catholic tradition (or, at least, his own interpretation of it) while simultaneously rejecting the Church which gave birth to it. Moreover, Dreher appears to be insensitive to the fact that there are those in the West—including Catholics—who oppose Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church not out of some naïve love for secular liberalism but because of Russia’s longstanding and ongoing history of aggression toward the Catholic Church.
For instance, Dreher is quick to defend Russia from its Western critics, but fails to take note of Russia’s illegal actions in Crimea and east Ukraine, including backing the persecution of Greek Catholics in the region. While Dreher recently opined that he “bristle[s]… at restrictions on religious liberty in Russia, in particular on the freedom of minority forms of Christianity,” he quickly writes this off as little more than an expression of his “Westernized view of how religion relates to society.” Now that Dreher is apparently cognizant of this, does that mean he now realizes that his “Westernized view” is wrong and that, as an Orthodox Christian, he should adopt the “Russian view”? That’s all fine and well if he does, but he should realize that by aligning with the ideology of the Russian state and its vassal church, Dreher places himself directly at odds with Catholicism—the very thing he needs above all else to advance his idea (or career).
There is more. As already noted above and elsewhere on this web-log, Dreher’s “Benedict Option” brand has been chided as derivative, incomplete, and retreatist. There are Catholic communities all over the world which have been living out what Dreher calls the “Benedict Option” for decades, and none of them saw fit to promote themselves through blogs, TV appearances, and book deals. They are simply working and living as they are supposed to be—in accordance with the timeless principles of the Catholic Church. And even those who find it impossible to relocate to an intentional Catholic community still find it possible to practice their faith without succumbing to the machinations of secular liberalism. And so it shouldn’t be difficult to see why Catholics might be put off that Dreher—an unapologetic rejecter of Catholicism—is hijacking their way of life in order to fill his bank account.
While some lines of criticism against The Benedict Option book do miss the mark (particularly those lines of criticism coming from liberal Christians), I do believe that in Dreher’s race to defend himself from all charges, he overlooks why so many Catholics are unsympathetic to his various projects. What can he do to correct that situation? One might hope, at the very least, that he publicly repents of the ways in which he has uncharitably attacked the Catholic Church since his departure more than a decade ago. I don’t see that happening, however, but with God all things are possible.