Some Options

There has been a lot of talk about “Options” around the Christian water cooler as of late. In an earlier post, “Projects, Seeing, and Options,” I offered some remarks on Orthodox journalist Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” which, as I understand it, calls for a retreat from the world in order to preserve what is left of Christian—and by extension classical—civilization. C.C. Pecknold, a professor of theology at Catholic University of America, has written over at First Things about what he calls the “Dominican Option.” Unlike Dreher’s proposal, Pecknold’s eschews retreatism in favor of engagement built on two pillars: “the right pattern of formation and evangelistic witness.” Which will win out? Or will both amount to little more than vacuous sloganeering?

I ask those questions not to denigrate the sincere desire of Dreher and Pecknold to chart a course for 21st C. Christian living in a world which grows more hostile toward the Gospel with each passing day, but rather to begin reflecting on whether either pathway is, in the final analysis, feasible or desirable. To be honest, I don’t have the answers available to me at the moment; this is, in a significant way, “new terrain” for me. However, my first instinct is to prefer the Dominican Option for the simple fact that we are called to be the light of the world. The Benedict Option seems too quick to reach for the bushel basket. At the same time, however, the Dominican Option presupposes something which no Christian, and certainly no Catholic, can take for granted: the availability of a “right pattern of formation.”

The hard truth in today’s Church is that most of the faithful are grossly under-catechized. Catholics have, in large part, lost a proper sense of what their earthly pilgrimage is for and why the Church is not, as a certain prejudice would have it, an extremely large, transnational social-service NGO. If Catholics themselves fail to understand that above all they need Christ and the Salvation He has promised to those who take up their crosses and follow Him, what is the point of “evangelistic witness”? What are we, as Catholics, trying to convert our fellow men and women to? There are plenty of ways in pluralistic America for people to fulfill what are superficially referred to as “spiritual needs”; what does the one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church have to offer them which no other (false) religion has? If American Catholics cannot answer that question and answer it boldly, then evangelistic witness is ultimately a waste of time.

Please note that despite my choice of words, I do not mean to imply that the Catholic Church should make “sales pitches” to would-be entrants (or fallen away souls) that are self-consciously in competition with what, for instance, the Seventh Day Adventists or the Muslims are “selling.” When it comes to truth, there is no competition. At the same time, though, if the Catholic Church, and specifically the Church in America, is unwilling to state, fully and forcefully, the consequences of denying her and the means to Salvation which God provides to His creation, then I dare say that aside from some marginal (and I do mean marginal) aesthetic enjoyment and soft existential comfort, Catholicism is bereft of purpose in these lands. And if that is the case, then what point is there in engaging the wider culture and reforming it along broadly Catholic lines? That engagement needs to mean more than just reforming tastes and sensibilities.

As for the Benedict Option, there may be something particularly attractive about it to contemporary American Orthodox Christians who, whether they like it or not, have been forced to settle for a ghetto existence despite being given a disproportionally high seat at the theological discussion table from time to time. While many American Orthodox like to see themselves as either opponents of or living beyond the horizon of the rapidly degenerating “West,” they do have a knack for jealously guarding what they perceive to be their unique “Byzantine” or, more broadly and ambiguously, “Eastern” patrimony. “The West,” which includes contemporary America, is an alien entity. A mindset of retreat-and-preserve comes more easily to the Orthodox than it does to most Catholics and mainline Protestants. If American Orthodox see any wellspring of renewal in the world, it lies across one ocean or another. America, along with the wider geo-political landscape of which it is a part, remains hopelessly lost.

There is much more to be said on this topic, and I shall do so in due course.