Review: What is the responsibility of every Christian in society today? “The Benedict Option” and the Donatist heresy.

The Benedict OptionOn the 14th of March 2017, a book entitled The Benedict Option was published in the United States, which then sparked a great debate [1]. The book’s name refers to St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480- † 547 A.D.). David Brooks of The New Yorker defined the book as “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade” [2]. The book basically attempts to advance a course of action for the Christian faithful and their communities not only in safeguarding their principles and their religious traditions, but also prosper within an extremely secularised society. It is therefore worthwhile taking the time to ponder over this book so as to get the measure of it.

The author of the book is Rod Dreher, a 51 year old American writer, editor and journalist for The American Conservative magazine, he also contributes to magazines and newspapers such as National Review and The Wall Street Journal. Dreher, in “The Benedict Option”, appears to suggest that Christians, within “local” and “small” communities, should prepare themselves to live in a post-Christian society, operating as a “parallel polis“, capable of “exercising the virtues” as a “counter-cultural” force within a world that is now noticeably and at times  vehemently rejecting Christianity.

The author has the merit of analysing the problem of Christian life in the face of the challenges of growing world secularisation. Dreher is commendable, his intent on imagining a modern world which is non individualistic but a communal life is very commendable. Equally commendable is his desire to give a Christian witness. The “option” of Dreher is a kind of re-adaptation of the rule and the charism of St. Benedict in our time.

Inspired by After Virtue (1981) by Alasdair MacIntyre, Dreher bases the “Benedict Option” on a narrative that interprets the history of the past and our present time. The “dark ages” following the fall of the Roman Empire are put in parallel and our presumed post-Christian era. According to Dreher, in founding his monastic Order St Benedict “responded” to the “collapse of Roman civilisation“. That response consisted in the recreation of small communities of virtuous men, in which civilisation would be preserved to prosper in later times [3].

In this sense, the author maintains, with a certain stylistic finesse, that Christians in the West should “separate” from the “official order“, without however departing completely from society. This is not about building a “closed community“. Rather, Dreher insists on the construction of “common practices” and “institutions” that are able to “overthrow” the “isolation” experienced by the communities of faithful Christians today [4].

Even if the “Benedict Option” could be acceptable within contemporary American society, it certainly seems to be based on a very simplified and debatable narration of the Benedictine charism. According to Dreher, “Benedict’s political option starts with recognising that Western society is post-Christian” [5]. And he bases this option in our time, not only by interpreting contemporary Western societies as the beginning of an “obscure post-Christian era“, but also by stating that the rule of St. Benedict is a response to paganism [6].

The risk of a “small group”

However, it must also be said that the father of Western monasticism, despite the original elements of his rule, has become part of a pre-existing tradition. Cenobitic monasticism appeared and flourished not primarily as a “response” to the fall of the Roman Empire in the dark barbarian age, but during the imperial Christian era, soon after the end of the persecution of the early Church.

In fact, just as before him, Pachomius and Basil, St. Benedict did not act in a reactive way, in response to the uncultivated pagans who were destroying the Empire [7], but in continuity with the so-called “tradition of white martyrdom” . The cenobite monks sought a way to offer their lives to God, in a later historical context different from that of the primitive Church of the martyrs.

The proponents of the “Benedict Option“, as already described, tend to see an analogy between the dark ages that followed the Roman era and our society. It is difficult to remain indifferent to the “apocalyptic” tone with which Dreher expounds his thesis. The “dark ages” of our time, the inevitability of becoming “poorer” and “more marginalized“, the need to learn from the opponents of the communist tyranny in Czechoslovakia, the use of terms such as “anti-political policies” or “parallel polis“», The prediction of losing “careers” due to subtle “persecutions“, the underlining of the damages of technology, of the internet and of sexual libertine practice … all these statements are made within the narration of a persecuted Church, analogous to what happened to the first martyrs.

If it is true that contemporary Christians can learn from the Benedictine rule and adapt it to current times, it is also true that exalting the reality of persecution could entail a risk: that of perceiving one’s “small group” as the true and better Church of the others. Ultimately, this is the risk of arrogance, connected to an ecclesial sin against unity and communion.

The Donatist temptation and the reaction of Augustine

This was precisely the temptation of the Donatist heresy. The “donatist’s” were a religious movement born in Africa, circa 311 A.D., from the ideas of the bishop of Numidia Donatus Magnus of Casae Nigrae. It was born in an age of persecution. Donato made a harsh criticism of those bishops who had not resisted the persecutions of Diocletian and who had handed over the sacred books to the Roman magistrates. According to the followers of Donato, the sacraments administered by these bishops would not have been valid. This position presupposed, therefore, that the sacraments did not work in themselves, but that their validity depended on the dignity of those who administered them.

As noted by the theologian Fr. Yves Marie-Joseph Congar O.P., the Donatists exalted the act of martyrdom, tended to rigidity and moral purity, and manifested a strong hostility towards secular authorities and institutions [8]. For the Donatists, the persecution of the Church has been an important criterion for corroborating its belonging to the true Church of Christ. In fact, they were proud of being persecuted and felt connected to the Church of the martyrs. It should be added that this sentiment was entirely justified by the violent opposition that the imperial authorities had unleashed against them [9].

St. Augustine opposed their sacramental theology, citing Cyprian – the great martyr praised by the schismatics – in order to show that martyrdom and, in general, persecution are fruitful only when required by grace and lived in union with the Church. According to the bishop of Hippo, unity, charity and humility are intrinsically linked to each other. Therefore, those who are schismatic fall into an ecclesial sin, breaking unity (and, consequently, charity and humility) [10]. For Augustine, the great sin of the schismatics would be that of pride or arrogance: the belief that one is right in opposition to all the others, thus destroying communion.

On the one hand, Augustine proposes a more articulate and cohesive theology of that of the Donatists, showing them that the only persecutions could not attest to their fidelity to the Church of Christ: charity and humility are indispensable for seeking unity. On the other hand, he seems to find a coherent way to praise the martyrdom of the early Church, while at the same time managing to adapt the Church’s practices and traditions to the new historical epoch.

At the end of this controversy, the Church chose to reintegrate these traditores, after some penance,  rather than drive them away [11].

When rigidity is at the cost of unity and peace

Without, of course, falling into heresy, in Dreher we can see the echoes of Donato’s voice: “If today’s Churches want to survive the new dark age, they must stop ‘being normal’. We will need to engage more deeply in our faith, and we will need to do it in ways that appear strange to contemporary eyes. If we rediscover the past, if we recover liturgical worship and asceticism, if we focus our lives on the ecclesial community and if we strengthen the discipline of the Church, we will succeed, with God’s grace, to return that special people we should always have been. This focus on Christian formation will not only result in stronger Christians, but also a new evangelisation, because salt will regain its taste.” [12].

In their desire to identify themselves with the primitive Church of the persecuted martyrs, the Donatists did not accept a different way of living and practicing faith. Even in the new historical context, in which the persecution was over, they felt that their persecuted being gave confirmation of their being true and good Christians. In doing so, those schismatic Christians constituted a small party of “pure people“. By contrasting integer to profanus as the main difference between those ‘who did‘ and those ‘who did not‘ belong to the Church, the Donatists tended to admit only irreproachable members.

A firm reply from Augustine

To their rigidity and to the emphasis on asceticism, Augustine gave some answers that can be very useful to reread today. The Bishop of Hippo makes two distinctions, which the Donatists were not able to do. In the first place, it distinguishes between the present historical Church and the future eschatological Church. The pure Church, made up only of irreprehensible men, comes true at the end of time in the ecclesia qualis future est. Now, in the present age, God is patient and allows different kinds of men and women to participate in the ecclesia talis nunc est. The present Church is pro mixta societas, or a society mixed with good and bad people. A Church is made up of the best and worst (or the not so virtuous) believers. [13]

While Dreher’s “Benedict Option” seeks to build communities in which discipline is “strengthened“, in order to ensure a Christianity that is supposed to be truer and healthier, Augustine’s writings addressed to the Donatists underline other aspects such as example, patience towards sinners, also in consideration of the value of maintaining communion.

Augustine notes the arrogance of those who want to separate the good from the bad, the “right” from the “unjust” before the opportune time. In this context he asks for “humility“, “patience” and “tolerance“. Humility appears to be a fundamental Christian virtue, without which unity and communion are not possible within the mystical body of Christ. The Bishop of Hippo relies heavily on the authority of Cyprian, and shows how this martyr attempted to accept different opinions in order to maintain the unity of the Church. [14]

The “Benedict Option” does not automatically imply the arrogance that Augustine perceived in the attitude of the Donatists. However, the appeal for a “strengthening of discipline in the Church” echoes the Donatist moral rigidity. Moreover, the desire to build small communities of “strong Christians” could erase the importance of Christian virtues such as humility, patience and tolerance – which stand out in Augustine’s writings -, compromising the communion among believers and the formation of peace relations in the world.

The emphasis on “purity” and the hostility toward secular institutions

A further characteristic of the Donatist attitude that greatly struck the Dominican theologian Fr. Yves Marie-Joseph Congar O.P., concerns the hostility towards secular institutions. The Donatists tended to refuse to collaborate with the authorities of the Empire, which represented pagan powers for them. In their theological perspective, the purity of a Christian practice implied the refusal to participate, collaborate or engage with the pagans in their non-Christian institutions.

In this sense, the Donatists were indeed a “parallel polis“. On the contrary, Catholics like Augustine remained linked to some imperial institutions and felt compelled to consider the Donatists as schismatic Christians.

This emphasis on purity, as a precaution against any contamination from any element external to the Christian environment, is connected to the interpretation that the donatists gave the theological concept of “catholicity“. According to them, “Catholic” indicated perfection and sacramental fullness. In this sense, the Donatists believed that “true Catholicism” was limited only to their small local Church in North Africa.

Following Otto’s theology, Augustine proposed another interpretation of “catholicity“, highlighting universality as the unity of the whole Church as the mystical body of Christ [15]. He insisted that local Churches throughout the world should be in communion in order to realise Bible prophecies regarding the effectiveness of the proclamation of Christ’s Resurrection. [16]

All in all, Augustine’s argument sought to show that the Donatists, even if they had been more virtuous than all the other Christian faithful, could never have had the exclusive of the true Church. He wanted to make it clear that isolating himself from other Christians and from society in general was not a positive sign.

Although Dreher does not advocate the isolation of Christian communities, his “Benedict option” requires “separation” from political powers and secular institutions, to the point of developing life as much as possible within Christian institutions, in which Christian entrepreneurs they mainly employ workers belonging to their own Churches [17]. Furthermore, the emphasis placed on the negative aspects of technology and the internet can be understood as a warning not to be contaminated by pagan culture. Thus, this option could “close” the Christian communities.

In this sense, for Dreher, the principle of defence of religious freedom serves to establish the possibility of existing and acting for institutions that conform to the “Benedict Option“. Dreher is not interested in establishing a real dialogue with those who have a different cultural and religious background and follow different lifestyles. It is difficult even to imagine a possibility of collaboration with people of different options.

Consequently, a pessimistic view of contemporary society weighs on the “Benedict Option“. Although the affirmation of religious freedom is essential, if Christians are to be able to practice their faith, Dreher does not seem interested in showing the importance of true dialogue, which springs from the human dignity from which all liberties derive. Although the Internet may be “the most radical, destructive and revolutionary technology” that a Christian must avoid and limit, especially for children [18], Dreher’s option does not propose a way of life within this new “place” and to evangelise it.

Looking at the Donatist controversy, it is clear that the option of Augustine, in particular, and the Catholic Church, in general, are not designed to establish distinctions between being a good citizen and being a good Christian. Naturally, as Christians, we must be cautious in collaborating with people and with secular institutions. We can refer to Dreher’s metaphor: Christians should not “burn incense to Caesar” [19]. However, finding ways that “do not compromise” our Christian “consciences“, in the context of the “Benedict option“, risks preventing the development of healthy relations with all men of good will and social commitment together with them. Proper attention to the devotions of popular religiosity and a propensity for open dialogue outside the Church seem to justify, at least, options other than Dreher’s.

And what about social injustices?

The “Benedict Option” also runs the risk of “establishing” (or “re-establishing“) strong Christian communities and practices at the expense of organised social assistance. Obviously, Christian practices and institutions should not be reduced to “NGO” style social activities. However, this does not mean that Christian practices and institutions can remain indifferent to the poor and the most marginalised in Western society and, indeed, throughout the world.

According to Yves Congar, the Donatists did not care much about social injustice [20]. Dreher’s book seems to find a way to safeguard, animate and activate Christian practices, but it is not easy to see how such practices can take into account the “preferential option for the poor“.

In the context of increasing globalisation, Christian faithful could opt for the expansion of their relations with other communities, even outside their Churches, in order to increase synergies for the construction of peace and justice. This could also be a way to live, practice and witness Christian virtues and true faith.

The importance of humility and mercy

Dreher states that “the Benedict option must ultimately be a matter of love” [21]. No one who recognises himself in the Christian tradition could disagree with this statement. And yet the “Benedict Option” is not immune to the recurring risks inherent in moral rigidity and countercultural forces. The main risk of such attitudes concerns the lack of communion, unity and peace within the Church and with the society in which we live.

For Pope Francis’, mercy is “the message of Jesus“, “it is the strongest message of the Lord” [22]. If Augustine disapproved of the rigidity that the Donatists adopted at the expense of the Church’s unity, even today Pope Francis is working to introduce more merciful practices to the wounds and difficulties that contemporary men and women experience. This spiritual attitude can not be reduced to a political strategy: it has a biblical and theological foundation.

Answering to Peter that asks him how many times the disciple should forgive, Jesus says: «I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times.» (Matthew 18:22). After having said this, Jesus recounts the parable of the “ruthless servant“, who, despite having received the forgiveness of his master, is unable to forgive his neighbour. In the end, he is condemned by his master (cf. Matthew 18:23-35).

For the Pope, “the parable contains a profound teaching for each of us. Jesus affirms that mercy is not only the action of the Father, but becomes the criterion for understanding who his true sons are“. [23] Perhaps, in the effort to re-establish “small” communities in which members are “strong” Christians and act as a sort of “parallel society“, believers may deviate from this criterion. Faced with God and the whole world, Christians must be credible in witnessing to God’s merciful nature, making it possible to experience it within Christian institutions.

There is no doubt that secularism is a great challenge and in some cases even a threat for Christian communities today. Pope Francis seems to be responding to the secularisation of the modern world with a perceivably humble attitude, with dialogue followed by gestures of goodness and greater understanding towards all [well nearly all as there are still many marginalised religious groups today]: perhaps this is one evangelical “option” open to today’s Christians.

[1].  R. Dreher, The Benedict Option. A Strategy for Christians in a Post-­Christian Nation, New York, Sentinel, 2017.

[2].  J. Rothman, «Rod Dreher’s monastic vision», in The New Yorker, 1st may 2017.

[3].  Cf. R. Dreher, The Benedict Option…, op. cit., 2-4; 16-18.

[4].  Cf. op. cit., 88-96.

[5].  op. cit., 12 s.

[6].  One could say that Alasdair MacIntyre’s appeal to “another Saint Benedict, undoubtedly very different” is formulated in the context of the contrast between two moral traditions: the liberal and the Aristotelian. While he tries to show the intelligibility and the possibility of the second, he proposes the example of St. Benedict. In this sense, MacIntyre’s perspective assumes that there are virtuous non-Christian men and communities. Moreover, he is aware of the dangers inherent in the parallel between our age and the fall of the Roman Empire. In fact, he also recognises that the parallelism between the dark pagan age following the fall of the Roman Empire and our contemporary Western society tends to be too simplistic: “It is always risky to trace too precise parallels between one historical period and another, and between more misleading than such parallels are those that have been traced between our age in Europe and North America and the era in which the Roman Empire declined towards the dark ages” (A. MacIntyre, Dopo la virtù. Saggio di teoria morale, Rome, Armando, 2007, 314).

[7].  Cf. M. Dunn, The Emergence of Monasticism. From the Desert Fathers to the Early Middle Ages, Oxford, Blackwell, 2003.

[8].  Cf. Y. Congar, «Introduction générale aux traités anti-donatistes de Saint Augustin», in Œuvres de Saint Augustin. Traités anti-donatistes. Vol. I, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1963, 29 s.

[9].  Cf. op. cit., 17; 45.

[10]. Cf. Augustine, On Baptism Against the Donatists, l. II, 4-6.

[11]. This confirms the vision that Pope Francis has of the history of the Church: “Two logics follow the whole history of the Church: marginalising and reintegrating […]. The path of the Church, from the Council of Jerusalem onwards, is always that of Jesus: of mercy and of integration” (Amoris laetitia [AL], No. 296). On the controversy with the Donatists, see also J. L. Narvaja, “Sant’Agostino a proposito della Tradizione e dello sviluppo del Dogma“, in Civ. Catt. 2017 I 390-400.

[12]. R. Dreher, The Benedict Option…, op. cit., 101 s.

[13]. Cf. Y. Congar, «Introduction générale aux traités anti-donatistes de Saint Augustin», op. cit., 62-64; 95 s.

[14]. Cf. Agostino, Sul battesimo contro i Donatisti, l. IV, 12-13; l. VI, 2; 7; 35.

[15]. Cf. Y. Congar, «Introduction générale aux traités anti-donatistes de Saint Augustin», op. cit., 77 s.

[16]. Cf. Agostino, s., Sul battesimo contro i Donatisti, l. I, 4.

[17]. Cf. R. Dreher, The Benedict Option…, op. cit., 176-194.

[18]. Cf. op. cit., 218-236.

[19]. op. cit., 179 s.

[20]. Cf. Y. Congar, «Introduction générale aux traités anti-donatistes de Saint Augustin», cit., 35.

[21]. R. Dreher, The Benedict Option…, cit., 237.

[22]. Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy, Milano, Piemme, 2016.

[23]. Pope Francis., The Face of Mercy: Misericordiae Vultus: Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy by Pope Francis, Pauline Books 11 April 2015, n. 9.