The Church has lied about herself for 2,000 years, says Dreher. And yet even Archbishop Georg Gänswein, prefect of the papal household and still the personal secretary to Benedict XVI, has nothing but praise for Dreher and his book, at least . Then again, over the past fifty years prelates at the summits of the Church have been doing their very best to prove Christ a liar and Dreher right. And Dreher is only too happy to help them put the lie to Christ.
The Benedict Option, accordingly, dispenses with the divinely ordained unicity of the Catholic Church in favor of yet another variation on the postconciliar theme of pan-Christianity. This one involves small communities and assorted churches informed in some vague way by the Rule of Benedict—Dreher never really explains how—but with each retaining its own version of the Gospel under an umbrella Dreher describes as “theologically traditional Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians.”
In other words, Christians who contradict each other left and right on doctrine and praxis, above all the Protestants whose so-called churches are human inventions all of which are progeny of the original rebellion by the drunken, maniacal monk of Wittenberg. Nowhere in Dreher’s proposal is there even a hint that the salvation of souls depends upon the sacrificing priesthood, the seven sacraments and membership in the one and only Church that Christ founded. Any sort of “traditional” Christianity will do.
First of all, however, some credit where credit is due. Dreher’s book is not without useful commentary on the state of our civilization, including Chapter 10, Man and Machine, a worthy examination of the evils of the Internet and digital tech in general. There is also a certain amount of sound generic advice, hardly original to Dreher, on Christian living—from which, however, he carefully excludes any suggestion that the Catholic Church and her sacraments might have something to do with salvation.
But whatever limited value the book may have, its operative gimmick is nonsense. The Rule of Benedict is a landmark in salvation history that could never have been conceived, much less faithfully applied, outside the womb of the Catholic Church. Saint Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism, was a prodigious contributor to the Church’s work in building a liturgical civilization precisely and only upon herself as the divinely ordained spiritual matrix of social order, including a body politic coextensive with the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ. Indeed, when it comes time for Dreher to demonstrate by way of conclusion exactly how the Benedict Option would work in practice, his examples are drawn from the very Church he has abandoned: the monks of Norcia and Tipi Lorschi, a lay community recommended by the monks, which is dedicated to the memory of Blessed Giorgio Frassati.
On reading the book one is stuck by the rather cunning way in which Dreher’s weaves his professed admiration for certain things Catholic—including, of course, the Rule of Benedict— into an implicit brief for a total rejection of the Church’s necessity for salvation. He says a lot of nice things about the Church he has proclaimed a liar concerning her most fundamental claims. Here too, however, Dreher tries to have it both ways. As to the scandals in Church history he is only too happy to enumerate as excuses for defecting, : “Strictly speaking, none of those things negate the truth claims of the Church. But they can have the effect of making it difficult to impossible to take those truth claims seriously.” In other words, the Church might be telling the truth, but, really, who can believe it? Or stated otherwise: You can believe the Church if you want to, but pray tell, why would you?
Rise of a Christianoid Digital Prophet
Some have argued that Dreher is not the problem. Leave him be! On the contrary, he is very much a part of the problem. His blogosphere polemics defending his defection from the Church and his endless petty broadsides against Catholic “triumphalism” and “rad trads” are the only reason the world has paid him and his book so much attention. At the same time, within the Church, his antipathy toward traditionalists serves a longstanding neo-Catholic polemic that has spent the past half-century explaining away the post-conciliar debacle—the very debacle Dreher cites as justification for his defection to Orthodoxy! Dreher cannot simply be ignored, as much as we would prefer to ignore his shallow polemics, for the very Internet whose evils he himself warns against has made him the digital prophet of a post-Catholic Christianity that merely borrows elements from the Church he has left behind in his endlessly publicized spiritual quest.
By abandoning the Church on the pretext of corruption in her human element, Dreher has given us, not the Benedict Option, but the Luther Option, which involves picking and choosing whatever one likes from the Catholic treasury and dispensing with the rest, just as Luther did in concocting his new religion. “Once, during my Catholic days, I was complaining with a Catholic friend about how terrible the teaching was in parish life” writes Dreher in The Benedict Option (p.104). During his “Catholic days,” he says—as if jumping out of the Ark of Salvation into the heaving sea of the multiform Orthodox schism were of no more consequence than cancelling a health club membership because the expected results were not obtained.
In short, Dreher radically rejects the Benedict Option he purports to promote. How does he get away with this? We can consider his success, even among sincere Catholics, as a sign of the very civilizational crisis he can only pretend to address because at its origin lies exactly what Dreher himself exemplifies: the refusal to accept the divine claims on both men and nations by the Church that Christ founded, purchased with His Blood, and launched on a mission to save the world. To quote in this regard:
No, Venerable Brethren, We must repeat with the utmost energy in these times of social and intellectual anarchy when everyone takes it upon himself to teach as a teacher and lawmaker – the City cannot be built otherwise than as God has built it; society cannot be setup unless the Church lays the foundations and supervises the work; no, civilization is not something yet to be found, nor is the New City to be built on hazy notions; it has been in existence and still is: it is Christian civilization, it is the Catholic City. It has only to be set up and restored continually against the unremitting attacks of insane dreamers, rebels and miscreants
A “miscreant” who “takes it upon himself to teach as a teacher and lawmaker” might be seen as an apt description of Dreher the defiant, traditionalist-bashing ex-Catholic, who, it must be said, is only one of the innumerable Internet-enabled Christianoid gurus who populate the anomic digital landscape.
Now Dreher is no simpleton, even if that he lived “primarily as an intellectual within the church” might invite derision. So, he must know that the dilemma in which he has placed himself by defecting from the Church extinguishes his own advocacy of an alternative pan-Christianity. The Catholic Church is either divinely founded or it isn’t. If it is, Dreher can have no valid or even rational explanation for leaving it, no matter what the level of corruption in its merely ephemeral human element, and thus no ground on which to propose a Benedict Option that is not simply and only an undertaking for Catholic restoration—exactly the undertaking of Saint Benedict. For if God founded a Church, then that Church is the only Church worthy of the name and the only one to which anyone who calls himself a Christian must belong.
But if the Church isn’t divinely founded, then Christ, who declared that he was founding a Church, is not who he said he was but rather a liar. In which case, the Apostles, saints and Doctors of the Church are all the false prophets of a false religion and Dreher would have nothing to promote but a collection of beliefs and practices ultimately derived from human wisdom with no greater claim to acceptance than Confucianism. He would be left only with the Moses Option or the Unknown God whose altar Saint Paul encountered at the Aeropagus. And Paul, by the way, would be no saint but only the deluded follower of a mere man who founded a merely human institution that merely calls him a saint.
Here we encounter the deception Dreher does a pretty good job of hiding: He appropriates certain goods of the Church in order to advance a polemic which conduces to the conclusion that the very Church from which he has filched them lies about herself, which would mean that she could not possibly be the Church that God Incarnate founded to preach His Gospel infallibly and that her goods are untrustworthy. Dreher implicitly relies upon the very credibility of the Church at the same time he denies it. The same deception lies at the heart of Protestant heresy and Orthodox schism and heresy.
These insuperable difficulties aside, what Dreher has cobbled together is nothing but an ecumenical reprise of Robert Nisbet’s American-style “conservative” pluralism (cf. The Quest for Community) to which Dreher gratuitously tacks on the Rule of Benedict. Let his own words make the point:
“… I will explain how the Christian virtues embodied in the sixth-century Rule of Saint Benedict, a monastic guidebook that played a powerful role in preserving Christian culture throughout the so-called Dark Ages, can help all believers today.”
“…I will discuss how the way of Christian living prescribed by the Rule can be adapted to the lives of modern conservative Christians of all churches and confessions.”
“… I will detail how they [the insights of the Rule] manifest themselves in the lives of a diverse number of Christians who have lessons to teach the entire church.”
“Benedict Option churches will find ways within their own traditions to take on practices, liturgical and otherwise, for the sake of deepening their commitment to Christ by building a thick Christian culture.”
“…Benedict Option believers will break down the conceptual walls that keep God safely confined in a church-shaped compartment.”
In sum, Dreher repackages the same failed “ecumenical venture” of the past sixty years and peddles it under the brand name Benedict Option®. The Church that Christ founded is invited to pile into the ecumenical Big Top with all the other “Benedict Option churches,” but only on the understanding that none of them, especially the one Dreher has deserted, can claim infallibly to possess the whole truth in matters of faith and morals. Thus does Dreher propose not only the Luther Option but also the Locke Option as enunciated in Locke’s Essay and Letter concerning his “Law of Toleration.”
But, again, let Dreher (from his to Father Richard Munkelt, discussed below):
I retain respect (and affection!) for the Roman Catholic Church not because it is in any sense “the best,” but because I believe that in its teachings, rites, and practices, it retains more of the truth than any other Western church….
Yet I do have a strong aversion to conceiving of comparative ecclesiology in terms of “best” and “worst”. I confess that this is how I thought about things for all the years I was a Catholic, and that I didn’t understand how messed up that was. I was saturated in Catholic triumphalism to a degree I hid from myself, until it was exposed by the scandal….
To me, it is profoundly unappealing to hear Catholics appeal to those who left Rome to return because in our heart of hearts, we know Rome is “better” than any other church. Come to the Orthodox Church and experience the Divine Liturgy, and you will know how much Catholics have to endure with the Novus Ordo to keep their faith in what they know to be true. Again, if you want to claim that the Roman church is more truthful than any other church, that’s a defensible claim (though not a plausible one to me). But better? Really?
How can the author of such puerility be considered a bona fide intellectual? The claims of the Catholic Church on men and nations derive from her divine founding and consequent indefectibility, her divinely endowed intrinsic superiority, not boasting by Catholics about their Church being “the best.”
Moreover, how would Dreher know that the Catholic Church “retains more of the truth than any other Western church,” or that Orthodoxy has retained some truth lost to the Roman Church, unless he somehow knows all the truth independently of any church at all? Dreher’s stance is simply that of the archetypal Protestant in the exercise of private judgment as to what he thinks is the authentic content of the Gospel.
Like any Protestant, therefore, Dreher must avoid the decisive question of the Church’s divine founding in order to hide the dilemma that destroys his whole ridiculous project. He must argue that his choice of Orthodoxy over Catholicism was merely a legitimate personal assessment of which is the “better” church over all, with truth being merely one criterion and no church having any claim to be “the best.” He must act as if no church was ever founded in person by God Incarnate and then accept implicitly the unavoidable consequences: (a) that there would be no church to which anyone is obliged to belong in order to save his soul, and (b) no truly revealed Christian religion but only a body of human customs whose founder was a monomaniacal Jew from Nazareth who made the delusional claim that he would build a church on the rock of Peter against which the gates of hell would never prevail.
Were Saint Benedict alive to comment on all of Dreher’s nonsense, he might well be tempted to the “excessive laughter” his Rule forbids. Or perhaps a scream of horror over what has become of our world that the likes of Dreher is lauded as a prophetic voice for our time, even in Rome itself.
The Digital Prophet Suffers an Analogue Meltdown
For the reasons I have just sketched, Father Richard Munkelt, whom I am privileged to call a friend, has had quite enough of Rod Dreher. Father recognizes that Dreher’s ostentatious blundering about in the field of theology cannot safely be ignored. First of all, his lionization by many of the same Catholic establishment luminaries implicated in the very auto-demolition of the Church he delightedly chronicles as grounds for deserting her presents an intolerable paradox that a man of reason like Father Munkelt would feel compelled to address, given its obscene level of publicity.
But also, and far more urgently for a pastor of souls, Dreher’s polemic is a clear and present danger to confused Catholics, whom he to “take up the Benedict Option in their own lives.” Disgusted by the homosexual priest scandal and the Bergoglian Debacle, many Catholics in Dreher’s fan base might be—and at least some undoubtedly already have been—led out of the Church by his advocacy of the spiritual joys of Orthodoxy versus the cold intellectualism of “triumphalist” Catholicism, and his reduction of the Catholic Church to a decidedly imperfect element in the vast constellation of “Benedict Option churches,” wherein one might find what one considers a “better” church overall, just as Dreher claims to have done.
So Father Munkelt published of Dreher’s incoherent and thinly veiled anti-Catholic polemic. And Dreher, having been taken to task by an intellectual and spiritual superior, replied in a way that reveals that the digital prophet is an analogue lightweight capable of nothing more than cheap and vulgar mockery.
Once again, let Dreher speak for himself. For :
“This guy has a stick so far up his rear end it’s tickling his nose hairs.”
I would say that anyone capable of publishing to the world such language against anyone, let alone a Catholic priest, has definitively declared his own unfitness as a credible voice for Christian orthodoxy.
And then, from Dreher’s lengthier :
“I… burst out laughing…” [thus violating the Rule of Benedict]
“please send me a photo of yourself so that I may gaze upon the face of charity, and perhaps be inspired to repent.”
“a fortress of syllogisms against the loss of faith."
“a Rad Trad priest”
“Munkelt’s fiddleback chasuble is stitched way too tight.”
“hollow Catholic triumphalism”
“this grim man”
“the brittleness and gracelessness of his response”
“Munkelt does not strike one as a man overburdened with either tenderness of heart or lightness of spirit”
“Father Richard Munkelt, PhD, has no Elvis in him.”
“rigidity and turgid intellectualism”
“cranky Munkeltish traditionalism”
“arranging one’s hates just-so, and pulling the longest, most mulish face in the room.”
“They have found the One True Faith, and boy, are they pissed off about it!”
“Nothing makes a Father Munkelt happier than the feeling that he’s told off a Freemason, a Modernist, or some other kind of heretic, and earned plaudits from his fellow dyspeptic sectaries on the pages of their newsletters.”
“a quiver of delight rippling across his sweaty brow”
“his valve opening like the foghorn of a freighter.”
“beating people over the head with the Summa until they are shamed into submitting to the Pope (and maybe even to Christ).”
“He’s machine-like, a remorseless Scholastic bot. He doesn’t listen or empathize; he just constructs robotic argumentative monologues.”
Dreher deleted the last insult only after protest from commenter “Geoffrey,” who wrote: “Christian charity bears wrongs patiently and doesn’t personally insult an opponent, describing him as ‘machine-like, a remorseless Scholastic bot’. Please consider retracting your post. The way you landed into this guy is totally uncool and will only make a mess.”
Finally, we arrive at Dreher’s hilarious disclaimer: “I have no intention of judging the quality of Munkelt’s personal faith.”
I don’t doubt that Dreher’s polemic is motivated at least in part by sincere instincts of piety. People are complicated, after all, and Dreher is clearly a conflicted personality. But there is also no doubt of that side of Dreher his own words reveal: the demagogic huckster who appeals, not to reason, of which his grasp is manifestly feeble, but to stirrings of the viscera. Completely outclassed by a learned Catholic priest, Dreher the Orthodox hipster repeatedly kicks him in the shins and then runs away: “I’m not going to bother with the rest of the Munkelt letter…”
Well, we ought not to bother with the rest of what Dreher has to say. We know enough to know that he and his book are symptomatic of the ecclesial crisis from which he has profited. But Dreher’s encounter with Father Munkelt is nonetheless richly instructive: it reminds us that the false prophets of our digital age are just ordinary people like Dreher, who have no business telling the world to follow a path other than the one the Church has always indicated. They are, in fact, exactly the people Saint Pius X reprobated “in these times of social and intellectual anarchy when everyone takes it upon himself to teach as a teacher and lawmaker…”
Let Catholics teach only what the Church teaches. And let Dreher be seen for what he is: one of the crowd of blind guides who have emerged in an age of religious imposture.