ROD DREHER is one of America’s most influential religious commentators. He has made the case that in today’s godless West, the only viable strategy for traditionally minded followers of Jesus Christ is to make a partial withdrawal from society, and abandon the struggle to assert political power. It is a case he lays out in his book “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation”.
Although he finds much to admire in Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus, the title of his book came from Saint Benedict, the church father of the sixth century who laid the foundations of monasticism in the Western world. Mr Dreher is not suggesting that today’s Christians, apart from a small minority, will literally become monks. But he thinks that Christians’ best hope of survival lies in a self-conscious retreat into disciplined, prayerful and perhaps relatively small communities.
The writer’s view has been undented by the election of an American president who, though not very pious himself, relied heavily on the votes of evangelical Christians; or by the advent of a vice-president and secretary of state who are strident advocates of conservative Christianity. The stronger trend, he believes, is towards the emergence of a society where people with traditional ideas (about gender and sexuality, in particular) have no place in the public square.
What does a thinker of this rigorously pessimistic persuasion make of the clerical sex-abuse scandals that plumbed new depths this week? A grand jurors’ report found that at least a thousand (and probably far more) children were abused, sometimes in horrible ways, by priests in Pennsylvania over many decades; these misdeeds were systematically covered up by their superiors.
Mr Dreher answers that question in a column in the New York Times, which is commendably frank in facing up to some agonising truths.
The crisis is systemic and will not be resolved by new policies and procedures, as the hapless episcopal bureaucrats want to think. Pope Francis is not going to swoop in to save the Catholic Church…If the church is to be rescued, it will have to happen in the everyday lives of the faithful, no longer deceived by illusions or false promises of faithless shepherds.
In other words, the church’s newly exposed pathologies provide yet another reason for a kind of pious retreat, into smaller communities where a spirit of self-discipline and self-examination would prevail. And with decent honesty, he acknowledges that the biggest challenge to Christianity’s future may come not from the decadence and hostility of a secular world, but from things that have happened inside its walls. “The greater threat is from internal weakness and vice.”
Many readers, including those who are far from his world of traditional faith, will find more to like in Mr Dreher’s newly contrite tone than they did in his earlier advocacy of withdrawal from a wickedly secular public arena.
The ideal of “pious retreat” will always be fraught with contradictions. It is a historical fact that monastic and other self-isolated communities have always had their fair share of human weaknesses, from ruthless power struggles to manipulative relationships. That applies as much to modern spiritual communities, from New Age communes to eccentric survivalists, as it does to conventional monasteries. Experience suggests that the wickedness of the world cannot be driven out simply by erecting high gates.
And one of the manifest failings of the Catholic hierarchy, as exposed by the grand jurors’ report, lay precisely in its introversion. This was an environment where bishops never expected their action, or inaction, to be exposed to the daylight of scrutiny by fair-minded third parties from the wider world.
But withdrawal in a spirit of honest repentance is different from withdrawal in a spirit of arrogant disapproval, even though the two things can easily become confused. Now at least, Mr Dreher seems to understand that point clearly—and the abuse scandal has sharpened his understanding.
The sexual-abuse scandal in the Catholic church will not go away (August 16th 2018)