What are you supposed to do after you have encountered Jesus? Are you to turn away from the culture you grew up in, to immediately leave your nets behind in that way? Are you to hide away so you may cultivate your own relationship with the divine, unadulterated by the occasions of sin rampant in the marketplace? Or are you to convert the society that shaped you and that you have already shaped in so many ways? Are you to act as a leaven in that sinful marketplace?
These are not new questions. But one can sense the ever-newness of the question.
Where the zeitgeist leads next will likely depend on how we answer the questions Rod Dreher raises in his much-discussed bookThe Benedict Option. Its thesis is that Christians hold values and practices that the secular world, stretching across partisan lines and economic classes, no longer can or wants to hear.
Mr. Dreher likens the Christian’s situation in the West to that of Noah’s before the Great Flood. As the author said to the National Press Club, “The flood cannot be turned back. The best we can do is construct arks within which we can ride it out, and by God’s grace make it across the dark sea of time to a future when we do find dry land again, and can start the rebuilding, reseeding and renewal of the earth.” While Mr. Dreher recognizes that getting aboard a modern-day ark must come from a motivation to develop a relationship with God and not simply to hide from a scary secular world, the image and resulting proposal are nonetheless rife with a sense of panic.
Dreher likens the Christian’s situation in the West to that of Noah’s before the Great Flood.
So what does Pope Francis think about the Benedict Option? In truth, he has not explicitly said anything about Mr. Dreher or his book. But my hunch is that Francis is aware of the signs of the times and of the earnest debates that Christians are having.
Some, including Inés San Martín at Crux, suggest that just because Pope Francis may come out with a statement on “bridges not walls,” he is not specifically talking about President Trump or the United States—that our national narcissism often leads to conflating general statements with our own internal debates. But as Cindy Wooden explained here, and Michael O’Loughlin pointed out to me on America’s Jesuitical podcast, “He knows what he’s doing when he kind of needles some of these proposals from the president.” In the same way, Francis may well be aware of the debates about and around The Benedict Option.
My interest was piqued by an address that Francis gave on May 2 to a group of 70,000 members of the Italian lay organization Catholic Action (after I got over the shock that Pope Francis was still working immediately after returning from his historic trip to Egypt). He told them to be missionary disciples, to not look backward but forward with joy, and to channel all initiatives toward evangelization, “not self-conservation.”
Pope Francis told Catholic Action to channel all initiatives toward evangelization, “not self-conservation.”
Speaking about the mission and identity of Catholic Action, Francis told those gathered that they “are essentially, and not occasionally, missionaries.” The pope made it clear that the group at its core needs to go out with the joy of the Gospel. He said they need to be “in prisons, hospitals, the street, villages, factories. If this is not so, it will be an institution of the exclusive that does not say anything to anyone, not even to the church herself.”
This approach from Francis is not new. His first encyclical, “Evangelii Gaudium,” grounds his vision for how the church should relate to the modern world. In fact, Francis thanked Catholic Action for adapting “Evangelii Gaudium” as their own Magna Carta. Pope Francis’ document, like Dreher’s Benedict Option, is critical of the selfish consumerism rampant in modern culture. But “Evangelii Gaudium” offers an entirely different roadmap for engagement with that culture: “[E]vangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of them are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition” (No. 15).
Being a Christian in today’s culture is extremely and increasingly difficult. But perhaps it has always been this way, in all cultures, in all vocations.
Francis’ approach is unsurprising given his Jesuit formation. St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, also embraced a world-embracing spirituality. It is no accident that a shorthand for his spirituality is “finding God in all things.” For Ignatius, the world was a place suffused with God’s presence, and every encounter—with a person, a place, even “from the consideration of a little worm,” as one of his biographers once put it—was an opportunity to encounter God. It is no wonder that Ignatius situated the headquarters for the Society of Jesus not in the mountains but smack in the middle of Rome.
Mr. Dreher writes: “We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.” But as Pope Paul VI wrote in “Evangelii Nuntiandi,” the church “exists in order to evangelize” (No. 14).
One can disagree with Mr. Dreher and still understand his concern. Being a Christian in today’s culture is extremely and increasingly difficult. But perhaps it has always been this way, in all cultures, in all vocations. H. Richard Niebuhr, whose work Christ and Culture is illuminating for debating questions like this, pointed out that there is an underlying assumption in the ideology he terms “Christ against Culture” that sin is found in culture, and the Christian need only to escape culture to escape sin. Niebuhr points to John, who tells us, “If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8). If you doubt this, ask any member of a religious community, monastic or mendicant, about the other priests, brothers or sisters with whom they live.So yes, there may be a degree of risk in engaging a culture that is hostile to you and your tradition. There is a natural fear that you will jeopardize your own faith and its tradition. Nonetheless, we are called to turn away from that fear toward joy. Another quote from “Evangelii Gaudium”:
More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures, which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (No. 49).
Even though Christians may be concerned about their present and future presence in Western society, that is where they are called to be present. And even though there may be an existential risk in engaging a hostile culture, Christians are called to take that risk. Francis told Catholic Action: “To go out means openness, generosity, encounter with the reality beyond the four walls of the institution and the parishes. This means giving up controlling things too much and planning the results.” In that, Christians will find freedom, “which is fruit of the Holy Spirit, which will make you grow.”