I have an acquaintance who is a member of Opus Dei, a very intelligent person and a devoted Catholic. I have heard him on more than one occasion make the assertion "It's a big Church," usually while he was giving an official talk as a member of Opus Dei. I call it an assertion, but measured in membership numbers, it could probably be called an accepted fact. What are we at now? One point two billion, give or take?
However whenever I heard my friend make this statement, he wasn't drawing focus mainly upon the quantitative measure of the souls on board the Ark, or the Bark, whichever you prefer, but on the qualitative ability of the vessel itself to accommodate every type of "creature", if you will. Obviously the birds who survived on Noah's big ship mainly needed a landing pad and a big bag of seeds whereas the camels and lions needed their own living quarters.
Looking both at Christ's analogy of many rooms or many mansions and at Saint Paul's proclamation that there are "many charisms, One Spirit" we can see what he was talking about. There is a place for everyone in the Church, both the activist and the contemplative, both the ardent intellectual and the extroverted charismatic.
All of these Catholic associations, religious orders, groups, subgroups, "small groups", etc. can be seen as the many rooms, the many gifts (charisms), the many colors of the rainbow — choose your analogy. The contexts in which my friend used this line were several. Sometimes it was in sort of a complementary way since many members of Opus Dei are active in groups like Catholic Worker Movement and Knights of Columbus. So it was kind of a "yeah, you can be in Opus Dei and do that also."
Other times it was in a more differentiating way; e.g., "this other group does this thing, we do not, that's okay, after all it's a big Church." St. Josemaria the founder of Opus Dei has a point in one of his writings about those who might seek to make the world into a cloister. On the other hand, the greatest respect is shown to the religious orders in Opus Dei and all Catholic lay groups I've ever encountered. Likewise I've never run into a religious sister or religious brother who dissed the sacrament of marriage or the local parish church even though they were given a completely different vocation than lay people.
The Benedict Option, as I see it, has to represent one of two things. It has to represent merely another charism in the Church or it has to represent an absolutely indispensable part of each Christian's life, like prayer, the practice of the virtues, reception of the sacraments and weekly attendance of the Liturgy. There might be a third thing, a return to something which existed in the past within Christendom but which no longer does. However as a practical matter, that would still seem to place it into either the first or second category. Either it is truly only an option or it is a necessity.
Looking at the first case, and let's call it the Subgroup Option, what if the Benedict Option is one of many ways to live out one's life as a faithful Christian? It would mean living in a community with other like-minded people, celebrating the Sacraments together, praying together, eating together and celebrating together. Perhaps working together in a cottage industry and running a school for the children as well. These things exist already for both married and celibate people. It is true, more often these are for celibate people for obvious reasons, but there are groups of families living in close proximity. The forthcoming Benedict Option book could, in theory, become a good — perhaps even invaluable — instruction book about how to achieve life in this type of community for anyone aspiring to it.
What are the problems with this approach? As I can see it the problem is limited appeal which would translate into limited book sales. People wanting to do this stuff might want to have a lot of source material in one place and they might scoop this book up right away. My prediction is that they will. But the normal Joe Six-pack won't really "get" the Benedict Option as something to pursue. If you doubt this, talk to someone in any Christian subgroup about how hard it is to get people involved in existing groups. Add to that the conceptual, I would even say ethereal, nature of the Benedict Option as a separate charism and it is going to be hard for it to compete with concrete established groups like Miles Christi, K of C or Opus Dei in the Catholic world or Intervarsity Fellowship in the Protestant world.
The second case I would like to call the Apocalyptic Option. This is the way I see the Benedict Option marketed and presented most often by Rod Dreher himself, as Keith has noted here. Rod says in the quoted post,
"Sooner or later, religious conservatives will have to take the Benedict Option, or be assimilated. I know of no feasible alternative. The longer you put off the decision to start thinking and moving in the Ben Op direction, the harder it’s going to be."
This definitely presents the Benedict Option as an absolute necessity, and asserts that the results of not doing so are cataclysmic. The problems with this approach are many more and much greater. First of all, why is the architect of this last, best hope for an escape plan Rod Dreher, a man who left the Catholic Church over Papal Infallibility and contraception and who incessantly reacts to the kind of seedy gossip/news that most Christians turn their heads away from? Why has this plan been revealed now rather than during the sexual revolution in the sixties, or in 1930, or in 1917, etc.? Why does all the breathless hype over this still seem more like that around the new Robert Langdon movie, or one of the author's other book releases? I mean he has pretty much done the standard book thing, e.g., thrown out teasers, refused to reveal too much — that sort of thing. Kind of fishy if there really is impending doom around the corner.
(Just a bit of an aside. It always struck me that "prophets" like Harold Camping always predict that the world will end in the near future. I mean, I think Nostradamus was a bit kooky, but I'm not sure he even lived to see half his predictions come true or not. There is a difference in the ickiness factor between pure kookiness from a true believer and kookiness sold for filthy lucre to true believers. I have to believe that there is a difference in the punishments doled out on Judgment Day as well....)
Another question comes to mind when I read all the negative aspersions cast upon those who are skeptical of the Benedict Option. Can you blame any Christian for not "taking the Benedict Option"? Are missionaries who are sacrificing comfort, seminarians preparing to sacrifice married life and Catholic families willing to sacrifice European vacations to have lots of kids really dropping the ball if they don't drop everything to go "take the Benedict Option?" It seems like the Benedict Option entails doing a lot of extra material actions to the detriment of spiritual actions whenever it becomes an absolute necessity. It also seems to superimpose its own authority structure over the normal hierarchy of faith and family for "the normal, average Christian". Plus all the things I mention here are things which the architect of the Benedict Option has refused to sacrifice in the normal, average Christian world. So this Benedict Option seems to be a new way which is on par with celibacy and living conjugal unity.
I admit that most of my questions are rhetorical and that no one is going to convince me that the Benedict Option is any more than what our friend, Tom, stated about it long ago:
If you ever come across the term "the Benedict Option," there's really only one thing you need to know about: It's nonsense.
More precisely, it's a meaningless term, a cypher. The thing it refers to is a non-thing. As such, it can mean anything. And a term that can mean anything isn't worth talking about.
But the Benedict Option has a long and storied history of having rhetorical questions asked about it, and generally, the frankness experienced by Nicodemus when asking his sincere question of Christ about Baptism has been missing from the responses. Keith detailed some over a year ago:
Mike W says:
March 19, 2015 at 12:25 pm
A few questions. As a practical matter, how would the Benedict option look? What would be the general attributes of someone (or a community) following the Benedict option? How would you know if you were actually doing it properly? How do you “modernize” the approach to deal with 21st century pressures such as 24/7 media, etc. Who’s doing it now? How successful are they (and how do they define success)?
And the response...
[NFR: All great questions ... but ones I am not prepared to answer. All of them I have to explore while working on the book. -- RD]
Yes, well, we eagerly await this book and it will be read and reviewed at the time of its release. And lest anyone forget, here are some other questions the author was not prepared to answer from a colleague, Noah Millman who is also, as was Nicodemus, a wise, Jewish man.