Noah Millman originally wrote this article here. Then it disappeared, an event we documented in this post. For some time, the original article was cache here by Google.
But in anticipation of Google no longer keeping the cached copy, following is the article in full.
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Three More Benedict Option Questions
The first is prompted by an astute observation from Ross Douthat:
[I]n the years I’ve spent in both Protestant and Catholic circles, I’ve definitely heard the language of missionary work applied more often to Asia and Africa and to elite secular environments (you’ll often hear evangelical groups describe, say, the Ivy League or hipster Brooklyn as “mission territory”) than to the worlds of poor and working class Americans. Yet it’s in those worlds where the practice of Christianity is now failing faster than elsewhere in the United States, and where the quasi-secularizing process is bound up with poverty and social instability to an extent that isn’t true in Brooklyn or at Brown. So one need not join Coulter in condemning missionary work done in far-off lands to see room for more energy and effort, and honor for those efforts, in this country as well. And however one thinks American Christianity should respond to its own demographic decline, any “option” that’s chosen or experimented with needs to have these domestic mission fields in mind.
On the specifics of mission work, I’m not in any position to offer advice. But I can do what columnists do best and suggest a couple of writer-activists who deserve attention. One is Matthew Loftus, an evangelical physician with overseas missionary experience who now lives and works in Baltimore’s Sandtown and writes eloquently about that community; you can find a profile of his congregation here. Another is a Catholic couple whose work I’ve quoted before, David and Amber Lapp, who have been living and working in blue collar Ohio and writing extensively on that social and religious landscape.
In different ways, you could describe what Loftus and the Lapps have been doing as models of the kind of “culture of encounter” that comes up again and again in Pope Francis’s vision for Catholicism. As my readers know, I am just occasionally at variance with the current pontiff on certain matters related to Catholic doctrine and the signs of the times. But on this issue his vision is unsettling in the best sense of the term, because I suspect the churches that let themselves be unsettled around issues of class and race, poverty and mission will be the ones that save not only others, but themselves.
Since I’ve admitted that I don’t fully understand what the Benedict Option is, it’s possible that as Dreher understands it there’s no contradiction between it and the “culture of encounter” that Douthat is talking about here.
But I think it’s telling that Douthat is worried about that possibility, and sees the need to argue that it’s important that they not be. Even more telling is his implied conclusion that, if they are visions inherently in conflict with one another, that in his mind Pope Francis’s vision is more important, at least in this area.
So my question is: are they in conflict? If not, why aren’t they? Simply asserting “because they aren’t” isn’t really adequate. And if there is, let’s say, a tension there, how is it to be managed?
The second question is prompted by another reflection of Douthat’s – but not a recent one. This is a bit of brooding that Douthat did on the Synod on the Family, about which he less-unexpectedly had serious apprehensions – specifically, about Cardinal Kasper’s assertion that a proposal to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to take communion was a reasonable accommodation because the pope himself believes that “50 percent of marriages are not valid” because those marrying did not properly understand the import of their actions. Douthat:
[N]either the Catholic Church nor Christianity writ large has traditionally portrayed marriage as a form of truly heroic virtue, a state of life that only a few saints can fully live up to and live out. Instead, marriage is supposed to be the easier path — as much “a remedy against sin,” in the language of the Book of Common Prayer, as a counsel of perfection — with celibacy potentially the higher and holier one. “Easier” does not mean “easy,” obviously, but still the basic idea is that marriage is an institution suited to our fallen nature, rather than a beatitude-level call to transcend fallenness entirely. And part of that suitedness lies in the fact that its demands and prescriptions are relatively easy to understand, naturally appealing to most couples in the initial bloom of love, and near-universally grasped by people of disparate beliefs: One does not need a doctorate in theology to “get” what the church asks of married couples, and what they’re supposed to ask of one another, and so even an intellectually-immature or badly-catechized Catholic should have some idea of what he’s vowing himself into.
So it would be remarkable enough, given all of these points, if Kasper had merely asserted that half of non-Catholic marriages were invalid — remarkable and, I would say, quite anti-ecumenical, and fairly insulting to non-Christian married couples, to say nothing of Anglicans and Lutherans and Baptists and Pentecostals. But to say what he said about sacramental Catholicmarriages is more remarkable still: It amounts to a claim that our current social situation is so unusual, so extraordinary and revolutionary, that basic assumptions about humanity’s natural ability to marry no longer obtain, and that supernatural graces taken for granted in Catholic ritual and teaching are no longer nearly as efficacious as the church has traditionally assumed.
Now just because a claim is extraordinary doesn’t mean that it’s false. Clearly the church already assumes that the spirit of the age has had some effect on people’s capacity to marry validly, which is why it grants more annulments, on more varied grounds, than it would have in the recent past. Kasper is just extending a logic, to some extent, that the church’s marriage tribunals already accept …Douthat concludes:
… but he’s extending it a long, long way, without any obvious real-world justification.
As Michael Brendan Dougherty notes, the “50 percent invalid” claim offers a kind of common ground for reactionaries who believe that both church and culture have been pervasively corrupted, and progressives who think that traditional Catholic teaching simply can’t be made to fit the lived reality of modern life. But what they’re converging on is a counsel of despair, in which mercy for the divorced depends on telling married Catholics that their marriages are essentially a coin-flip, and that their access to sacramental grace should be persistently in doubt. It’s a version of the “to solve a problem, make it bigger” approach to crisis management, which in my experience almost never works out. And once again, it simply doesn’t jibe with the church’s longstanding view of the basic human (not Catholic, human) capacity to marry.So, my question to Dreher regarding the Benedict Option: to what extent does it partake of a similar counsel of despair? And to what extent is the persistent emphasis on the danger of this culture, this society, at this time – as opposed to teaching that the world is always fallen, that the support of the general culture is never to be relied on as a substitute for the hard work of repentance – both a fragile psychological basis for the kind of deep commitment he’s looking for, and also reinforcing precisely the trends in the larger culture that Dreher most abhors?
And finally, a question prompted by a stray comment of Dreher’s. Ruth Baden Ginsburg, you may have heard, recently officiated at a second same-sex marriage in Washington, D.C. Which prompts Dreher to remark:
Did you hear about the Ruth Bader Ginsburg thing? It’s pretty outrageous. I mean, it’s not like there was any doubt how she is planning to rule in this case, but doesn’t she at least owe us the pretense of neutrality before she actually rules?I am genuinely mystified as to where lies the outrage. Justice Ginsburg performed a perfectly legitimate ceremony; gay marriage is legal in Washington, D.C. What’s the problem? What could possibly be the problem?
I can think of only two possibilities: first, Dreher thinks that it’s bad form to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony – in a jurisdiction where it is already legal – when a case about whether the legality of such ceremonies is mandated by the constitution is pending. That strikes me as roughly as sensible as saying it would be bad form for Chief Justice Earl Warren to send his kids to an integrated school in 1954 as Brown v. Board makes its way through the docket. Which is today: not sensible at all.
The other possibility is that Dreher thinks it’s bad form for Ginsburg to have “vocally stressed” the word “constitution” in her recitation of the legal formula pronouncing the marriage valid, which would seem to telegraph that she thinks the constitution has something to say about the subject, and likely that she thinks there is a good constitutional argument for gay marriage. I was unaware that Dreher believed that Supreme Court Justices have an obligation to remain utterly silent about constitutional matters. That’s not a pretense of neutrality; it’s a pretense to thoughtlessness, to lack of interest in her job, and as such it’s not remotely plausible. (She did not comment on the specific case coming before the court, which would be different; indeed, it’s worth highlighting that she didn’t actually comment on anything.) I am also curious whether he extends that view to Justices Scalia, Alito, Thomas, etc. – that they should never, directly or by implication, suggest that they have views on what the constitution says about any concrete topic.
Dreher’s surprise, honestly, feels to me just an index of alienation. Same-sex marriage is accepted as normal by a substantial majority of Americans now. How could it possibly be outrageous to learn that a sitting Supreme Court Justice is comfortable performing same-sex weddings in a jurisdiction where such weddings are legal? Wouldn’t it be more surprising if none of the sitting Justices held the same opinion as 60% of Americans?
But that’s not really the point I want to make. Dreher’s instinct, clearly, was that Ginsburg’s action was “outrageous.” That is to say: it provoked him to outrage. Now, I have to seriously ask this: is this feeling, of outrage, likely to be salved, or exacerbated by the pursuit of the Benedict Option?
The culture is going to go on, after all, doing whatever it does, and people all over the country will continue to produce Dreherbait, some of it far more obviously outrageous than Ruth Bader Ginsburg performing a legal wedding ceremony. (The article on quasi-Saudi-sounding practices of Manhattan’s upper financial echelons is a good recent example – and whadaya know, it turns out pricey Manhattan divorce lawyers say they’ve never heard of such a thing as a “wife bonus.”) But isn’t the collection of such stories, well, isn’t it kind of obsessing over precisely the parts of our culture that the whole point of the Benedict Option is to turn away from, in favor of a focus on one’s own community, and its spiritual development?
So I have to ask: is one of the strictures of the Benedict Option going to be to stop pursuing outrage porn? And if it isn’t – why isn’t it?
Tagged Benedict option, culture of encounter, Dreherbait, outrage porn, Rod Dreher, Ross Douthat, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Walter Kasper.