I’ve found that the phrase “the Benedict Option” stirs hearts and minds, some in favor and some vehemently opposed. And some have wildly different perceptions of what exactly the Benedict Option refers to: for some, it means living on a farm as far removed from civilization as possible, while for others it’s a lot less extreme.
I also think the reception of the Benedict Option is impacted by one’s state in life—whether one is a college student, or an adult single involved in ministry, whether one’s kids are grown, or whether one is currently raising young kids.
The term “Benedict Option” comes in part from Rod Dreher’s New York Times Bestseller of the same name, published in 2017, but has been growing in popularity due to the cultural and political climate in America. Dreher argues that to save Western Civilization we need to return to the way of life popularized by St. Benedict of Nursia, often called the father of monasticism:
“This sixth-century monk, horrified by the moral chaos following Rome’s fall, retreated to the forest and created a new way of life for Christians. He built enduring communities based on principles of order, hospitality, stability, and prayer. His spiritual centers of hope were strongholds of light throughout the Dark Ages, and saved not just Christianity but Western civilization” (The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Amazon description).
At issue, as Bishop Robert Barron pointed out, is the delicate balance between preserving Catholic identity and the missionary impulse of the Church. As with most things, we want to shoot for the via media, the virtuous mean. As Aristotle said long ago, we often err with extremes.
For my part, it is not as extreme as it’s sometimes made out to be—at least based on the text of the book. In other words, based on the book, it can take many different forms. Perhaps the most radical thing he says, in terms of concrete praxis, is to get kids out of public schools (pp. 155-8). His treatment of homeschooling is very balanced: he speaks in favor of it, but is quick to point out that “it is not for everybody” (p. 165); and further, he recognizes the logistics that make it even possible in the first place, such as a “two-parent family and the ability to get by on a single income—factors that put homeschooling out of reach for many families” (p. 165).
All this being said, Dreher’s book encapsulates some very important principles—to the point where it would seem that my own community in Atchison, Kansas has long been living the “Benedict” option without ever calling it that. What do I mean and what makes it work?
Friendship and Technology
In our town of 10,000, something like 150-200 kids are being homeschooled; but many great Catholic families also have their kids in the Catholic grade school and high school. And these communities overlap extensively.
These families are centered on prayer and Catholic identity. Dreher raises concerns about phones, technology, and media that many of us share. There’s not a one-size-fits all for everybody. But I would say that one major reason why so many young people are falling away from the Faith and traditional morality is due to the fact that they are all receiving the same secular formation from the popular media—a formation which is then reinforced by their peers, especially by way of social media. Group think is a real thing. Add pornography exposure to the mix and the addictions that start at an unbelievably young age and we get an idea where many of our youth are at.
Of course, one way to counteract this is simply to not give into giving kids a phone, or perhaps giving them a track phone that can call and text but with no internet service. While this is certainly radical in our culture today, its impact upon a child’s moral development may be incalculable.
Running Together Toward Christ
What the Benedict Option does in terms of raising children is extremely important for two reasons:
(1) By withdrawing from the everyday media world, it removes a huge source of negative influence, especially at formative ages.
(2) It gives children friends who are running in the same direction.
As Dreher points out:
“Though parental influence is critical, research shows that nothing forms a young person’s character like their peers” (p. 127).
The problem with technology is both its sometimes compromising content, as well as the sheer addiction to screens that often comes about (p. 126, p. 216). Rightly, Dreher also notes, in terms of mitigating the media’s dominance over our lives, “It is also important for parents to do the same for themselves” (p. 126).
Kids of every age don’t want to feel like they’re all alone. My kids certainly have a sense that they’re running on a different wavelength than much of the world; but it helps enormously to have friends running in the same direction. It gives them a taste of virtuous friendship—friendship that is not simply about running toward each other, but about something more, ultimately about a union that comes about by running together toward Jesus Christ.
Media in Moderation
In terms of media, we haven’t rejected everything. My kids watch their share of movies, play their share of video games, and together we certainly watch our share of televised sports.
Further, as with just about every single member of the Catholic community here in Atchison, we’re all involved in sports (and other endeavors such as theatre, music, and art). Right now, we homeschool and one of the things I love about sports is that it gets my kids around other kids from different backgrounds—public school kids, Catholic school kids, etc.
I want to teach my kids to navigate the world, to not be afraid of the world, and to feel comfortable in their own skin wherever they are. This is the balance we have sought to create, a balance that protects the vitality of Catholic culture and faith, but one which isn’t afraid to engage and evangelize the world. Watching certain movies and sports together, as well as playing on various teams helps our kids connect with other kids in a more neutral way. It gives them tools to navigate the world that aren’t as compromising as, say, various forms of popular media (e.g., sitcoms, contemporary music artists, etc.).
Family Life and Flexibility
Dreher rightly points out that families striving for holiness ultimately see themselves not as an end, but as a means. That is, the family itself and the emotional intimacy therein is not the ultimate end, as important as that is. Rather, the ultimate end of family life is leading our kids and each other to Jesus, now and in eternity. After all, they are not our kids—they are God’s; we are simply the stewards he has put in place to nurture and foster their growth, both spiritual and physical (see pp. 128-9).
Dreher recognizes the diverse and imperfect realizations of the Benedict Option. In fact, he says:
“[T]he most destructive ideology is the belief that creating utopia is possible” (p. 139).
For tight-knit communities, he says:
“The greatest temptation … is a compulsion to control its members unduly and to police each other too strictly for deviation from a purity standard” (p. 138).
Each family’s autonomy must be respected. Decisions about kids, education, etc. are very personal—and no one knows the full extent of the situation like the actual individuals involved who are making the decision.
A New Normal
The biggest thing the Benedict Option can create is a new sense of normal, especially for children in a community. I didn’t grow up in such a community and I’ve long had to realize that I cannot project myself as a twelve, thirteen, or fourteen-year-old onto these kids, since their upbringing is so vastly different than my own. Of course, problems can beset any community.
But I would like to share one success story that captures my point. I have a friend who had the “talk” with his thirteen-year-old son. This young man had been homeschooled. When my friend addressed masturbation with his son, his son’s reaction brought me to tears when I heard it: “Gross, people do that!” was his response. The thirteen-year-old was totally shocked and rightly repulsed by such a disordered use of our sexuality. And I have every reason to believe his son was absolutely sincere and telling the truth.
The reason I share this is because I think a lot of people will have trouble believing this story—trouble believing that such innocence is even possible today. But that’s exactly what the Benedict Option can do: it can create a whole new sense of normal.
A Both-And Way
In the end, the Church needs all kinds; we need street evangelists, and we need people who are living out their vocation of marriage and family in a concerted and intentional way. Family life is where, in my opinion, the Benedict Option has the most to offer. We must evangelize; but our children cannot be the guinea pigs with which to do so. In other words, there are risks I myself would take in order to evangelize—but which I wouldn’t expose my children to until they were ready.
I think this is common sense: we expose our children to greater physical risks as they get older and stronger (such as swimming in the deep end, going out further in the ocean, or competing in contact sports); why wouldn’t we follow the same logic spiritually? Finding ways to form them and prepare them to engage the world is the delicate task of raising a family; and eventually they need to be tested spiritually, just as they do physically. But they have to be strong enough to engage before we send them out, and the Benedict Option seeks to ensure that this formation happens first.
Dangers to Both Sides
Those who have an aversion to the Benedict option often oppose it for the sake of evangelization and engaging the culture, which are certainly commendable endeavors. The danger—especially when it comes to raising kids—is over-estimating their spiritual strength. Of course, there is a positive to having our kids engage the culture in that they will feel more comfortable around those in the world and won’t be afraid to mingle in its midst. The danger, however, is that they may become too comfortable in the world and may eventually be swept up in its secular currents.
For those in favor of the Benedict option, of course, the temptation is the reverse: that the community will become too insular and closed in on itself. And with respect to raising kids, there is a danger that this will inculcate a radical fear of the world wherein children will only feel comfortable within the walls of their own community. This, too, sets them up to fail.
As I said, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. If one homeschools, then one needs to make a concerted effort to find their children friends, as well as get them around other kinds of kids on occasion (as I mentioned, sports make this possible for us). If one’s children go to school, then one needs to make a concerted effort to find faithful friends for their children and seek ways to foster their faith in a joyful environment.
As I said, the Benedict Option, in my experience, makes the most sense while one is raising kids—whatever form that exactly takes. In fact, in my opinion, the Benedict Option is ultimately more a matter of qualitative intentionality than anything else: it’s a concerted effort to pass on the faith and not be blithely swept up by the secular culture. But exactly how one does this Dreher leaves relatively open-ended, albeit with a few strong suggestions.
But those not raising kids may perhaps not be as inclined toward the Benedict option. As I said above, the Church needs all kinds—those in the mold of St. Paul, St. Benedict, St. Dominic, St. Francis, and St. John Paul II, just to name a few.
Wherever we are and whatever state we’re in, let us ask ourselves how can we be more intentional about living the Gospel and passing on the faith to our children, whether they be biological or spiritual.
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About Andrew Swafford
Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is author of Spiritual Survival in the Modern World: Insights from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters; John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again: A Christian Philosophy of Life; and Nature and Grace: A New Approach to Thomistic Resourcement. He is a member of the Academy of Catholic Theology and Society of Biblical Literature; and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Andrew has appeared on EWTN’s Catholicism on Campus and is a regular contributor to Ascension’s blog as well as Chastity Project. He lives with his wife Sarah and their four children in Atchison, Kansas.