Magazine article The Spectator

The Benedict Option

Magazine article The Spectator

The Benedict Option

Article excerpt

By embracing their minority status, Christians can revive their faith

Hannah Roberts, an English Catholic friend, was once telling me about her family's long history in Yorkshire. She spoke with yearning of what she had back home and how painful it is to live so far away. I wondered aloud why she and her American husband had emigrated to the United States from that idyllic landscape, the homeland she loved. 'Because we wanted our children to have a chance to grow up Catholic,' she said.

It's not that she feared losing them to the Church of England -- it's that she feared them losing Christianity itself. She and her husband Chris, an academic theologian, are now raising their four young children in Philadelphia, a city with a historically large Catholic presence. Even so, Philadelphia is no safe haven, as the Robertses freely acknowledge. Christianity is declining sharply in the north-east of the United States, one of the nation's least religious regions. The most recent studies confirm that the country is, at last, firmly on the same trail of decline blazed by the churches of Europe.

The collapse of religion in Britain has been perhaps the most striking feature of the last generation. The sheer pace of the decline has been recorded by Damian Thompson in this magazine: church pews are emptying at the rate of 10,000 people per week. In 1983, some 40 per cent of the population declared itself Anglican. Now, it's 17 per cent. To be a practising Christian in the West now is to belong to a minority.

How, then, should believers adapt to a society that is not just unsupportive but often hostile to their beliefs? In his influential 1981 book After Virtue, the Scottish moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre warned that the Enlightenment's inability to provide a binding and authoritative source of morality to replace the Christian-Aristotelian one it discarded had left the contemporary West adrift. He likened our age to the era of the Roman Empire's fall -- a comparison that Pope Benedict XVI has also made.

The old believers, MacIntyre wrote, need to respond. Which means to stop trying to 'shore up the imperium,' and instead build 'local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us'. MacIntyre famously concluded by saying that we in the West await 'another -- doubtless very different -- St Benedict'.

MacIntyre chose Benedict as his model because the 6th-century saint's inventive response to a religious collapse had enormous historical ramifications. The monastic communities he founded spread quickly throughout western Europe, and over the next few centuries laid the groundwork for the rebirth of civilisation in the West. What would a St Benedict for our day say now? What would best ensure Christianity's resilience and long-term survival? Christians do have to go back quite a long way to find a similar situation: by some estimates, Europe is more secularised now than at any time since Constantine's conversion in the 3rd century.

What I call The Benedict Option is a choice made by an increasing number of Christians living in the secular West: to build the resilient local communities MacIntyre calls for. You don't have to be cloistered as monastics to learn from the structure and practices of Benedictine life. The early Benedictines were an example of what the historian Arnold Toynbee called a 'creative minority' -- a small group within a larger society that responds creatively to a crisis in a way that serves the common good.

Pope Benedict XVI was clear-eyed about the grim predicament facing European Christianity. Drawing on Toynbee's analysis, he called on the Catholic flock to 'understand itself as a creative minority that has a heritage of values that are not things of the past, but a very living and relevant reality'.

It's a novel claim: that monks are modern, not outdated relics of a medieval past. …

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