The Roman Catholic Church is the oldest institution in the world. It has seen the ruin of an Empire, the rise and fall of kingdoms, withstood the invasions of barbarian tribes and repulsed Ottoman armies and navies. It even produced a pope who, with not a single armoured division, played a paramount role in toppling the Soviet empire. Today, the Church of Rome perches at the symbolic centre of a Europe at peace, and wealthier than it has ever been.
However, the Roman Church may well be a canary in the coal mine. The faith is dying in the hearts and minds of Western peoples, and the institution itself is beset with corruption. Revelations of systematic sexual abuse are rocking the Church in Chile and Honduras, while in the United States the Catholic Church has been crippled by spasms of scandal. A Pennsylvania grand jury reported recently on decades of sexual grotesqueries priests performed on children and minors, and bishops hid from public view. A powerful retired cardinal, former Washington archbishop Theodore McCarrick, was revealed to have molested minors earlier in his career, and to have made a habit of forcing himself on seminarians. Across the Atlantic, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal nuncio to the US and a long-time Vatican insider, accused a gay mafia of top cardinals of protecting McCarrick, alleged that Pope Francis himself knew about McCarrick and rehabilitated him anyway, and called on the pontiff to resign.
Meanwhile, Francis keeps silent. Perhaps he surveys his ailing kingdom and ponders the observation of Livy, historian of the Roman Republic’s fall and empire’s rise: “We can endure neither our vices nor their cure.” As goes the Church, the guardian of the Western soul and keeper of its cultural memory, so, one fears, goes the West.
The fall of the Republic may be too optimistic a model for our time. Though Rome changed political systems, Roman civilisation itself, bolstered by belief in the old gods and old ways, remained intact through the trauma. Rome endured for five more centuries before succumbing in 476 to internal weakness and foreign invasion, which established a radically new order where once there was empire.
Are we Rome? That is, is the West – by which I mean the nations that used to be called Christendom – on the verge of civilisational collapse, as the Western Roman Empire was in the 5th century?
This is a question of immense relevance today. The most important political book in the United States at the moment is Why Liberalism Failed, by the Notre Dame political theorist Patrick Deneen. In it, Deneen argues that liberalism – the political and economic settlement under which we have been living more or less since the 19th century – is destroying itself. It is doing so not because it has failed to achieve its ultimate goal, but paradoxically because it has done very well at it.
In Deneen’s telling, a basic purpose of liberalism is to liberate the individual from all unchosen obligations. Its ultimate goal is to secure for the choosing individual the right to self-definition and autonomy. The anthropology of liberalism assumes no teleology. In the classical view, liberty is the freedom to live virtuously. In the modern, liberal view, liberty is the right to define yourself as you choose. As the US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy infamously put it in 1992, “[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”.
Liberalism has worked fairly well for us over the past two centuries. So why is liberalism in a mortal crisis now? Because liberalism depends on a cultural consensus that it cannot create. Justice Kennedy’s remark – delivered in a majority Supreme Court opinion reaffirming the constitutional right to abortion – reveals the core instability at the heart of liberalism. What do you do when there is no longer a binding consensus of right and wrong, or even what it means to be human?
Liberalism in all its forms – political, social and economic – atomises society. In Deneen’s account, the liberal state presents itself as a neutral arbiter of competing claims. But without a widely shared, pre-political sense of how those claims might be judged, the state has no choice but to enforce its own view as normative. And it turns out that the normative view is that held by the power elites in the liberal state.
What happens when the elites become detached from the masses? More crucially, what happens when ordinary politics becomes next to impossible because the masses do not share a cultural basis within which they can settle disputes? That is what we are living through today.
The contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre said that we in the West were no longer living on a coherent tradition, but on incoherent fragments of tradition. We cannot settle political disputes, but only yell at each other, because reasoning should depend on a shared epistemological framework. For the West, this was Christianity, and since the Enlightenment, a secularised version of Christianity. Now that consensus has broken down. We are left only to yell at each other.
In his 1982 book After Virtue, MacIntyre famously compared our civilisation to late Rome’s. He said that a crucial turning point in Rome’s decline and fall came when ordinary people stopped believing that their job was to shore up the Empire, but rather set about creating small, local communities within which the life of virtue could survive the Dark Ages ahead. MacIntyre said that today, we await “a new – and doubtless very different – St Benedict”.
Now, MacIntyre may have been fudging a bit about the founding of the Benedictine order in the early 6th century, for the sake of making a point. But his point is nevertheless a critically important one. It is where I get the idea of the Benedict Option – the fundamental choice facing all serious Christians today, in this post-Christian civilisation.
The choice is this: do you continue working to shore up the current political, economic and civilisational order, or do you instead focus more on building up local forms of Christian community within which the faith can be preserved through the present and coming darkness? I believe that serious Christians have no real alternative but to choose the latter.
That does not mean that Christians should run to the hills, or hive off from the world like separatists. That is not feasible. It does not even mean that Christians should leave politics. What it means is that Christians must make their first priority the shoring up of their faith. As Robert Louis Wilken, a leading American historian of the early Church, puts it:
Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.
This is why I wrote The Benedict Option. It is not a book about politics, though politics figures into it. It is rather a book written as a prophetic warning to Christians in the West: that if we do not act now, and act boldly, to strengthen ourselves in the traditional Christian faith, that faith will disappear. The handwriting is on the wall.
By now, if you have heard anything about The Benedict Option, you will have heard that it is alarmist about the condition of the Church in the West. I am not going to deny that. In fact, let me affirm the accusation: The Benedict Option is alarmist – but that is because there is a lot to be alarmed about. If you are a Christian who is not alarmed, then you are not paying attention.
In fact, I believe that in the West today, we are living through the religious and cultural equivalent of the Great Flood of the Bible. It is a time of catastrophe, yes, but a particular kind of catastrophe: one that is obliterating the old order, including Christianity.
The floodwaters are liquid modernity. This is a phrase coined by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman to describe the quality of constant change characteristic of our time. For Bauman, modernity was “solid”, in the sense that a definite and radical change had been set in motion, but change happened at a rate that was absorbable. That is, people could get used to the changes, such that life itself felt solid.
At some point in the 20th century, the rate of change sped up so fast that modernity became liquid. That is, before this or that change took solid form, things changed again. To live in liquid modernity is to experience life as having no fixed landmarks or pathways. You can go wherever your desires take you.
Bauman said that the kind of person who thrives in liquid modernity is one who has no fixed commitments that would impede his autonomy. If before we thought of ourselves as in some sense on a grand pilgrimage through life, moving in a definite direction with everyone else, today we are now tourists. Tourists travel with their chosen parties. They drop in and out of places long enough to drain them dry of interest, then move on, guided by individual whim.
Liquid modernity has brought about the loss of traditions, religious and otherwise. It has fomented the dissolution of bonds among people, a loss of shared authority, as well as a sense of connection to the past and to the future. It has terribly compromised the ability of people to reason together, and therefore to live together. People have come to see truth as whatever feels true for them. This is what Alasdair MacIntyre calls “emotivism”. You cannot argue with someone’s feelings. And if you cannot argue with someone’s feelings, then how can you settle disputes? You cannot, except through the raw exercise of power.
The experience of rapid fragmentation that America is going through now did not start with Donald Trump, nor did it start with the 1960s. It has been underway for a very long time, and is now reaching critical mass. The question facing Christians in many Western countries today is whether or not it is more important to be a “good citizen”, or to be a faithful Christian.
Here is an example of what I mean. I recently saw in the papers that Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is publicly opposing a law that would allow Catholics to open more faith schools in the UK. He said that this law would be bad for “social cohesion”. Pathetic, just pathetic. Here is a man who once presided over the state Church, and who once said that Britons should get used to the fact that Sharia in the UK is inevitable. With Christianity flat on its back in his country, he opposes a small effort by Catholics to expand their footprint, because it is bad for social cohesion, whatever that is. This is a Christian leader who cannot read the signs of the times. This is a man who believes it is more important to maintain the imperium, to use MacIntyre’s phrase, than to save his own religion. Rowan Williams wants to play nice. Those days are long past.
The fact is, we live in a post-Christian civilisation, in the sense that our civilisation no longer understands itself by the Biblical narrative. That would be challenging enough to the Christian Church if the Church were in good shape. But the Church in the West – not the Global South, but the West – is in terrible shape, and our inability to recognise this and to face the facts squarely only makes it worse. The Churches are in a state of rapid decline both in terms of quantity and quality.
By quantity, I mean the number of people who claim to be Christian. As we all know, in Europe, the Christian faith is in catastrophic decline. Pope Benedict XVI likened Europe’s spiritual crisis to, yes, the fall of the Roman Empire. In the US, we long thought we were an exception to this trend, but that is no longer the case. The bottom has fallen out with the Millennial generation. A couple of years ago, two of the leading sociologists of religion, surveying the most recent social science data, concluded that America has at last joined Europe on the steep downward slide to unbelief.
By quality, I am talking about the nature of Christian belief. I draw the bulk of my diagnosis from the research of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith. He and his colleagues have found overwhelmingly that the de facto religion of American young people is what he calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD). It is a shallow, feel-good form of Christianity that has little to nothing to do with historical Biblical faith. MTD tells us that God exists, and He wants us to be nice and happy. We do not have to consult him unless we need something. Good people go to heaven, and except for Hitler, we are all good.
Smith and his team have found that the majority of young Christian adults deny that their moral beliefs are grounded in the Bible or traditional Church authority. For them, “truth” is what feels right to them as autonomous, choosing individuals. A faith that is not grounded in anything other than emotivism cannot survive, and will not survive. And note well: we older Christians absolutely cannot blame young people for what they believe, and do not believe. As Christian Smith points out, these young people were formed – intellectually, morally and spiritually – by Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. I am 51 years old, and was raised in the 1970s. When I first read about MTD in 2005, the year Professor Smith first defined the concept, I recognised the bland, inoffensive cultural Christianity in which I had been raised. MTD has been with us a long time.
When I travel to Christian colleges in the US, both Catholic and Evangelical, I hear the same thing from professors and campus ministers: young people are coming to campus out of Christian high schools and church youth programmes knowing almost nothing substantive about the Christian faith. Worse, they do not even know how little they know, and why it matters. MTD is the last stop before apostasy. This is not their fault, certainly – but it is their responsibility to reclaim the inheritance their parents’ generation denied them.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the perfect faith for liquid modernity. According to Zygmunt Bauman, the kind of person who will thrive in liquid modernity is one with no fixed beliefs or commitments beyond desire. I believe the process of dissolution is too far gone to stop. As a result, American Christians are facing and will continue to face these two social facts, summarised like this by the Christian writer Andy Crouch:
Social hostility and legal restrictions will undermine the viability of many Christian institutions, and significantly limit individual Christians’ participation in many professions and aspects of public life, in the United States within a generation or so.
Due to a lack of meaningful discipleship and accommodation to various features of secularised modernity and consumer culture, the collapse of Christian belief and practice is likely among members of the dominant culture (and many minority cultures) in the United States within a generation or so.
Those Christians who go with the flow of liquid modernity, and who live like Bauman’s ideal liquid modernist, will be washed downstream and over the falls.
It is here that we turn for rescue to the Rule of St Benedict, written by the monastic founder in the early 6th century. In the Prologue of the Rule, Benedict calls the 6th-century monastic version of Bauman’s liquid modernist a “gyrovague” – which he denounces as the worst kind of monk. The gyrovague just flits from monastery to monastery, with no sense of stability. He cannot hope to grow spiritually or otherwise. This is true for us 21st-century Christians as well. To be a gyrovague is to be in sync with our time – but it is to accept the death of Christianity, whether you know it or not. St Benedict’s Rule, and the monastic communities that grew out of it, offered the antidote to gyrovaguery. They still do. And I believe that Benedict has the secret for the Church’s survival in this new Dark Age.
The collapse of the Roman Empire in the West did not happen overnight, but it was a terrible shock all the same. Benedict was born in the year 480, four years after the pathetic abdication of the final Caesar. When he came of age, his Christian parents sent him down from their Italian mountain village of Nursia (in Italian: Norcia) to complete his education in the city of Rome.
Young Benedict was so disgusted by the chaos and decadence he found there that he abandoned his studies and retreated to a cave in the woods. There he fasted and prayed and sought God’s will. When he emerged, he went on to found the religious order that bears his name. He wrote his Rule, and when he died, left behind 12 or 13 monasteries in the vicinity of Rome.
Benedict did not try to save Roman civilisation, or to Make Rome Great Again. All he wanted to do was to put God first in his life in a radical way, and serve Him in community. When Benedict died in the year 547, he could not possibly have imagined what God was going to do with his mustard seed of faith. Over the next centuries, Benedictine monasticism spread like wildfire across Dark Ages Europe. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the monks built monasteries that served as sanctuaries of light, peace, stability and learning. Simply by being faithful to and disciplined in their calling, and sharing the fruits of their prayer and work with those outside the monastery, they laid the groundwork for the rebirth of civilisation.
Two years ago, I spent a week at the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, St Benedict’s hometown, praying with the monks there, eating with them, and interviewing them about their way of life. From those conversations, and from studying the Rule, I discerned a number of ways we Christians living in the world – Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox – can adapt monastic insights to our way of life in the world.
These involve a mixture of prayer, contemplation, Scripture study, asceticism, work and building local community. In this present piece I do not have time to discuss them in depth, but I will say that the ultimate goal is to bring us closer, individually and in community, to transformative union with God. The Benedict Option is not the Gospel, nor is it a Pelagian strategy for earning merit. We can do nothing without the freely given grace of God. But there are things we can do to keep ourselves receptive to that grace. There are things we can do to practice the presence of God. For the Benedictine monks, religion is not part of life; it is a way of life. It has to be the same thing for us.
The Benedict Option, then, is a way of structuring our lives to keep God always before us. It is a kind of spiritual training through which our hearts and minds are formed by the Holy Spirit. I wrote The Benedict Option for all small-o orthodox Christians. What do I mean by “small-o orthodox”? I mean all Christians – again, Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox – who believe that there is an unseen order surrounding and embracing us. That order is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ, but also through Scripture, through the Church, and indeed in some mysterious sense through all things. Christians are intended to conform their lives to this order.
In his new book God Is Not Nice, the Catholic theologian Ulrich Lehner says that the major decision in everyone’s life is whether or not we approach the world as if there is an inherent objective order that we can know and relate to, or that the world outside ourselves is meaningless, except for the meaning we attach to it. Small-o orthodox Christians believe truth is objective, and that religious faith is a means by which we order our own lives to that truth, which is complete in Jesus Christ. By contrast, modernist Christians believe that religious truth can be changed to suit our felt needs in a certain time or place. That kind of Christianity, I believe, is a house built on shifting sand. It will not survive this time of testing.
The Reformed theologian Hans Boersma says our modern condition makes it hard to perceive the unseen order. We are not just called to trust in Christ for eternal salvation, but we are called to participate in God’s existence, and do that in part by recognising him everywhere present and filling all things. The world is not dead matter, but a sacrament – signs through which God mysteriously reveals himself to us. This was the patristic view, and the view that was universal in Christendom until the 14th century. One of the monks of Norcia said to me that we must order our lives so that we are icons through which the radiance of God can shine.
One of the particular Benedictine virtues worth mentioning here is stability. Each monk of the order, when he makes his final profession, vows to stay in that monastery till the day he dies, barring some unforeseen circumstance. This is called a vow of stability. It made an enormous difference in the world of the early Benedictines. This was a time of massive chaos. The Benedictine vow of stability made themselves and their monasteries still points in a fast-turning world. The vow of stability was central to the Benedictine order’s civilisation-transforming work in the early Middle Ages. When the monks would build a monastery, and barbarians would come in and slaughter the monks, the mother house would just send more. Eventually the peasants came to understand that the monks would not abandon them. They would settle near the monasteries, because they knew them as a place of order, stability, peace and love.
If we adapt some form of stability in our own lives, living in the 21st-century world, we will not only be powerfully countercultural, but I believe we will draw refugees from the world of chaos and pain to ourselves – and through us, to Christ.
This point cannot be made strongly enough: St Benedict did not set out to save civilisation. Rather, he only wanted to serve God with all his heart, soul and mind, and do it in community. Everything else followed from that. Anybody who thinks the Benedict Option is a plan to “take America back for Christ”, or any such thing, should set that notion aside. This is about saving the Church.
In the culture war, the Church has lost decisively. We have been isolated on Dunkirk beach, so to speak. We have three choices. We can launch a frontal attack on the enemy – and be annihilated. We can sit still and mind our own business and hope that the enemy leaves us alone – and be annihilated. Or we can climb aboard that little flotilla awaiting us in the channel and cross over to “England”. There, within relative safety, we can spiritually regroup and retrain, and get ready to rejoin the battle when the opportunity presents itself. When the British Army retreated from Dunkirk, it was not to leave the war. That was not even a possibility. But it was to rebuild their ranks for the long struggle ahead. That is how it has to be with us.
To be perfectly clear: this is not a head for the hills, separatist strategy. We have to stay involved with the world to some extent if we are going to be faithful to our commission. But if we are going to represent Jesus Christ faithfully to the post-Christian world, we are going to have to spend significantly more time away from that world in prayer, contemplation, and thickening our communal ties for the sake of being resilient. In other words, we have to spend more time away from the world for the sake of the world.
Let me use another analogy. Faithful Christians in Europe and North America today must understand themselves as an exilic people. We are in some ways like the Hebrews living as captives in Babylon. Speaking to His people through the prophet Jeremiah, God told the Hebrews that He brought them to Babylon for a purpose. He encouraged them to settle in the city, to work for its common good, and to trust that He would one day deliver them.
But we also see, in the Book of Daniel, evidence that the Hebrews lived in Babylon, but did not adopt its strange gods. The well-known story of the three Hebrew servants of King Nebuchadnezzar who were willing to die in the king’s furnace rather than apostatise shows the resilience of Hebrew religion, even in a strange land. So it must be with us Christians today. The Benedict Option has attracted the attention of some rather high figures at the Vatican. Last autumn, the Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a close adviser to Pope Francis, denounced the Benedict Option as a “Masada complex”. Father Spadaro condemned alarmists like me who, in his view, are spreading worries that “have no basis in reality”. The Benedict Option, he said, is contrary to Pope Francis’s vision of engagement with the world. The Church is not a fortress, but rather, in Francis’s phrase, a field hospital.
Yes, it is true that the Church is a field hospital. But what kind of doctors and nurses will staff this field hospital? We Christians today are not ready to do so. We cannot share with the world what we do not have. In our present state, it would be like going out into a field hospital with no medical training, armed with nothing but a sack full of opioid pills to take away the pain without doing real healing.
An Orthodox priest friend of mine also says the Church is a field hospital. He says lots of people come to the Church complaining of pain, but they only want a pill to make the hurting stop. What they really need is surgery and therapy for the sake of true healing. Sometimes it has got to hurt for a while in order to get truly better. This is true spiritual medicine.
Pope Francis and his allies seem oblivious of the true crisis of the Catholic faith in the West. Let me share some insights with you from the work of sociologist Christian Smith and his teams over the years. In 2011, Professor Smith published a book called Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. It is about the moral lives of 18 to 23-year-old Americans. It makes for very depressing reading.
Among his findings:
– 60 per cent of this group say morality is entirely a personal choice. They make no appeal to religion, tradition or philosophy as an external guide to inform that choice.
– Most are not strict moral relativists, but they cannot explain or justify their beliefs.
– An astonishing 61 per cent of the emerging adults have no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 per cent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life”.
– This is not their fault, necessarily. These young people were failed by parents, churches, schools and other institutions that offered them nothing but platitudes. Adults like to tell themselves that the kids are okay, that they are nice, hardworking, committed to social justice and so forth. It is just not true.
– We older Americans are just as bad. It is not that we have something good and useful to teach them, but are failing to communicate it. We are just as lost as they are.
Smith is talking about all Americans. But things are as bad or worse with Catholics in particular. In 2014, Smith and his team published a book focusing exclusively on the US Catholic Church. It is extremely grim reading. For most young Catholics, the faith does not set them apart from the secular world. They have been almost entirely assimilated. Most do not accept the Church as their authoritative teacher, and do not consider the Church to be necessary for their spiritual lives at all. Young people raised in liberal Catholic homes are abandoning the faith in massive numbers. It looks better for those raised in traditionally Catholic homes, but the picture is still pretty dire.
When Catholics look and think like the rest of the world, what does Father Spadaro think they have to share with the world? I wrote The Benedict Option for Catholics and other Christians who prefer to see the world as it really is, not through the gauzy haze of the failed sentimentality of 1970s Catholicism. Contrary to Father Spadaro’s diagnosis, the problem is not that Catholics are not enough in the world. The problem is that the world is too much in Catholics. Catholic leaders trying to turn the Catholic Church into a Romanised version of Mainline Protestantism are not helping to turn the tide of liquid modernity, but are rather channelling it right into the heart of the Church. They are not the future.
What does The Benedict Option have to do with European Christianity? As we all know, as bad as things are in America today, they are much, much worse in Europe. And yet, I have found real signs of hope in Europe.
In my book, I write about the Tipi Loschi, a community of lay Catholic families living in a small city on the Adriatic. They are ordinary Catholics who are very orthodox in their faith – but they are not angry about it. They are guided by the cheerful spirit of G. K. Chesterton. They started their own school for their children, and call it the Scuola G. K. Chesterton. They come together to study, to pray, to worship, to grow gardens and to serve the needy. They make pilgrimages to the monastery of St Benedict in Norcia. In fact, I first found out about them from Father Cassian Folsom, then the prior of the Norcia monastery. He told me that any Christians who want to survive what is coming cannot live ordinary lives, but will have to do something like the Tipi Loschi.
These Italians are not dour, grim survivalists hunkered down on the seashore waiting for the Apocalypse. In fact, I have never been around people who are more truly alive. Whatever they have, I want. They are not prepared to surrender to the wider culture – and they are not willing to sit around waiting for the institutional Catholic Church to get itself sorted before taking action to save their faith and the faith of their children.
In France, The Benedict Option has become a sensation among Catholics of the Millennial Generation. In speaking appearances in Paris and elsewhere, I have been surprised and gratified by the reaction from these young Catholic adults. They have the same light in their eyes as the Tipi Loschi. I kept noticing a difference between French Catholics of my generation and older, and the Millennials. The older Catholics look tentative and anxious. They still seem to believe that if they only play nice, then secular French society will accept them.
The Millennial Catholics, on the other hand, do not seem to have any of these illusions. They know that it is over for Catholicism in France, in terms of having any meaningful voice in the public square. But accepting that fact has not made them depressed. In fact, it seems to have liberated them. They want Catholicism without apology. They have been raised under laïcité, and under what Pope Benedict XVI called the dictatorship of relativism – and they want to breathe free. They find that freedom in orthodox Catholicism. On a recent trip to France, I met several young people who are trying out different ways of living out their faith in community. They have nothing to lose. There is a certain joy that comes from having nothing left to lose.
In a real way, the young Catholics of France and Italy that I have met are more realistic than their American counterparts. In the US, we Christians still have the view that we matter in a real way. Many of us – especially the Evangelicals – believe that political power is the way to protect ourselves. It is a potentially fatal illusion. I perfectly understand why many Christians voted for Donald Trump, as a way to protect themselves from the militantly liberal Hillary Clinton. But Trump is not the solution. If Christians think he is, then they will delay making the preparations they need to make to endure the long siege ahead.
Those preparations include drawing on an idea I took from one of the leading anti-Communist dissidents of his time: the Czech mathematician Václav Benda. Benda realised that Christians (and others) who opposed the regime were politically powerless. He urged the creation of what he called a “parallel polis”. It would be a society existing alongside official Czech society, but that would preserve true values – Christian and humanist – through the long night of Communist dictatorship. For example, he advocated countering the propaganda that passed for education in government schools by starting underground classes so young people could learn real literature, real poetry, real philosophy, and so on.
The idea was not to create a society totally separate from others, but rather to nurture the bonds of true community, and to preserve cultural memory, so that when the tyranny fell, there would be something left over on which to build. Whether he succeeded or not is up to debate. The point is, Benda did not simply sit back and lament the marginalisation of Christians. He tried to invent a way of doing politics – that is, working for the common good – while being faithful to Christianity in a time of persecution.
Believing Christians today – American and European both – have a lot to learn from Václav Benda. We have a lot to learn from St Benedict. There is so very, very much in the long tradition of Western Christianity from which we can and must draw. This is our inheritance! We have to claim it, while we still can.
I will go so far as to say that the future of the Church, in fact, is in the distant past. I am not talking about nostalgia. There never was a Golden Age, heaven knows, but our fathers and mothers in the faith had resources that we do not. We can find them again, and creatively figure out how to make them work for us, in our circumstances. As Tipi Loschi leader Marco Sermarini told me: “We discovered nothing. We only rediscovered what had been lost.”
There is real hope. Last autumn, in Paris, I had coffee with a leading French philosopher. He is a brilliant man who is deeply depressed about the future of his country, and of Western civilisation. We shared our mutual admiration for the dystopian novelist Michel Houellebecq, who has written about the decline of godless France. Houellebecq, like my interlocutor, is not a religious believer, but both men recognise and lament the moral and spiritual decadence in post-Christian France.
I asked my companion where he found hope. He looked at me with a heavy sigh, and said: “I have no hope.” I told him: “My hope is in Jesus Christ. But don’t think that I’m saying that to you in a sentimental way.” I spoke of my own conversion in my twenties, and how I had learned that for Christians there is a difference between hope and optimism. Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. There is no warrant for that today. But Christian hope is the confidence that all things have ultimate meaning, and even if they go very, very wrong, they can be redemptive if joined mystically to Jesus Christ. This is where we find the confidence to affirm the goodness of the world, despite being clear-eyed about its vices. This is why and how we love in the ruins. My companion said: “That is fine for you Americans. But here in France, we have decided that this world is all that exists. There is nothing else. When you die, you die.”
That man is a good man, but he has resigned himself, and his civilisation, to death. I believe that André Malraux was onto something when he said, “[t]he 21st century will be religious, or it will not be at all”. I would refine that statement to say this: “In Europe, the 21st century must be Christian, or Europe will not be at all.” And to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, by way of Michel Houellebecq: “If you will not have Christ, then you had better pay your respects to Mohammed.”
I suggest to my Hungarian friends to look to the south, to Norcia, in central Italy, for a bright sign of hope, to the Benedictine monks there who are at the heart of my book. In August 2016, a devastating earthquake shook the region around Norcia. When the quake hit in the middle of the night, the Benedictine monks were awake to pray matins, and they fled the monastery for the safety of the open-air piazza. Father Cassian later reflected that the earthquake symbolised the crumbling of the West’s Christian culture, but that there was a second, hopeful symbol that night. “The second symbol is the gathering of the people around the statue of Saint Benedict in the piazza in order to pray”, he wrote to supporters. “That is the only way to rebuild.”
The tremors left the basilica church too structurally unstable for worship, and most of the monastery uninhabitable. The brothers evacuated the town and moved to their land up the mountainside, just outside the Norcia walls. They pitched tents in the ruins of an older monastery and continued their prayer life, interrupted only by visits to the town to minister to its people. The monks received distinguished visitors in their exile, including Italy’s then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Cardinal Robert Sarah, who heads the Vatican’s liturgical office. Cardinal Sarah blessed the monks’ temporary quarters, celebrated mass with them, then told them that their tent monastery “reminds me of Bethlehem, where it all began. I am certain that the future of the Church is in the monasteries”, said the cardinal, “because where prayer is, there is the future”.
Five days later, more earthquakes shook Norcia. The cross atop the basilica’s façade toppled to the ground. And then, early in the morning of Sunday, 30 October, the strongest earthquake to hit Italy in thirty years struck, its epicentre just north of the town. The fourteenth-century Basilica of St Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, fell violently to the ground. Only its façade remained. Not a single church in Norcia remained standing.
With dust still rising from the rubble, Father Basil knelt on the stones of the piazza, facing the ruined basilica, and accompanied by nuns and a few elderly Norcini, including one in a wheelchair, he prayed. Later amateur video posted to YouTube showed Father Basil, Father Benedict and Father Martin running through the streets of the rubble-strewn town, looking for the dying who needed last rites. By the grace of God, there were none.
Back in America, Father Richard Cipolla, a Catholic priest in Connecticut and an old friend of Father Benedict’s, e-mailed the subprior when he heard the news of the latest quake. “Is there damage? What is going on?”, Father Cipolla wrote. “Yes, damage much worse”, Father Benedict replied. “But we are okay. Much to tell you, but just pray. I am well, and God continues to purify us and bring very good things.”
The next morning, as the sun rose over Norcia, Father Benedict sent a message to the monastery’s friends all over the world. He said that no Norcini had lost their lives in the quake because they had heeded the warnings from the earlier tremors and left town. “[God] spent two months preparing us for the complete destruction of our patron’s church so that when it finally happened we would watch it, in horror but in safety, from atop the town”, the priest-monk wrote. “These are mysteries which will take years – not days or months – to understand.”
Surely that is true. But notice this: the earth moved, and the Basilica of St Benedict, which had stood firm for many centuries, tumbled to the ground. Only the façade, the mere semblance of a church, remains. Because the monks headed for the hills after the August earthquake, they survived. God preserved them in the holy poverty of their canvas-covered Bethlehem, where they continued to live the Rule in the ancient way, including chanting the Old Mass. Now they can begin rebuilding amid the ruins, their resilient Benedictine faith teaching them to receive this catastrophe as a call to deeper holiness and sacrifice. God willing, new life will one day spring forth from the rubble.
“We pray and watch from the mountainside, thinking of the long three years Saint Benedict spent in the cave before God decided to call him out to become a light to the world”, wrote Father Benedict. “Fiat. Fiat.”
Let it be. Let it be.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.