What we have to avoid is the sort of thinking that leads to the belief that we’ve lost: the belief that we’ve got to batten down the hatches and try to salvage the remnant that’s left of Christian civilization. We haven’t lost…

benedict optionA few months ago, I gave a couple of talks at a C.S. Lewis Conference at Montreat College in North Carolina. In between talks I enjoyed a convivial conversation with Tom Ascik, an attendee at the conference—and, coincidentally, a contributor to The Imaginative Conservative—who recorded our conversation. I thought the drift of our discussion on the Benedict Option might be of interest to readers of The Imaginative Conservative. This being so, the transcript of our discussion follows.

Mr. Ascik: Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option says that Christendom is over. What do you say?

Mr. Pearce: It obviously depends upon how you’re defining the word Christendom. For me, Christendom is the Church Militant; it’s the Body of Christ in the world. And of course, in this sense, Christendom is never over until the end of time, but that’s how I define Christendom. I think he’s defining it in a different way, and that’s fine, but I will continue to use the word Christendom in a positive sense and a living sense because I think it’s still very much alive.

What about Christendom as a social force, as a force organized in society, as its being the culture or the custom of society?

The first thing we have to clarify is that there’s never been a golden age. The more you understand history, the more you understand, in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, that history is the long defeat with only occasional glimpses of final victory. In that sense, when the Church is being persecuted, she’s also being purified. When she is living in times of comfort, she often becomes corrupt.

In that sense, we have to understand history as an ongoing struggle against the forces of darkness, against the fabric of sin which is woven into the very fabric of the Fallen cosmos in which we live. There’s a certain type of progressive who makes the mistake of thinking that there’s a golden age in the future. There isn’t. But a certain type of traditionalist or conservative sees there being a golden age in the past, which there hasn’t been. Such conservatives are in danger of thinking that everything was better in the past and that things will inexorably get worse in the future. This very easily leads to despair.

One of the things we have to avoid is the sort of thinking that leads to the belief that we’ve lost. The belief that we’ve got to batten down the hatches and try to salvage the remnant that’s left of Christian civilization. We haven’t lost. It’s an ongoing fight, which in terms of the world is a long defeat, but in terms of final victory is assured. For each of us, of course, our part in the fight is our proverbial three score years and ten, and then we’re going to meet our reward. If we fought well, we get a good reward, an eternal one. In this sense, the end of the world, for each of us as individuals, is very near indeed. The world ends when we die. It is this “end time” that we need to keep in mind, not some doom-laden apocalypse, the latter of which is wholly in the hands of God and is, therefore, in the safest hands imaginable.

As recently as the 1950s, wasn’t Christian sexual morality the norm or at least was regarded as the norm in society?

I think we have to differentiate between the norm and the regarded norm. I think that actions outside of the Christian norm of morality were not spoken about in the past or were brushed under the carpet but they were still there. I think that keeping such immoral behaviour out of polite conversation, maintaining the existence, so to speak, of taboos, is healthy for society. I think a healthy society has to preserve and protect the family, the raising of children in healthy environments. Once you lose that sense of the decorum due to virtue, the society begins to decay and unravel which is what we’re seeing now.

Or is it more than the decorum? I mean, if you take in this country the divorce rate for instance, it’s dramatically different today than it was in 1960. The change in the culture’s sexual morality is marked, you’re saying that it’s not really as big as Rod Dreher says?

What I’m saying is that things were not as golden in the past as we might be tempted to believe. I think that such nostalgia is an oversimplification of the past, but I do think there’s a major collapse in an understanding of objective morality. That’s due to the rise of relativism and all the manifestations that arise from that. But one thing we need to get clear here is that relativism, or as St. John Paul II preferred to call it, the culture of death, is non-sustainable. It’s not something that can survive of itself; it’s a parasite and it’s not going to triumph. What’s going to happen is we’re going to see the collapse of it.

Of course, what it’s doing in the process of its collapse is destroying people’s lives, many people’s lives. I’m going to stop short of saying it’s sending people to Hell because I’m not going to judge anybody. But it’s certainly destroying many people’s lives. There’s that element of what might be called a disaster, but it’s not the end because, at the end of the day, what is sustainable is virtue. Sin is self-destructive, and a culture based upon sin is self-destructive.

What we’re seeing is the slow suicide of the death culture, and I think we’ve now got to the stage in the suicide where the acceleration is setting in. I say this from the perspective of its rate of decline, because things are getting worse very quickly. The fact is that the whole thing is in the process of collapse, a fact that should neither surprise us or concern us. The collapse of the culture of death is not our concern, except insofar as we might celebrate its demise while sympathizing for those who are impacted by it.

Where I do agree with Rod Dreher is that we need to make sure that we as Christians are true to the Church Militant, that we are able to fight, that we are able to sustain our own culture, our own sub-culture within the culture of death. And in that, I agree with him. The question that’s being framed will make it sound as if I’m disagreeing with his thesis. I don’t disagree with the Benedict Option, but I do think we need to clarify what we mean by it.

Mr. Dreher tries to focus his book on the need for Christians to make a decision, which he calls the Benedict Option. He says something needs to be done, and he proposes this way of living based on the role of St. Benedict, adapted to laymen. It doesn’t propose that everyone goes into a monastery. I think that’s his question: What needs to be done to preserve the Faith? We want to prevent as many people being corrupted as possible, right?

Yes, we need to try to prevent our own people from becoming corrupt but we also have to evangelize. That’s the challenge. The Church Militant needs to be a fortress, we need to be a fortress, but we also need to go out and engage the culture. We need to engage the culture. It’s not a question of either/or, it’s a question of both/and. How we achieve that both/and is the question we need to be addressing.

Mr. Dreher seems to be saying that it can’t be done in a mass way. He’s absolutely for evangelization and affecting the culture. But he is also saying that the troops need to be better prepared. For instance, he says that Christian politics, the moral majority, is over and that it failed because the Democratic Party is not built on Christian principles, and nor is the Republican Party. I guess his major point is that it has to be done on a smaller scale, one-by-one evangelizing rather than Catholic Masses on the media, evangelical pastors on the media. 

I think we have to differentiate. We can say that on a macro level, the American political system is corrupt, it’s undemocratic, it’s a plutocracy, and that both major parties are a disaster and betray Christianity; I have no problem with that. I completely agree with that. We can also say that we need to begin from the grassroots up. I wrote a book called Small Is Still Beautiful, so I’m very much a believer in grassroots localism as the way that we should be acting economically, politically, evangelically. I’m completely at one with that.

But do I think, for instance, that EWTN is a bad thing? No, I think EWTN is a good thing. I write books, so does Mr. Dreher. When you write a book, you’re not going one-on-one, you’re going on one-to-many people. There’s nothing at all wrong with disseminating, planting seeds as widely as we’re able to do it. Again, it’s both/and; it’s not either/or.

I don’t think Mr. Dreher is addressing his book to people like you and himself. He’s addressing it to the ordinary Christian family and what they do in their parish or their local worship.

Let’s take the family as a very good place to start. In fact, it’s the best place to start. Personally, in my own family, we have chosen to homeschool our children, but it seems to me that a Christian family has to choose the best strategy to ensure that the Faith, authentically understood, is passed on to their children. That is one of the primary jobs that parents have: to ensure that their children are able to take the path to heaven. If they fail in that, and insofar as they are culpable, they fail as parents. Yes, we have to address that.

We personally choose to homeschool, but apart from the rise of the homeschooling movement, which has been phenomenal in both Protestant and Catholic circles in the last thirty to forty years, and which is a great source of encouragement, there’s also the rise of a whole new generation of independent Catholic and Christian schools that are breaking away from those so-called Catholic and Christian schools that have lost touch with the authentic nature of Christian education. These are examples of regeneration which are very encouraging. I would also say that they are examples or manifestations of what we would call the Benedict Option. People are seeing that the mainstream has become polluted and are choosing to swim in different streams.

I’ve had the pleasure and the privilege of speaking at dozens of these new independent schools and colleges in the last fifteen years, and it’s been very encouraging. Years ago, when the mainstream Catholic colleges and universities completely bailed out of any realistic, authentic Catholicism, there was nothing, and seemingly nowhere to go. Then Thomas Aquinas College and Christendom College both started up in the 1970s. They were the only two. Today, we have the Cardinal Newman Society which publishes a Guide to authentic Catholic colleges, and I think there are now twenty-seven schools that pass the criteria necessary to be nominated and acknowledged by the Cardinal Newman Society as being authentically Catholic. So from none to only two, and then, in the last twenty years, a multitude of new and good schools have sprung up. Several of those schools are older institutions that have turned themselves around, returning to authentic Catholic education, but for the most part, they are completely new enterprises. And what is true at the college level is also true at the K-12 level. I agree with the Benedict Option, as I understand it, but I think it’s actually happening.

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