The American Catholic intellectual world has been preoccupied in recent months with some notable books published on the topic of Christianity and American culture. Rod Dreher’s book “The Benedict Option” continues along the thematic lines of titles by Anthony Esolen and Archbishop Chaput, arguing that laisser-faire Christianity is over for the West and that serious Christians must begin to make difficult, counter-cultural choices if they hope to hand on the faith to their children.
My hope with this little piece is not to add yet more social commentary to the fire, but instead to make a basic point about the way forward. I think we continue to make the same error that we have been making for quite some time: seeking lay methods and structures to solve the problem of the decline of faith in the West. We are stuck there: stuck with this idea that the laity need to be the protagonists in the New Evangelization. And this is where I just feel like banging my head against a wall. Because we have been trying, to no avail, to make the laity the protagonists of the New Evangelization for at least 50 years in the Catholic Church. It is like belonging to a fictional country that keeps sending laborers to the frontlines after they have been sweating all day making spears and arrows, convinced that because they are great workers they will make great warriors. Wave after wave of highly skilled laborers march onto battlefields where they are slaughtered and demoralized while their skills go to waste. And in the face of this, we say “What we need are better weapons – we need to get the weapons that professional soldiers use into their hands, and then they will be successful.”
No - the problem is that we are asking the wrong people to do the wrong job. I have been thinking about it, and I can think of no time in the history of the Church where there has been a great evangelization of a culture carried out by laity. Instead, what the Church does have a vast and impressive experience of is missionary activity carried out men and women religious dedicated exclusively to Christ and his kingdom. It was monks and other religious by the thousands upon thousands who primarily spread the Gospel to the northern reaches of Europe and later to the Americas, to Africa and Asia and finally all corners of the globe. These religious men and women, with very little to lose and everything to gain, possessed a unique freedom that was capable of transforming culture in such a rapid and thoroughgoing way that is hard for us to comprehend in our time. They overcame cultural barriers, broke free of their own prejudices and preconceived notions, took incredible risks and continued in the face of impossible odds. They lived in a way that would have put spouses and children through hell - their lives were contorted and disfigured and pushed and prodded and stretched so that they could be just the right instrument that Christ needed to reach people in their place and time. The only thing recognizable in them after their ordeal was the image of Christ - everything else had been offered to the fire of the Gospel.
But instead of asking for these missionaries, instead of seeking men and women to dedicate their lives to the spread of the Gospel in this complete gift of self, some in the Church continue to tell a discouraged and tired laity that unless they adopt certain washed out forms of religious life in their spare time without any ecclesial structure or formal training, the culture is doomed.
This is simply not true. There is scant evidence that the laity were much more religious or prayerful or faithful during times of great Evangelization. But what is clear is that the religious at the time were. Catholics need to wake up to our tradition and our experience over the last 2000 years. The New Evangelization is not going to happen if it consists solely in laity who live in secular structures trying to integrate the methods that religious used back in the old days, as if what made religious capable missionaries was a methodology or way of life. It wasn’t the program that made them prophetic, it was their freedom to serve whatever God’s program was. It was the fact that they had given up wife or husband and children and wealth and career and were able to dedicate themselves fully to serving the needs of the wider society and church, wherever that led them.
If the New Evangelization is going to happen, we will need new evangelizers who will be able to adopt whatever lifestyle and go wherever and do whatever is required for the Evangelization of the culture. And so, for the most part, those new evangelizers will need to be men and women religious. Certainly, there will be some lay people who are able to receive significant Catholic formation and, remaining single, dedicate themselves with the freedom and determination needed. There will also be some married laity who were able to receive significant Catholic formation and at different chapters in their lives will have time to dedicate toward efforts in evangelization.
But I do not think it is disputable that the most effective evangelizing team the Church could send into our culture right now would be thousands of faithful, well trained and motivated religious men and women. They would pray, figure out where to go, go there, and get to work. Very little would get in their way. If they needed to camp on the street, they would camp on the street. If they needed to stay in people’s attics, they would stay in attics. If they needed to travel on foot, beg for meals, go without health insurance, or do with just a couple changes of clothing, they would do it. This is all normal stuff for men and women religious. They have been doing this for centuries. And if the established religious communities wouldn’t do it, new ones would take their place – that is what we have seen over the last 20 centuries.
What a boon a new influx of religious would be for the laity – for these thousands of families that are trying to live a Catholic life in a culture that is not Catholic, but do not feel like they know where to turn for support. For them to suddenly find faithful Catholic men and women at their door who were offering to help take care of their elderly parents or educate their children or watch over their poor neighbor next door… And no, I do not think it would need to make them feel like second class Catholics – any more than a soldier makes me feel like a second class American.
The truth is that the Church has always needed religious: men and women who gave up their own families in order to serve the needs of Jesus Christ and his Church in a more universal sense. This does not make religious some sort of higher level Catholic, or necessarily draw them closer to God. It says nothing about their personal sanctity. But there can be no doubt that through their way of life, a religious is given the freedom to become an instrument of the Gospel and a missionary of the Good News in a way that is simply not possible for those who are caring for spouses and children and family and community. The Church has always recognized this, which is why, from the time of St. Paul himself, the Church has encouraged young people to consider a life of chaste celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, according to the pattern of Jesus Christ.
Christianity can survive and get along as a church of the laity, but it cannot evangelize or grow into a flourishing Christian culture without the healthy and robust presence of priests and religious. This is a fact that is so often overlooked when we remember the ages and places where Christian culture flourished or provided missionaries to bring the Gospel to far off lands: Europe during the high Middle Ages when the North was evangelized, and also during the Counter-Reformation, when European missionaries brought the Gospel to all of the known world. The same seems to be the case for Catholicism in the U.S. It was precisely because there were thousands upon thousands of men and women religious concentrated in huge communities that American Catholicism boomed in the early 1900s. And there is little doubt that when religious disappeared from schools, hospitals, and social service agencies by the thousands during the 60s and 70s, their absence had a catastrophic impact on the American church.
If next year an additional 20,000 laypersons joined the 150,000 or so American Catholic laypersons married in the Church and further agreed to dedicate themselves to "the Benedict Option," there is no question that some would persevere in living a much more robust Catholic life, and that their dedication would have a transformative impact on our culture. But what if next year those same 20,000 Catholic men and women entered the priesthood or religious communities throughout the country, and after spending between 8 and 10 years in rigorous Catholic formation and training, dedicated their lives to various charisms directed toward the spread of the Gospel? Can we even begin to think of the impact they would have? Is there a question of what would make a greater impact on the Church or on the spread of the Gospel in our culture?
There is a reason that so many of the great secular revolutions first went after and targeted priests and religious. There is a reason why atheistic regimes shut down seminaries and novitiate houses. And that is because they know better than we do that religious are the greatest of our missionaries and have been responsible for spreading the faith to the most remote and unforgiving corners of the world. Our society doesn't need more options, it needs vows. There cannot be a Benedict option without Benedictines.