The Irish Church and the ‘Benedict option’

The Irish Church and the ‘Benedict option’
The Church needs to hold to its principles and pick its battles, writes David Quinn


The Churches in Ireland tend to have an extremely softly-softly attitude towards the State and the Government of the day. They rarely criticise either and when they do, it is in a very muted way. There are several reasons for this. One is that they feel they are too weak to do so. This is particularly so in the case of the Catholic Church.

The moral authority of the Catholic Church has been very badly damaged by the scandals, and also by the previous dominant, often domineering position of the Church in Irish society.

Another reason, related to this, is a mostly very hostile media. Any bishop who launched a strong attack on the Government of the day – unless it was to do with an issue like poverty or immigration or the environment – could expect a strong counter-attack.

A further reason Church leaders tend not to attack Governments is because it does not come naturally to them. If politicians in the past were deferential towards the Church, the Church has tended to be deferential towards politicians and the State as well. This persists even though the last few Governments have gone out of their way to avoid meaningful contact with the bishops and the last one closed the Irish embassy to the Holy See.


In America there is an active debate within the Church as to what the proper posture of the Church is towards the modern, secular, liberal State.

By this, I don’t mean the democratic State, or a State that is separate from the Church. What I mean instead is a State that pushes secularism, seeks to make religion an almost wholly private matter, and which pushes an extreme kind of individualism.

Is the proper posture to this State one of accommodation, that is, to act as a kind of handmaiden to the State and its aims? This would involve supporting it when it can and staying silent, or as close to silent as makes no difference, when it cannot.

Accommodation can be a principled or a pragmatic stance. You can actually believe in the goodness of the secular State, or else you can believe that it is so powerful that accommodation is the only option.

Another possible posture is confrontation, which is to say being willing to attack the State when need be even where there will be a backlash. This would be the stance of a Church willing to be prophetic because the role of the prophet is always to challenge the authority of the day, or the populace if need be, even at the cost of popularity or, in extremis, martyrdom.

A third posture is retreat. The American writer Rod Dreher has spoken of “the Benedict option”. Dreher does not mean by this a total retreat from the world by Christians, but he does believe we need to become much better at building up communities of highly-committed, highly-motivated Christians and accept our minority status.

I don’t believe accommodation with the secular State is possible because the State is not neutral and is intent upon pushing and enforcing a kind of individualism that is often totally at odds with Christian morality.

We see this most dramatically in the issue of abortion. Health Minister Simon Harris has said that if we vote for abortion later this year then abortions will be paid for by all of us out of our taxes. It will, therefore, be impossible to fully opt out of the ‘culture of death’.


In addition, scant regard will be shown towards conscience rights. The abortion law of 2013 said that even Catholic hospitals had to perform abortions under the terms of that law. A future abortion law is quite likely to have similar stipulations in the name of ‘health’ and pro-life doctors will be forced to refer women to pro-abortion doctors.

Let’s bear in mind that in countries like Sweden, midwives and doctors must be willing to perform abortions. There is no opt-out.

With regard to same-sex marriage, the new view of marriage will place the Churches and individual Christians under increasing pressure. In Denmark the State has told the Lutheran Church it must perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Christian wedding florists etc. are granted no protections in countries that have introduced same-sex marriage.

Opposition to both abortion and same-sex marriage is seen as a form of ‘bigotry’, and the State must allow no hiding place for ‘bigotry’. This is what Pope Benedict called the ‘dictatorship of relativism’. How do you accommodate yourself to a State that is not willing to respect your beliefs and practices except when it suits it?

My own view is that the Church has to be both highly tactical and highly principled in dealing with the aggressively secular, liberal State, with a dash of the Benedict Option thrown in.

To begin with, we do need to ensure that Christian communities exist which are very committed, educated and motivated. This will require hard, evangelistic work. Christians will need to know that while they can be in the world, they cannot be of a world that is increasingly hostile to their values. When you see Catholics coming out of Mass, as they did in an RTÉ news report last Sunday, professing pro-choice views, then we know we are in trouble.

Secondly, the Church should give support to the State when it can, on issues like the environment or poverty, for instance.

Thirdly, it has to be willing to confront it where necessary. It must give prophetic witness and expect that witness to come at a cost in terms of worldly prestige and standing. It will be in a stronger position to do this with a motivated, educated laity behind it.

Finally, we need to have a debate about this. We need to openly debate among ourselves the proper attitude towards the modern State. The debate should be opened up by our bishops.

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