Surviving the new Dark Ages

Surviving the new Dark Ages Rod Dreher
A vision of community life 
for today’s dedicated 
Christians isn’t about 
taking to the hills, Rod Dreher tells Greg Daly


“How can we say that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages?” asked GK Chesterton in 1908’s Orthodoxy, answering his rhetorical question with the observation that “The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.”

Of all the countries in the world, Ireland is surely one that shouldn’t need reminding of this point. Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish saved Civilization, despite its audacious title, really just told a story that countless Irish schoolchildren were taught over the years, mapping out how monasteries like Clonmacnois became famous centres of learning, with monks like Colmcille and Columbanus carrying Christianity and the knowledge of the monks back to Britain and mainland Europe.

They weren’t the only monks working to do this in the aftermath of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, of course, as around the same time that the earliest Irish monasteries were being established, a young Italian, known to us as St Benedict of Nursia, began a monastic movement that thrived throughout the continent and continues to this day.  It was this movement, and especially its origins in the disintegrating Roman Empire, that has caused American journalist Rod Dreher to wonder if it might have lessons for today’s Christians.

“Christians – not only Catholics but other Christians – who want to hold on to any traditional form of their religion have to do something different,” he tells The Irish Catholic.

“The institutions are failing, the Faith is collapsing all around us, and if we’re going to hold on, we have to take a much more serious and radically countercultural view of the Faith.”


Inspired by the comment at the end of philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue that any hope for the restoration of classical views of morality to the West will lie with a new – and, MacIntyre wrote, doubtless very different – Benedict, Mr Dreher from 2006 on has promoted an idea he calls ‘the Benedict Option’.

“What the Benedict Option is is my attempt as a lay Christian to look at the life and the teachings of St Benedict, and see how what the Benedictines did and the conditions they emerged out of after the collapse of Rome, how our own situation in the West today, in Europe and North America, how much it has in common with the fall of Rome, and what St Benedict would have to say to us lay Christians today, about the more disciplined and faithful ways we have to live in community we have to hold on to our Faith in this time of general collapse,” he says.

“I call it an option because we all have choice. We can continue to live as if we were living in normal times, but I believe that if that’s the choice we make then our kids are not going to be Christian,” he continues. “But if we choose rather to see things as they really are, and to act on it in radical ways then I think the Faith has a fighting chance. It’s not going to be the sort of thing we can do casually. We have to be very serious and intentional.”

Reflecting on this idea throughout his journalistic work for a decade led to the publication in 2016 of The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, a book that led to heated debate in the world of American Christianity.

The book has since been translated into nine languages, and just this September was praised enthusiastically in Rome by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the personal secretary to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, describing it as “a marvellous source of inspiration” which had provided him with consolation like nothing else in the previous scandal-plagued few weeks.


While Archbishop Gänswein identified the book as a truly hopeful manifesto, others have been not as enthusiastic, and among the criticisms the book has most frequently met has been arguments that it is essentially impractical, that Christian communities aren’t a real option nowadays. But are full-on Christian communities modelled after the Benedictine vision the only way of living the Benedict Option?

“We can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good,” says Mr Dreher, pointing out that we simply have to do what we can, and that he and his family moved to the Louisiana city of Baton Rouge to be closer to their church and their children’s school, because “we knew that being 30 miles away was not good for building community”.

“It’s weird, because people say that the Benedict Option is about heading for the hills, going out to the rural countryside, but in fact we left the rural countryside to move into the city in search of closer community,” he says.

“When people ask me about building these communities, I tell them they have to be creative and none of us are living in perfect circumstances,” he adds, explaining that he hopes his book and his reflections elsewhere will inspire people to share and adapt ideas in creative ways.

“Pope Benedict XVI said that we Christians have to be creative minorities, and I think that’s what’s called for,” he says.

“I think that we have to do the very best we can where God has put us. The challenges that an Irish Catholic has are going to be rather different in some ways than Catholics or other Christians in Louisiana would have. So there’s no real formula. The Benedict Option is not a ‘how to’ manual, but what I hope it does is inspire deep and serious conversations among Christians in local places to come up creatively with solutions that will fit their local conditions.”

Local conditions will vary, but one thing that seems to be clear is everywhere is that cultural Christianity is no bulwark against the tides of the modern world, even when they run contrary to everything dear to the Faith.

“It is incredible how the cultural Catholicism has here in many ways served as a sort of innoculation against taking the Faith seriously,” he says. “A Catholic friend of mine here in my city was telling me how frustrating it is to argue with his son who comes home from his religion class at Catholic High and says things that simply aren’t true, that run directly contrary to what the Church teaches.

“It has really been an eye-opening experience for my friend, who says that he in his life has had to reconcile himself to the fact that the institutional Church right here is not their friend, is in fact in some ways the enemy of raising Catholic children.”

It’s a powerful charge, but an understandable one for someone who lives in a historically Catholic part of the US, and who had himself been Catholic for many years before the abuse scandals caused him to lose his faith in the Church and become Eastern Orthodox. Mr Dreher wonders, though, whether he might have fallen away if his religion had been lived in a more practical way than he had lived it.

“When I was coming into the Catholic Church in 1991-92, I was living here in Baton Rouge, just starting my career as a journalist, I’d had some powerful experiences in prayer, and I knew that God was calling me to the Catholic Faith. A woman at my newspaper at the time, a photographer, said ‘Oh, I hear you’re interested in Catholicism, I’m a Catholic, I volunteer at the Missionaries of Charity soup kitchen downtown, why don’t you come work with me there this Saturday?’”

Thinking this would be a wonderfully pastoral thing to do he went along, spending an afternoon peeling potatoes and scrubbing pots.

“I remember thinking, ‘well, that was a fine thing to do, but really I’m more of an intellectual, my time would be better spent reading books of theology and so forth,’ and I never went back,” he says. “I spent the next decade or so deeply engaged in apologetics and Catholic polemics, a religion of the head and of arguing constantly about what’s going on in the Church. I was not prepared for the great test that was coming with the revelations from the scandals.

“And I realised later with my Faith in ruins that if I had gone back to the soup kitchen – I’m using that as a metaphor, but if I’d done things, different practices, working with my hands to make the Faith more real, to sediment it into my bones – maybe I would have been strong enough to get through the scandal.

“I have no way of knowing now, but that’s one of the things that has guided me in my Christian life since the collapse of my Faith in 2006, and one thing I tell Catholic and Protestant audiences is that do not think that just because you have the arguments straight in your head that your faith is protected, because it’s really not: I think the practices are so important.”


There are all sorts of practices, of course, but Mr Dreher’s point is clear: that the Faith must be lived and embodied in a deliberate and habitual way, and he sees last year’s abortion referendum as the kind of crisis that can present real opportunities.

“This is a call not to abandon the Faith but is also a call of warning to the rest of us, who want to hold on to the Faith and want our children and grandchildren to, that we have got to adopt a radically different approach to the way we teach the Faith, and the way we live the Faith out in our own families and communities,” he says.

While some who’ve criticised the Benedict Option have unfairly painted it as a call for “everybody to become Amish and run out to the country”, Mr Dreher thinks a more powerful criticism is from those who think it’s not radical enough. While he and his wife Julie think about this all the time, he says, especially with regard to the kind of life they live and model for their children, he does concede that “there is a danger of being too controlling of your kids, of trying so hard to form them that you turn them into rebels”.

The strongest criticism of the Benedict Option, Mr Dreher reflects, is probably the notion that it’s “something for white middle-class people”, and while he concedes there’s something to that he also seems to see this as work in progress, as something for people to think about and consider how they can adapt it to their own realities

“The problem is here in the US at least, the Church is so fragmented and segregated, not only along racial lines but along class lines, where the working class and poor have largely abandoned the Church, I don’t know how to deal with that, frankly, because it’s not within my purview,” he says.

The other obvious challenge is that in building communities we invariably run a risk of building self-referential groups that are suspicious of outsiders and in which abuses of various sorts can thrive.

“This is something that we can’t ever escape,” he says. “Every community, secular or religious, defines itself also by what it’s not, and you have to have some kind of walls between yourself and the outside world, just so you can know who you are, but those walls have to be somewhat porous.”


Indeed, Christianity as an inherently evangelical religion would seem required to be open to the world, and Mr Dreher notes how in his book one of St Benedict’s modern successors in Norcia – ancient Nursia – told him that if they didn’t have the walls they couldn’t be who God calls them to be as monks.

“They have to have some separation from the world, but at the same time, they have to also be able to go out into the world and allow the world to come in to them, for the sake of their ministry but also for the sake of being morally and psychologically healthy,” he says.

While there is a “very delicate balance” to be struck there, he says, he also says that fear of the problems that can come with community should not hold people back from community life.

Some separation, he says, is the only real hope for maintaining Christian identity in a post-Christian world.