A counterculture of Catholic monks

Boston Globe

April 30, 2012|By James Carroll

The Catholic hierarchy is walling itself off ideologically, intensifying its campaign to slam shut church windows opened by the liberalizing Second Vatican Council. This month alone, the pope has rebuked the disobedience of European priests and, acting through a Vatican congregation, set in motion a severe disciplining of American nuns. The US Catholic bishops advance the pope’s agenda with their recently announced “religious liberty” campaign, timed to climax this summer — a blatant intervention in presidential politics, inevitably favoring the far right wing.

Today’s church is taking “the Benedict Option,” defined by Rod Dreher of The American Conservative as a “pioneering form of dropping out of a barbaric mainstream culture.” This approach is named after St. Benedict of Nursia, the sixth-century founder of monasticism. Joseph Ratzinger, upon his election as pope in 2005, did not take the name Benedict by accident. But the implied parallel is false: Cloistered and detached as it seems now, the monastic life was, in St. Benedict’s day, a model for forward progress.

The current Benedict’s vision seeks a purer counter-culture. Like medieval monasticism, it would preserve essentials of humane living as a dark era dawns. If this reaction leads to fewer clergy, smaller congregations, and less mainstream clout, so be it. Good riddance to the liberal “relativists,” implies this Benedict. Welcome home to the rigid “orthodox.”

If such reactionary moves further alienate majorities of Catholics, who have never seen such fervor from the pope or his bishops on behalf of children abused by priests, that is the price paid for the Benedict option. “God is not concerned so much with great numbers and with outward successes,” the pope said during Holy Week, “but achieves his victories under the humble sign of the mustard seed.”

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