fb-pixel Skip to main content

A counterculture of Catholic monks

Associated press/Associated Press

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.”

In the sixth century, however, monasticism meant not detachment from the world but resistance — the repudiation of the imperial power of Rome. Monks evolved structures of life that were the dead opposite of the empire’s. The simplicity of vowed poverty, the elevation of community over individualism, the defense of critical intellect against the superstitions of piety, affirmation of the equality of women (abbesses were among the most powerful figures in Europe), and the democratic polity that made all this possible — these were main notes of the Benedictine innovation. The papacy — with opulence leading to decadence, and a deadly mingling of spiritual and worldly authority — emerged from the Dark Ages opposed to the values enshrined in monasteries. The papacy still has its imperial aspect. That is what the present pope so staunchly defends.


The genius of Catholicism lies in its having nurtured the monastic impulse as a counterculture — one pitted not against the world, but against competing strains of thought within the church itself. That is why religious orders of men and women remain quasi-independent sources of Catholic meaning to this day. The hierarchy and the orders have always been in tension with each other, and the Vatican’s move against the American nuns is the latest instance of that.

Historically, the pope’s rule was never absolute. Apart from the monasteries that still observe St. Benedict’s rule, the first monk’s truest legacy may be in an institution usually regarded as secular: the modern university. Academic robes, with their hints of the cowl and scapular, are vestigial Benedictine habits, a reminder not only of origins, but of values. When “orthodox” Catholics assert against liberals that the church is not a democracy, they are thinking too narrowly. The university is not a democracy either, but, like the monastery, it stands upon democratic values. Those in power are accountable. Members participate in decisions. Freedom to think trumps thought control. Collegiality defines the college. Most importantly, its criticism extends to itself.


The church properly insists on something more — that all of this opens toward a beckoning horizon which can be addressed in the language of God. When church leaders mistake themselves for God, however, the language becomes shrill and hollow. This month’s events show that, once more, a Benedict is needed. The other one.

James Carroll will be on book leave for three months. His column resumes in August.