Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Benedictine Strategy

Papal names are a mystery. There is, it seems, some discussion of names among the cardinals even before they choose a pope. And so there must be: the new pope must immediately choose a name that will identify him to posterity. Hard to imagine. Benedict XVI, our present pope, has been a bit obscure about his own choice. He usually speaks of Benedict XV (1914-22), the most obscure pope of the twentieth century. It has been suggested that this comparison is meant to reference the predecessors: Pope St. Pius X (1902-14) was enormously popular with the faithful and quickly canonized; Benedict XV remains veiled in obscurity. So too, perhaps, John Paul II and Benedict XVI? That is the main explanation Benedict himself gives.

But there is no doubt he is also referring to St. Benedict of Nursia (480-543), whose Rule for Monks codified Eastern monasticism for the West and gained him the titles Patron of Western Monasticism and Patron of Europe. Before he was pope, Benedict XVI often spoke of the great abbot as one of his models for Christian renewal. Indeed, as we shall see below, St. Benedict might be the key to Benedict XVI’s evocation of the obscure Benedict XV.

The standard explanation of Ratzinger’s love of St. Benedict talks about small intense communities. The stereotype (which Pope Benedict has directly rejected) notes that John Paul II spoke of a “new springtime” and claims that this meant a rapid expansion of numbers and Christians overtaking society. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger, by contrast, is said to have preferred diminished numbers, a sort of separating of the wheat and the chaff, so that what Catholics remained would be really solid in their faith, and all the dross would be cast aside. (This view is often favored, I might cynically add, by those who think they alone are the true Christians. Theirs is often a Christianity without mercy, conversion, or redemption, a gnosticism in which the traditionalist elect consider themselves already perfect. But don’t let me tip my hand too much!)

In any case, the stereotype doesn’t fit the data. Benedict XVI has himself embraced the language of a “new springtime,” perhaps to undermine this opposition, and has been quite shy about affirming his vision of a smaller, more radical church, when asked. He has taken remarkably little disciplinary action, and has chosen to portray Christianity in terms of charity and hope, a message at least as welcoming as his predecessor’s. Indeed, as I have argued previously, the toughness of Cardinal Ratzinger may belong more to John Paul than to the man who is now pope.

So let’s rethink the Benedictine strategy. By way of contrast, consider the strategy of the Jesuits. The greatest Jesuit apostle is supposed to be the companion of St. Ignatius (1491-1556) St. Francis Xavier (1506-52). Xavier travelled unaccompanied throughout Asia, preaching to the natives: in India, China, Japan. The great image of St. Francis—and I do not doubt that it is true—is of him on the beach baptizing thousands at a time. It is an inspiring image.

Until you consider the fruit. The missions to these countries are, without question, the least successful in Christian history. India has a very tiny church, in China and Japan it is all but non-existent. There are, of course, external factors. Never before — or at least never since the beginning — has the Church faced such a highly developed culture. (Though of course that could be as much a blessing as a curse.) There were persecutions. But where haven’t there been?

The Jesuits pursued a similar strategy to the American Indians. America’s first saints, the North American martyrs (d. 1642-49), who were French Jesuit missionaries to the Iroquois, and Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-80), who was an Iroquois convert, are certainly inspiring. But what was the fruit? Are there any American-Indian Catholics now?

The Jesuits went to Latin America too, though this is confused by the confluence of Dominicans and Franciscans. It is confused, too, by the confusing state of Catholicism in South America. Certainly Catholicism won the day. But there is some debate about the depth of conversion. There is certainly a notable lack of integration: the natives were never allowed to become priests. I don’t know the history well enough to comment intelligently, but the case can certainly be made that mistakes made then are bearing fruit in today’s South American apostasy. In any case, South America is no straightforward success for the Jesuits.

Finally, the Jesuits went out to Europe. Here too they are considered heroes. But what fruit did they bear? In their early years, they are credited with half of Europe remaining Catholic. But the Protestant reformation — that is, the failure of the Jesuits in Northern Europe — was an unprecedented cataclysm for the Church in Europe. St. Edmond Campion (1540-81) may have been heroic in England, but that country drifted farther and father from the faith. Heroic, yes. Saintly, yes. But an effective strategy? No.

And indeed, during the four hundred years while the Jesuits dominated the Church, roughly 1550-1950, Europe itself collapsed into infidelity. Many of the greatest apostates of the modern age — from Descartes through Diderot, Molière, Voltaire, and de Sade, right up to Derrida and Sartre — were Jesuit educated. The tenure of the Jesuits was an unmitigated and unprecedented disaster for the Church in Europe. Many were heroic, many were saintly, but their pastoral strategy was the greatest failure in Christian history.

Compare the Benedictines. The Benedictines were the primary evangelizers of Europe. How? Not by standing on the beach preaching, not by sending out heroic individuals, but by creating little enclaves of fidelity, hospitality, and excellence. To be sure, St. Boniface (675-754), the English evangelizer of Germany, preached in public places and knocked down pagan altars. But he also established monasteries, bringing in holy people to live holy, unthreatening lives and to welcome whomever might be interested in the religion they practiced.

Under the Benedictines, Christianity took root in Europe, and grew deeper and deeper until the rise of the Jesuits in the sixteenth century. There were most certainly challenges: a pagan culture; the terrible violence of the Dark Ages, dominated by Goths, Vikings, and Huns; and later, heresies. It’s not fair to say that the Jesuits just had a harder task; it’s not fair to blame the different results entirely on external factors.

To understand the difference, it’s important, I think, to understand the parallels between the Benedictine monastery and the feudal culture of the time. From our perspective we might think that what distinguishes the Benedictine monastery is its seclusion. The Benedictine strategy, we might think, is to wall off the outside world, to head for the hills and seclude ourselves from the pagan culture.

But this is precisely what the Benedictines did not do. The Benedictine monastery was based on control of land, to be sure — but so was the culture of the time. Like every other feudal lord, they had their own place, their own serfs, and their own land that they farmed. That is not what distinguished the Benedictines from the culture around them.

What distinguished them was, first, religion: they prayed. They brought the culture of their time into contact with the eternal. From this flowed other key differences. The Benedictines loved one another, living peacefully instead of warring with their neighbors. They welcomed strangers, making hospitality their chief form of evangelization. And they embraced the intellectual life, keeping alive the Roman classics and the great achievements of culture and philosophy in an age that did not care. All these things made them a city on a hill, a light to the nations.

They did not so much challenge the culture around them so much as transform it from within. They did not separate themselves, but entered in — like leaven. The building of monasteries in pagan lands is a perfect symbol of this. They showed that the life their neighbors lived could be lived in greater dignity by being seasoned with divine love.

This also explains the successors of the Benedictines, the mendicant Franciscans and Dominicans. The early mendicants considered themselves monks and contemplatives, but the culture of their time was no longer so closely rooted to a place, so the mendicants went to the cities, and travelled throughout Europe — in imitation of the secular culture. But within that culture they gave witness to the beauty of religion, which led them to their own forms of hospitality, for poor and rich alike, of intense fraternal charity, and of intellectual and cultural excellence. They were leaven: profoundly different from the world around them, yet deeply embedded in that world, transforming it from within.

The failure of the Jesuits, I propose, was in failing to integrate. The Jesuits were the first movement to be exclusively priests, rather than predominantly lay brothers. They were the first to have no sisters. They were the first to go as active individuals, rather than living in contemplative communities. They were the first to put their priority in commanding the culture. The Benedictines commanded the culture simply by being the best. They led, as it were, by default: not because they took anything over, but because they were excellent. The Jesuits set themselves up to control and to demand followers. By being predominantly active rather than contemplative, they put the cart before the horse, trying to preach and lead before they showed how to follow and live. They set themselves up as heroes rather than models.

This, I propose, is the key to the Benedictine strategy. Today, the Benedictine strategy does not mean heading for the hills and abandoning the culture. Rather, it means embedding ourselves within the culture, being contemplatives in the middle of the world, doing what the world does in a more excellent, more beautiful way. The world around us is no more pagan than the Germany of St. Boniface. Different, to be sure, since it is post-Christian rather than pre-. But let us not underestimate the challenges of a pre-Christian culture. It was enough to defeat the Jesuits at every turn.

And that, I propose, is why Pope Benedict began with encyclicals on charity and hope. Our goal is not to take control of the world, but to season it with Christian hope and love, to live in the middle of the world as ones who hope for a lasting city. We are not to shout at the world and demand our rights, but to show the world the only true goodness.

Perhaps that is also why Benedict XVI compares himself to the silent, obscure Pope Benedict XV. This quiet man, welcoming the wounded, speaking gently of peace and truth, embedding himself in prayer—here is a model of the Benedictine strategy.