The Benedictine Confessional

The righteousness of the saints in this world consists
more in the forgiveness of sins
than in the perfection of virtues.
—St. Augustine

To my knowledge, I’ve only written about the so-called “Benedict Option”—the subject of Rod Dreher’s new bestselling book—once, and it was after the SCOTUS Obergefell ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in all fifty states. In that post, I quoted from the Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths:

What the pagans need on this matter [of same-sex marriage] is conversion, not argument; and what the Church ought to do to encourage that is to burnish the practice of marriage by Catholics until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.

In other words, if anyone is going to be convinced of the Scriptural, traditional Christian teaching on marriage and sex, it’s going to be because of winsome, attractive, beautiful Christian practice of that teaching. The living out of the biblical teaching on marriage is what will be persuasive, when all political and theological arguments seem to be ineffectual. And that viewpoint, it would seem, is what the “Benedict Option,” at its best, is all about. It’s about strategically regrouping and recommitting ourselves to serious discipleship so that the world can see we’re not just interested in “culture warring” but that we’re mainly about living out what we profess to believe.

I still think, two years after Obergefell, this is basically right. But I’ve also been thinking lately, since Dreher’s book has been published and I’ve now had a chance to read it, about a qualification or addendum I’d want to make: When Griffiths talks about Christians’ “burnishing the practice of marriage,” that can’t mean “practicing Christian marriage ‘successfully’ or flawlessly.” It also, and inevitably (given the reality of what the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion call the “remaining corruption” of those who are regenerated in Christ), must mean confessing sin and finding forgiveness and pursuing reconciliation in our marriages.

Christian marriage—like any marriage—is hard work. It’s ascetical. It’s about the halting, faltering effort to unlearn selfishness and gradually grow in love—not just love for another human being but love for another sinning human being. (I like the way Richard Hays once put this in a wedding homily: “Your marriage is a covenant that must stand firm even if your spouse becomes a threat to your tranquility and personal fulfillment, even if the time should come when you feel that the other who shares your bed has become—for the moment, at least—your enemy. Jesus has taught us to love our enemies.”) And here’s the key point: Naming marital sin and “failure” and practicing repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation is part of what it means to “burnish the Christian practice of marriage.”

Having a “successful” marriage—if “success” is defined as never sinning against your spouse, never needing to reconcile with him or her—is not what “Benedict Option” Christians are aiming at. Indeed, we don’t believe that’s even possible, given the realities of original sin and the ongoing struggle with temptation and weakness that will last until Jesus returns. Rather, what we aim to do is practice the discipline and grace of marriage in such a way that, when (not if) we sin, we offer forgiveness and restoration to one another, pointing away from our own moral heroism to One who sustains us even in our humiliation—and that’s a crucial part of what we offer to the world when we try to “dazzle” the pagan eye with our practice of marriage.

Now, I’m a celibate guy, so let me make this a bit more nitty-gritty in relation to my own vocation. One way—a mistaken way, I believe—we celibate gay believers could think about living out the Benedict Option is this: We could decide that God is calling us to live lives of sexual abstinence as gay women and men and thereby show the world the goodness and beauty of a celibate life, and we could decide that that means, should we stumble (in whatever way, large or small) in our practice of celibacy, that we are therefore failures and worthless, hypocritical exemplars of Christian faithfulness and might as well give the whole thing up.

But a different way of thinking about things would be this: God is indeed calling us to lives of radical holiness in our sexual lives—even to the point of giving up gay sex altogether. And we need the church to continue to call us to that high standard, to preach the real demand of God and not water it down, to help us more and more try to live into it. But being a Christian also involves praying daily, “Forgive us our trespasses.” Being a Christian means depending on God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ. “All of us make many mistakes,” says the New Testament (James 3:2 NRSV). “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). So, for us, as for our married brothers and sisters, burnishing the practice of celibacy and thereby—please God—dazzling the world with the beauty of holiness isn’t about us always Getting It Right. It’s about us striving for holiness while not covering our sin, not lying about our lives. It’s about us seeking always, again and again, to live lives of repentance and dependence on forgiving love.

So here’s my BenOp footnote: Let’s remember that being a Benedictine has always involved the confessional. And let’s ponder the fact, too, that pagans can find marital fidelity and celibacy in lots of places, not just among Christians. Marital fidelity and celibacy—bare “morality,” shorn of its rationale and distinctive motivations—isn’t our primary Christian gift to the world. But there is one distinctive thing we have to offer. There’s only one place in the world where you can hear words of absolution that assure us that God in Christ is a God of prodigal mercy. And that’s what stands a chance of really dazzling the pagan eye.

7 thoughts on “The Benedictine Confessional

  1. The broader culture can incorporate our distinctiveness in their moral framework of autonomy + personal choice (“hey, if celibacy makes you happy, go for it”). Christian distinctiveness won’t dazzle them until we are persecuted. I’m not saying we should welcome persecution – only that nobody will pay attention to BenOp Christians unless we somehow undermine their moral authority.

    • I don’t know why you believe that that’s necessarily true. Perhaps, for a change, Christian communities should try being winsome, attractive, and beautiful.

      • I agree Christian communities should “try being winsome, attractive, and beautiful”. I’m just not convinced that the broader culture will be won over by those qualities if it has already decided that the Christian faith itself lacks credibility.

        The UK and Europe are much further down the post-Christian path than the US and evangelicals do very well here in terms of “quality of life”. They pursue lifestyles that are indistinguishable from upper middle-class non-believers. However, there is one key difference between these two groups – Christians are not allowed to ‘promote’ the beliefs that are the foundation of their success. A secular ruling class has a monopoly on “values” even though there is a vast difference between what they practice (conservative values) and what the preach (permissive values).

      • The Christian faith lacks credibility in our culture primarily because so many Christians conflated the promotion of right-wing social populism with the preaching of the Gospel.

        Also, I’m not sure that our secular ruling class promotes permissive values. It’s more accurate to say that our ruling class is hostile to moral paternalism. Our ruling classes are generally open to letting the social marketplace decide which values people should adopt.

      • Sure I think that does happen in the US (although I’m relying on media reports of Christian life in the States)

        When I said a secular ruling class promotes permissive values I meant they “refuse to judge” – not that they are cheerleaders for the most decadent possible scenario. As you said they “are generally open to letting the social marketplace decide which values people should adopt”.. But they smart shoppers and tend to opt for more conservative values when it comes to their own families.

      • What’s the problem with that? I’m not looking for any else’s advice on how to organize my life (except for when I pay professionals to do so), and I suspect that others aren’t looking for me to provide unsolicited advice on how they organize their lives.

  2. Pingback: The Benedictine Confessional – Spiritual Friendship |

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