Benedict, Not Benedictine

Editor's note: Last Thursday's piece by Rachel Fulton Brown provoked a great deal of discussion

By Martin E. Marty|February 20, 2017

Editor's note: Last Thursday's piece by Rachel Fulton Brown provoked a great deal of discussion. Some of those who have written to express their consternation have urged Sightings to "disavow" the piece and remove it from the Marty Center's "platform." These suggestions seem to be based in part on the premise that in publishing a column, Sightings and the University of Chicago are endorsing the opinions presented therein. Given the range of viewpoints represented in Sightings, our decision to publish a column cannot constitute an endorsement. Following a long-standing traditionand in accordance with the University of Chicago's historic commitment to free expressionSightings has no political or religious perspective. At the same time, all opinions expressed are subject to critique. In that spirit, we will be running responses to Professor Fulton Brown's essay beginning next week.

Some have also expressed concern that Breitbart "picked up" this piece. Sightings would note that no permission was given to Breitbart to republish the essay. Nor did they, in fact, republish it. A member of their staff wrote his own article, quoted an excerpt from Professor Fulton Brown's piece, then provided a link to the full text. This is not the first time Breitbart has engaged literature from the University of Chicago community: they shared Dean Ellison's letter to incoming students this past fall.

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“The Benedict Option” was the biggest headline in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal (February 18-19). It headed the front-page article by Ian Lovett in the paper’s Review section. The subtitle quickened curiosity among those of us charged with commenting on religion in public life: “Longing to lead more religious lives—and wary of the wider culture—a growing number of traditional Christians are creating their own small communities.” The name “Benedict” was alluring to me. Behind my right shoulder as I type is a cherished picture of namesake Bishop Martin Marty, O.S.B.—as in “Order of Saint Benedict.” Through the friendly fixing of one of his successors, he opened doors for me at the Second Vatican Council. Through the years I have published with, accepted the hospitality of, and preferred personal devotions printed under trademarks of the Benedictines and their offshoots. My spouse and I are going to sup and worship with Benedictine sisters one day this week, etc.

Note that all of those references and reminiscences are Benedictine, while the WSJ headline lacks the suffix “-ine.” A small matter, you’d think. But my Benedictine friends distance themselves from the strictly “Benedict” version, despite some corollaries, coincidences, and common sources. Typical of such distancing is “The Virtue of Staying Put,” by Gerald W. Schlabach for Commonweal (September 26, 2016). A Benedictine oblate himself, Schlabach references the decisive inventing book Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher, of The American Conservative, 10-plus years ago. Schlabach summarizes Dreher: “…faithful Christians should turn their primary attention away from the public square… and instead focus on building local communities, sheltered from the hopelessly fallen larger culture, where Christian values and practices may survive.”

Lovett focuses on a “Benedict Optional” but not very Benedictine community in Oklahoma, consisting of settlers who turn their backs on the world, which they describe in wholly negative terms. In his nuanced (and beautifully illustrated) article he offers close-ups of world-deniers who, at this Clear Creek enclave, homeschool their children, avoid cities, don’t watch TV, and complain about how un- or anti-Christian our culture has become. Some quoted Benedict Option folk have moved on, complaining of, e.g., abusive styles of pastoral leadership and petty disputes over garb. But Schlabach finds a range of expressions, as some Option folk—be they Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical, or other—draw upon or are drawn to influences as diverse as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (who first invoked St. Benedict in this context), Orthodox mystics, and theological critics like Stanley Hauerwas. Many want to make very clear that “traditional” to them does not mean “conservative” in the current political context.

Those who celebrate community, communities, and tradition (as opposed to traditionalism) may hope that these Optioneers stay open to what Schlabach so accurately described as what is “most Benedictine” about what could be available to them: “stability” in changing cultures, the value of community in a world of hyper-individualism, “global communion” and “face-to-face relationships, even when those relationships are hard.” Schlabach’s advertised Benedictine ideal is not just for monks and nuns, dwellers in Clear Creek and home-schoolers, but open to the world where civil discourse needs more exemplars, mentors, and models—among them, yes, Benedictines themselves.


- Dreher, Rod. Crunchy Cons. Crown Forum, 2006.

- —. “Orthodox Christians Must Now Learn to Live as Exiles in Our Own Country.” TIME Magazine. June 26, 2015.

- Linker, Damon. “The Benedict Option: Why the religious right is considering an all-out withdrawal from politics.” The Week. May 19, 2015.

- Lovett, Ian. “The Benedict Option”; available online under the title “Wary of Modern Society, Some Christians Choose a Life Apart.” The Wall Street Journal. February 17, 2017.

- Mohler, Albert. “The Benedict Option: A Conversation with Rod Dreher.” Personal website. February 13, 2017.

- Schlabach, Gerald W. “The Virtue of Staying Put.” Commonweal. September 26, 2016.

Image: Fresco detail of St. Benedict from St. Benedict's Abbey in Atchison, Kansas | Photo Credit: Randy OHC via Wikimedia Commons (cc)

Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco, a PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Subscribe to receive Sightings in your inbox twice a week. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.