A bishop in Estonia has warned against the so-called ‘Benedict Option’, the idea that authentic Christians should separate themselves from secular society and live in intentional communities.

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“I don’t agree with an idea present in some Church circles that due to the growing secularization living as a Christian in the society becomes virtually impossible, and Christians should retire in small communities, a little bit like the monasteries of the first millennium, which were like well protected sources of light in a dark age”, French-born Bishop in Tallinn Philippe Jourdan told Crux.

Though Jourdan didn’t mean the words ‘Benedict Option’ specifically, American conservative author Rod Dreher proposed in his 2017 book of the the same name the same Christian retreat from the modern world that the bishop rejected.

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Jourdan said a solution such as Dreher’s – that Christians abandon the modern world and retreat to groups in themselves – isn’t the answer at all.

“Certainly, each one of us needs, more than ever, the support of a fervent community of Christians where people help each other, on the material as well as spiritual level”, Jourdan explained.

“It is especially clear in a situation like ours, where every Catholic is usually the only Catholic in his or her family, and often the only Christian.

“But a dedicated presence in the world is necessary, based on a realistic, but also hopeful vision of the society, even of a secularized society”, the bishop insisted.

Jourdan denounced that “perhaps because of difficult circumstances, there is a latent pessimism among Christians nowadays, sometimes leading to apathy and resignation, sometimes on the contrary to an activism mixed with bitterness, the so called ‘bitter zeal’ of the spiritual literature”.

He added that both the defeatist and the activist attitudes “should be avoided”.

“We should find our model in the first Christians, not in a new utopia fueled by fear. Despite obvious attacks against the sanctity of life and family, a secularized world is not like a new Moloch, swallowing small children”.

Why it matters

Jourdan said Christians “should not live in a nostalgia of better times”.

“Our time is the time prepared for us by God, and it will also reveal the fruitfulness of the grace of God”, he insisted.

The prelate – just the second bishop appointed in Estonia since the Protestant Reformation – knows a thing or two about secularisation.

Between 75 to 80% of Estonians say they have no religion, according to Jourdan, who added that “sometimes foreigners visiting Estonia said to me that, by comparison to other places, our country looks like as if God had disappeared, was nowhere to be seen”.

“It is true that our experience of the religious situation in Estonia could be, and with some probability will be, the experience of western Europe in the next generation”, the bishop warned.

For the record

Jourdan’s is hardly the only influential criticism of Dreher’s ‘Benedict Option’, despite the Option’s continuing popularity among conservative Catholics.

In 2017, the director of the influential Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, Antonio Spadaro, accused proponents of the Option of succumbing to a “Masada complex”, and of exploiting, with their antimodernism, the “fear of chaos”.

Last year the same journal ran a follow-up article on the Option, warning that it “brings the risk of an exclusive focus on moral rigidity, doctrinal purity and the reestablishment of a parallel society rather than on the construction of unity and communion within the Church and with all people of goodwill”.

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