Many Christians are thinking seriously about how to decouple from the popular culture and form versions of community and culture that will encourage the flourishing of their faith. To unthinkingly absorb mainstream entertainment, participate in public education, or patronize Big Tech’s latest offerings seems increasingly like madness considering their clear intentions to sideline us and our outdated views.
The incredible popularity of Rod Dreher’s 2017 book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, shows just how ready traditional Christians are to take this more separatist path. Dreher’s call to create “thick communities” where Christians can live, worship, and educate their children received positive reviews from Catholic leaders like Archbishop Chaput and Bishop Barron, but was of course denounced as reactionary and bigoted by those on the Church’s Left, like America Magazine and Cardinal Cupich of Chicago.
One of the more ambitious projects along these lines was just announced in February of 2021. Kari Beckman, who runs a classical homeschooling system based in Georgia, announced she was building a 600-acre Catholic village of sorts in east Texas, complete with a large church, a retreat center, multiple institutes for affecting the culture, and even residential neighborhoods.
For those who have been following the Benedict Option movement, Veritatis Splendor sounds an awful lot like a branch from the same tree, and many were excited to hear more. When I asked Dreher about any similarities, he said, “I don’t know much about the Veritatis Splendor project, but from what I have read, it sounds very much like what I talk about in The Benedict Option.”
But Beckman, and her sponsor in the Catholic Diocese of Tyler, Texas, Bishop Joseph Strickland, have distanced themselves from that characterization. In an article in National Catholic Register, Strickland is quoted as saying, “I see it not as a ‘circling the wagons,’ but as a community of support—almost the opposite of the ‘Benedict Option.’”
In a conversation with Beckman on a recent Zoom call, she likewise said to me, “Some people may think that it’s the Benedict Option, in terms of a monastery, where we’re kind of closing the doors and pulling back. But rather, it’s the opposite of that. We’re bringing people in and having a place where they can be infused with, fall in love with, and then communicate the truth of our Faith to the world.”
But, as we talked, it was clear that she also really saw the Veritatis Splendor project as a place where Catholics could gain a kind of refuge from a hostile culture. She mentioned the civil unrest over the summer, “cancel culture,” the HHS mandate on contraceptives, and a general shrinking influence of Christians over the mainstream culture.
“We can’t always be fighting,” Beckman said about the constant culture wars. “So, it’s important to have a place of rest, and I believe that these intentional communities give us a place of rest. I don’t have to fight my neighbor about why I have a Vatican flag in my front yard.”
She said at Veritatis Splendor there will be freedom to live out the Catholic Faith, like in eucharistic processions or celebrating feast days, without criticism.
“I’m not somehow judged as some weird, potential hater because I’m worshipping my God in the Blessed Sacrament, but rather it’s held up as a beautiful expression of my love for God,” Beckman said. “As we’re moving forward, we’re moving forward as a minority—a minority that there’s a cultural judgment against us before we even open our mouths to speak or our hands to do good work. So, it is important to live intentionally. It’s important to have people around you that affirm truth.”
Interestingly, Beckman brought up Rod Dreher’s more recent book, Live Not by Lies, saying it’s “an excellent book” with good insights on living the truth as a Christian in a hostile culture.
Veritatis Splendor’s mission statement says they seek “To protect, preserve, and proclaim the truths of the Christian Faith, as given to the Apostles by Jesus Christ.”
So it’s clear, then, that they are pursuing the dual aims of building community to safeguard the Faith from a hostile culture while also spreading that Faith to those outside the community. Beckman and Strickland are under the impression that Dreher only agrees with them on the first aim; however, his vision for the Benedict Option, like Veritatis Splendor, seeks both.
Bishop Robert Barron, a supporter of the Benedict Option, said on his Word on Fire podcast, “Don’t ascribe to Rod Dreher the view that we should all just run to the hills; it’s just time for Christians to run away. No, no, it’s time for Christians, he thinks, to regroup, the way Benedict did back in the 6th century. A kind of withdrawal, yes, because you’ve got to step away from a culture that’s grown extremely corrupt. A regrouping, a rediscovery of our basic identity so that,—and here’s an important side of it—so that we can have a civilization building impact on the world around us.”
Dreher told me he’s heard the “run for the hills” or “circle the wagons” phrases used to dismiss his book since the day he published it.
“The idea that the Benedict Option is about running away from the world is plainly nonsense, as anybody who read the book can tell you,” Dreher said. “It’s actually about creating thick communities of faith and practice that can prepare us to be resiliently orthodox when we confront the world. My curse is to have loud critics who feel no obligation to read first and criticize later. Drives me crazy, actually.”
For Beckman, though, it’s important to make clear to the world that they are not a commune or a cult. To avoid this characterization, she highlights the openness of the community.
“We do not seek to be a commune, not at all,” she said. “There’s a lot of negative things out there, and there ought to be, about these cult-like communes, and some of the negative media have said, ‘Hey, Waco’s down the street.’ But they haven’t read our website. This is about formation and education, not some weird mental brainwashing expedition or whatever.”
Instead, she wants people to think of Mayberry or a New York City neighborhood where Polish or Italian immigrants lived out their Faith and culture in prior generations.
“Think of it this way: if you live in downtown Mayberry, you’re definitely going to have a Fourth of July parade come through. Well here, because you live in a Catholic community, you’re going to have Catholic processions and Catholic events happen.”
She said the pendulum has swung so far in our culture that any attempt to be part of a close-knit family, community, or culture is described as “cult-like.”
“We’ve become such an individualist culture that anything that gathers for a purpose and a mission that’s unified gets under fire like this,” she said, adding that in New York City, “It would be common to see a lot of Catholic things happening in the Italian neighborhood. It would be common to see a lot of Italian traditions. That wasn’t cult-like.”
But whether religious communities receive the “cult” label is largely out of their control. It may even be inevitable, since a group that suggests that individualist Americans give up some of their moral control to religious leaders and cultural customs would almost be a cult to them by definition.
“Individualism has really stolen the notion of family and it has stolen the notion of being part of a hierarchical faith,” Beckman said, adding that the devil can “divide and conquer” if we are each isolated individuals making it up as we go along.
And it looks like Beckman is not alone in seeking safety in numbers. She says they’ve had a much bigger response from people wanting to participate than they anticipated, with very generous donations rolling in and over 1,000 inquiries into the 60 available phase-one lots.
Once those are all sold, they will build more, she said. They also plan on building Veritatis Splendor communities in other regions as well.
“Our vision is this is just the first one, which is why we’re calling it the HQ, Splendor HQ, and that other communities learn from us, that we help to establish [more communities] throughout the country, maybe even the world.”
So, there is clearly a lot of interest by Christians in projects like Veritatis Splendor and books like The Benedict Option. Both Beckman and Dreher should be applauded for taking early but necessary steps in this inevitable resistance against our decaying culture by faithful Christians. Call it Veritatis Splendor, call it the Benedict Option, call it whatever you want; but during these first steps, it will be important to avoid making rivals of natural allies.
[Image Credit: Amazon and the Veritatis Spendor website]