Friday, October 30, 2009

Benedict, Anglicans, and the Rule

In an earlier post on the recent opening to traditionalist Anglicans, I noted that Pope Benedict seemed to be vigorously ticking off items on the papal "to-do" list.  But some other commentators, noting the same movement, get off on the wrong foot because they are missing the point about his namesake.

For example, in the Washington Post's "On Faith" section today, Patrick J. Deneen, an academic whose expertise is in government, attempts to get on the map by arguing that earlier comments by David Gibson and Thomas Reese are overly fixed on defining Benedict's general orientation as either "liberal" or "conservative."  What they miss, according to Deneen, is that Pope Benedict's vision is of a profoundly a-political ... "Christendom."

I pause.

To be fair, Deneen, while mis-representing his interlocutors, is correct, though not original, in noting that Benedict is more a "radical," in his efforts to mount a "retrieval" of what he (and many) would consider to be the essential center of Catholic Christianity.  But, like Cardinal George's claim to be "simply Catholic," Deneen's notion that this means that one can stand serenely above culture, plucking out the good bits, is dangerously disingenuous.  And it certainly isn't Catholic, or even catholic.

Nor is it "Benedictine" (here I'm also disagreeing with the generally spot-on Mark Silk, who does have a point about the earlier model of the bishop). Deneen refers to Benedict of Nursia as one who gives Pope Benedict exactly what he needs:  "an austere rule that can weather the dark times ahead."

Not.  We need, right here, to put some brakes on the idea that the 6th century Benedict of Nursia, as the author of a thing called a "Rule," must therefore have been some kind of forbidding early precursor to an overly-legalistic, hyper-institutional form of Catholic Christianity.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Benedict of Nursia, with regard to monastic order, was something of a populist, who revised a much more detailed earlier monastic rule (probably the Rule of the Master), distilling it into an inviting, broad-strokes open vision -- "a little rule for beginners."  This generously-minded and comparatively minimalist approach is precisely why the Rule of Benedict has served Catholic Christians so sturdily for over 1500 years.  However much one may disagree with his various initiatives, Pope Benedict, in selecting this, name, is signaling not a retreat, but an engagement with culture.

Thus Abbot Primate Jerome Theisen, OSB, rightly refers to it as a "via media" for monastic life.  Outside those walls, Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, has written extensively on the Rule as a concrete guide for everyday Christian life, for ordinary people.

Yes, it is true that Benedict's vision too often seems to favor the church that draws Cardinal Franc Rodé -- yes, there are pictures, what was that man thinking? -- but I still see hope here.