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Categorizing the Benedict Options: A Reformation Day Reflection

October 31st, 2016 | 23 min read

By Jake Meador

Today marks the 499th anniversary of the day that would come to be seen as the spark that ignited a movement that purified the church in northern and western Europe and gave new energy to an already strong movement to return to the classical sources of Christian wisdom. I am referring, of course, to Reformation Day and to October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed (we think) his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg.

It’s a notable day in the church calendar and yet it is also one that arouses no small bit of controversy. The late medieval church had been marked by corruption, scandal, and abuse for several hundred years by the time Luther rose to prominence, but what Christians still to this day cannot agree on is what should have been done to deal with the decadence of the European church and particularly the hierarchy of the dominant ecclesial institution in Europe, the Roman Catholic Church.

The Catholics, The Radicals, and the Magisterial Reformers

What is interesting is not simply that we are still having these debates today, but that the three sides involved in the debates have not even changed all that much. In this post I want to draw out the enduring relevance of the Reformation and the debates that marked the first 50 years after Luther’s emergence by identifying three separate movements within the western church. All three are variations on Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option as all three are, much like their 16th century variants, trying to wrestle with difficult, complex questions in the aftermath of widespread failure on the part of the church.

The 16th century had war-mongering popes, power-hungry monarchs, and rampant biblical and theological illiteracy amongst both many parish priests and the average lay person. It also had the same sort of tortured, camel-straining corruption that we see today: One 15th century Roman cardinal said that it was a less serious sin for a priest to solicit sex from a prostitute than for the priest to marry. His reasoning: At least when he was with the prostitute he was cognizant of his sin. If such reasoning seems unfathomably sub-Christian to you, I can only assume you have not read enough endorsements of Donald Trump written by evangelical leaders. As the teacher says, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

One of the consequences of these multiple failings in our own day, as in the 16th century, is that there is now a crisis of faith in the ministerium, the clergy class, and this has created major questions about how the authority of the clergy and of religious faith ought to be translated into the civil sphere.

Oddly enough, the varying responses to this crisis in the western church today bear striking resemblance to the responses offered in the 16th century by various reform-minded groups. In particular, we want to look at three distinct schools in this post. We’ll label each school, identify the core themes of each movement, and highlight the institutions and thinkers most closely associated with those schools.

(NOTE: My purpose in this post is not to describe each school in a comprehensive way. Each of these schools has had tens of thousands of pages written in their defense. My goal is simply to identify the three schools, draw out key themes, and hopefully invite proponents of each view to comment at greater length. Also, I will up front confess that I am a Magisterial Protestant whose sympathies, as they extend outside my own school, run more toward the illiberal Catholic side than they do toward the Augustinian radicals. I will try to be as fair as I can be, but I thought it best to lay out my own biases up front so as not to be a distraction down the road.)


To begin, we’ll briefly summarize the Benedict Option as it has been defined by its main proponent and the man who coined the term, the orthodox conservative journalist Rod Dreher. The BenOp consists of eight key moves according to Dreher:

  • Order – This means a move to embracing a basic liturgical structure to daily life ordered toward the worship of God.
  • Stability – Christians should not be constantly chasing the next big thing, but should be defined by a quiet, consistent stability that gives solidity to their life’s work.
  • Community – The Christian life cannot be lived alone. We need communities of likeminded believers sharing in this life with us.
  • Prayer – No Christian community can exist without prayer as a foundational principle and work.
  • Work – Shared work, and preferably manual work, is a key element to building and maintaining communities of shared life.
  • Asceticism – We must have a discipline that helps us know how to control our passions.
  • Hospitality – BenOp communities must embrace hospitality as a formative and evangelistic good.
  • Balance – Wisdom and prudence must shape how each of the previous seven virtues are realized.

The three groups I want to describe below can all assent to some version of these eight principles, though each is likely to identify different elements most central to their work.

What is at issue, then, is not these eight founding principles. These are eight very good principles and Dreher’s book will do an excellent job of fleshing out how these eight principles can work in any orthodox Christian community.

Rather, my goal today is to talk about how these principles are worked out in practical ways within the life of local Christian communities and congregations as well as how these Christian communities will then relate to the broader communities of the places in which they live. This post, then, is an attempt to identify where we agree, where we differ, and chart out a positive course forward as we look back on 500 years of post-Reformation Christianity and look toward a dark time for the western church.

The Augustinian Radicals: Neo-Anabaptists, Baptists, Catholics, Anglicans

The first school we will consider is the most prominent today though it was the least prominent 500 years ago. I am calling them the Augustinian Radicals, a term which I am borrowing from Pater Edmund Waldstein, a Cistercian monk who has written quite ably on these issues from the perspective of a traditionalist Catholic. (For my description of this group I will lean somewhat heavily on Pater Edmund’s fine work but will also draw on other sources as well.)

Briefly stated, the Augustinian Radicals are ecclesiocentric Christians who define the church as a polis separate from the world. The church is a society unto itself, in other words. The striking thing about this basic approach is that it can be found across all major theological traditions in the west.

It is seen in Roman Catholicism in the work of Dorothy Day as well as the scholarship of William Cavanaugh. It is seen in the Magisterial Reformed tradition, though incoherently, in the work of the Escondidio theologians, most notably David Van Drunen. It is finally seen in the Anabaptist tradition, where it makes by far the most sense, in the work of Stanley Hauerwas. (I would also argue that the 9 Marks Baptists and Russell Moore fit in this category, although their case is somewhat complicated on a few points.) The Anglican theologian John Milbank also fits into this school, however, as does (I think) the coiner of the term “Benedict Option,” Rod Dreher.

While there are shades of difference between the various members of this school, Pater Edmund’s summary of them all seems about right:

The position that we see emerging from the Augustinian radicals is of an insoluble conflict between the City of God and any coercive earthly authority. All earthly powers belong to a tragic drama of sin that is passing away. The role of the City of God is to enact on the same stage a comic drama, through a practice of entirely non-coercive social life generously giving without expectation of repayment, and suffering evil without murmur or retaliation.

For the Augustinian radicals, the City of God and the institutional church are synonymous. Other earthly institutions belong to the city of man and so Christian involvement in those arenas must be limited and defined in very careful terms.

There are several reasons that I think this strand is the largest and most obvious of the BenOp variations. One of them is an understandable reaction against the failure of the Religious Right. Brad Littlejohn describes the appeal of this sort of neo-Anabaptism well in this video:

That said, I think there are other factors in the assent of the Augustinian Radicals:

  • TS Eliot said that liberal democracy is less defined by a defined set of beliefs and more by the energy it is able to store up and then release. Put another way, liberal democracy doesn’t have a sustainable social program; it has a social program that accumulates a tremendous amount of energy and then radiates that energy out in many different (mostly unpredictable) directions. When you get this kind of unleashed energy, there is a natural reaction people have against it to withdraw into smaller communities. In many ways, the Augustinian radical move is a deeply localist move. It says that the world outside the church has become so complex, so incoherent, and so hostile to the faith that our only option is to draw ourselves into God’s polis, the church.
  • The radical Augustinian school is very good at prophetic speech. This is because they see such a clear divide between the City of God and city of man. Viewed sympathetically, this clear division gives them a better picture of both the ideal and the reality, which enables them to address the reality in a trenchant and often devastating style. Viewed more cynically, the clear division enables prophetic speech because the speaker feels removed from the world he is criticizing in ways that are unhealthy and unloving. If you think of many of the most able Christian critics of 20th century America, many of them (Day, Hauerwas, etc.) fit this Augustinian radical school. This is also one of the reasons I tend to think that Dr. Moore of the ERLC fits in the Augustinian radical school.
  • The radical Augustinian school tends toward a functional voluntarism as it thinks about group membership. Because we all begin in the city of man and because this view presupposes such a thick divide between the city of man and City of God, it needs a way of accounting for how a person moves from the former to the latter. And though different variants of this school have different ways of doing this, most of them will hinge on a conversion narrative in which the person undergoing conversion makes a conscious choice to walk away from the city of man and join the City of God. Thus you could argue that Baptist sacramentology is simply a natural outworking of Augustinian radicalism since credobaptism is essentially voluntaristic in ways that the Reformed and Catholic views of the sacrament are not.
  • The radical Augustinian school must inevitably tend toward a more narrow, parochial sense of church membership and church life. This is because it’s rigid definitions of the City of God and city of man allow for little compromise or incrementalism. This is seen in its most extreme form whenever Stanley Hauerwas writes about the historic western church. At times, Hauerwas can almost sound like a restorationist when describing the historic church of western Europe and North America.
  • The radical Augustinian school can tend toward a kind of clericalism in which clergy come to possess a unique power because of their role as the leaders of the City of God as it exists on earth today. (This is one of the clearest points of conflict between the Augustinian radicals and the magisterial Protestants.)

In many ways, this Augustinian radicalism maps quite nicely onto the legacy of the Radical Reformation. The Radical Reformation is difficult to define for a variety of reasons, but the qualities that were generally shared across all the various groups was a commitment to believer’s baptism (the voluntaristic piece), a strong insistence on the absolute separation between the church and the world (the church as polis piece), and a radical, uncompromising critique of other Christian traditions that nearly renders them not fully or authentically Christian if true.

The Magisterial Protestants: Classical Reformed, Dutch Reformed, and the New Calvinists

The second school is the magisterial Protestant tradition. The magisterial tradition is so named because it refers to the branches of the Protestant reformation that enjoyed (and used) support from the magistrate to further their work of reform. Historically, this group includes the Reformed, the Lutherans, and the Anglicans. (Referring to the Anglicans as a separate group here is even a little misleading as the notion of Anglicanism as a kind of tradition unto itself or even as a via media between Protestantism and Rome is extremely new historically speaking and really only dates back to the Oxford Movement. For much of the Anglican church’s history, they were simply another branch of the reformed tradition and were so-called simply because they were the church as it existed in England.)

That said, one of the consequences of the breakdown in denominational identity in the 20th century is that it is much harder to draw firm, clear lines between the magisterial tradition and some radical Augustinians. The Reformed Two Kingdom movement centered around Westminster California belongs in the radical Augustinian category, but in most other ways is very much part of the magisterial tradition, for example. Likewise John Milbank, another radical Augustinian, is himself an Anglican.

Thus to understand the differences between the radical Augustinians and the magisterial Reformed, we need something other than denominational lines. Thankfully, there are two core ideas that animate the magisterial tradition which together help to distinguish it from both the radical Augustinians and the illiberal Catholics.

The first teaching to consider is the Protestant doctrine of vocation. The radical Augustinian view will inevitably lead to a valuing of life in the institutional church over and above the life outside of that institution. The work that the non-clergy do, then, is valued almost entirely because it provides the finance necessary to maintain the ecclesial institutions and because work in the marketplace affords church members the opportunity to evangelize to co-workers.

To be sure, the best radicals will still insist on the value of all lines of work, but the nature of their ecclesiology makes it difficult to maintain this value in practice as the institutional church and its life comes to dominate all other considerations.

Contrary to this belief, which is in some ways shared with the late medieval church, the Protestant teaching on vocation says that all godly callings are equally good in the eyes of Christ and that the call to ministry should not be treated as being somehow superior to a call to work in business or the arts or a trade.

Gene Edward Veith explained the teaching well when he wrote this in an article for Modern Reformation:

To understand fully the doctrine of vocation, one should begin not with the Puritans-who tended to turn the doctrine of vocation into a work ethic-but with Luther and with Lutherans, from the composers of the Book of Concord to modern theologians such as Billing and Gustaf Wingren. It goes something like this: When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to give us this day our daily bread. And he does. The way he gives us our daily bread is through the vocations of farmers, millers, and bakers. We might add truck drivers, factory workers, bankers, warehouse attendants, and the lady at the checkout counter. Virtually every step of our whole economic system contributes to that piece of toast you had for breakfast. And when you thanked God for the food that he provided, you were right to do so.

God could have chosen to create new human beings to populate the earth out of the dust, as he did with the first man. But instead, he chose to create new life-which, however commonplace, is no less miraculous-by means of mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, the vocations of the family.

God protects us through the vocations of earthly government, as detailed in Romans 13. He gives his gifts of healing usually not through out-and-out miracles (though he can) but by means of the medical vocations. He proclaims his word by means of human pastors. He teaches by means of teachers. He creates works of beauty and meaning by means of human artists, whom he has given particular talents.

Many treatments of the doctrine of vocation emphasize what we do, or are supposed to do, in our various callings. This is part of it, as are the various aspects that I outlined above, but it is essential in grasping the magnitude of this teaching to understand first the sense in which vocation is God’s work.

God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid, said Luther. According to Luther, vocation is a “mask of God.” (2) He is hidden in vocation. We see the milkmaid, or the farmer, or the doctor or pastor or artist. But, looming behind this human mask, God is genuinely present and active in what they do for us.

The sense of God acting in vocation is characteristically Lutheran in the way it emphasizes that God works through physical means. Luther and his followers stress how God has chosen to bestow his spiritual gifts by means of his Word (ink on paper; the sound waves emanating from a pulpit) and Sacrament (water; bread and wine). And he bestows his earthly gifts by means of human vocations.

At its best, this doctrine does two things:

  • It embeds the Christian life within local, physical contexts in which our life and the life of our fellow Christians is quite literally sustained through the fulfillment of many different vocations. It is, in other words, an eminently practical doctrine that forces Christians to look at the ground they are standing on, recognize how their neighbors’ work sustains it, and to thank God for his care for them provided by their neighbors’ faithful work.
  • Second, it gives a dignity and nobility to all of life, rightly recognizing that, as Michael Williams has put it, the scope of God’s redemptive work is as broad as the scope of his creative work. All of life is touched and transformed by God’s restorative work in creation.

CS Lewis made the point well when, in making his critique of John Henry Newman in Letters to Malcolm, he wrote:

At any rate I can well understand how a man who is trying to love God and his neighbour should come to dislike the very word religion; a word, by the way, which hardly ever appears in the New Testament. Newman makes my blood run cold, when he says in one of the Parochial and Plain Sermons that Heaven is like a church because in both, “one single sovereign subject—religion—is brought before us”. He forgets that there is no temple in the new Jerusalem.

He has substituted religion for God—as if navigation were substituted for arrival, or battle for victory, or wooing for marriage, or in general the means for the end. But even in this present life, there is danger in the very concept of religion. It carries the suggestion that this is one more department of life, an extra department added to the economic, the social, the intellectual, the recreational, and all the rest. But that whose claims are infinite can have no standing as a department. Either it is an illusion or else our whole life falls under it. We have no non-religious activities; only religious and irreligious. …

One must, however, walk warily, for the truth that religion as a department has really no right to exist can be misunderstood. Some will conclude that this illegitimate department ought to be abolished. Others will think, coming nearer to the truth, that it ought to cease to be departmental by being extended to the whole of life, but will misinterpret this. They will think it means that more and more of our secular transactions should be “opened with prayer”, that a wearisomely explicit pietism should infest our talk, that there should be no more cakes and ale. A third sort, well aware that God still rules a very small part of their lives, and that “a departmental religion” is no good, may despair. It would have to be carefully explained to them that to be “still only a part” is not the same as being a permanent department. In all of us God “still” holds only a part. D-Day is only a week ago. The bite so far taken out of Normandy shows small on the map of Europe. The resistance is strong, the casualties heavy, and the event uncertain. There is, we have to admit, a line of demarcation between God’s part in us and the enemy’s region. But it is, we hope, a fighting line; not a frontier fixed by agreement.

The doctrine of vocation recognizes that the domain of God’s redemptive work is all of creation and so the rigid line between the City of God and city of man presupposed by the radicals cannot be maintained. Within God’s economy, the baker’s role is no less important than the cleric’s.

The second distinctive of the magisterial tradition is what sets it apart from our third group, the illiberal Catholics. It is the priesthood of all believers. Within magisterial Protestant ecclesiology, there are three separate things we might mean when talking about “the church.”

  • The Invisible Church: This is the mystical body of Christ as it exists across the world and across time and includes all God’s people.
  • The Visible Church: This is the body of Christ as it exists within local places and can be seen as a recognizable group of individual believers.
  • The Institutional Church: This is the body of Christ as it exists in defined, established congregations united around the preaching of the word, administration of the sacraments, and some kind of Christian discipline.

Within the magisterial understanding, the institutional church is important as a tool for organizing Christian communities and protecting the right teaching of the Scriptures, right administration of the Sacraments, and right practice of discipline. However, Christ has said that wherever two are gathered in his name, there he is with them. So the institutional church does not possess any kind of monopolistic power to command individual believers in how they ought to act. Its power is prudential and constrained by Scripture. Where scripture speaks, the church speaks authoritatively. But where scripture is silent, the church must be silent.

Institutional churches, then, are to church life what any institution is to the sphere in which it operates: a way of organizing and focusing work that is already happening. Contra the illiberal Catholics, the magisterial teaching of the priesthood of all believers says that the institutional church actually has a very limited scope of powers within the Christian commonwealth.

Taken together, these two teachings unite many different types of Reformed Christians. In my view, they are most fully defined and explained by the classical Reformed Christians associated with the Calvinist International and the Davenant Trust. (Fair disclosure: I am the VP of the Davenant Trust. So I’m a bit biased.) However, you will find these same principles in many other places. The Dutch Reformed tradition mediated through Kuyper and Bavinck is strong on these points, as are the Dutch-inflected branches of the PCA currently active. (I am thinking especially of the parts of the PCA most closely aligned with Covenant Seminary in St Louis and Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan.)

The Illiberal Catholics: The Josias, Tradinistas!, Some First Things Staff

Finally, we turn to the third and final group. If the Augustinian radicals are a kind of trans-denominational movement and the magisterial Protestants are a continuation of classical Protestantism, then the Illiberal Catholics are a continuation of a certain strand of Roman Catholicism.

The key thing to understand with the illiberal Catholics is that, whereas the first two groups each will have some kind of tolerance and even positive vision for a liberal democracy, the illiberal Catholics have no space for such a thing. For the illiberal Catholics, the only true and just society is a society organized under the authority of the one holy Catholic church under the bishop of Rome. It is, indeed, perhaps worth noting up front the difference in how this group defines the issue: The illiberal Catholics have by far the most far-reaching critique of our current socio-political order as they have targeted the regime of liberal democracy itself. The Radical and Magisterial schools can make similar critiques, but both can imagine some kind of chastened liberalism that, though radically redefined from the market-backed unfettered liberalism of today, is still recognizably liberal to the extent that it recognizes such things as freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and so on. The illiberal Catholics, in contrast, argue that a critique that stops short of these liberal sacred cows will inevitably come up short. Therefore, they target even these ideas as being themselves unacceptable because they protect ideas that are hostile to the life and peace of the true and just society.

Given that I am not Catholic and that these Illiberal Catholics are both extremely clever and remarkably industrious, I will simply leave the rest of the description to them. Both the Tradinista and Josias sites provide ample reading on their ideal social order and how faithful Christians can work toward its realization.

One accessible introduction to this school is Matthew Schmitz’s lecture given earlier this month in New York City at an event we sponsored with the Davenant Trust. His topic is Christian Politics After Liberalism and is a good 30 minute summation of the illiberal Catholic project:

To take one excerpt, Schmitz says:

“A child may have a right to a father and mother but it is much more natural to speak of the father and mother having a duty to raise the child. Why frame an argument that springs from a deep intuition about the proper end of the human body in the foreign language of rights? Perhaps we did this because people listen to us only when we appeal to ‘freedom.’ If that is the case, it only shows how great our task is in the wake of Obergefell. We must teach ourselves and others to speak of duties instead of rights, virtue instead of liberty, truth instead of free speech.”

In Schmitz’s telling, many of the core values of liberalism, most notably the insistence on “human rights,” are themselves the problem because the categories are fundamentally broken and disconnected from virtue.

One could profitably spend much time simply reading through the archives on both the Josias and Tradinista! sites, but for our purposes a few excerpts from the Tradinistas recent post on their sources in church tradition are helpful:

Christ is King over the whole world, including – we are taught by many good and holy popes – over both the baptized who have fallen into error and the unbaptized. All men are subject to the power of Jesus Christ; the tradition is unfailing and clear on this point. Nevertheless, as Aquinas teaches us, the unbaptized must be reasoned with, not coerced. While the long history of the Church affirms that the temporal power is ordered to and subject to the spiritual power, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council tell us that the Church no longer requires, as a matter of prudence, the aid of the state in compelling heretics and apostates to live up to their baptismal promises. On this point, we are indebted to the scholarship of Thomas Pink.2 Nevertheless, the Church retains jurisdiction and moral authority over all the baptized, Catholic or otherwise, as the great Benedict XIV wrote to the Cardinal Duke of York.


Subsidiarity is a central point of Catholic social teaching, and the popes have developed the Church’s teaching on subsidiarity since «Rerum novarum». In recent years, a popular understanding has emerged that sees subsidiarity as little more than American-style federalism. But this view both overstates and understates the correct view of subsidiarity. In the concept of Leo XIII and Pius XI, subsidiarity requires issues to be addressed by the smallest competent unit, recalling always that the rights of individuals and families must be respected, as St. John Paul teaches us in «Centesimus annus». Some issues are so complex and important that they may be addressed only at the national or supranational level. In such cases, it does violence to the concept of subsidiarity when such issues are committed to smaller, ultimately incompetent units. Other issues, however, may be addressed locally: and here it would do violence to subsidiarity for regional, national, and supranational government to take responsibility for the issues. Of course, determining which issues ought to be addressed at a regional or national level and which issues ought to be addressed locally is a difficult task calling for careful discernment. Nevertheless, a presumption of decentralization and localization ought to be adopted, as such a presumption most assiduously ensures that the rights of families and individuals are safeguarded. It must be noted, furthermore, that radical decentralization on the basis of subsidiarity necessarily implies hierarchy, based on the various common goods considered at each level of social organization. In other words, the total leveling of society condemned in «Notre charge apostolique» – effected today through means of capitalist democracy and the atomization of the state – is rejected in this approach. However, it must be said, in accordance with «Diuturnum illud», that it is not necessary to adopt any particular form of government to comply with the mandates of subsidiarity, provided that the government is just and ordered to the common good. Leo XIII teaches that the customs and traditions of a given people may be considered in determining the appropriate form of government.


It is the great Pius XI who outlines most precisely the brief against capitalism as such in «Quadragesimo anno» when he explained that there was a tendency in the capitalist class to accumulate to itself all profits, and that no one class may exclude another from sharing in the gains of labor. Yet that is precisely what has continued to happen—despite Pius’s warnings—and it has reached a terminal stage in recent years, with St. John Paul II acknowledging, in «Centesimus annus», that the capitalist class has continued to abuse the rights of workers in the process of accumulating to itself ever larger quantities the fruits of labor. In «Laborem exercens», he also identifies that a primary function of capitalism is to treat man “solely as an instrument of production,” subverting the “right order of values” in Christian society. One point that Pope Francis has fairly recently identified is the connection between capitalist economies and the modern anthropocentric, technocratic mindset that seeks to dominate and control. At long last, it must be said that the exploitation of workers and the rapacious, endless quest for gain by the capitalist class lies within the logic of capitalism itself. Indeed, it may be said that capital consistently opposes the common good by pursuing only its sectarian interest. The only way, therefore, to comply with the popes’ commands for a just economy is to abolish the capitalist social relation. This is the fundamental insight of the Tradinista project: the logic of capitalism rejects the popes’ warnings and guidance for a more humane and just political economy, but precisely the logic of capitalism militates against this. Long enough has capital failed to obey the clear direction of every pope who has written on political economy under capitalism; it therefore becomes necessary to reject capitalism itself, in order to better obey their commands.

To the rejection of capitalism, it is often objected that various papal documents, particularly in the magisterium of Leo XIII and Pius X, specifically forbid a reorganization along these lines. Such a reading is fatally compromised insofar as it attempts to create tensions between the popes to achieve a desired result. In «Rerum novarum», Leo recognized that the public authority must intervene to protect the interests and rights of a particular class, showing always special solicitude for the poor, particularly wage earners. Pius XI’s important clarification regarding the subordination, if necessary, of the use of property to the common good—a correction of Leo’s departure from the Thomistic tradition—which was itself clarified by John XXIII, Paul VI, and the Second Vatican Council, provides the key to harmonizing the magisterial pronouncements on this point. It is apparent that capital will unfailingly tread upon the interests and rights of labor, and that steps must be taken in accordance with the popes’ consistent teaching to defend the rights of workers, including by ordering the ownership and use of property to the common good.

In short, what you have is a social program that sees the institutional church under the Bishop of Rome as the bedrock of all just societies because it is through the church that the kingship of Christ is recognized and mediated. Based on that, the Tradinistas make a very strong case for their particular anti-liberal, anti-capitalist program simply by citing various authoritative church documents.

Turning toward our other two schools, the Illiberal Catholics critique the radical school on grounds that it misrepresents the distinction between the City of God and city of man. Here is Pater Edmund:

There is much truth in Augustinian radicalism. It is quite right to emphasize that there is no third city between the City of God and the city of man. I can even agree with Milbank’s words: “insofar as imperium lies outside ecclesia, it is an essentially tragic reality.” Augustinian radicalism is right to resist an exaggerated distinction between nature and grace (as the discussion of Whig Thomism below will demonstrate). Its own account of the relation of nature and grace, however, goes too far in the opposite direction. In following Henri de Lubac’s teaching on natural desire for the supernatural, Augustinian radicals tend to evacuate the theonomic structure of natural teleology. Grace elevates and perfects nature, but does not replace it. Divine charity does not invalidate the demands of natural justice. The supernatural end of the City of God is indeed the absolutely final end to which all other ends must be in some way subordinate; but it does not do-away with a common good of temporal life that is final in its own order. And crucially, it does not do away with the coercive methods of natural political authority, even while it subordinates them (in some sense) to a higher authority.

Meanwhile, the critique these Catholics would make of the magisterial tradition is perhaps quite predictable: Without any sort of mechanism for maintaining the more properly Christian social order that the magisterial tradition aspires to the work cannot help but fail. Simply put, you need an institution to nurture, maintain, and limit societies if they are to maintain any kind of consistent moral standards or shared vision of the good life. Essentially they read TS Eliot when he says that liberal social orders are defined less by a positive set of principles and more by a tendency away from a certain point and they say, “Precisely. That is why you need the Church.”


I will freely admit that some may find this post an exercise in hair splitting of the sort that once inspired humanists to mock the scholastics by posing hypothetical problems for the scholastics to fight over, such as how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. But these questions are actually essential ones for today’s orthodox Christians to consider and answer carefully.

As many have noted, we live in a time when the western church is in a perhaps terminal decline. There is much bad that comes from living in such a moment. But one great good that can only be enjoyed by living in such times is the opportunity to lay foundations that future generations will build upon. It is entirely possible that the courses being charted by today’s western Christians will shape the future of Christianity in the western world. This is an exciting possibility and a weighty, daunting responsibility.

It is for this reason that we need the eight general BenOp values described by Dreher. These virtues will be the heart of any thriving Christian movement in the western world. However, these virtues alone will not build a movement that can grow as the church comes back into prominence as the optimistic amongst us hope that it will. These eight virtues define what our piety ought to look like. As such, they are essential. But in addition to these essentials, we must think carefully about and find answers to questions like the following:

  • What is the exact nature of the “church”?
  • How should the church exist in relation to broader social institutions and, particularly, the magistrate?
  • How will the core beliefs of the church be decided and how will they be passed on to future generations?

These sorts of questions are the ones that confront us today, October 31, 2016. We are 499 years out from that epical day in northern Germany. But the questions have not changed. And if the church in the west is to have a future, we will have to answer them. The three schools outlined above are, in my view, the three likeliest to offer workable answers.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).