The Dreher Option: What is Called the Church?

The Dreher Option - What is Called the Church?St. Francis de Sales and his cousin travelled light when they set out to bring Calvinist Geneva back to the Catholic faith. In preparation to do spiritual warfare against the heresiarchs, St. Francis brought with him powerful tools for the purpose of refuting the pretended ministers of the Reformation – the Sacred Scriptures and Bellarmine’s Controversies.[1] Following the long journey, St. Francis gazed upon a sight bringing him to tearful anguish,

“Francis only sighed deeply. Leaning on the parapet, he looked sadly forth over this fair land whose glorious beauty was ravaged by the signs of persecution – ruined churches; presbyteries and castles burned to the ground; crosses overthrown; gibbets erected instead: desolation everywhere. All this he saw from the height on which he stood, and he could not restrain his tears as he thought of millions of souls plunged in the darkness of schism, separated from the True Church.”[2]

The Calvinists had reduced “seventy-two parishes, containing 30,000 persons” to a mere handful of Catholics.[3] Considering the spiritual terrain he must traverse, St. Francis prayed that God would bless his work so that he and his cousin might “rebuild His sanctuaries, re-erect His altars, and gather the lost sheep into the true fold.”[4]

St. Francis began his mission by preaching the word of God to all who had ears to hear, but his efforts were thwarted when the people were forbidden from listening to his message. In true perseverance, however, St. Francis would begin to write pamphlets exposing the errors of the pretended ministers while also explaining the true Catholic faith. His determinations in written form began to see fruitful results.[5] Many were enticed by the warmth and clarity of his exposition. But political power built upon the sands of heresy becomes jealous when exposed to be a façade. The Calvinists zealous after their power looked to have the priests assassinated. There were several attempts made on the life of St. Francis.[6]

Through the miraculous providence of God St. Francis endured the persecutions and his mission would eventually be accomplished,

“The ruin and desolation over which he had wept four years previously had vanished. The inhabitants of the Chablais were no longer aliens from the True Fold, and he, under Providence, had been the means of converting them. In this land, where, on his arrival in 1594, there had been only a hundred Catholics, there were now scarcely a hundred Calvinists. It is estimated that about Seventy-two thousand people were received by Francis de Sales and his fellow-missionaries into the Church.”[7]

The story of St. Francis’s missionary work in Geneva during the ongoing hostilities of the Protestant revolt teach us something very important about the nature of the true Church. The Church is not a pluralistic entity containing any and all peoples claiming to be Christian. If this were the case, St. Francis would not have wept over Calvinist Geneva prior to its conversion. The tears he shed were symbolic of the truth that there is no salvation outside of the Church. The numerous heresies of Calvinism put souls in danger of eternal damnation. St. Francis knew that only the true Gospel of Jesus Christ delivered to the Apostles and protected by the one, true Church over the course of history could rescue the people from the deceptions of John Calvin and Theodore Beza.

Applying this lesson of evangelization and passion for Christ’s Church allows us to recognize another significant weakness in the Dreher option. Dreher treats the Church of Jesus Christ as a pluralistic entity of disparate individuals who are all expressing competing truth claims regarding revelation. Dreher asserts,

“…I will discuss how the way of Christian living prescribed by the Rule can be adapted to the lives of modern conservative Christians of all Churches and confessions. To avoid political confusion, I use the word ‘orthodox’ – small ‘o’ – to refer to theologically traditional Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodoxy Christians. The Rule offers insights in how to approach politics, faith, family community, education, and work. I will detail how they manifest themselves in the lives of a diverse number of Christians who have lessons to teach the entire Church. Finally, I will consider the critical importance of believers thinking and acting radically in the face of the two most powerful phenomena directing contemporary life and pulverizing the church’s foundations: sex and technology.”[8]

Dreher later argues,

“Of course every age has its morally lax people, and people who have forsaken ideals and commitments to pursue their heart’s desire. In fact, every one of us Christians is like that at times; it’s called sin. What’s distinct about the present age, says Taylor, is that ‘today many people feel called to do this, feel they ought to do this, feel their lives would somehow be wasted or unfulfilled if they didn’t do it.’

What is ‘it’? Following your own heart, no matter what society says, or the church, or anybody else. This kind of thinking is devastating to every kind of social stability but especially to the church. The church, a community that authoritatively teaches and disciples its members, cannot withstand a revolution in which each member becomes, in effect, his own pope. Churches – Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox – that are nothing more than a loosely bound assembly of individuals committed to finding their own ‘truth,’ are no longer the church in any meaningful sense, because there is no shared belief.”[9]

These paragraphs highlight a major flaw in the Dreher option, which is the suggestion that Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox all share the same mantle of the “Church.”

This is false. Protestants reject the Catholic faith and her teachings on numerous points, hence the reason for their protest. Catholics and Protestants cannot both be the Church because of the extreme divergence of views on what has been revealed by God as binding truths delivered to the Apostles in the deposit of faith. The only “common ground” Protestants and Catholics might have with each other are those truths promulgated over the centuries by Rome. This, however, is only an illusion of commonality. It would be similar to an author picking up a forgery of his own book and looking for things he agrees with among the plagiarized words.

Similarly, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox cannot equally share the mantle of the Church because the Orthodox have rejected the divinely instituted authority of the Pope. And while the East and West do in fact share much in creedal and theological commonality, there can ultimately be no agreement when the Vicar of Christ is rejected.

There can be no unity in the Church with heretics and schismatics. The spread of heresy by the pretended ministers of the Reformation and the schismatic act of rejecting the binding authority of the Pope are the kind of revolutionary acts decried by Dreher in the referenced paragraphs above, and yet he endorses the disharmony by trying to fuse truth with error.

What then is the Church?

The Church is the mystical body of Christ instituted by our Lord through which we share in the meritorious fruits of His Redemption. The Church is made up of the congregation of baptized peoples united in the same true faith, the same sacrifice, partakes of the same Sacraments, and is governed by the priests and bishops in union with the Pope. The true Church also carries with it four distinctive marks, that is, the Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. And these marks alone are found in the Holy Roman Catholic Church.[10]

When the true Church is properly recognized and defined, those who are outside of the Church can also be readily identified. The Council of Trent teaches,

“Hence there are but three classes of persons excluded form the Church’s pale: infidels, heretics and schismatics, and excommunicated persons. Infidels are outside the Church because they never belonged to, and never knew the Church, and were never made partakers of any of her Sacraments. Heretics and schismatics are excluded from the Church, because they have separated from her and belong to her only as deserters belong to the army from which they have deserted. It is not, however, to be denied that they are still subject to the jurisdiction of the Church, inasmuch as they may be called before her tribunals, punished, and anathematized. Finally, excommunicated persons are not members of the Church, because they have been cut off by her sentence from the number of her children and belong not to her communion until they repent.”[11]

St. Robert Bellarmine echoes this teaching of Trent,

“Heretics retain those indelible characters outside of the Church, just as lost sheep retain the branding in their back and deserters of the army military signs: but they are not in the Church for that reason because those characters do not suffice to constitute someone in the Church; otherwise the Church would also be in hell. St. Thomas Aquinas says that the damned are not members of Christ in either act or potency. Besides, the character does not properly unite a man with the head, rather it is a sign of the power of a certain union, and consequently, in hell they are recognized by that sign as men who were members of Christ. Nevertheless, that it does not unite them is clear since something that is invisible cannot unite outwardly, nor interiorly, when it is not in act or when it is not an operative habit. For that reason St. Thomas places the first internal union in faith.”[12]

Identifying schismatics, Bellarmine says,

“Several Catholics deliberate whether schismatics are in the Church, on the other hand there are those who affirm that they are in the Church, such as Alphonso de Castro in the place we cited. Yet it is easy to teach the contrary from the Scripture and from the tradition of the Fathers. In the first place, when it is said in Luke that the nets were torn, schisms in the Church are understood through the tearing of the nets and the exit of fish from it, and the exit of heretics and schismatics, as St. Augustine explains.

Besides, Scripture calls the Church, ‘One, sheepfold,’ ‘One body,’ ‘One spouse, friend and dove.’ Moreover, schism tears that which is one into parts, as is clear from its name…Consequently, schismatics are not in the Church nor are they of the Church. For the part that is torn from the body is no longer a part of that body.”[13]

The Dreher option is attempting to reignite an “ecumenism of the trenches,”[14] which perpetuates the problem of institutionalized liberalism rather than solves it. This pseudo-Christian movement, then, suffers from a false ecumenism resulting in a religious indifferentism condemned by the true Church.[15] What Dreher is proposing is a multitude of tiny “Christian” enclaves where each little community not only gets to decide what Christianity amounts to, but also, what the suggested cultural option amounts to as well. Rather than bringing unity to the Church Dreher solidifies the fracturing which already reverberates throughout the culture.

There is a better way.

The Church Militant has been commissioned by the King of kings to baptize the nations. The only real option available to the Church, the Roman Catholic Church, is the one practiced by St. Francis de Sales during his mission in Geneva – The Gospel Option.


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] St. Francis de Sales: A Biography of the Gentle Saint, Stacpoole-Kenny, Pg. 31

[2] Ibid, Pg. 32

[3] Ibid, Pg. 32

[4] Ibid, Pg. 33

[5] “The heretics, though they would not come to listen to his sermons, read these documents through curiosity; but many found them so convincing that they desired to learn more of a doctrine that appealed, not only to their reason, but to their hearts. Therefore by slow degrees, by twos and threes, they went to hear the discourses of the Provost and the Canon.” Ibid, Pg. 39

[6] “When the news of this straying of their flock reached the ears of the ministers, they became, if possible, more infuriated against the priests, and resolved to have them assassinated. Several times they hired ruffians to attempt their lives, but particularly the life of Francis, believing that if he were once removed Louis would return to Annecy.” Ibid, Pg. 39

[7] Ibid, Pg 73

[8] The Benedict Option, Pg. 5

[9] Ibid, Pg. 44

[10] These brief descriptions are taken from the Baltimore Catechism One, Pg. 25, 26

[11] Catechism of the Council of Trent, Pg. 104

[12] On the Church Militant, Pg. 24

[13] Ibid, Pg. 25, 26

[14] Pg. 136

[15] On Liberalism, Pope Gregory XVI, Paragraph 13. See also the Syllabus of Errors promulgated by Pope Pius IX, section III on Indifferentism and False Tolerance.

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