Religious life – the transcendent and the human

08 Feb 2008

By The Record



 A Capuchin Franciscan examines what has gone wrong with Religious life, and where it can regain its rightful place in society.

By Father Benedict Groeschel CFR







It was a truism – universally accepted until the last decades of the twentieth century – that wherever the Catholic Church was present, there would be representatives of the religious life; communities of vowed men and women living a frugal common life, praying and working together in Christian service, and offering a witness to the kingdom of God.

In better days
Similar religious communities existed in smaller numbers in the Orthodox churches. Even today, many older people were taught, guided and cared for by an impressive army of religious sisters, brothers and priests. They numbered at least three hundred thousand in the United States on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, and their ranks were swelling. From Trappists to Jesuits, from cloistered Carmelites to Sisters of Charity, the religious could be found everywhere, celebrating the liturgy and common prayer, and frequently serving those with personal needs, especially the poor and the sick.
Widespread collapse
Most of these communities are now in a state of collapse, with the average age of members in the upper 70s, and no recruits in sight. My own experience offers a sad example.
In 1951 I entered the Capuchin province of Detroit, which had almost seven hundred friars. The Capuchins were the fourth largest religious order of men in the Church. They had produced such examples of sanctity in our time as Padre Pio, now declared a saint. There were almost 150 friars in formation in the Detroit province when I joined. Today, the province has fewer than a dozen men in formation.
Against the decline, one has to set the number of new communities that have appeared in recent years, made up of deeply dedicated men and women who are part of what has come to be known as the John Paul II generation. I belong now to a reform movement, founded by eight Capuchins and known as the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. We currently have 115 friars and some 25 sisters. Because I was the first servant, or superior, of our community, many people ask me, “What are you doing to thrive in a wasteland?” Occasssionally someone inquires “What can we do to see religious life return?” I have thought much about these questions. I had been a friar for two decades when I came across some work in psychological anthropology that made me suspect religious life was beginning to go in the wrong direction. Serious cracks were already appearing in the structures and attitudes of many religious communities, even the largest and most respected. I was mesmerised by some of the anthropoligical components of religious life which seem to have gone unrecognised in the endeless discussion on how to make orders more relevant.
An important, but frequently overlooked variable of religious life, which is older and wider than Christianity itself, is a quality known as Liminality the state of being an outsider to the establishment of any society, even one with strong religious characteristics and values. Liminality derives from the Latin word limen (which means threshold or edge) and refers in this case to people who live beyond the accepted norms of the establishment. Obviously, chastity, poverty, and obedience to a spiritual master or superior take a person out of any establishment where family life and inheritance are the norm. Such people as St Benedict, St Francis, and in our own time, Mother Teresa of Calcutta are obvious examples of liminal personalities.
Liminal people stand in sharp contrast even to virtuous members of the establishment. This dichotomy is not a bad thing, although there must always be a degree of liminality in any follower of Christ. But anyone familiar with religious life at the time of its collapse knows that liminality was almost entirely lost and remains lost, except for the new communities and few older ones that have remarkably held the line. If we ask, “What could have gone so wrong and caused such a decline in religious life?” We realiise that this is a dull tale extending over a period of more than forty years. Yet it comes as no surprise to anyone who knows church history and understands anthropology. You cannot go against the laws of human nature reflected in psychological anthropology even laws such as liminality that apply only to the select few without disastrous results. The current tampering with family life and marriage is another example of foolish intervention into the laws of anthropology.
Such endeavours are like trying to grow figs from thistles. The collapse of the large religious orders of men and women in the Church can be attributed to a variety of factors that coalesced at the same time. Religious life was drawn into the same cultural revolution that undermined study life and higher education in the late 1960s. Unfortunately, the Catholic religious, who had been taught not to think for themselves, followed like sheep. Many of the most strident voices, which demanded the removal of the foundations of religious life, departed after eviscerating the life and constitutions of their communities. Those who sincerely attempted to lead a spiritual life found themselves with little effective leadership.
Seriously Silly
I once heard a well meaning and well educated sister of a respected teaching order tearfully observe at a seminar, “We did what we were told to do”. The obvious question “Who told you” must be asked. Christian religious are called, without exception, to lead a Gospel life and follow the scriptures and traditions of the fathers, the Church and the saints. These sources, which were always there, were almost completely ignored. Instead many shaky theories of psychology, most of them now gone over the waterfall of time, ‘were substituted for the Gospel and the sacred teaching. Alien and awkward things were introduced into the spiritual life, some of them borrowed from misunderstood Asian traditions. We only have to look at the offerings of retreat houses run by some religious congregations to discover how silly people intending to be serious become.
Psychotherapy and Pelagianism
Along with this came the impact of phychotherapy, which as a result of the discoveries of Sigmund Freud focused almost entirely on undoing what were seen as repressive mechanisms in the personality. Contemporary positive psychology has rejected the general intellectual and emotional bankruptcy of this position. As one founder of positive psychology, Aaron Beck, has pointed out, there was an almost complete lack of common sense in psychotherapy from the 1940s to the 1980s. The necessity of grace for the spiritual life was also ignored. Semi-pelagianism, or even full-blown Pelagianism, practically denying the necessity of grace, was observable on all sides. Thus, for example, the widespread popularity of the therapy and Pelagian assumptions of Carl Rogers, practically wiped out a large and respected congregation in California in a single summer.
Scriptural scepticism
On top of this, the two major underpinnings of Catholic Religious life were seriously weakened in their presentation. The first was the credibility of Sacred Scripture. The rules of many Religious orders say explicitly that they are founded on the Gospel. As a result of sceptical and rationalistic criticism of the New Testament, the scriptural foundation of Religious life was undercut. The rule of life of the Franciscan Order, for example, is to observe the Gospel – but if the popular scholars are telling us that Jesus didn’t do this, didn’t say that, what are we to do?
Collapse of Liturgical life
There was also what Pope Benedict XVI has referred to as the “collapse” of liturgical life. The intellectually and spiritually impressive liturgical movement that was growing in the United States after the Second World War – a movement founded on insights cultivated in the Benedictine abbeys – gave way to a misunderstanding of the liturgy as primarily entertainment. As Religious communities across America, liturgical communities were suddenly filled with people who had never studied anything of substance about the Church’s liturgy. Eminent liturgical writers such as Romano Guardini and Louis Bouyer deplored this debasing of the liturgy.
In addition, a general theological confusion prevailed in the 1970s and 1980s, undisciplined and unrestrained in nature, which deeply penetrated Religious communities and seminaries. I am well aware of it because I was thrown out of four seminaries during those years for the offence of being a Catholic, even though I was only teaching pastoral counselling. This period of confusion has largely come to an end and is roundly rejected by today’s young candidates for Religious life or priesthood.
Marxism in Religious life
Finally, strange as it may seem, the ideas of Marxism suddenly began to appear in Religious communities during this era. I spoke to someone a few years ago who had attended the more avant-garde meetings of Religious Sisters. I asked what the main topic of conversation was. I was flabbergasted when I was told that it was the teaching of Friedrich Engels! (Poor Engels never thought that the last people to take him seriously would be Catholic nuns who had gone off the rails…)
Return to the Founder’s ideals
Religious life will either reform or disappear. The more interesting phenomenon is the creation of new communities largely out of the ruins of older ones – more interesting because it means that an entirely new approach to Religious life is not necessary or even desirable. Instead, new communities can be built on the foundations of older ones by taking rejected traditions (valid ones) and bringing them back to life. It also means that a return to the ideals of an Order’s founder can prove the difference between survival and extinction. One example of a thriving new community that is both original and traditional is Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Most others, like my own, grow out of the past.
Any hope?
Is there any hope for the older communities that are now in a state of collapse? There are so many of these that a statistical probability suggests that only a few will regain their purpose and experience new life. But, so far, there is no obvious example of a community that, having gone into severe decline, later underwent a reform allowing it to regain vitality. The few thriving older communities never lost their identity. It is wonderful to hope that out of chaos and debris, some voices may be raised that will preserve some of the older communities. My own community experienced considerable resistance when we first attempted to reform within the jurisdiction of the Capuchin Order. There seems to be more openness now to possible reform.
Avoid past mistakes
In particular, the new communities must be careful not to make the same mistakes as the older ones. They must teach and encourage people to think for themselves without being disobedient. They must try to discuss and find a consensus within the community concerning what they do. Otherwise there will be return to a widespread resentment that characterised religious both on the eve of the Vatican 11 and later, when changes were forced on them. There must be an authentic and prayerful return to and respect for the following of the Gospel. Finally the athropological signs of religious life must be maintained: Common life, Frugality, identifiable uniform dress of a religious nature (a habit) and a common apostolic work shared by all members of the community – these are all things one must look for.
Expectations of the young
A surprising and welcome development at the present time is the emergence of a whole wave of young men and women interested in authentic religious life. They provide the proof of the ongoing presence of God’s grace – as well as the validity of the anthropological theory of liminality. These young people surprise us by their willingness to join even communities beset by obvious theological confusion and little observance of their traditional rule.
Something in human nature has been calling people to religious life for thousands of years – and Gospel teaching and church Tradition have aimed this human hunger at a strong form of Christian dedication. We should have learned by the disastrous experience of the twentieth century that we cannot afford the luxury of frivolous attempts at silly spirituality and self-seeking. There hardly seems a mistake that religious orders did not make. Corruptio optimi pessimum, the old Latin proverb runs: Corruption of the best becomes the worst. We have seen it for forty years. The generation formed since John Paul became Pope is clamouring for something better.
This column was published in First Things, June/July 2007