Monday, 13 December 2010

The collapse of religious life Part III: good better best: religious and the New Evangelization.

In the previous past of this series I looked briefly at three central rationales for religious life that have come under external attack in recent decades. Today, I would like to continue this focus, drawing on some work in my Master’s thesis (though going beyond it in places in this post at least), to look at some of the history of this debate.

In many ways, I would argue, the attacks on the value of religious life simply reflect the infiltration of secularism, or “modernity” into the Church, due in part to the naïve view shared, as Tracey Rowland has pointed out, by many American conservatives, that Enlightenment ideas are perfectly compatible with those of the Gospel, and indeed constitute a preparation for it [1]. Rowland argues that Pope John Paul II didn’t quite take that view – but instead attempted to appropriate the language and directions of secularism and attempt to creatively reinterpret it to give a more Catholic content [2]. By contrast, I would argue, Pope Benedict XVI sees secularism and its inherent 'laicite' as something to be directly and unequivocally opposed in all of its forms.

Good, better, best: does the religious state denigrate married life?

Take for example the notion that religious life somehow denigrates the lay state and role.

One can simply accept it, as many conservative theologians have, focusing instead on the equality of all under the guise of the new theology of the laity. Indeed, one can even water down the requirements of religious life, 'demonasticizing' the life of the active orders in particular, so that there is in reality little seeming difference, at least in external appearances, between a religious woman living alone in her apartment wearing secular clothes and living an essentially secular lifestyle, and a lay ‘new monastic’.

It’s a manifestation of the same kind of thinking that saw the dumbing down of the school curriculum, the abolition of streaming and programs for gifted children, and avoidance of giving actual objectively ranked grades for school classes lest the feelings of those not at the top of the class be hurt.

But consider the analogy of athletes. Does the existence of the elite AFL (or League or whatever) club players, or other types of elite athletes, really denigrate all those adults and kids who play at the school and local level every week? Or is in fact the effect quite the opposite? Certainly the vast sums of money Australia pours into sport is actually based on the claim that elite players actually inspire people to join in and have a go; inspires them to strive for excellence.

In the past religious life was thought to have a similar effect – not only did its status inspire others to try to be religious to, but it was thought to encourage those in all states of life to strive for holiness. If a monk or nun could say the entire (very long) traditional Office each day, surely a family could at least fit in at least a rosary; if a monk or nun could practice radical asceticism all the time, surely a family could at least manage the then relatively challenging fasts the Church prescribed. And above all, if a monk or religious could voluntarily forego the good of a sex life altogether, then surely a married couple could at least be faithful to the teaching of the Church on faithfulness, contraception and abortion.

Comparing ourselves to religious - like comparing ourselves to elite athletes in our sport of choice – might induce a sense of humility. But it certainly doesn’t denigrate our own efforts in striving for perfection.

The problem of course has been that contemporary society actually defines most of the behaviours traditionally expected of religious - above all in relation to sexuality - as psychological aberrations, signs of pathology, rather than desirable ideals. 

The New Evangelization and religious life

I want to look at the actual teaching of the Church on some of the other aspects of religious life such as work and attitude to the world, and attempts to recover and restate traditional teaching – in short to reassert the hermeneutic of tradition – in a little more depth in the next part of this series.

But first it is worth delving a little into the history of the external attack on religious life, and particularly the push to exclude religious from the works of the apostolate that has seem them diverted into various forms of social and Church activism.

The story of the New Evangelization is a classic case in point.

Up until recently at least, whenever there is talk of the ‘New Evangelization’, the role of religious in it is given short-shrift. Australia’s own Bishop Julian Porteous, for example in an essay on its nature and characteristics viewed the New Evangelization as ‘largely driven by committed lay people’, with priests and religious playing only a supporting role [3].

The real origins of the New Evangelization

There is a certain irony in this because, contrary to the claims of the New Evangelization industry (and I use that word advisedly), Pope John Paul II first used the term publicly as Pope, not as generally claimed in Haiti in 1983, but back in 1979: “È iniziata una nuova evangelizzazione, quasi si trattasse di un secondo annuncio, anche se in realtà è sempre lo stesso.” [4]

And when he used the term, he was standing on the grounds of a Cistercian monastery, talking about a Church staffed by Cistercian monks as a symbol of what he was calling for across Europe.

Pope John Paul II was actually visiting the Cistercian monastery at Nowa Huta near Cracow, which has operated continuously since 1222. From that ancient symbol of the first evangelization of Poland, the Pope pointed to a contemporary church located in the Stalinist industrial enclave two kilometers away (which he had been forbidden to visit by the authorities) as a symbol of the New Evangelization. It was a Church that he himself as a bishop had fought a long, hard battle against the authorities to establish in the face of the regime’s determination to exclude God and the Church from the socialist paradise it believed it was building. It became a symbol for Poles of the struggle against communism, and the attempt to reclaim their catholic heritage [5].

So just why has this fascinating piece of history been largely ignored, and how has the view that evangelism is best left to the laity arisen? The answer lies in the view that that monastic spirituality as it has evolved is at best inappropriate and at worst positively dangerous to the laity, and therefore has no part to play in the revitalization of Catholic life [6]. Pope John Paul II in his writings and teaching clearly did not actually accept this view, as witnessed for example by Vita Consecrata, which urges religious among other things to play an active role in the New Evangelization (and thus encouraged the efforts of more than a few of the new conservative religious orders). But he chose to work with it, promoting new ecclesial movements as the basis for the New Evangelization rather than constantly asserting the importance of the revival of religious life, in sharp contrast to his successor.

Congar and the theology of the laity

The leading proponent of the anti-monastic push was of course Yves Congar, who argued in his series of books that the Church needed to embrace new structures for the Church centered on the role of the laity. It is a view that still has its followers amongst the Australian bishops it would seem!

Yet it is a view that hasn’t ever found much explicit support in the Magisterium.

Even back in 1971, by Pope Paul VI said that:

“… The boldness of certain arbitrary transformations, an exaggerated distrust of the past…and a mentality excessively preoccupied with hastily conforming to the profound changes which disturb Our times have succeeded in leading some to consider as outmoded the specific forms of religious life… And yet it is well known that the Council recognized "this special gift" as having a choice place in the life of the Church, because it enables those who have received it to be more closely conformed to "that manner of virginal and humble life which Christ the Lord elected for Himself, and which His Virgin Mother also chose…From the beginning, the tradition of the Church - is it perhaps necessary to recall it? - presents us with this privileged witness of a constant seeking for God, of an undivided love for Christ alone, and of an absolute dedication to the growth of His kingdom. Without this concrete sign there would be a danger that the charity which animates the entire Church would grow cold, that the salvific paradox of the Gospel would be blunted, and that the "salt" of faith would lose its savor in a world undergoing secularization.” [7]

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II’s magisterial teaching is even clearer. On the superiority of the religious state, for example, in Familiaris Consortio, back in 1981, he said:

“Virginity or celibacy, by liberating the human heart in a unique way, "so as to make it burn with greater love for God and all humanity," bears witness that the Kingdom of God and His justice is that pearl of great price which is preferred to every other value no matter how great, and hence must be sought as the only definitive value. It is for this reason that the Church, throughout her history, has always defended the superiority of this charism to that of marriage, by reason of the wholly singular link which it has with the Kingdom of God” [8].

And in his famous series of General Audiences on the theology of the body given over 1982, he reaffirmed the traditional hierarchy of states of life in the context of an extensive presentation on the model of virginity and celibacy presented by Our Lord and his mother as the new Adam and new Eve, and imitated most closely by those in consecrated life. He explained that while the Old Testament gave a privileged status to marriage, the New Testament reversed this, teaching that continence for the sake of the Kingdom is to be preferred as “an especially effective and privileged way” [9].

He also rejected explicitly the idea that the objective superiority of religious life in any way denigrates marriage:

"Virginity or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God not only does not contradict the dignity of marriage but presupposes it and confirms it. Marriage and virginity or celibacy are two ways of expressing and living the one mystery of the covenant of God with His people... In virginity or celibacy, the human being is awaiting, also in a bodily way, the eschatological marriage of Christ with the Church, giving himself or herself completely to the Church in the hope that Christ may give Himself to the Church in the full truth of eternal life. The celibate person thus anticipates in his or her flesh the new world of the future resurrection. By virtue of this witness, virginity or celibacy keeps alive in the Church a consciousness of the mystery of marriage and defends it from any reduction and impoverishment" [10].

Unfortunately relatively little of the flavour of this teaching is repeated in documents explicitly addressed to the laity such as the Post-synodal exhortation, Christi FidelesLaici, and the addresses he regularly gave to lay ecclesial movements and others.

Pope Benedict XVI

It has been left to Pope Benedict XVI to more emphatically restate the importance of the revival of religious life to the Church’s future.

In 1987 Yves Congar could see no ongoing role for monks, even as he acknowledged that “Europe was made by Christianity…When Paul VI named St. Benedict the patron saint of Europe I think he had a very profound intuition, since it was really monasticism, and in particular the Benedictine Order, which deeply shaped Europe.” [11]

Things had come full circle though, when in 2005, the newly elected Pope took the name Benedict precisely in order to reassert the crucial ongoing importance of the monastic institution:

“The name "Benedict" also calls to mind the extraordinary figure of the great "Patriarch of Western Monasticism", St Benedict of Norcia, Co-Patron of Europe together with Sts Cyril and Methodius, and the women Saints, Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena and Edith Stein. The gradual expansion of the Benedictine Order that he founded had an enormous influence on the spread of Christianity across the Continent. St Benedict is therefore deeply venerated, also in Germany and particularly in Bavaria, my birthplace; he is a fundamental reference point for European unity and a powerful reminder of the indispensable Christian roots of his culture and civilization” [12].

More in the next part of this series.

[1] Tracey Rowland, Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II. London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2003, esp pp14-17.
[2] ibid, pp35-50.
[3] Bishop Julian Porteous (ed), The New Evangelisation: Developing Evangelical Preaching. Proceedings of the Third Colloquium on the New Evangelisation. Ballan, Australia: Connor Court Publishing, 2008, pp 16-17.
[4] Homily given at the Sanctuary of the Holy Cross, Poland, 9 June 1979.
[5] Craig Whitlock, “To Poles, Church is Wojtyla's Legacy. Prelate Waged Long Struggle to Build in Krakow Suburb,” Washington Post, April 4, 2005.
[6] Fr. Jordan Aumann OP, On the Front Lines: The Lay Person in the Church After Vatican II (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 2000, previously published 1990), 167-8.
[7] Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelica Testificatio, On the Renewal of the Religious Life According to the Teaching of the Second Vatican Council, 29 June 1971, 2.
[8] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, 1981, 16.
[9] General Audiences of 10 March, 17 March, 24 March, 31 March 1982
[10] Familiaris Consortio, 16.
[11] Yves Congar, Entretiens d’Automne (Paris 1987), quoted in Gabriel Flynn, “Introduction,” in Flynn, ed. Yves Congar: Theologian of the Church (Louvain: Peeters Publishers, 2005), 1.
[12] General Audiences of Wednesday 27 April 2005

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