Thursday, 19 June 2008

Why we need nuns....

My inbox today contained a newsletter from that sad institution, Catholic Religious Australia, which seems dedicated to reporting the demise of religious life in this country.

One news item was on the new corporate entity, the Mary Aikenhead Ministries, set up to take over the work of the Sisters of Charity.

Another was on the current national meeting of the group, which was all about what a great thing it is that religious are moving out of their traditional service provision roles and into "offering more prophetic service".

The age of the laity?

The argument essentially is that this is the age of the laity - and we don't really need religious any more because lay people can do it better.

The problem in my view is that the expansion of the laity into roles previously undertaken by priests and religious often means the laity aren't doing the tasks that the laity are supposed to be putting their effort into, like injecting gospel values into secular society - acting in the political sphere, in workplaces, and in the family.

A healthy church requires not just a strong laity, but also a strong priesthood, and healthy religious orders. Each of their tasks are supposed to be different but complementary. And it is the confusion of roles that has led to so many of the problems we are now dealing with.

Not so according to Fr Mark Raper, CRA's President:

"Something different is happening in our Church at the moment, particularly with the surge in lay involvement and lay leadership [like unnecessary extraordinary ministers??].

There was a time when our first contact with the faith was largely mediated through religious sisters and brothers in our Catholic schools. Now the call to holiness, to witness and to communion is being mediated to others also by lay persons. [with remarkable success rates like around 10% of graduates of catholic schools actually believing in catholic doctrines, or committed to attending mass regularly]

This is not simply an organisational adjustment because of lack of sufficient ordained ministers, a fall back position to fill in the numbers. [Really? Could have fooled me.] Nor is it simply a sociological development consequent on the democratic movements in our broader culture."

How to save our culture

I'm reading (or rereading) a number of books with prescriptions for how to save the culture at the moment - by John Senior, Aidan Nichols, Peter Kreeft and more. One of the things that strikes me is that virtually none of them highlight the need for a revival of the religious orders from a purely pragmatic, practical point of view.

Now I totally agree with Fr Nichols in Christendom Awake that the highest priority is the restoration of contemplative life. Without monks and nuns to give a truly eschatological witness, and more particularly to intercede for us nothing else (positive!) can happen. Contemplatives have also traditionally played a much broader role in supporting the catholic culture than many realise, as John Senior's poignant description of his visit to Fontgambault in The Restoration of Christian Culture reminds us.

But what struck me is that none of their blueprints focus on the effects of the demise of the active orders. Fr Nichols, for example, adds the revitalisation of the Catholic education system to his list of necessary steps in his Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England, but I don't get much sense that he sees this being driven by new (or reformed) religious orders. Yet there is a strong argument that it needs to be.

The economics of religious life and the family...

I came across a fascinating study by Eli Berman the other day on the reasons for the decline in fertility rates among catholics in a number of European countries. It did some economic regression analysis and found two factors were important in explaining the number of children per family: mass attendance, and the number of nuns per capita.

People who attended Mass were not necessarily more likely to have larger families, it found - what was also necessary was a relatively high proportion of nuns per capita. The number of nuns, it argued, was important for the provision of support services to families in that it made large families more economically viable. The decimation of religious orders in the wake of Vatican II meant schools and health services closed, and even where they kept going, the nuns were replaced by lay workers who had to be paid much higher salaries pushing up costs. This put disproportionate pressure on larger families.

Now many traditionalists are addressing this (and the quality problem, see below) by home schooling. This is understandable, but very much a second-best option in my opinion.

Of course, I suspect there are a few reasons other than cost why the number of (non-secularised) nuns might be important - not least, a habit is a visible witness to a life of sacrifice, and knowing that someone else has given up everything for Christ perhaps challenges married people to live up to their own vocation to the full, and puts their own sacrifices in perspective.

But cost and exemplar questions aside, there is also a quality issue. Curriculum is a big problem in modern catholic schools, but so to is the level of commitment to teachers. Let's face it, some genuinely do treat teaching as a vocation. But they are a minority, hence the disastrous rates of practice among students coming out of so-called Catholic schools. For all their faults, we always knew that the nuns and brothers were at least committed, and they succeeded in transmitting that commitment to many of their students.

An age of prophets?

One final point Fr Raper might like to note - the prophesy gig isn't really an exclusive market niche open only to religious either. While it is certainly easier to 'offer prophetic service' with one or two ageing brothers and sisters than it is to run a school, laypeople are into the prophecy thing too. I can't help thinking a bit of prayer and penance might be a more productive focus for those Orders currently dying off.

And in the meantime, let's all pray for some new, young and vibrant orders to emerge.


Moniales said...

Pray for the possiblity of a monastery of Dominican cloistered nuns to FINALLY be estabished!

Joshua said...

Remember that the great 19th and early to mid-20th C proliferation of active women's religious orders was an historical aberration.

In 1800, there were only about 300 nuns (all cloistered) in Ireland; then came the explosion - thousands of active sisters; then the dropoff; and by 2050, I suspect it will be back to 300 cloistered nuns again.

I wonder - and I would of course be a fan of proper women religious - if the active orders were only for a certain historical period...

Terra said...


I've seen this line run before but I actually think its not really an accurate picture. While it is true that the rise of active orders happened in this period (partly as a response to stricter papal enclosure requirements on nuns), prior to the active orders rise, the more 'traditional' orders actually often played active roles.

The Irish situation, one would suggest, is not typical and might have had something to do with the penal laws there!

And the English Benedictines (male and female), for example, mostly ran schools.

An excellent book on the situation post Trent (including numbers of monks and nuns) is by Derek Beales, called Prosperity and Plunder.

Basically it points out that numbers were decimated by the Reformation and related events, but gradually started recovering to medieval levels, with a few 'hiccups' such as the French Revolution.

Perpétua said...

Goodness I am so glad that you have commented on this article today. So much could be done with disused houses. Please God, that they are not sold off in haste.