Sunday, 24 August 2008

Reconnecting the Church to its past: the case of religious life

One of the comments by Steve Skojek that really struck me in the Inside Catholic debate on angry trads was about the fact that the modern church is ‘is in large part walled off from much of the past teachings and traditions of the Church’.

Skojek puts his comment in the context of the ‘hermaneutic of continuity’ that the Pope talks about. But it struck me that the issue is much wider than the way the term ‘the hermeneutic of continuity’ is typically used.

The issue is not just interpreting the documents of Vatican II or more recent statements of the Magisterium in the light of tradition. It is also about aspects of Church teaching and traditions that are simply neglected or ignored altogether today.

Religious life is an interesting case study of this. There is a revival of religious life going on today, in the conservative and traditional religious orders, as the picture above of the clothing of two novices from the blog of the Abbey of Walburga illustrates. In fact this piccie comes due to an alert by The Anchoress, who provides regular updates on recruitment to religious orders. She provides some nice links on stories about the strong growth being experienced in the more conservative and traditional orders to explore on this topic.

Yet there is something curious in itself about the idea of the ever increasing number of monk and nun blogs - how after all did we get from all those books by 'a Benedictine of Stanbrook' or 'A Carthusian', to the posting of detailed cvs of religious in some monasteries on the web (have a look at St Walberga's site for an example; another one is Regina Laudis)? Or to the point where one can follow the progress of a religious from their aspirancy through to clothing in the habit, and taking of first and solemn vows? Let alone to the well known personalities such as Fr Groeschel, or for that matter, Le Barroux's late abbot, Dom Gerard Calvet. I'm not necessarily opposed to some of this (although I do have some reservations about some of this) but I do find it curious.

Religious life now and then

Then I came across an article by Patricia Wittberg (Journal of the Sociology of Religion, 1997) on various neo-conservative religious communities. Its a nice case study of the issue, and I think it has wider implications for the debate on topics such as reform of the reform.

Essentially, Wittberg took a sample of relatively new but traditionally oriented communities – such as the Petersham Benedictines (a double monastery - technically two separate communities - of Benedictines based in Massachusetts, pictured below) and similar groups - and interviewed them about their theology of religious life. She then contrasted their responses with pre-Vatican II sources on spirituality such as Tanquerey's classic book.

Now this approach is a bit simplistic – it glosses across differences in charisms for a starter. Still, she does manage to produce an intriguing list of ideas – such as the objective superiority of the religious state, the idea of progressing through grades of holiness, the anonymity of the cloister, and the idea that ascetic practices help conquer the tendency to sin - that don't feature much in the discourse these days, even in the new conservative orders.

Now let me be clear that I'm not suggesting for a moment that every pre-Vatican II idea that has been discarded should come back - we do live in a very different world, and trying to recreate the 1950s (or any other specific golden era) is neither possible nor desirable in my view. Still, I think that attachment to at least some of these concepts is at the root of the distinction between the neo-conservative and traditionalist projects generally, and so worth exploring a bit.

Some disclaimers

Also, let me be clear that even where I disagree with some of the approaches taken, I’m not attacking either individual members, or the leaders of orders past or present!

On issues like the abandonment of the traditional liturgy, habits, and other monastic practices I accept that many (perhaps even most) truly thought (and may still think) they were doing the right thing. Others simply followed their leaders - jumping off the cliff on this as on so many other issues in the 1960s and 70s such as liturgy - in the name of religious obedience.

Many were utterly convinced that what they were doing would lead to a renaissance in the Church. Others weren't necessarily so convinced, but did what they were told anyway out of obedience, even when they saw the vast exodus of monks and nuns from the cloister. Consider for example this recently reported comment on the liturgy, made by a priest who attended the recent Latin Mass training program in the UK:

"As a priest in my 83rd year I have to make a confession. I implemented the Pauline reforms without understanding or sensitivity. I did it relying on the advice and coercion of my bishop and diocesan authorities. As I did it I witnessed the hurt and pain of many of the devout, so many of the ardent became lukewarm, many lapsed.

I thought I acted rightly but in my 59 years of priesthood I recognise that that which we hoped for has not come to pass.I do welcome a careful reappraisal and assessment of what has been done since my ordination, especially by the younger clergy. In order to do that they must learn something of the spirituality that brought men of my generation in vast numbers to the seminary....."

I suspect there must be more than a few religious - and Vatican bureaucrats - who if they were being honest with themselves would now say the same thing about the 'renewal' of religious life after Vatican II.

People faced tough choices back then, and I agree that erring on the side of obedience to superiors is generally the preferable path.

But of course as a traditionalist I personally applaud those – like Dom Gerard of Le Barroux, and Dom Augustin Joly of Flavigny - who acted to preserve the traditions they had made their vows in!

And so I'd like to reflect a little on the differences in approach that has arisen between traditionalist monasteries, such as Le Barroux, Fontgambault and others, and the newer traditionally oriented but not traditionalist communities, and see what we can learn. More soon...

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