Friday, 4 June 2010

Church and Mission 3: Why (genuine) religious life is important

I’ve been talking in this series about what is necessary to make the ‘New Evangelization’, the re-evangelization of Australia (and the West more generally) effective.  In Part I of this series I suggested that the New Evangelization is not really new, but the project of converting the West and recreating a catholic culture that we should all commit to. In Part II I talked about the significance of priestly celibacy to this cause.

Yesterday, a contribution by Mr Waterford drew out the problems of what I’ll call for the sake of argument pseudo-Jansenism, highlighted in Archbishop Coleridge of Canberra’s recent pastoral Letter on the abuse crisis. I think there is a fair amount of agreement on the nature of at least one of the problems.

But there is far less agreement on solutions!

If pseudo-Jansenism flows mainly from an excessive emphasis on the Fall, the solution in my view, lies in re-injecting two important components into our theology that have to be held in careful balance, namely of the importance of the Incarnation, and the hope of heaven, or the eschatological.

In many respects the reaction to pseudo-Jansenism has been, it seem to me, an excessive emphasis on the Incarnational dimension courtesy of secularism – and a loss of the sense of the concreteness of heaven.

I spoke in the last part of this series about the symbolism of priestly celibacy and its importance as a counter to secularism. But even more important to this is actually religious life.

So today I want to talk a little about why a revival of traditional religious life is so essential for any effective ‘New Evangelization’.

The evidence for the importance of religious life

The evidence for the critical importance of religious life to the health of the Church is largely circumstantial: one of those things that has seemed self-evident to most people in most eras of the Church, at least until recently.

Certainly history - from Henry VIII to Nazi Germany to the devastation after Vatican II – suggests that dissolving the monasteries is a key step to undermining the faith more generally.

And the reverse is true too: monks and nuns played a crucial though largely unacknowledged role in subsequent efforts at re-evangelization necessitated by events such as the Reformation, the French Revolution and the laïcité movement.

There is also some intriguing hard economic evidence for the importance of nuns. A study of the decline in fertility rates in Europe between 1960 and 2000 found a strong correlation between the number of nuns and family size: the fewer nuns there were, the more family sizes became smaller. The author (being an economist) attributes this largely to the provision of social services: nuns, he argued made education, health care and other support services cheaper, so people could afford to have larger families. This may well be something in this.

But I suspect the far greater impact of the visible presence of nuns is their spiritual and psychological impact, praying for and calling married women to faithfulness to the Church’s teachings.

Priests vs religious life

Why is this so?

Firstly, it will be obvious to most that nuns and religious sisters have far more power as a role model for women than a priest. Indeed, one could make a good case that many of the problems of the Church today spring not from the failure to adequately involve the laity (for in the main, involving the laity has been a substantial focus of recent decades). Rather the problem has been the loss of the quiet influence of women religious over priests and bishops. Even more problematic perhaps has been that the putting off of the habit has made women in the institutional church effectively invisible.

Secondly, priestly celibacy, as I suggested in Part II of this series, is one of the spiritual treasures of the West, a sign of the commitment to holiness. But in the end, it is easy for the symbolism that can all too easily be lost. Few priests these days wear cassocks for a starter. And, after all, it can be pointed out, the Eastern churches do ok with married clergy, and increasing numbers of ex-Anglican priests are making a strong contribution to the Latin Church.

Perhaps even more importantly, a secular priest is often – particularly these days – seen in isolation. He leads a parish community, but of necessity is separate to it to a large degree.

By contrast, religious life is typically communal, and it is in the interactions of a community that we can truly see the echoes of the heavenly community, the ‘claustral paradise’ so beloved of St Bernard and other monastic saints. I’m not suggesting of course, that religious communities are necessarily loving and perfect places, far from it! But when properly conceived and founded on strong theological ground, it does make visible to us the striving for perfection through the exercize of communal bonds, a catholic culture that we can absorb and adopt.

The importance of community

Robert Wilken, for example has pointed out that that:

“But Christ entered history as a community, a society, not simply as a message, and the form taken by the community's life is Christ within society. The Church is a culture in its own right. Christ does not simply infiltrate a culture; Christ creates culture by forming another city, another sovereignty with its own social and political life.”

For this reason, culture is not and can never be neutral. Tracey Rowland has argued that the failure of transmission of the faith of recent decades is largely the result of the failure to recognize this. She points in particular to the work of Pope Benedict XVI, who has suggested that the importance of religious life to evangelization goes much deeper than either the works of the apostolate or providing an example to the laity. The Pope has defended monasticism as the very source of authentic and enduring culture. In a series of speeches and homilies he has argued that the root of all authentic culture lies in listening to God in his Word. In the case of the West, he argues, it is the monastic engagement with the Word of God that created European culture.

Indeed, Dom Calvet, founder of Le Barroux, developed this idea, arguing that the monastery is the inheritor of (a purified) Roman order and civilization, and that the person knocking at the door of the monastery is essentially sick, needing healing. He viewed the institutions of Christianity, and above all, the monastery, as the walls that serve to enable Christians to withstand the constant siege of secular culture, not least by affirming the primacy of worship and contemplation over action.

So it is in religious life lived out in faithfully and using the visible signs of habit and cloister, that we are truly confronted in a way we can’t readily avoid.

Unfortunately, all too few dioceses these days actually contain any well-formed religious living out their vocation in a traditional and faithful manner; all too few of us these days ever even see a religious in full habit. That needs to change.


Quasi Seminarian said...

One thing I would like to see change is the idea of priest and parish. Many diocese ask priests to apply for new parishes. This is incredibly odd.

The priest should be a member of his local community as well as one who fosters the local community. If the priest is just a ring-in for a few years, it is farsical to consider him a real member of a long standing community.

Some poor parishes seem to go through priests every 2 or 3 years. He is basically a contractor given a territory for a period of time until something nicer opens up. How is that respecting the value and dignity of each person and area?

Bah humbug.

Terra said...

Fair point Quasi. Having more than one priest in the parish would go some way to helping too.

All the same, while I can understand the rather utilitarian perspective of those dioceses that put a great deal of emphasis on priestly vocations, but neglect to promote religious life to complement that focus, it just promotes a continuing imbalance in the longer term.